There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 25 August 2008

Postscript to The Chinese Silk Road

Xinjiang provided us with a host of wonderful memories, but we would rather forget the ever-present and overbearing security. We could not drive down a road, check into a hotel, get on a train or enter an airport without somebody wanting to know who we were and what we were doing or feeling a need to search our luggage. The Chinese have a problem in Xinjiang; there was a grenade and knife attack in Kashgar days before we arrived and a small bombing in Korla the same week. Tibet had burst into flames  some months earlier [update: and since, in some cases quite literally, see Hue for comments and similarities] and, with the eyes of the world fixed on the Beijing Olympics, China was desperate to ensure that neither of their rebellious provinces made the wrong sort of headlines

And, indeed, there were no incidents, so to that extent they were successful, but successful was not how it felt.

Far from making us feel safer, we found the security threatening. At every check point there was an armed man with a little training and slightly less education. That makes him dangerous. It also makes him a target for those the government call ‘terrorists’. I have no desire to be killed in the cross fire of someone else’s war.

Generally, the security was irritating and ineffectual. I wondered at the roadblock in Kashgar that everybody knew how to avoid. I mocked the village copper who shouldered the responsibility of examining my Mongolian visa. I resented the arbitrary alterations to airline baggage rules; the confiscation of our belongings was only an inconvenience, but I cannot understand how 100 ml of aftershave threatened anybody’s safety. I marvelled at the number of times guards stopped us and made the driver open the boot and then, on seeing our suitcases, waved us straight through. I have no wish to bomb anybody, but if I did, I would probably put the bomb in a suitcase. Perhaps we did not fit the profile of a bomber, in which case why stop us at all?

I concluded that the authorities’ activities did little to provide security, but did much to wind up the locals and remind them who is in charge. By the time we left, I was almost ready to join the Uigher separatists.

And inevitably the riots did come, not in Kashgar or Hotan or any of the other Uigher cities around the rim of the Taklamakan, but in Han-dominated Urumqi. The spark was the perceived police inactivity in the case of two Uigher migrant workers beaten to death by a mob in southern China. Several deaths in fighting between Han and Uigher residents were followed by a heavy-handed police crackdown. Last month the courts sentenced six people to death for their part in the rioting. Precise figures are unavailable, but Amnesty International estimates that China carried out some eighteen hundred executions last year, two thirds of the world total. Not a record to be proud of.

Uigher capital, Han city

I do not imagine that Hu Jintao has waited breathlessly to read each new episode in this story, but it is in the public domain and anybody might see it so, I will not say where or how I met the person who asked, very quietly, ‘is it true that in the west you are allowed to criticise your government?’ ‘It is,’ I replied rather sanctimoniously, ‘a right we hold dear.’

Dwellings being demolished before being covered by the rising waters behind the
Three Gorges Dam
The Chinese Communist Party, which is communist in name only, has made a tacit deal with the Chinese people. ‘We’ll keep making you richer, and you won’t bother yourself with government.’ For most of the people most of the time, it works - you can stand in the street and almost feel the economy growing. But it does not work for everybody; it does not work for those flooded out of their homes by the Three Gorges Dam, it does not work for those summarily evicted to make way for Olympic building projects, and it does not work for the Tibetans and the Uighers. As prosperity grows, the ordinary Chinese will inevitably demand involvement in the decisions that affect their lives. The results of such tension between the people and a ruling party that accepts no criticism are unpredictable.

And are these 'homes' in the desert intended to replace them?
Uighers are Chinese only in the sense of their nationality. They do not look Chinese, they do not speak, read or write Chinese and they do not eat Chinese. It is an interesting thought that had Sir George McCartney, the long time British consul in Kashgar, been less diligent about keeping Russian hands off this area, then it could well have become part of the Soviet Union and would now be the independent state of Uigherstan. The British are often resented and occasionally admired for all sorts of things done – or not done – during the colonial era. Not even the most ardent Uigher nationalist has yet blamed us for this unforeseen consequence of British policy.

Uighers do not look Chinese....

Movements that pit small nations against larger oppressors always have a romantic attraction, but one I find resistible. Blaming foreigners, whether an internal minority or an external power, for all your troubles, at best distracts from acting to remedy the real problems, and at worst leads to the excesses of Nazi Germany and Rwanda. More progress is made when people work together. Given the state of the other ‘Stans’ and the growing Chinese prosperity, which may be reaching Xinjiang slowly, but is getting there, it should not be beyond the wit of the Chinese to make the Uighers want to remain part of their country.

The ‘Uigher Autonomous Region’ should be autonomous in more than merely name, and local people should be responsible for local decisions. The Chinese should stop being surprised when Uighers are ungrateful for the wholesale ‘Hanification’ of their towns and cities. They do appreciate the clean modern apartments with electricity and running water, but they resent the wholesale bulldozing of their heritage that has accompanied it – and more of old Kashgar has been flattened since we were there. And if local democracy would work in Xinjiang, then perhaps it could be rolled out across the whole of China.

Well, Hu Jintao, I doubt that you are reading this, but if you are, that is what I would do about your Xinjiang problem. Now Tibet is a rather more difficult but if I were you……. (continued on page 999)

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Urumqi, A By-word for Remoteness: Part 8 of The Chinese Silk Road

At Urumqi Rana greeted us like old friends. Her driver, too, looked a lot happier than at our tentative first encounter at Turpan.

As we drove to our hotel, Urumqi appeared cool, clean and green, with wide boulevards and well ordered traffic. I suspect our first impressions were somewhat skewed by having spent the previous weeks in the desert.

Our hotel was in the city centre, on the twenty-sixth floor of a block that was part hotel, part shopping mall and part nightclub. Getting to our room took some time as a massive wedding party was blocking up the lifts, but it was worth waiting for. We had a corner room, but instead of a corner, a floor to ceiling window afforded a magnificent view of the traffic wheeling about the roundabout below and the night market beside it, the barbecues firing up for a 9 pm start.

Urumqi from our hotel window

We took a walk to establish our bearings, replenish our stocks after the Hotan airport episode and get a second, perhaps more realistic, impression of the city. Urumqi is, without doubt, a place of contradictions: its name is a by-word for remoteness, yet a city of over two million can hardly feel remote; it is further from the sea than any other city in the world, yet every corner seemed to sport a seafood restaurant; it is the capital of the Uigher Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, yet the population is 90% Han Chinese. The architecture is Han too; Urumqi is built entirely in the style I think of as ‘Chinese brutalism’. It is also the gateway to Kazakhstan, and for the first time in China we saw signs in Cyrillic and heard Russian spoken in the streets.


'Chinese Brutalist' architecture

The day finished with barbecued pigeons and draught beer in the night market, and then a nightcap watching the flashing neon and whirling traffic from our glass-plated eyrie.

Next morning our trip east to Tian Chi, the Heavenly Lake, took just over an hour. We drove through the residential and industrial areas of the city and then out through the agricultural belt until we seemed to be returning to the desert. Turning off the main road, we rose quickly into the mountains. The air became colder and the surroundings greener, and we passed several outbreaks of yurts, the homes of Kazakh nomads – another of China’s vast selection of ethnic minorities. Unlike the well-spaced gers of the Mongolians, which are almost randomly pitched wherever their owners fancy spending the summer, these were substantial organised encampments, each tent standing on a circular concrete base.

