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…..

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.

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