Saturday, March 4, 2023

Visiting the Past: Kashgar China, 2006


Window curtain, Kashgar, China. 2006
(Click images to view larger)

Ellen, Bei, and I visited Kashgar in 2006, near the end of a year teaching and traveling in China (see blog). Tensions between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government were rising, but we were largely unaware, more tuned into tensions between Muslims and Americans during the Bush administration’s “war on terror” following 9/11. In a dusty desert town on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, a man lounging on a motorcycle asked me what I thought of Bush, pronouncing his name with a long-u, while drawing his finger across his throat. 


Kashgar sits on the western edge of China’s Xinjiang Province and was an important Silk Road hub linking China to Central Asia and Europe. The predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, native to Xinjiang, are one of 55 minority ethnic groups recognized by China. Historically, Xinjiang has been controlled by Mongols, Russians, Turkic people, and Uyghurs, as well as the Chinese, but the PRC is quick to suggest that China’s cumulative control lasted longer than that of others. 


In response to ethnic unrest in 2009 and partly under the cover of antiterrorism measures after 9/11, the PRC came down hard on Uyghurs, branding them separatists, terrorists, and religious extremists and enacting measures to “assimilate” them into Chinese culture. These included closures of mosques, reeducation, mass arrests, establishment of internment camps, and destruction of traditional Uyghur sections of cities including Kashgar. Like in Tibet, economic incentives have drawn Han Chinese to Xinjiang, diluting the Uyghur population and culture. 

In 2021, the U.S. State Department accused the PRC of crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang, adding to the growing tension between the U.S. and China. The Congressional Research Service published a useful summary of events leading to this determination, and detailed information is widely available online (, and here), but in 2006 when we visited, much of this was in the future.


In Kashgar, we stayed at the Chini Bagh Hotel on what were the grounds of the British Consulate during the time of the Great Game when the British and Russian Empires vied for control of Central Asia and India. Bei was 5, and though keen enough to wander with her parents, eating lamb kabobs and visiting markets, I often left the hotel early to walk through the city with my camera. 


Most of us wish we could see with our own eyes what the world looked like before it was “modern,” a word applied to whatever age happens to be yours. Perhaps this nostalgia is more painful for photographers. Images of everyday life 25, 50, or 100 years ago evoke fantasies about the photos we might have made. Yet here we are, time rushing by, the envy of future photographers. Kashgar and the Uyghur culture was eroding in 2006 when we visited, but much remained that is now destroyed.


I recently ran across images by Carl Mydans (1907-2004), a documentary photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the 1930s along with Dorothea Lange and later for LIFE Magazine, covering WWII and spending two years as a Japanese prisoner after being captured while working in the Philippines. His experiences left him with a keen sense of history. Mydans once said, maybe a little dramatically:


All of us live in history, whether we are aware of it or not, and die in drama. The sense of history and of drama comes to man not because of who he is or what he does, but flickeringly, as he is caught up in events, as his personality reacts, as he sees for a moment his place in the great flowing river of time and humanity. I cannot tell you where our history is leading us, or through what suffering, or into what era of war or peace. But wherever it is, I know men of good heart will be passing there.


I recently reprocessed some of my images from Kashgar in 2006 realizing that I never included them in my China blog. There are a lot of images here, but they capture some of the diversity and liveliness, and some of what is now the history, of the city and the Uyghurs. I’m grateful to have been there.

Uyghur man, Kashgar.

Kashgar evening TV.

Street scene.

Young woman, old Kashgar.

Kids in the old part of Kashgar.

Young friends (or siblings?).

Woman and window.


Door and padlock. 

Old friends.

Women at the market.

Carrying brooms to market.

Woman in old Kashgar, early morning.

Buying vegetables.

Three generations at the animal market.

The grandmother from the previous photo.

Sheep shearing at the animal market.

Pushing sheep.


I'm not sure what to say about this, except that if these guys had been rock climbers, their boldness would have been legendary.

Early morning woman with hot water.

Woman at market.

Instrument maker.


Towels and window reflections.


Saturday, January 28, 2023

Death Valley Backpacking: Cottonwood - Marble Canyon Loop

View of Death Valley badlands from Zabriskie Point.
(Click images to view larger)

Death Valley is famously hot, dry, and barren, but cold temperatures, flooding, and bushwacking posed challenges during a short visit in January 2023. The park is nothing if not diverse, with elevations ranging from 292 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin to over 11,000’ at the summit of Telescope Peak, so it's not surprising that conditions don't always match the cliches. When I met Larry Scritchfield for a little mid-winter backpacking (and to escape the relentless Wyoming cold), high temperatures averaged around 60 in the basins, way warmer than the surrounding mountains where we hiked, many blanketed with snow. 