Kazakh yurts

We made our way upwards through Alpine scenery until we arrived at a commercial village that might have been in Switzerland or Austria, but for the curly Chinese roofs. Here we left the car and braved a metal detector (Lynne’s bag was carefully passed round the outside) before boarding a bus for the next stage of the journey upwards. At the terminus we transferred into a vehicle resembling a ten-seater golf buggy for the final short pull up to the lake.

Tian Chi - yes this is China, even if there are no curly roofs in shot
Heavenly Lake is the most beautiful teardrop of water.

Tian Chi - a most beautiful teardrop of water
Tamed for tourism and swarmed over by hundreds of Chinese trippers, each group obediently following its flag-waving leader with ovine dedication, it easily retains its picture postcard perfection. The lake lies in a bowl in the mountains and we found ourselves looking down on cold, blue green water that lay like silk gently riffling in the breeze. Beyond the lake, the mountains rise behind a series of interlocking spurs to soaring snow covered peaks over 4000 metres high.

Obedient Chinese tour groups, Tian Chi

We made our way down to a landing stage where boats sat ready to take the hordes for a cruise. There was no metal detector here, but it was deemed necessary to search Lynne’s handbag. Either the Chinese authorities believe terrorists use different techniques for attacks on buses and boats, or the main purpose of security is to give the appearance of doing something.

Boats at the landing stage, Tian Chi

Rows of seats had been set out on the roof of the boat and we sat in the scorching sunshine waiting for the other chairs to fill up. In due course we cast off. The coolness of the slight breeze and the drop in temperature as the boat’s superstructure placed us briefly in the shade were sharp reminders that we were at a almost 2000 metres.

Our first stop was at a Taoist temple on a low rise at the corner of the lake. It is much visited, we were assured, by Taiwanese pilgrims coming to pray. Clearly there were few Taiwanese about that day as only one person got off and nobody got on. The rest of the trip was merely a trip around the lake; a simple and elemental pleasure that crosses boundaries of race and temperament with ease.

Taoist temple, Tian Chi

We returned to Urumqi for lunch. ‘Would you like Uigher or Chinese?’ Rana asked. We thought we might give lambkind a rest for a day and opted for Chinese. ‘Veggies!’ said Rana with a distinctly Un-Uigherlike enthusiasm for green food.

Later, full of veggies, not to mention chicken, peanuts, tofu, chillies, mushrooms and rice we made our way to the Urumqi museum.

A queue outside was waiting for the museum to open. I expected the car to drop us off so that we could join it, but instead we drove straight up to the expanding gates blocking the entrance. One word from Rana and the gates folded themselves up and we swept into the courtyard and right up to the doors of the museum, leaving everybody else standing in the hot sun.

I try to enjoy VIP treatment on the rare occasions it happens, but I cannot quite ignore the nagging little egalitarian socialist sitting inside me fuming about the privileged classes and demanding I get back in the queue immediately. Even further inside is the voice of my Cardiganshire ancestors, a people renowned for depth of pocket and shortness of arm, saying ‘You’ll have to pay for this, you know. They’ll want money; they will, they really will.’

Urumqi museum is a fine ethnographic museum, devoted to the life of the Uighers and all those who made Xinjiang their home before them. What makes it exceptional is the mummy room containing bodies and treasure unearthed from the lost settlements that pre-date even the Silk Road. The bad news was that the mummy room was closed, the good news was that it would be opened especially for us and there would be a personal guided tour by a member of the museum staff. ‘I’m warning you,’ said a Cardie voice in my left year.

Sterile desert sand is a wonderful preserver of human remains. Unlike the Egyptian examples, those of the Taklamakan were naturally mummified and did not undergo the processes Egyptian corpses were subjected to. Those that survive are remarkably well preserved.

The best known is the ‘Loulan Beauty’, a slender, flaxen haired lady some four thousand years old. Her ‘beauty’ is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, but her clothing is so well preserved it is possible to say that she was not rich, as they are her everyday clothes, and that her shoes have been repaired not once but twice.

The Loulan Beauty
As they did not allow me to take photographs this one comes from

Another woman, buried in new clothes and a pointed felt hat decorated with feathers, is deemed less beautiful, but richer. What is clear about both of them, rich or poor, beautiful or plain, is that they are not Chinese. ‘Look,’ our Chinese guide said, ‘they are European,’ and she turned to Lynne, ‘she has a big nose, like you.' I said nothing about the guide’s eyes.

Their DNA suggests these people may have originated in west Eurasia, possibly from what is now Ukraine. The weaving has been compared to that found on the mummies of Austrian salt miners of roughly the same period. If this merely led to a twinning arrangement between Kiev, Salzburg and Urumqi everyone would be pleased, but the mummy’s ethnicity is more politically charged than that. The Chinese are reluctant to admit that anyone other than them has ever ruled in what is now Xinjiang, but even they cannot explain away the round eyes and yellow hair. The Uighers claim that Xinjiang has always been theirs and these mummies prove it, but they are clearly not Uigher either. Claiming eternal sovereignty based on the earliest known inhabitants is, surely, a futile game. Except for a few families in the Rift Valley, we are all migrants and it seems that Bronze Age Xinjiang was a melting pot; some of the early inhabitants were Eurasians, others Indian and some Chinese.

The museum authorities try to play a straight bat by displaying all their mummies together. Alongside the Caucasians is a high ranking Chinese army officer, his bowed legs suggesting he spent much of his life in the saddle. There is also the reconstructed burial pit of a wooden effigy; archaeologists speculate the actually body was, for some reason, unavailable for burying.

Afterwards our guide took us into a back room. ‘All the articles in here,’ she said 'are less than a hundred years old and the government has given us permission to sell them.’ It is strange how Chinese museums always seem keen to sell their exhibits to casual visitors.

‘This is where you pay,’ whispered the Atavistic Cardie. We sat down with several members of the museum staff and drank tea while they showed us a selection of resistible jade jewellery. ‘Actually, I’d quite like a silk top,’ Lynne said, pointing at the racks of clothing. ‘Now they’re ganging up on you,’ AC hissed.

Lynne found a top she liked, and the museum curator, turned salesperson, named a price. It was too small a number to be Yuan, so the next job was to discover which currency she intended bargaining in. It seemed the Euro was her coin of choice so we haggled for a while in a currency I did not have and anyway she could not accept. Eventually we agreed on a figure, and then on an exchange rate into Yuan, and soon Lynne became the proud owner of a deep pink embroidered blouse of real silk. I had to admit it was very attractive and, considering we had a personal tour of the mummy room, good value for 30 Euros. In West Wales the sound of rotating corpses filled several graveyards.

We spent the rest of the afternoon happily looking round the ethnographic section and the evening looking through the night market for something appetising.

