Sunday, 26 September 2010

Echoes of the Silk Road in China’s Wild West

Travelling in Xinjiang, China

Originally published in Maxx-M Magazine, June 2010

The smell hits me as soon as I step down from the train in Kashgar: a scent of melons and pomegranates, an odor of livestock, a whiff of spice and a waft of grilling kebabs. It is the perfume of Central Asia, letting me know that though the flag fluttering in the clear blue air above the station concourse might be unmistakably Chinese, I have arrived in another world. Welcome to Xinjiang, China’s Wild West.

Xinjiang province is vast, fully one sixth of China’s huge landmass. A land of deserts and mountains with an indigenous population of Turkic Uighur Muslims, and a history traced with the trade routes of the old Silk Road, it has always leaned more to Samarkand and Bokhara than to Shanghai and Beijing. Today it is a place where the romance of a past of camel caravans and cultural collision lingers. Even the names of the geographical features here have a tantalizing resonance: the Kun Lun, the Tien Shan, and the Taklamakan.
As I step out of the station in Kashgar, a city steeped in history, I catch sight of a distant line of ethereal mountains, levitating over the desert horizon. Excitement lies ahead.

Kashgar was once a key junction on the Silk Road, the two-way trail that carried goods, technology, ideas and religions back and forth between Europe and Asia. Roads from the east were forced north and south around the Taklamakan, the world’s second largest shifting sand desert, only to rejoin at Kashgar. And if there was ever an identifiable point on the Silk Road where east met west, then this was it: Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and Islam; all of them at one time or another dominated here, while Turks, Mongols, Chinese, Indians and Arabs all added their own dash of spice to the melting pot. This was an international city long before anyone had coined the term “globalization”.
Riding at anchor between the mountains and the sands, modern Kashgar is still a junction for rough roads to outlandish places. International highways lead from here across dizzying passes into Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kirghizstan, and the sounds of the Silk Road still echo in the narrow alleys of the Uighur old town, and in the thronged thoroughfares of the iconic Sunday Market.
Every week for centuries, farmers and craftsmen from surrounding villages have flooded the eastern edge of the city for a bazaar on a grand scale. Here there are carpets and walnuts, silks and scarves. The market ground is a cacophony of voices as vendors proclaim their wares and men in pillbox skullcaps and women in heavy brown headscarves haggle in the hard-edged Turkic gutturals of the Uighur language. A few kilometers south of the main market is another slice of Central Asia – the livestock bazaar, where all the best horses and cattle in Xinjiang are traded in a stony field between ranks of tall poplar trees.

After my own exploration of the markets I retreat to the quieter quarters of Old Kashgar, wandering for hours in a tangle of narrow alleyways lined with traditional courtyard houses. Old men in calf-length jackets and crooked turbans totter by; the occasional donkey cart loaded with watermelons clatters past, and small children smile and wave shyly from courtyard doorways.
Eventually I find my way out into a mass of food stalls on the edge of Old Kashgar’s central Id Kah square. There are juicy kebabs, mounds of fluffy plov – rice cooked with dates and spices – samsa, little baked parcels of lamb, and great rounds of flatbread scattered with sesame seeds. As dusk falls over the city and flocks of pigeons turn in the pale sky the prayer call rises from the Id Kah Mosque on the edge of the square.

The medieval past might be close at hand in Kashgar – the inlaid tombs of its ancient kings still stand in the poplar-studded suburbs – but this is also a modern city of 340,000 people and a hint of cool is creeping in. After exploring medieval alleyways you can kick back in Fubar, a bar run by Japanese transplant Hiroshe Kuwae that does the kind of informal cool you don’t often find in the provincial China. Across the street meanwhile, there’s cake and some of the best coffee on the Silk Route in the modernist Karakoram Café, run by an incongruous Singaporean, the charming Christin Tan. Kashgar is a long way from the Lion City, but when I drop in for a latte, Christin tells me that Xinjiang has more in common with the Southeast Asian city state than meets the eye. Both places, she says, were founded on multiculturalism and international trade.

Kashgar is the hub of southwest Xinjiang, but there is much to see beyond its oasis boundaries. To the southwest lie the outer flanks of the Pamirs, a sky-high mountain range that traverses international borders. Threading through it is the Karakoram Highway, the tenuous strip of tarmac that links China to Pakistan. It leads past Karakul Lake, a sheet of cobalt-blue water ringed by towering snow peaks, and onwards to Tashkorgan, a town at the very limits of China’s vastness. Inhabited by wiry Tajiks, people who look more like Spaniards than Chinese, it is a place of cold winds and clear skies.
And then of course there is the desert, the mighty Taklamakan. I set out to explore the string of oases that runs east from Kashgar. These are towns in sight of the mighty white wall of the Kun Lun, northern rampart of the entire Himalayan mountain system. Villages with vine trellises and pomegranate orchards line the approach roads, and in the empty country beyond twin-humped Bactrian camels stalk, dark silhouettes against the desert. The sunlight here is sharper than glass, cutting through the leaves of the poplar trees and catching on the sequins embroidered into the headscarves of the women.
In Yengisar, the first stop east of Kashgar, there are traditional knife workshops and a fine visage of Mustagh Ata, the highest peak in the Kun Lun. The next stop is Yarkand, once the terminus of a feeder route of the Silk Road that ran across the mountains from India. Here too there are endless lanes lined with mud-walled houses, and all the sights and sounds of a Central Asian bazaar.

Xinjiang has always been on the periphery of the Chinese world, slipping in and out of imperial control as dynasties waxed and waned over the centuries. Sometimes – as in the 1860s when a Turkic warlord named Yaqub Beg ruled the country from Yarkand – it was independent; sometimes it was uneasy Chinese territory. Today the state shares many traits with its more famous southeastern neighbor, Tibet. Here too the local population is restive and resentful of organized immigration by ethnic Han Chinese; here too there is political unrest and heavy-handed government control. But though there are tight restraints on telecommunications, unlike in Tibet foreign visitors are free to wander widely in the province.

From the bazaar town of Karghilik I hire a driver to take me into the mountains. Above the banks of the chilly Tiznaf River, I climb a high ridge and look out over a mighty vista of ribbed brown rock and striated white ice. The clear sky is chased with mare’s tail clouds and behind the southern ridge of snow peaks lie Kashmir and India. It is a tantalizing thought, and it is only reluctantly that I descend and continue my journey to the last stop of my Silk Road odyssey.

Hotan lies some 400 kilometers from Kashgar. To the north is the full breadth of the Taklamakan, with lost cities and buried civilizations beneath its sands; to the south lie the mountains. Despite the wild location Hotan itself is a startlingly modern city, but it is also scene of the biggest of all the traditional weekly markets in Xinjiang. Kashgar’s Sunday Market, back at the start of my journey, was a heady enough whorl, but this is something else. Here there are bolts of colored cloth, men hawking raw, unpolished jade, sifted from the banks of the nearby desert rivers, and women, elegant in long, sweeping skirts and headscarves tied high at the backs of their necks.
The old towns of China’s Wild West may be modernizing, but though a visit to this part of the world is no longer the litany of dreary government hotels and bad food that it once was, there is still a romance, a ruggedness and an authenticity that is hard to find in so many other places steeped in heady history.
With the market over it is time for me to leave Hotan, and leave Xinjiang too, but that magical scent that first hit me in Kashgar, and the memories of sharp sunlight falling on white mountains, on the tile-work of medieval tombs, and on the glistening, ruby-red seeds of fresh pomegranates, lingers with me long after I have left.

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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