Salt Creek on the floor of Death Valley. The white stuff is salt, not snow. (Photo from Dec. 2021 when Ellen and I passed through on our way home from a climbing trip to the Alabama Hills west of Death Valley)

A pan in the Mesquite Dunes east of Stovepipe Wells. (Dec. 2021)

Gower Gulch from Zabriskie Point. Zabriskie Point is a popular roadside overlook, named for a borax magnate. (Dec. 2021)


We’d also hoped to get a taste of Death Valley canyoneering, known for rappels off carefully constructed rock piles (sketchy??), but our canyon partner, Don Reyes, who lives near Lake Tahoe, was digging his renters out of serial Sierra snowstorms and had to bail at the last minute. Canyoneering is collaborative--more fun and safer with three than two, so we postponed those plans.

Larry not canyoneering (still sketchy) in Stretched Pebble Canyon during a day hike. (Jan. 2023)


Larry and I rendezvoused at Stovepipe Wells, just below sea level, where a friendly hotel (showers for $5!) and restaurant on one side of Hwy. 190 face a campground and store on the other. The campground, mostly empty in January, is a gravel parking lot with carbonite posts marking sites, devoid even of picnic tables. We parked on one edge of the lot, giving us access to the empty desert for late-night peeing. Not far to the east, the Mesquite Dunes spawned plumes of dust that thankfully blew away from the campground on frequent windy days. To the west, the Cottonwood Mountains, part of the Panamint Range, where we planned to hike, dominated the skyline, their highest peaks dusted with snow. 


The Stovepipe Wells "campground." It's really just gravel parking places though there are some tent sites that have tables. The Cottonwood Mountains, where we eventually hiked, are in the background. (Jan. 2023)


Flash floods during the August (2022) monsoon washed out many roads in the park, including access to popular tourist spots (Scotty’s Castle, the Racetrack, etc.), and a smaller rain event just before we arrived turned the road to the 28-mile Cottonwood-Marble Canyon loop, our main backpacking objective, into a quagmire. An apologetic ranger at the small Stovepipe Wells station where we stopped to collect our free permit delivered the bad news, squashing our plan to start the 4-day hike that morning. Instead, we regrouped and headed for Indian Pass in the Funeral Mountains on the eastern edge of the park, an overnight out-and-back that included a 4-mile slog up an alluvial fan (fanyoneering?), while we waited for the Cottonwood Canyon road to dry out. 


Camp in the Indian Pass canyon in the Funeral Mts. (Jan. 2023)

Recent rains left plenty of water in potholes in upper Indian Pass Canyon. (Jan. 2023)


Later in the week, after the overnight and two day-hikes, we finally started the loop, which climbs gently up Cottonwood Canyon, then north up a swale to eventually cross a saddle before descending steeply into Deadhorse Canyon which drains into Marble Canyon, itself descending through spectacular narrows back to the trailhead. Along the way we enjoyed impossibly complex geology, petroglyphs (spaceships??), wild horses, freeze-dried lasagna, and perfect but freezing campsites. 

I seldom move much before finishing my morning coffee, and pre-caffeine I don’t even like to be asked about what I might do later in a day. But in one of the hottest places on the planet, it was so cold (and windy) at our first two camps that Larry and I crammed our gear into our packs at dawn and walked until we could find sunshine and a little warmth before brewing freeze-dried Via “coffee” packets and eating breakfast. Probably in the low to mid-20s at night, desert cold always feels colder than mountain cold. I hiked those mornings in the winter clothes (hat, gloves, long underwear, puffy) that I wear Nordic skiing at 9000’ in sub-arctic Laramie, Wyoming and still didn't feel quite warm.


Lower Cottonwood Canyon on our the first day of our loop hike. I ended up shooting iPhone photos on this trip because the sensor on my backpacking camera was unexpectedly dirty. (This and all Cottonwood-Marble photos are from Jan. 2023)

Our first camp in Cottonwood Canyon.

Larry enjoying a wee nip of tequila at our first camp in Cottonwood Canyon.

Larry in upper Marble Canyon.

Approaching one of the narrows in Marble Canyon.