Disappointingly, the most wholesome offerings were the inevitable mutton kebabs, but eventually we settled for a fish on a stick - a charred-looking but pleasant tasting bass-shaped creature with firm white flesh - along with some aubergines, mushrooms and bamboo shoots.

Barbecued fish, Urumqi night market

In the morning, we headed north to visit the Kazakh nomads. If the road to Tian Chi had been mercifully free of security hassles, this trip made up for it, with a succession of officials keen to write down the registration of every car that passed. The final check point seemed rather different and money changed hands. I realised that we were paying the Kazakhs to visit their village.

A selection of more than fifty yurts stood in a compound next to the main road. After some negotiation with an older woman, Rana led the way into the compound and then into one of the yurts. Although of similar design, there were several obvious differences, apart from the concrete base and the mains electricity supply, between the yurt and Mongolian gers we had stayed in previously. The two supporting poles of a ger divide the space in three, the left for men, the right for women, and the centre for Buddha. All the furniture is placed around the edge and Buddha’s space contains the stove, its chimney rising through the central hole. A yurt manages to stand without the supporting poles, allowing the space to be divided in two. The back two thirds containing a raised wooden platform for sleeping and eating, whilst the front contains the cooking equipment, the chimney going through a second opening in the roof. 

Kazakh yurt village
In the yurt a girl in her late teens was being plagued by a couple of smaller boys. The boys were persuaded to remove the overloud, depressingly westernised pop music from the CD player, and then they brought bowls of sweets, a heap of what seemed to be fried dough balls and bowls of tea. The tea was very like the Mongolian, a touch of salt, a great deal of tepid milk and virtually no tea.

Inside a yurt
There was some conversation between the girl and Rana and then the three Kazakhs disappeared. I asked Rana what language they were speaking. She said she was speaking Uigher and the girl was speaking Kazakh. ‘And you understand each other?’ I asked. Rana pulled a face, ‘sort of’ she said.

With that she left us, perhaps to clarify a point in the conversation. We were left alone for rather longer than it takes to drink a bowl of milky tea and discover the fried dough balls were blandly unappetising. We would have liked to have a poke around, but we were in somebody’s home and it seemed rude, so we just sat and waited.

Me and a rather pensive Rana, some milky tea and fried dough balls

In time Rana reappeared with the girl who had slipped Kazakh national costume over her jeans and tee-shirt. She put on a CD of traditional music and danced a couple of folk dances. We were a small audience, but she threw herself into the performance, and earned as generous a round of applause as six hands can manage.

Dancing Kazakh

Walking back to the car we watched two large hawks flying just above head height, quartering the area in a search for mice, voles or small Kazakh children. Down by the road a few stalls supplied daily needs and several battered snooker table supplied entertainment. A group of boys were pushing balls around with bent cues rather than playing a proper game, but it was nonetheless a somewhat surreal sight.

Snooker among the Kazakhs

Lunch back in Urumqi would be our last meal in Xinjiang, so it had to be Uigher fare and Rana was determined that we would have every Uigher delicacy on the table at once. There was laghman (mutton with noodles), pilaf (mutton with rice), pie (mutton with pastry) and kebabs (mutton with skewers). No messing with green food here, though some pumpkin dumplings provided light relief.

After that there was nothing else we could do but leave. We were well prepared after the Hotan airport incident and this time had no difficulty with the x-ray zealots. That was not true of a Chinese man at a nearby check-in desk. As the altercation went on his voice became louder and louder. He clearly had no level-headed wife telling him to shut up and the last we saw he was being marched away by the police, still shouting and now struggling as well.

We were starting our journey home, so we flew back to Shanghai, five hours in the wrong direction. Approaching the coast we skirted a dramatic thunderstorm but by the time we had landed and the doors were opened it was right on top of us. There was a minor passenger revolt as we refused to disembark until the rain had eased.

Such rain cannot last long and by the time we were through the airport it was eleven o’clock and a warm, dry Shanghai night. The taxi queue would have stretched halfway back to Urumqi had it not been wound around metal barriers. A taxi tout approached us and offered his services. He was scornful of our refusal, ‘well if you want to queue all night…’ he said and stomped off. In fact, the queue moved quickly, the taxis were arriving five abreast and a group of men with the inevitable armbands were marshalling proceedings with efficiency. As we left the airport we saw the line of incoming taxis stretching several miles down the road. We were right to ignore the tout, if he was prepared to cheat his fellow drivers then he would have had few qualms about cheating us as well.

We spent the next day in Shanghai doing a little shopping. A fair part of it was spent in a teashop, tasting and buying. Tea in China is like wine around the Mediterranean, it is plentiful and most of it is cheap but the rare and special cuvees demand special prices. Like wine there is almost no upper limit to what you can pay, so a little preliminary tasting is well worthwhile.

Tasting tea in Shanghai

It was strange, but after the wilds of Xinjiang, Shanghai seemed comfortable and familiar. We wondered what London would feel like.

and finally....
Thanks are due to TravelChinaGuide who supplied drivers and guides and made all the land arrangements from Xi'an to Urumqi. Their efficiency and their ability to reply to every email within 24 hours regardless of the time of day or week they are received is awe-inspiring.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Hotan (or Khotan or Hetian), City in the Desert: Part 7 of The Chinese Silk Road

Hotan is a desert city, there is no mistaking it. The dust of the desert hangs in the air, it settles on the pavements and on the walls; it settles on the citizens, too, if they stand still long enough. To live in Hotan is to fight a never-ending battle against sand, and to be forever behind on points: to be doomed to a life of sweeping and wiping.

And, to be fair, they battle nobly. Dust notwithstanding, the city is cleaner than Kashgar, the restaurants look inviting and the kebab stalls lack the impressive displays of burned meat fragments and congealed fat.

The old centre was bulldozed in 2004 and replaced by soulless concrete squares and wide streets on the inevitable grid pattern. The new centrepiece, as we found on our stroll that first evening, is a statute of Chairman Mao shaking hands with Kurban Tulum.

Me, Mao and Kurban Tulum, Hotan
Born near Hotan in 1883 Kurban Tulum had lived his life under the yoke of the Qing emperors and then under a series of warlords, so was delighted when Mao won the civil war and established communist rule. To show his pleasure he loaded his donkey cart with fruit as a gift for the Chairman and set off for Beijing. At Urumqi, 1500 km later, where he encountered his first paved road, the party chief was so impressed that he wired head office. Kurban was promptly flown to Beijing to meet Mao, though whether they forwarded what must by then have been his rather wilted fruit is not recorded.

To the Chinese Kurban Tulum is the model Uigher, to the Uighers he is a model traitor. To a neutral, anybody from Hotan who sets off for Beijing with a donkey cart full of fruit sounds certifiable.

The statue in Hotan, and a smaller replica in Kurban Tulum’s home village, are, reputedly, the only statues in China where Mao shares his plinth with another human being.

Next morning we arrived for breakfast at eight but unlike Kashgar we did not eat in solitary splendour or, for the moment, at all. Breakfast started at nine – no messing with Beijing time here. 

