Out with the Old, In with the New
Now then, where were we? Ah yes. We had witnessed the ritual of buying and selling livestock as wizened old men with flowing beards, operating as middlemen, knowingly oversaw the transaction. We watched, enthralled, as donkeys and horses were put through their paces by their potential new masters. We deftly avoided tripping over severed goats’ heads and, in stunned silence (well, not quite silence – middle aged people do “ooh” and “aah” a lot), drank in the experience of centuries of tradition. And that was before lunch.
For lunch our affable guide Patti took us for a meal with a local family. That is to say the local family made it and we ate it. It was a privilege and an experience to be invited into their home. The family were so generous and friendly and, if you’ve been to a Middle Eastern restaurant, then you might also be able to picture the dining experience. The décor was gaudy, the floor uncomfortable (what chairs?) and the food plentiful and delicious.
In the afternoon we visited the site of the original market, which was unfortunately, nowhere near as interesting as the morning experience. If you travelled to Beijing pre-2003 you might remember that the Silk Market used to be a noisy, crowded place crammed into a few narrow alleyways. For some reason the poor quality and cheapness of the items for sale are heightened now that the stalls have been relocated into a shiny, glass mall. Although lacking coffee shops and escalators the Kashgar Central Market did remind me of the “modernisation" efforts of municipal governments across China; smart aisles and individual stalls replacing what, I’m sure back in the day used to be the most tremendous hullabaloo. I did, however, end up making a few purchases – toothpaste (rule #1: if there’s no readable language on the packaging, don’t buy it), some cloth slippers (rule #2: it’s inevitable that the one thing you’ve been searching for in Beijing for the past 6 years should turn up – in your size – at a marketplace some 4,600km away) and an astrakhan hat (rule #3: never, ever listen to yourself when you say you’ll wear/use ethnic clothing away from your holiday destination).
The modern city of Kashgar is built around the central old city, a collection of crumbling clay houses and a maze of old world customs. The local government has declared that the old city is at risk from earthquake damage and so the rule is, we were told, that repairs are forbidden. Once a building collapses the occupants are forced to relocate to new housing complexes conveniently located on the outskirts of town. This is not new, nor exclusive to ethnic minority housing. It is happening all across China. I myself was witness to it in Beijing with the demolition of the old hutongs but, as someone who enjoys history and the preservation of cultures, it is still difficult to understand and disappointing to watch. Perhaps because of Kashgar’s immemorial standing as an old Silk Road trading post it was even more devastating. As we passed through the city we saw blacksmiths toiling in front of their roasting ovens; carpenters whittling away at their wares; we smelled and saw varicoloured spices on display; and through it all the smiling, welcoming faces of local merchants and tradesmen, children and families bartering, chatting and going about their lives as their parents, grandparents and (probably) great-great grandparents did. We cleared the old city and re-entered the 21st Century, standing in the central plaza in front of the Id Kah Mosque. It was here that I began to think about the difficult issue of autonomy. (I will post a separate entry on my own blog in due course about this and related issues.)
“Time: the indefinite progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.” Seems oxymoronic really to say that time moves on in a place like Kashgar but, alas, it does and it did and we prepared to move on to Turpan, a desert city about 3 hours drive outside of Urumqi. Before we left I asked that we drive through People’s Square so that I could photograph the Great Helmsman. Why? Because it’s the biggest statue of Mao Zedong in China. If they won’t come willingly...
Abdul (you’ll remember him as the agent I dealt with previously) had decided that his younger brother Patti (the jovial young Uyghur lad) should join us. As I understood it Mohamed, the guide who would meet us in Urumqi, was either new to the organisation or needed watching over and so, in the absence of objection from the Group, along he came. And it’s a jolly good thing he did too! Firstly, we arrived at our hotel in Turpan only to find it was closed. The replacement was foul and had no in-room air conditioning, so I got a little stroppy. We ended up at a far more appropriate establishment. The second reason why Patti needed to keep an eye on him is because, well, Mohamed isn’t a very good Muslim. The two of us drank far too much beer than was good for us in a desert environment. Turpan is the hottest place in all of the Republic. I believe it also lays claim to being the coldest as well which is a clever trick. That’s about as interesting as it gets. Well, that and the story of Xuanzang and the Journey to the West which meant a visit to the ancient, ruined city of Jiaohe – a genuinely fascinating place with gates, temples, public buildings, graveyards and simple houses still evident. It seems that it’s also home to a particularly lethargic snake. We arrived as the sun was setting over the burning mountains and there was a genuine feeling of how impressive this city must have once been. But really, that’s about it.
“China Experience” Rating (Kashgar): 3/10
If it wasn’t for the colossal statue of Mao it would have been awarded 1/10 by merit of the character signage.
“Life Experience” Rating (Kashgar): 10/10
If you can make the trip it's well worth it. Definitely a top 3 of my travel experiences to date.
“China Experience” Rating (Turpan): 5/10
It certainly still felt like a Uyghur city but Mohamed, Patti and I were joined by the Han Chinese owner of the bar. And he didn’t speak Uyghur. Or English.