Zebra-striped rock in Marble Canyon.

Petroglyphs in Marble Canyon.

Narrows in Marble Canyon.

Marble Canyon looking towards the narrows in the preceding photo.

Marble Canyon.

Boulder, Marble Canyon.

Another ironic challenge on the hike was vegetation. We joked about bushwacking on the Indian Pass hike whenever we passed close to an infrequent creosote bush. How na├»ve we were! In Cottonwood Canyon and to a lesser degree in Dead Horse Canyon, what little vegetation there was packed itself into the V-shaped drainages where the few springs provided enough water for trees, choking the canyon with an impassable tangle of downed cottonwood limbs, fallen trunks, and impenetrable shrubs, some thorny, forcing us up onto steep, loose, sidehills above the drainage, sometimes exposed enough to drive us reluctantly back down to bushwack hopelessly until we could find another escape. Short distances near these “oases” took longer to traverse than miles of open desert.

Approaching a section of bushwacking that is WAY worse than it looks. 

The only flake I found on this trip was this broken point that I happened upon while side-hilling above a spring to avoid bushwacking, so perhaps we were not the first to grovel around the springs.


Death Valley is a vast park, too hot most of the year for much activity, but a refuge in winter. From salt flats, dunes, and badlands to mountains harboring ancient but threatened bristlecone pines there’s enormous diversity. And despite the harshness, humans have left their mark with old mines, ghost towns, and remnants of a once thriving borax industry (20-mule trains!). It attracts desert rats and misfits as well as cyclists, outdoor adventurers, and retirees. I find myself there once in a while, and though I often wonder if I’ll return, each trip leaves me curious about just one more thing that I’d like to check out. 

View from an abandoned building at Death Valley Junction, just outside the Park.



Friday, December 30, 2022

Backpacking: Collins Spring to Slickhorn Canyon #1


Larry and Ellen at the lip of the pour-over in lower Grand Gulch, with the dirt-traverse behind them.
(Click images for larger view)

Every outing, whether rock climbing, packrafting, canyoneering, or even backpacking, has a crux, usually generating at least a little pre-trip anxiety. This makes trips feel more adventurous even though the anxiety is relative and usually unfounded. Climber and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard famously said, “for me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.” 


I’m lucky in that I can have adventures just imagining a few things going wrong or sometimes, only one thing. 


In Utah’s lower Grand Gulch, the pre-trip anxiety-producer is the pour-over low in the canyon just above where it meets the San Juan River. Pour-overs are common on the Colorado Plateau where sedimentary bedding planes meet headward erosion, sometimes undercutting them and leaving a drop into the canyon below. These can often be bypassed on one side or the other by side-hilling and scrambling, but sometimes they are impassable except by technical means (rappelling, downclimbing, handlining, etc.). 

The pour-over in lower Grand Gulch was once easily bypassed, but a rockslide obliterated the trail, leaving a nearly vertical mess of dirt and loose rock that according to descriptions and videos that I nervously watched before we set out, could be traversed sketchily by scrambling across the exposed dirt cliff, a no-fall situation. According to trip accounts, hikers often lowered (or hoisted) their packs over the lip of the pour-over with rope to improve their odds and their balance on the traverse. On the other hand, the route from Collins Spring to the river is a common timed-challenge for long distance runners, who don't ever mention the pour-over in their accounts, presumably racing over it with enough momentum to avoid gravitational danger, like Basilisk lizards (aka Jesus Christ lizards) that can run across the surface of lakes.


But I’m getting ahead of myself. For years, I kept a mental list of trips to do when freed from spring and fall teaching—prime time in the desert since summers are too hot and winters too cold. One of them was a hike down Grand Gulch to the San Juan, then upriver to the mouth of Slickhorn Canyon, and finally up Slickhorn to its head. Cedar Mesa (aka Bear’s Ears) is famously packed with archaeology and rock art, and it’s beautiful.


I’d originally imagined a longer hike starting at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station but having already hiked upper Grand Gulch (and many of its side canyons; (e.g., blog posts herehere), I instead planned a five-day post-retirement hike with Ellen, Bay Roberts, and Larry Scritchfield in April 2022 starting at Collins and exiting at Slickhorn #1 (one of the upper Slickhorn trailheads). I’d met a canyoneer the previous spring at the Collins trailhead who was starting this route by himself, and he mentioned carrying a rope for the pour-over, so I did my anxiety-producing due diligence and made a plan to carry a harness, rappel device, and 65’ of supertape (lightweight climber’s webbing) just in case. We’d hike down Grand Gulch first (rather than starting at Slickhorn) so that the drop could be descended with the webbing rather than ascended via the death-choss.