Waiting around outside the hotel for breakfast to start

Khalil arrived promptly. He was a thin, wiry youth whose minimal goatee represented a largely unsuccessful attempt to lend maturity and gravitas to a persona otherwise marked by puppy-like eagerness. He never referred to the city as ‘Hotan’ but always to ‘our Hotan’ as though he had recently been granted part ownership and was still very excited.

Melikawat, like Gaochang and Jaiohe, is a Silk Road city long abandoned to the encroachment of the desert. Outside Hotan we left the tarmac and for 20 km followed a desert track along the valley of the White Jade River, which, with its sister Black Jade River are the reasons for Hotan’s existence and one of the sources for its wealth. The river chatters along multiple small channels on a bed of pebbles punctuated with holes and spoil heaps, the result of 2000 years fossicking for the highly prized river polished jade. A few souls were hard at work, though the official story is that the deposits are worked out. In the small villages that huddled in the shade of such greenery as struggled to grow, we saw huge new cars standing outside several very modest homes. Riches can still be found by a diligent seeker.

The White Jade River

We emerged from a small stand of trees to be confronted by a wire fence and a padlocked gate. Unlike Jiaohe and Gaochang, there was no ticket office and no stallholders shouting out ‘just looking’ in their strange singsong parody of the English way of saying ‘I’m not buying’. There was, in fact, nothing.

We stood gazing down over the river while the driver went off in search of somebody with a key. A man duly arrived on a small motorbike and unlocked the gate.

No sooner had we stepped across the threshold than a small girl materialised from nowhere bearing a handful of trinkets in an upturned Uigher hat. She was to follow us like a shadow for the next hour, dour, silent but determined.

The monk Xuanzang – he of the ‘Journey to the West’ – visited Hotan in the seventh century and recorded a fine city peopled by Buddhists of Indian descent who wrote in a modified Indian script. They had, he said, a vast religious and administrative complex near the city. Seventh century Hotan, of which nothing is extant, was south of the present city, and his temple and administrative complex might be the site now known as Melikawat.
Whatever it was, Melikawat was abandoned over a thousand years ago and very little remains above the sand. A few stumps of what might be broken walls protrude from a sandy plateau; what remains below the surface is another matter. Looting of artefacts has been widespread, but the site still awaits systematic archaeological exploration. Khalil admitted to searching for Tang dynasty coins as a child, and selling them in the market. It was no longer allowed, he said and he regretted his actions, but ‘back then nobody knew any better’. Given his youth, ‘back then’ was not so long ago.

Me among what remains of Melikawat
We stopped to negotiate with our shadow over the trinkets. It was cheap tat and we certainly had no use for it, but we were prepared to buy something if only as a reward for her persistence. She said one word, a price that was ludicrously high. Khalil suggested a price he thought was fair but she shook her head. He attempted to bargain but she clamped her mouth shut and kept shaking her head. We continued with our exploration, she continued to stalk us. We knew her price, she knew ours, eventually somebody would crack.

A Melikawat resident

Here and there, we found lumps of slag, possibly the remains of early metalworking. Several low mounds covered with broken pottery may once have been kilns surrounded by the pots that never made it to market. Bending down we could run our hands through hundreds of pieces of thousand-year-old pottery. There were small shards and large chunks, the rims of shattered bowls and the handles of long broken jugs.

As we were leaving, our shadow, who had been joined by an equally silent friend, spoke her second word. It was our price. So she had cracked and we became the owners of an unwanted bracelet at three times the market price. Maybe we were harsh, but she had been trying it on, and it is this attitude that builds up the unpleasant atmosphere found at so many major tourist sites. Not that there were any other tourists at Melikawat. Indeed, we saw no other European faces in our three days in Hotan.

Our shadow and her friend

The sky was milky rather than bright blue, but even in these conditions, it was clear that I needed to replace my lost shades. Back in the town we found a shop selling nothing but sunglasses. They showed me a display of well-known names, priced accordingly. As I get through several pairs a year – either leaving them in restaurants or sitting on them - I wanted something inexpensive. Eventually I found a selection of cheap sunglasses and chose a pair that seemed reasonably masculine and understated, priced at 60 Yuan - less than £5. This seemed fair enough, but even though this was a clean modern shop with all the goods price tagged, Khalil was having none of it. Five minutes later, thanks to Khalil’s combination of charm and economic brutality, I paid 33 Yuan for my new sunglasses.

We lunched at a Uigher restaurant with the same heavy wooden décor as at Turpan and Kashgar, but being single story lacked the sweeping stairs and balcony. The menu was familiar, too, though Khalil did manage to produce some beef, to provide a little relief from the sheep fest. Throughout the meal Khalil kept leaping up and bringing over more and more ovine manifestations he thought we ought to try. When we eventually cried 'enough' he seemed disappointed by the amount we had eaten; we felt stuffed.

Lunch over, Khalil had finished for the day but was anxious that we would not cope on our own. Reassuring him that we were not helpless, we packed him off and continued to explore Hotan on foot.

In the centre we found a huge shopping mall. A long arcade stretched north from the road and then steps led down to an underground market reaching all the way back and emerged on the far side of the main road. It was busy and tatty and although I am not generally nervous there are places where I become uncomfortably aware of the crowds, makeshift electrics and lack of exits. That vast, low ceilinged, gloomily lit, down market poundstretcher was just such an opportunity to become charred meat, and I was glad to return to the fresh air and sunlight.

We visited Hotan’s museum. The sign outside said it was open, but the big padlocked barrier said otherwise. Although Hotan felt more relaxed than Kashgar, all official buildings had elaborate expanding gates stretched across their entrances and beady-eyed security guards watching everyone who went past.

A little further out we found a traditional Uigher wooden balconied building. Having survived the redesign of the town centre, it seemed exotic and out of place in its own hometown.

Uigher house, Hotan
Nearer the hotel we came across a coal merchant. Outside the shop were not bags of nutty slack, but a pyramid of enormous slabs of coal, any one of them sufficient to power all the city’s kebab stands for a month. Locals obviously considered photographing coal to be eccentric. I smiled cheerfully and they shook their heads and said ‘mad foreigners’ under their breath.

Coal merchant, Hotan

In the evening we set off for the night market, but less than half way there we were distracted by a few tables of Chinese diners perched on a terrace beside the road. Only 5% of Hotan’s people are Han Chinese but as that figure relates to the whole prefecture – the city and six contiguous counties – and the Han are relentlessly urban, their presence in the city is quite noticeable. The government has long encouraged Han immigration into Xinjiang, as they have encouraged migration into Tibet. The new migrants, they theorise, will stabilise the rebellious provinces like marrom grass stabilises a sand dune. Tibetans have thus become a minority in Lhasa, and Uighers are barely a majority in their own ‘Autonomous Region’ while Urumqi, their capital, is 90% Han.

Leaving aside the politics and morality of this migration, there is one undoubted benefit for the traveller. Wherever the Chinese go, they open restaurants, and Chinese Restaurants mean variety - vegetables, spicy sauces and meat that is not sheep; a boon in Xinjiang as in Tibet.

