Friday, May 20, 2011

In Turkmenistan: Half-way Around the World from Mono Lake


Half-way around the world from home, the GPS told us we had reached the 61°East longitude in Turkmenistan.  The 38° latitude line intersects in Mono Lake with the 119°West longitude:  61 + 119 = 180° around the globe!  Local clocks are 12 hours different from California (as bad a jet-lag problem as there can be, we would learn;  after Turkmenistan we were homeward bound). 
We landed in Ashgabat, the capital and largest city (37º58'N) and drove straight east toward Merv, the most influential ancient city they never taught us about in World History.  Half-way there we stopped at that half-way around the world longitude point and took a photo beside a reservoir that stores Karakum Canal water.  The canal was begun in 1954 when Turkmenistan was part of the U.S.S.R. and diverts 50% of the water that used to feed the Aral Sea, in Uzbekistan.  It moves water almost 600 miles, one of the longest aqueducts in the world, to Ashgabat and to farms along the way.  With the water, Turkmenistan grows lots of cotton, especially, and fruits and vegetables.  The Aral Sea, which used to be the 4th largest lake in the world, meanwhile has lost 75% of its volume because of this and tributary diversions by other nations.  The unlined canal seeps into the region's groundwater and evaporation draws salts to the surface, ironically taking some lands out of production.. 
Our goal that day was the city of Mary, which sits next to (and in some places slops over into) ancient Merv, a State Historic and Cultural Park.  The local history began more than 6,000 years ago, with a series of cities that each built mud-brick walls, houses, fortresses, and mosques.  The Greeks were there in the first few centuries B.C., including Alexander the Great's army.  Some believe that Merv was the largest city in the world from 1145 to 1153, under the Seljuk Turks, with a population of 200,000.  The Persian mathematician, Omar Khayyam, used an observatory in Merv; he is more famous in our country for his poems published as The Rubaiyat.
   Merv existed here because of water, the Merghab River.  Most of this nation is covered by the Karakum Desert.  Ironically, that dependence on water was used by the sons of Genghis Khan, who arrived with an army of 8,000 soldiers in 1221 A.D., were repulsed by the walls and defenders, but finally forced surrender by destroying the city's dam on the Merghab River.  With no water supply, the city gates were opened to the Mongols who proceeded to kill its inhabitants.  Merv's ancient glory days came to an end.
    In Ashgabat, we toured a stable to learn about the nation's fabulous Akhal Teke horses, a type that may have become the source for the Arabian breed.  Women of Turkmenistan appear on the streets each day in lovely long dresses (green for the school girls) that most Americans would only consider wearing on special occasions.
    We were helped in Turkmenistan by Berkeli Atayev, who came to Great Salt Lake 7 years ago with a group of Turkmenistan Tourism officials.
    It is a relief to be heading home after 5 weeks of travel across Asia.  This completes our around-the-world adventures on the 38th parallel--almost.  Japan is still to come, we hope, in September.  The book that will flesh out these stories about water-related water and cultural intersections along the 38th parallel will be published in autumn 2012 by U.C. Press. 

Monday, May 9, 2011


It was time for us, as mountain people, to see the high country near China's western border.  We headed up the Karakorum Highway to Karakul Lake, at 11,999 ft (38°26'N), said to be the most beautiful lake in China.  The weather cooperated providing a majestic view of Muztagh Ata beyond the lake, rising to 24,757 feet above sea level. 

            Enroute, we made a side trip to Oytagh Glacier, which is melting fast in a hanging valley with a viewpoint at 9,500 feet.  The valley community was raising crops and livestock at this high elevation in small green fields along the river, backed by towering mountains.   

Yaks, camels, yurts and Kyrgyz hats and dress appeared here, so close to the border of Kyrgyzstan. 