It all worked out as it almost always does. The webbing rappel off the pour-over from a large cottonwood tree growing conveniently at the lip was fast and easy, and the rest of the hike was interesting and enjoyable with lots of fascinating rock art, great ancestral Puebloan structures, perfect campsites, and lovely weather. We saw few people, except for a large NOLS group camped just above the pour-over having survived the mandatory (since they were traveling up-canyon) dirt-traverse the previous afternoon. I would not have wanted to be responsible for (or have watched) that mission, but the group seemed unphased as they lounged in folding chairs cooking biscuits in oil, surrounded by a vast scatter of heavy gear that they had carried for a week or more and were destined to carry for weeks to come. 

Towards the end of the hike, we scrambled high up a talus slope into the arc of an abandoned river bend (rincon). Pictographs of birds and other figures adorned the orange sandstone cliff from where we sat all the way around to the other side of the rincon where they were painted in impossibly precarious sites. Below us, the broad canyon offered appealing campsites with pools of water glinting in spring sunshine. Trip anxieties dissolve quickly.


Photos of the hike are below and a little info on logistics with a link to a more detailed trip description is included below the photos. Much of the archaeology is oft-visited and well-known, but I won’t provide specific locations. 


Ellen, Bay, and Larry hiking down lower Grand Gulch below Collins Spring and the Narrows.

The 100-hands panel.

Larry in lower Grand Gulch. I'm never fast enough to take photos of my friends hiking toward me.

Larry approaching a pictograph panel to get a closer look.

Pictographs at the anthropomorph panel.

Ellen and Larry enjoying rock art.


Bird tracks leading to a bird! 

Ellen and Bay enjoying camp.

Lower Grand Gulch.

Spring cottonwood leaves.

Ellen, Larry, and Bay in lower Grand Gulch.

Hand prints.

Puzzling over petroglyphs on a boulder.

Lower Grand Gulch below one of our campsites.

Larry rappelling off the pour-over on our third  day out with Ellen and Bay waiting above. This was safer and easier than exposed dirt traversing.

L to R: Ellen, Bay, and Larry at the beginning of the straightforward but arduous traverse along the San Juan River from Grand Gulch to Slickhorn Canyon.

Resting in the hot sun mid-traverse.

Enjoying lower Slickhorn on the fourth day.

Ellen and Bay in Slickhorn Canyon.


Bird pictographs.

Ellen on the easy bypass around an even larger pour-over near the head of Slickhorn Canyon on our last day. 

Logistics: Permits are required for backpacking in Grand Gulch and Slickhorn. We left a car at the Slickhorn #1 trailhead and drove a second car to the Collins Spring trailhead to start the hike. There’s dispersed camping along the road into Collins Spring and near the Slickhorn trailhead (and all over Cedar Mesa) or you can stay at the paid campground at Natural Bridges National Monument (first come first served). 

The hike itself took us 5 days and 4 nights, enough time (but more is always better) for exploring ruins and art—we camped twice in lower Grand Gulch and twice in Slickhorn Canyon, finding ample water flowing in the main drainage in Grand Gulch and good water at all of our camps (spring 2022) in Slickhorn as well. 


The main technical obstacle is the pour-over near the bottom of Grand Gulch, not far upcanyon from the San Juan River and described above. We carried a 65’ length of 9/16” climbing webbing (lighter than rope), one harness, and one rappel device and rappelled off a large cottonwood tree on the left side of the pour-off looking down canyon, passing the gear up for each person. That worked great, wasn’t scary, and was probably faster than lowering packs and sketching across the dirt cliff one-by-one. 


The traverse from Grand Gulch to the mouth of Slickhorn is arduous but not technical--stay high on a bench coming out of Grand Gulch. There is a mile or so of boulder field side-hilling where we found an intermittent trail before gaining a nice bench that makes for easier hiking (though with some talus sections) and eventually wraps into Slickhorn. There is no water on the traverse (you are high above the river). Continue along the bench into Slickhorn. We camped in a small side drainage a mile or so up Slickhorn that was beautiful and running with clear water. The hike up Slickhorn from there to the trailhead was straightforward. 

There is a very detailed trip description at this website.