We sat at a table and a girl handed us a menu. Quick decisions are the norm in Chinese restaurants and she stood beside us, pad in hand, as we perused the ten page document. As it became clear we could decipher only a few symbols, she collapsed into helpless giggles. As so often, she wanted to help and was laughing to cover her embarrassment. Lynne and I are more sanguine about our helplessness, so we laughed along with her, spotted the symbol for chicken and jabbed a finger at it.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We had neglected to observe the 'egg' symbol, but the omelette was light and well-flavoured and, by luck rather than good judgement, exactly what we wanted as the effects of lunch had not entirely disappeared.


Many, many years ago lived a man with six wives and no children. One night he met an old man who gave him a stick and told him that, if he planted the stick, it would grow and two years later bear fruit. If he ate the fruit, his problem would be solved. He awoke to find he had been dreaming and there was no old man, but beside his bed was a stick. He duly planted it and three years later became a father.

Next morning, with no scepticism whatsoever, we visited the six hundred year old walnut tree that had once been that stick. I am ambivalent about old trees but the drive through the rural hinterland was interesting. Hotan’s two rivers irrigate a rural landscape that is simultaneously lush and dusty. Beside the road, low wooden-framed greenhouses, a recent introduction, allow vegetable production during the severe winter, an innovation which must have delighted the Han even more than the locals.

More traditional are the vine-covered trellises forming a huge linear pergola over the country roads in an outsized rustic version of Turpan’s Qingian Lu. There is said to be a thousand kilometres of this pleasantly shaded road, and although that may be an exaggeration, there is undoubtedly plenty of it.

A huge linear pergola of vine covered trellises
The old tree, appropriately gnarled, stood – or was supported – in its own enclosure in a pleasant garden. More interesting were the gourds hanging in their hundreds from a trellised vine. This huge woody double entendre of a fruit looked strangely out of place hanging plum-like from slender stalks.
Gourds near Hotan
Returning to town we passed a wood turner’s, a father and son operation in a roadside shed. Outside whole trunks lay ready to be split whilst inside the son sat on the floor beside his lathe, hollowing out bowls from blocks of walnut wood. We marvelled at his dexterity and also at how he sat with one bare foot on the lathe’s rotating shaft. We watched him produce two bowls, which of course we bought, along with several carved date-wood spoons. When he rose to fetch our change we realised he had one leg much shorter than the other and walked only with difficulty. Whether that was congenital or the result of an accident we do not know, but I cannot guarantee it was not a lathe related incident.

Turning wood, Hotan
Despite the depredations of 2004, Hotan retains a distinctive Uigher quarter. Behind the superficial gloss of the city centre, dusty unsurfaced roads burrowed between high yellow walls surrounding the traditional courtyard dwellings. We followed Khalil into this warren until, after several twists and turns, he knocked on one of the many iron doors set into the walls. We entered the sandy courtyard of the last traditional paper maker in Hotan, possibly in Xinjiang, maybe in the whole of China.

To our left was a cooking area where an old woman was rolling out rice dough into a wafer thin circular noodle a metre in diameter. She nodded at us, called for her husband and disappeared into the dark recess of the living area. Moments later a thin weather beaten old man with a large straggly beard emerged holding a sheaf of mulberry twigs.

Khalil translated as he told us how he strips the inner lining from the bark. He explained the processes of soaking and boiling this lining, and sat on the floor to beat some treated pulp ready for its ultimate maceration. Finally he removed the lid from an evil smelling tank set into the floor and, using a cross-shaped dipper, spread what looked very much like dirty water with a few floating twigs onto a narrow gauge mesh held in a wooden frame. After drying in the sun, he would peel off a perfect sheet of paper.

Paper making, Hotan

The paper was delicately thin, yet robust. Rough to the touch with a veining of tiny twigs, its absorbent quality is of interest to artists, and we bought a few sheets for an artist friend.

Before lunch we crossed the White Jade River, braved the road block and parked on the quayside. The Jade Market is held there once a week but even though it was not market day there were plenty of men wandering about with small lumps of jade looking for likely customers. Khalil dismissed most of it as inferior quality mountain jade from the bazaar. When we were offered a piece of genuine river jade, smoothed by millennia of rolling about in the stream, he became quite excited and tried to buy it, but failed to agree a price.

We scrambled down to the riverbed and scrabbled among the stones for our own jade. Khalil seemed very knowledgeable and showed us various minerals that might fool the inexperienced, but as we were prospecting in the most frequented part of the officially worked out deposit we were not surprised to return empty handed.
Fossicking in the White Jade River, Hotan
Lunch was a standard Uigher affair, but for once we were offered a kebab which did not involve sheep. Small pigeons spatchcocked on a pair of skewers were well done, almost charred, but made a tasty change from mutton.

We did not see the inside of the museum again that afternoon. Khalil added his professional persuasiveness to our hopeful pleading, but no, it was impossible to open, although the ticket office was fully staffed and the front door was wide open. Nor did we reach the night market again that evening. Just past the terrace where we had dined the previous night we encountered a clean, bright Sichuan restaurant where we enjoyed a couple of large bowls of ‘something with chilli’.


Atlas silk is used to produce distinctive and elegant dresses in a blue and white, red and white or gold and white pattern. The key to the process is that the silk is tie-died before being woven.

Hotan is not only the home of Atlas silk, it was the first place to produce silk outside the Han heartland. According to legend a Chinese princess married a local ruler and, unwilling to give up all the comforts of home, she arrived with silkworm cocoons secreted in her hair.

We visited a factory in a township some five kilometres from the city. Here, on a small scale and in a largely unmechanised manner, they carry out the whole process and market the finished product.

The first stage involved boiling the cocoons. A woman sat cross-legged above a bath of steaming water and tipped in cocoons by the bowl-full. As they boiled she located the ends of threads and unravelled the strands; each industrious caterpillar having produced several kilometres of unfeasibly strong, immensely fine material. The unfortunate pupae boil to death but get their own back by casting a malodorous pall over the operation.

Boiling the cocoons, Hotan
Two more women sat on the floor spinning with a wheel that may have enjoyed a previous existence on a bicycle.

Spining the silk, Hotan
Spun silk was then stretched onto a frame so two heavily bearded men could, with infinite care and much discussion, tie clumps ready for dyeing.

Preaping the silk for the tie-dying
We did not see the dyeing on site, but another seriously bearded individual sat bare-footed at a loom, playing the pedals like a church organ as he produced a bolt of the distinctive and highly prized silk cloth.

Silk weaving
Given the materials, skill and endeavour that go into producing Atlas silk, its costliness is unsurprising. The traditional pattern, however, remains popular, and is printed onto polyester to produce the dresses worn by many Hotan women.

At lunch I observed a passing dish of something I had eaten at breakfast in various places and failed to identify. I pointed and ordered ‘some of that’ and was rewarded with a plate piled high with thin strips of what was clearly an animal product, though not quite meat. ‘Sheep’s stomach,’ said Khalil as I munched through the heap. Tripe seemed to fall off British menus some fifty years ago. On this evidence, that was a shame.