            Our final destination was the city of Tashkorgan, near the border with Tajikistan and Pakistan.  Along the way, we stopped where the highway crossed 38°00'N, and took a photo in front of a mud- walled mosque.  Traditional dress changed again, with the women wearing a kind of pillbox hat covered with a scarf.  The stone castle ruins above the town date to 500 years before Marco Polo's arrival in the 13th century.  A waitress at our hotel told us that the townsfolk prefer to bring water in jugs from the local river, as the water in city pipes carries too much sediment.
            We had crossed all of China, these final days on routes that were used by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo.  Our guide Abdul introduced us to Uighur culture and explained that Alexander the Great coined that name, which means “united” people.  It was a pleasure to dine with Abdul's family at their farm outside Kashgar.  His mother seemed thrilled to receive a Mono Lake Committee shopping bag!

            Our next stop: Turkmenistan, half-way around the world from Mono Lake. 

6th China Blog: The Southern Silk Road: Hotan to Kashgar

Hotan is an oasis on the Southern Silk Road, east of Kashgar, famous for centuries for its jade. It was  here we met our friend from home, Rick Kattelmann, and our new guide Abdul, and began our trek through far western China's Uighur region.  Hotan is an island of green in the Taklamakan Desert, with orchards of fruits and nuts and fields of wheat going on for miles.  We drove to the “green wall” at the edge of town where men were planting and drip irrigating peach trees and tamarisk, trying to hold back the shifting dunes.
            Hotan exists because of its water--the Jade River.  A major discovery in 2001 in the river bed started a modern day “jade rush', a free for all that is tearing up the riverbed using everything from shovels to huge excavators.  People sleep among the tailing piles, and work at night, looking for the shine of the precious stones.  Men could be seen all over town haggling over stones. We presented a small piece we found to a jade buyer. The answer?  He threw the worthless river stone on the ground. 

            Silk has been the key trade item for centuries.  A factory in Hotan still does the whole process by hand, from stringing the silk off the cocoons, to spinning, dying and weaving. 

            Continuing west, we explored Yarkand (a “small” town of only 560,000 at 38°17'N) and a wonderful weekly market in Kargilik.  Even with a nice van and a good driver, it was a long, bumpy ride.  A railroad is set to open soon, and a new highway is under construction.  The evolution of the Silk Road continues.
            Kashgar has always been a crossroads and trading center, a bridge between China and Central Asia.  The Uighur region seems like a whole different country, and for much of human history, it has been.  Veiled women now mix with Han Chinese in mini-skirts and high heels.  Color abounds everywhere, with beautiful fabrics, lucious fruits and shiny copper pots.  Woman dress to go to market in exquisite dresses we would only consider wearing to a formal wedding.  The transport mode of choice is an electric scooter.  They zip around everywhere, including on sidewalks and through crowded market aisles.  Women sit side-saddle in back, clutching small children and not even holding on to the driver or scooter. 
            Kashgar has a livestock market on Sundays, where sheep, donkeys, cows, goats and even cats and dogs have been sold or traded for centuries.  Looking for a fast horse?  There's a special area to “test ride”the sale horses at top speed. We sampled a traditional Uighur kebob here, lamb, dipped in flour and egg and baked in a stone fired oven. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Qinghai, Blue Lake of the Tibetan Plateau

