“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”
- Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
I am going to start with perhaps something a little controversial.
I read with dismay about the recent trouble
in Urumqi, Xinjiang between the Han Chinese and the Uyghur people, but I can’t
say I am surprised that it happened. I am neither a political commentator, nor
am I an active campaigner for causes, but just let me state that in my opinion
I believe that the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has a strong case for
independence. Xinjiang is the least Chinese of any of the places that I’ve been
to on the mainland, and perhaps because of it, one of the most fascinating and
it is here that we pick up our story.
When I was in the process of planning the trip months back, my original intent was to spend a couple of days in Urumqi in order to visit Tian Chi, or Heavenly Lake which I had heard was stunning. But from some information I found in the Financial Times about a couple who had traveled from London by train, I discovered a gentleman called Abdul Wahab (based in Kashgar) who had helped them book tickets. So, rather sensibly I thought, I contacted him to help us as, unsurprisingly, Mandarin Chinese isn’t as widely spoken that far west. Abdul talked me out of visiting Heavenly Lake – and of spending any time in Urumqi actually – arguing that it really was “just another Chinese city”. So we simply passed through the capital on our way to Kashgar where we would visit Lake Karakul (some 6,000ft above sea level) and where we needed to be for the Sunday Market, a weekly market that draws hundreds of thousands of vendors and visitors from all over the region including Kazakhstan and Pakistan.
Kashgar – or Kashi in Chinese pinyin – is an astonishing city steeped in history and tradition and it didn’t fail to impress us all. Snow capped mountains fringe the edge of the burg providing a stunning backdrop to the surrounding landscape. There is very little visible Chinese influence in Kashgar. Sure, although there are signs in characters everywhere, and the road signs only print the local Uyghur script very small in contrast to the giant simplified text next to it, the place is very much a Uyghur city.
Upon arrival we were met at the airport by a delightful man who we shall call Patti. This is, of course, the simplified version of his name. Like a Venezuelan patriarch his name was considerably longer and utterly unpronounceable to those not versed in the local dialect. One thing I’ll give him though – his English was superb. Having spent a considerable amount of time living and working with Han Chinese I can honestly say that I was not expecting a young Uyghur boy from Kashgar to be so proficient in the language. The hotel on the other hand was, I’ll admit, quite expected; to the jiaozi (or dumplings) for breakfast and the Christmas tree in the bar. The attempt to make a gin and tonic in a cocktail shaker was not so expected. On the Saturday we rose early – very early in local time. Although all of China officially runs on Beijing time, the further west you go the more likely they are to use their local time. The country theoretically has something like 5 time zones so Xinjiang is actually two hours behind Beijing. We managed to avoid serious confusion, but it was startling to think that we were leaving the hotel at 8am Beijing time meaning we woke up to get ready and have breakfast at about 5am local time. The journey time to and from Lake Karakul was about 6 hours so we had a lot of ground to cover. And what ground! If I thought that Guangxi was stunning I was staggered by Xinjiang. In Guangxi I like to think that the vista hasn’t changed much since the Qing Dynasty emperor Kangxi (1662 – 1722) sat on the Dragon Throne. In Xinjiang I don’t think it has changed much since Peking Man wandered the plains of ancient China. It wasn’t hard to imagine yourself a modern day Marco Polo (albeit in a heated bus) trundling through the rugged mountains, edges cut to a point by the inexorable advance of glaciers. The actual lake itself was, for me, uninspiring though you couldn’t help but be bowled over by the living conditions of the Kazakh nomads who inhabit the area. That night we sampled the local delicacy of pigeon. And that’s all that needs to be said about that.
The following day was given over to an experience that I had been looking forward to – not just on this trip but since my arrival in China and I had first heard stories of - the Kashgar Sunday Market. We were not disappointed. Well, not really anyway. In the past (just a couple of years ago actually) the entire central area of Kashgar was given over to the market, which included livestock and any bit of this and that from just about anywhere within camel distance. I can only postulate as to what the market must have been like when this menagerie was heaped on each other because now there are two sites – one for the livestock, and one for everything else. As we tried to avoid being defecated, urinated, spat on or kicked by the thousands of sheep, cows, donkeys, horses, goats and whatever else brays, squawks or guffaws, there was an almost oppressive sense of timelessness. It is quite possible that early traders along the Silk Route witnessed the exact same thing that we did. It was – in the truest sense of the word – awesome. I do love “chuan’r”, the Xinjiang kebab. It’s a good snack food; it’s perfect post pub provender and just generally one of the most delicious things in the world. Now imagine that the succulent lamb on the stick, coated in a yoghurt sauce and liberally sprinkled with spices was not 20 minutes previously bleating with his chums in the pen opposite. Heaven. I said to the Group that I could now leave China a happy man.
Regrettably the constraints of word counts force me to abandon the tale at this point. However, I shall continue with the remainder of our stay in Kashgar, our sojourn in Turpan and onwards, back into China proper with Dunhuang and Jiayuguan next week. After that the conclusion of our adventure in Xi’an and our trip to Emperor Qin Shi’s remarkable terracotta tomb.
“China Experience” Rating:.... all in good time.