From the first floor window I watched a woman begging in the street. We generally distribute small notes to the elderly and infirm, though not to children who are reputedly exploited by organised gangs. Many beggars snatch proffered notes as though they were their due, others give a nod of thanks, which we appreciate, though the old woman in Beijing a few years ago who attempted to kiss my feet was showing too much gratitude for comfort.

I have often wondered how beggars fare, and this woman appeared to be doing well. Maybe one in twenty gave something, never more than half a yuan (4p), but it was a busy street and in half an hour she must have begged the price of a meal. She was begging among Muslim Uighers, whose religion encourages alms giving. I cannot guess how well she would have done among the rather more mercenary Chinese, who, as one Uigher rather unkindly put it, ‘have no religion only superstition.’

Hotan’s tiny airport was back across the bridge. The customary check at the roadblock was nothing compared to the airport search where mirrors were being passed under cars and upholstery prodded and poked. This had, unsurprisingly, generated a tailback so we abandoned the car and entered on foot.

Our bags were x-rayed before we were allowed into the terminal. Amid much tutting we were instructed to open up.

A small bottle of Chinese vodka was the first to be confiscated, followed by a pack of scotch miniatures we carried as gifts for whoever might deserve them, and then our spare batteries. As far as I knew all these were legal in hold luggage, but the security guards had other ideas. I am not sure why they thought two small cartons of Tesco’s apple juice might be dangerous but they were next to go. Then they found my aftershave. At this point I began to lose my cool and raised my voice somewhat intemperately. Fortunately, Lynne remained level headed, quickly telling me to shut up before I got myself arrested. They opened the aftershave, poured some onto a piece of lint and set fire to it, thus proving how dangerous it was. Surrounded by several thousand litres of aviation fuel, 100 mls of aftershave must add significantly to the fire risk. It might have been amusing to see them try to light the apple juice, but I was no longer in a mood to be amused. They checked a jar of honey very carefully before deciding we could keep it, then returned two batteries from the pack of six. They were apparently uninterested in the half dozen installed in various items in our hand luggage.

That was just getting into the terminal building. Several paces away, at the airport’s one and only check-in desk, they x-rayed our luggage again before sending it out to the plane. At that stage we lost the second pack of scotch miniatures.

Everything confiscated had passed security checks before our Shanghai to Xian flight, but this was Xinjiang where everybody is assumed to be a terrorist and special rules are imposed to emphasise just who is in charge.

On the plane the third seat in our row had been allocated to a bulky Uigher man wafting a pronounced odour of sheep. This was clearly his first flight and he may possibly have never seen a foreigner before as the sight of us sent him into near panic. He moved to another seat until its owners turned up and moved him on. He tried another only to be bumped out of that until finally the flight attendant took pity on him. The small (but reassuringly new) Boeing was almost full, but she found empty seats where he could be next to his companions, a young man in full Uigher costume and an older man with a patch over his eye and flecks of blood on his face. I do not like to be antisocial, but I was glad of the extra space – and the fresher air.

We crossed the dreaded Taklamakan desert, swallower of men and camels, in relative comfort and just over an hour later landed in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Kashgar (2), Upal, Abakh Hoja and The Old Town: Part 6 of The Chinese Silk Road

Eight o’clock breakfast in Kashgar is a lonely experience; the unappealing buffet is attended by a few bleary-eyed staff and you eat alone, except for a couple of mystified Han Chinese who, like you, are working on Beijing time but, unlike you, believe Beijing time is everybody’s time.

We were in the lobby waiting for Sadeek before nine. At 9.20 I wandered into the 'business centre' and phoned his mobile. It was not switched on. At 9.30 we were planning a day in Kashgar without him when Mohammed Yusuf bustled in, his face full of peevish irritation.

‘I have had a call from Sadeek,’ he started. ‘He says he is ill.’ Big sigh. ‘He said you were going to a village market, did you go to the Kashgar market yesterday?’ We said we had. ‘It will be much the same only smaller. Do you still want to go?’ We said we did. ‘Then I will take you.’

He may have had other plans for his Monday morning, but this had become a matter of honour and he was determined to do his duty, or, in this case, somebody else’s duty. As we pulled out of the car park he made several unkind remarks about Sadeek, the sort of remarks a devout Muslim might make about a fellow Muslim who owned a bar. ‘And,’ he added, ‘I will find you another guide for Wednesday.’

We left Kashgar heading south on the Karakoram highway. Our destination, Upal, was 50km away, another 500 km and we would reach Islamabad via the world’s highest border crossing at Khunjerab. Urumqi, the Xinjiang state capital, was 1200 km behind us, while Beijing was some 3500 km east.

The Karakoram Highway leaves Kashgar as a six-lane road. The inside lane is for donkey carts and bicycles, for old women to sit and eat melons and for small boys to lead five sheep to market on a string. The middle lane is full of heavily laden trucks thundering towards Pakistan, equally laden local buses and the odd rich person (like us) in a private car. The ‘fast’ lane is used by donkey carts and motorcycle pick-ups heading in the opposite direction.
Mahmoud Kashgari, or someone who may look like him, beckons us in to
his mausoleum near Upal
After 40 km on a road that steadily narrowed as the terrain become rockier and less cultivated, we stopped at the mausoleum of Mahmoud Kashgari. Born in 1005, he was a scion of the ruling family but was, by inclination, a scholar rather than a warlord. He travelled widely in Central Asia and compiled the first Turkic dictionary. Not only was he seven hundred years ahead of Dr Johnson, but he also untangled the huge range of dialects spoken between Kashgar and the Caspian Sea. His dictionary, including a collection of poems and maps of the Turkic world, was presented to the Caliph of Baghdad as a contribution to the understanding between the Turkic people and their new Arab allies. After an extraordinarily long and active life, he died in Upal in 1103.

I enter Mahmoud Kashgari's Mausoleum,
His grave lies in a small building at the top of a wooded slope. Beside his sarcophagus is a plate bearing a likeness of the great man, his gaze wise and avuncular. As even the Chinese do not claim to have invented photography in the eleventh century, the likeness owes more to imagination than accuracy. There is also a small mosque and a room for teaching. At the top of the hill, where the land stretches away arid and stony, lies the graveyard for Upal’s common people, their ochre tombstones blending timelessly into the ochre hillside.

The grave of Mahmoud Kashgari

A few kilometres on and we entered the village. Here the road was further narrowed by encroaching market stalls and slow moving animals. Mohammed parked by a row of restaurants and suggested he would have a cup of tea while we looked at the market. ‘It won’t take you long,’ he said, ‘it’s only a village market.’

Approaching Upal market
We walked along the road, now almost completely blocked by people, animals and carts, until we reached an earth ramp that led down to a large cleared area fringed by shady trees. From the top of the ramp the whole market was laid out below us.

Upal Market

Mohammed was right that it was only a village market, but that did not mean it was small and certainly did not mean it was uninteresting. On one single site it was possible to buy everything you might want and several you never knew you needed. There were butchers and cloth merchants, vegetable and livestock dealers, shoe sellers and the inevitable kebab stalls.