The city of Xining is the home of the Qinghai Salt Lake Institute and gateway to China's largest lake—Qinghai.  Professor Fafu Li welcomed us to the Institute and we met with several scientists and graduate students interested in hearing about Mono Lake.
Janet and Professor Li at Cormorant Island, Quinghai Lake
            Fafu led us on a 2 day visit to Qinghai, which is on the northeast corner of the Tibetian Plateau, 10,000 feet above sea level.  Its water is less salty than the ocean, at 14 g/l, but is alkaline with a pH of 9.2 (Mono Lake is pH 10).  Chloride, sodium and sulphates are the dominant ions.  Qinghai is a huge inland sea, 5 times bigger than Mono at about 40 x 60 miles (4,437 square kilometers).  The lake supports plankton, diatoms, algae and one kind of fish—the endemic Scale-less Carp.  The water tastes slightly bitter, and we were pleased to see familiar suds forming along the shore.  Seven tributary streams feed Qinghai Lake.
            The main tourist destination is Bird Island, on the west shore, where Bar-headed Geese nest in the spring, after crossing the Himalaya from India at elevations over 33,000 feet.  The Chinese have built an impressive bird blind, burrowing underground for 200 yards to a viewing area whose glassed windows put us just a few yards away from nesting geese.  The birds were unaware of being watched.  Common Cormorants and black-headed gulls also nest nearby on offshore rocks and cliffs.
            We also visited the north shore of Qinghai.  The largest town in the area is Kangtsa, north of the lake (37°20'N).  There had been a grand plan for lake cruises at the national park near there.  Docks and infrastructure were built, but the government decided that the boat engines were too polluting and stopped the project.  In fact, no boats of any kind are allowed on Qinghai and a fishing moratorium is in place. The government has been “saving Qinghai Lake” with a number of protective measures since 2008.  The lake level has been rising in recent years, partly due to the climate, but also by reducing the acreage of irrigated farmland (mostly rapeseed, the canola oil plant).
            Grazing animals abounded in the high grasslands around the lake, and we got our first close look at yaks.  Thousands and thousands of yaks and sheep.  Livestock numbers are being reduced by allotting individual grazing land to the traditionally nomadic people and encouraging them to settle in one place with subsidized housing (they still roam in the summer).  New electric lines were everywhere and the railroad to Lhasa passed though. The high plateau must have looked very different just 20 years ago. 
Chaka Lake
            Crossing a 12,500 foot highway pass into a separate basin, we visited hypersaline Chaka Lake.  Fafu explained that Chaka could provide enough domestic salt for the entire world for 500 years!  Only bacteria live in its concentrated brine.
            As we traveled back to Xining, a sand storm blew in.  These spring events are fairly common and the Asian dust sometimes travels on high-altitude jet streams all the way to the Mono Basin. Visiting Qinghai Lake took us south of the 38th parallel, but it was a must-see location for us to visit the largest, saline lake in that is now successfully recovering from human impacts.  

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Up the Yellow River to Lanzhou's Green Camel Bell

The City of Lanzhou is long and narrow, snaking along the Yellow River for 15 miles where it flows between mountains.  Here we met Liping Ran of the NGO Green Camel Bell, whose mission is “green mountains, clear water, blue sky, man and nature in harmony.”  The camel is an animal well-adapted to its environment, the bell is for good fortune and green is for a sustainable future.
The NGO was founded by Zhao Zhong, a young physicist who received a Time Magazine “Heroes of the Environment” award in 2009.  Their full-time staff of 6 people works with interns and volunteers on a wide variety of projects ranging from grass brick construction, eco-toilets, sustainable agriculture, environmental education, and community development.  Liping was most proud of her project to improve drinking water quality in the small village of Liangjiawan.  A new dam on the Yellow River near the village had greatly reduced water flow.  The village's water intake pump became too close to water contaminated with sewage.  Green Camel Bell helped organize the village leaders to ask for changes and secured water purifiers for the village homes and a new water pipe to the village.

We went up the river with Liping to another village dealing with similar problems--a new dam and insufficient maintenance of the village's well-water pipes (one lady told us they broke after 2 years and were never fixed), forcing the people to take water directly from the polluted river.  The villagers either pumped it from the river or hauled water in buckets for their daily needs.  The river is not clean.  The young baby we met, and all the others, deserve better.  Liping's next step will be to contact village leaders to begin working towards a solution.

            Green Camel Bell is a pioneering group in China, helping to effect change in attitudes towards the environment.  Liping told us the staff is all unmarried, completely dedicated to their work, and that it is sometimes hard to explain the value of that work to friends and family in the present Chinese culture.  The day we left, Liping would travel north to Wuwei, a city on the 38th parallel, to start another water quality investigation.
            On our last afternoon, Liping showed us the ancient waterwheels designed to lift water high above the banks for irrigation, ingeniously powered by the flowing river.  At one point, the city had over 200 wheels.
    The Upper Yellow River at Lonzhou is lined with factories, spanned by dozens of small hydroelectric dams, and is home to millions of people.  Liping and Green Camel Bell are hopeful they can teach people to respect and care for their Mother River in the Waterwheel City of Lanzhou.