Butcher's stalls, Upal Market

There were people of all ages, dressed in bright traditional costumes, browsing, bargaining and hanging out with friends. If the people of Kashgar are two hours adrift of the rest of China, there were old men at this market who looked two centuries adrift of the rest of the world.

Upal Market
There was no way we could be a part of the market, we were as alien and exotic to the buyers and sellers as they were to us. It was enough just to be there and to feel the pulse of life around us. Tourism is forever doomed to kill the things it loves: the fishing village in a secluded cove becomes a five mile stretch of high rise hotels, slices of paradise are packaged, denatured and sanitised to suit the tastes of the rich. Kashgar is hardly Benidorm, but we were not the only foreigners at the Sunday market and it sits inside the horizon of tourism. At Upal we had slipped over that horizon, but human beings, like sub-atomic particles, are changed merely by being observed. Mixed with the exhilaration of just being there was the fear that we were the latest link in a chain of foreigners relentlessly dragging that horizon behind us.

Upal Market
We spent longer than Mohammed had expected and he had consumed more tea than a man can reasonably drink before we reappeared. He drove us back to Kashgar, but as we neared the city he suddenly swung off the main road and we bounced along a roughly made, potholed track. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. ‘There’s a road block ahead,’ he answered. ‘It’s quicker to go round it.’ Most of the traffic from the main road had followed us. If the people of Kashgar going about their lawful business knew about the roadblock and how to get round it, then so must any potential terrorist. So, what was the road block for, if not just to irritate the locals? It was the first time I found myself asking that question. It was not to be the last.

After the obligatory visit to a silk carpet and jade warehouse, which was disappointing, at least for those hoping to sell us anything, we found ourselves back at the ‘Best Uigher restaurant in Kashgar’. Mohammed recommended mutton pie, a hitherto untried Uigher speciality. It consisted of pieces of sheep in a pastry case; my mother used to make something similar in the 1950s. It was pleasant, but hardly added a new dimension to our concept of Uigher cuisine. Around us everybody else was ordering ‘laghman’, the mutton and noodle dish that is the Uigher staple. Whenever a group of Uighers walk into a restaurant, there is an animated discussion about what they will eat. Ideas are thrown this way and that until eventually someone will say ‘laghman’ and they all smack their lips and smile and order laghman like it is a special treat, although most of them eat it twice a day, seven days a week. Usually, they will have a few kebabs on the side. Mutton pie, on the other hand, really was a special treat so we awaited the bill with apprehension. Pie for two and unlimited rose scented tea cost just over £1.50.

The best Uigher Restaurant in Kashgar
In the evening, we bumped into Sadeek as we passed through the lobby. ‘Sorry about this morning,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t well.’ We shrugged. ‘Never mind,’ he carried on brightly, ‘we’ll go to a different village market tomorrow.’ We explained that we had already seen a village market, had no need to see another one, and anyway we would not trust him to turn up for his own funeral. His face fell; he seemed genuinely hurt and surprised that we no longer had any need for his services. Lynne seemed particularly impervious to this attempt at boyish charm. He had had his chance, we told him, and he had blown it.

Later we ventured into a self-styled ‘fast food’ restaurant on the road up to Id Kah Square. We had passed it a number of times and had usually been invited in by the lad sitting outside threading sheep onto skewers. It looked reasonably clean, so now seemed the time to take up his invitation.

Perhaps I was becoming overconfident, perhaps I had seen enough chunks of mutton for one week, but I ordered a couple of kofta kebabs to go with the naan and the regular kebabs. I watched the lad dip his hand into the bowl of mince and press it onto the skewer, fat oozing between his fingers.

Lynne shook her head. ‘They’re dangerous,’ she said, adding something about barge poles and not touching. But was I listening? Of course not, I was too busy scoffing at her apprehension while watching a cockroach scuttle across the concrete floor.

What passed later is best left unrecorded. Suffice it to say, my morning began at half past three and I failed to make it to breakfast at either Beijing or Kashgar time.

The next few hours were spent watching yet more Olympic success for Zhong Guo while Lynne dealt out medication liberally and sympathy rather more grudgingly.

By eleven, I felt fit enough to face the world and we headed for the tomb of Abakh Hoja. Guided by the ever-useful card from John’s Café, the taxi took us past the market site and out to where the eastern suburbs began to melt into farmland. Turning off the main road, he dropped us in a courtyard containing the cold drink and tat stalls that surround the entrance to every tourist site.

In the 16th century the southern Taklamakan was ruled by a Khanate based in Yarkand, 250 km to the west. In the early 17th century Abakh Hoja displaced the ruling dynasty and made Kashgar his capital. He was a strong and capable ruler, but his descendants, seventy-two of whom share his mausoleum, struggled to keep Kashgaria independent, caught as they were between the Dzungor empire to the west and the Chinese to the east.

The Mausoleum of Abakh Hoja, Kashgar

The tomb is also the reputed resting place of Ikparhan, a Uigher princess known to the Chinese as Xiang Fei - the Fragrant Concubine – because of her attractive floral scent. The tale of Xiang Fei varies depending on who tells it. In the preferred Han version, she was a granddaughter of Abakh Hoja and became a concubine of the Qin emperor Qianlong. After a difficult start she won him over by her beauty - and indeed body odour - became his favourite and lived a long and happy life, exemplifying the eternal bond between the Uigher and Chinese peoples. The Uigher legend has her being abducted from her husband’s bed, or even being a captured resistance leader. The stories concur in her winning over Qianlong by her beauty (and BO), but in this account her success upset the emperor’s mother to the extent that she had either had Xiang Fei murdered or forced her to commit suicide. This version suits the Uigher sense of grievance, and is just about acceptable to the Chinese as it allows the perfidious Qin to be contrasted with the cuddly Chinese Communist Party.

The graves of Abakh Hoja and his kin, Kashgar

Constructed around 1640, the tomb is a sturdy mosque-like building, its towers and dome faced in dark green glazed tiles. That, at least, is how it looks in the brochures. In fact, although the surrounding garden is pleasant, the building itself is in disrepair and many of the tiles are missing. Inside, the tombs look dusty and neglected, while the adjacent teaching hall is only kept standing by large wooden props and is closed to the public. The roof of the open sided prayer hall is supported by a series of wooden columns, each one carved differently to display local skills. It also displays a lack of overall design and, again, a lack of maintenance. Perhaps the local government is less keen to provide funds now it is generally agreed that the concubine who inspired the Xiang Fei legend is actually buried in Hebei, several thousand kilometres away.

Prayer Hall, Abakh Joa Mausoleum, Kashgar

Sadly, the tomb was not the only thing in a poor state and we returned to our hotel for further medication, a bit of a lie down and no lunch. China continued to do well in the Olympics, showing particular skill in shooting and beach volleyball, but by mid-afternoon I had endured more than enough televised smugness and felt just about strong enough for a stroll round the oldest part of the city.

The entrance, a hundred metres from our hotel, was clearly marked. As we climbed the steps up and over the city wall, we were suddenly surrounded by a posse of young ladies all elegantly attired in dresses of what we would later learn was atlas silk. This was not, unfortunately, a result of my natural charm, but of their desire to sell us tickets to enter their quarter of the city.
Kashgar, The Old City

Old Kashgar is jumble of mud brick buildings set in a maze of narrow streets. There was little else to see and there were few people about, but those we saw were all dressed in full local costume. Several of them stopped to check our tickets.

Kashgar, The Old City

I suspect a medieval city would have smelled a lot worse, and it certainly would have lacked the spider’s web of cables criss-crossing each street and feeling its way up the front of every building, but otherwise there was nothing to say we were still in the present century. Many of the inhabitants have moved out to Chinese-style tower blocks. These may be ugly but, for their residents, running water, reliable electricity and the ability to keep warm in the bitter Kashgar winter are worth far more than the scenic charms of the old city. We cannot expect people to live in picturesque poverty for our amusement, but when most have left there will be an opportunity to create a museum town, like Ghadames in Libya. The Chinese, however, are much more likely to bring in the bulldozers, as they have done with much of the rest of Kashgar.

Kashgar, The Old City
We lost our bearings in the twisting lanes and were a little surprised to come out in a wide street of balconied buildings behind Id Kah Square.

Not quite so old Kashgar

This was the street of metal workers, and outside each shop, men sat cross-legged tapping designs onto vases and trays.

Metalworkers, Kashgar

We returned to the hotel for more medication, no dinner and an early night.

I felt better in the morning. After breakfast we went down to the lobby where a young man called Hassan introduced himself. He seemed pleasant, and if his English was not as good as Sadeek’s, he was at least there and on time, which counted for a lot more. We took our cases outside and he introduced us to our driver.

Before we left Kashgar the driver had to report to the police station to obtain a permit to leave the city. We sat outside and waited. After five minutes, he returned grumbling and moaning, rooted around under the dashboard and produced a fire extinguisher, which he took to show the bureaucrats inside. Perhaps I should have been pleased by this untypical Chinese respect for health and safety, but I was more irritated by a system that requires you to complete a box ticking exercise before driving down the road to the next town.

This incident set the tone for the day. Every time we moved from one municipality to the next, which was often, there was a checkpoint where a policeman demanded documents. Usually they were only interested in the driver and Hassan, but some insisted on seeing our passports, too. As these were largely village bobbies from some of the remotest villages in China, a British passport was a distinctly outlandish document and finding the picture inside the back page was a major challenge. As one officer took my passport, it fell open at my outdated Mongolian visa. He studied this document minutely before nodding, returning the passport and grunting wisely.

We drove through cultivated fields and occasional habitation. The road was not busy, but there was the usual assortment of carts, animals and children. Our driver’s technique for dealing with hazards was to point the car at them and accelerate hard, which was a little nerve wracking but seemed to work for him.

After 70 km we reached Yengisar, the knife capital of Xinjiang. Knife crime may be a cause of much hand wringing to the British, but to a Uigher it is a cultural statement. Since the grenade assault on the Kashgar police station the BBC website had carried news of a knife attack at a checkpoint. I suspect it was frustration rather than terrorism, but what surprised me was that there had been only one such attack.

The main street of the small town is lined with large glass fronted showrooms dedicated to the knife. There are displays of dazzling craftsmanship and scary lethality, but all is not well in the world of Uigher knife making. Security regulations mean that knives cannot be carried on buses, planes or trains and they can no longer be sold mail order. They produce the knives, there is a market for them, but regulations divide the knives from their market. We bought two rather finely made nail clippers. They are undoubtedly the best nail clippers we have ever owned, but are a rather sad reflection of the current impotence of Uigher culture.

Outside we heard what sounded frighteningly like a volley of small arms fire, though the locals seemed unconcerned. Then a funeral came into view. A truck decorated with a large rosette carried the coffin and a dozen or so relatives who were lobbing handfuls of firecrackers into the road to scare off demons. Behind them came a cortege of twenty or so vehicles of assorted shapes and sizes.

Funeral truck, Yengisar

We followed the funeral until they turned off at the edge of town. From there, our 200 km journey to Yarkand passed through a landscape sometimes yellow with sand, sometimes green with cultivation, but always punctuated by checkpoints.

Once the seat of a great Buddhist kingdom, later the capital of Chagotai Khan (son of Ghengis) and always a major city on the southern Silk route, Yarkand looked disappointingly like everywhere else in modern China. The main remnants of the old town are the Aleytun mosque – closed to foreigners - and the burial site of the kings of Yarkand.
The tomb of Sultan Saiyidhan, Yarkand

Less ambitious in scale but better kept than the tomb of Abakh Hoja, who usurped their power, the graves lie in a pleasant rose garden beside a wide, dusty street. Sultan Saiyidhan has his own mausoleum, a delicate, wooden construction covered in fretwork, but pride of place, as at Abakh Hoja, is given to a woman - though in this case to a woman who is really buried there. Amannishahan, wife of a sixteenth century khan, was a poet, musician and composer. Although she died in childbirth in 1560 she packed enough into her 34 years to still be revered as the mother of Uigher music. Twenty stone arches create a shaded veranda around her mausoleum, which is topped by a blue tiled cupola. Light and graceful, the building would be perfect if it was not for a nagging feeling that this was where Walt Disney found his model for oriental architecture.

The tomb of Amannishahan, Yarkand

Half an hour further on, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Lynne and I ordered mutton pilaf while Hassan and the driver sat and discussed and threw ideas back and forward. Eventually the driver said ‘laghman’ and Hassan licked his lips and smiled. A decision had been made.

Roadside restaurant beyong Yarkand
After lunch, we drove through the desert, the breeze sending streams of sand scurrying across the road in front of us. There were fewer obstacles for the driver to accelerate at now, but soon he was shifting about in his seat, opening and closing the window, and doing all those things drivers do when they are struggling to stay awake. All those things except stop and rest. We ploughed on through the desert afternoon aware that, should we leave the road, we could probably career on for a kilometre or two before anybody noticed.

Eventually, at one of the rare outbreaks of cultivation around a stream rushing down from the Tibetan plateau, he finally took a breather. The driver headed off to stick his head in the water, Lynne disappeared in the bushes on the far side of the road while Hassan and I took it upon ourselves to water the nearest cotton bushes. It was here that I realised I had left my sunglasses in the restaurant.
I inspect the watered cotton

Arriving in Hotan around five, we met Khalil, our new guide, and checked into our hotel. We were surprised, even shocked, when Hassan announced that he and the driver were going straight back to Kashgar. We were relieved to have survived 500 km in daylight; I would not have wanted to take the return trip at all, and especially not in the dark with a narcoleptic driver. I hope they made it.

The Chinese Silk Road

Introduction: The Silk Road in China
Prelude: Shanghai

1 Xi'an
2 Jiayuguan: A Total Eclipse and the Last Fortress under Heaven
3 Dunhuang: Dunes in the Gobi
4 Turpan: Ruined Cities of the Silk Road
5 Kashgar (1):  The Sunday Market and the Former British Consulate
6 Kashgar (2): Upal, Abakh Hoja and the Old Town
7 Hotan (or Khotan or Hetian): City in the Desert
8 Urumqi: A By-word for Remoteness