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…..

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Kashgar (1), The Sunday Market and The Former British Consulate: Part 5 of The Chinese Silk Road

The Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains) form the northern rim of the great depression that is the Taklamakan desert. Crossing the final fringes of the Gobi, the line from Turpan ran west, north of the mountains and then, as the afternoon wore on, turned south and began to rise.

The train climbs into the snow capped Tian Shan

We climbed steadily through Alpine meadows and beside rushing streams. In an upland emptiness of austere beauty we passed few signs of human activity; just one lonely outbreak of industrial ugliness and the remains of a small town that had been entirely levelled.

An outbreak of industrial ugliness in the Tian Shan

We laboured to the top of the pass beneath snow-capped peaks and then, as the train breathed an almost audible sigh of relief, we rattled down the other side. An hour later, and with surprising suddenness, the mountains stopped and we emerged from a valley mouth into the vast emptiness of the Taklamakan.

Suddenly we emerge into the Taklamakan desert

Dusk fell as we turned south, skirting the desert via a succession of oasis towns. As we drew into the substantial city of Korla – what do 400 000 people do in this desert outpost? – the Olympics were starting in Beijing and the opening ceremony was broadcast over the in-train radio. We may still have been in China but we had now travelled so far west that we were closer to Beirut than Beijing, though hardly very close to either.

9.30 in the evening and tomatoes are on their way to market in Korla

We slept well. In the morning we were still rounding the desert; waves of sterile sand, their peaks encrusted with salt, rippled into the distance. Nearing Kashgar, the sand gave way to cultivation; vine draped trellises, pomegranate trees hung with deep red fruit, tomatoes, maize and cotton just coming into flower. Occasional level crossings took us across dusty lanes where donkey carts waited our passing. Twenty-two hours after boarding the train, we arrived at Kashgar, the end of the line and the most westerly city in China.

Market gardens on the approach to Kashgar
The train emptied. Several hundred people streamed from the station while behind the barriers, a hundred more called out greetings to friends and relatives. One lone lad held up a sign in Chinese, but no one seemed to be greeting us. We stood to the side of the barriers, waiting for the crush to subside and hoping the matter would resolve itself. In a very few minutes the crowd had evaporated, leaving only us, a few stragglers and the lad with the sign. Clearly, he was not our greeter, not only because his sign was in Chinese, but because even the dullest messenger could spot the only two westerners on the train.

Our choice was to phone the travel company’s local representative or take a taxi to the hotel. We decided to do both. As we were retrieving the appropriate phone number a policeman approached us with the sign-holding boy in tow. ‘Xinjiang University?’ he asked hopefully. We shook our heads. He looked unreasonably disappointed given the circumstances, but he meant well.

Our local contact was, we discovered, in Urumqi, twenty-four hours back the way we had come. We were discussing whether the number was worth calling when we were interrupted by a well-dressed, middle-aged Uigher man. ‘Can I help?’ he said.

We explained the situation and said we were about to take a taxi to our hotel. He looked at our piece of paper and said, ‘I used to work for a travel company and I know this person in Urumqi.’ With that, he pulled out his phone and dialled the number. There was no reply. Undaunted he went on ‘and I know who she usually works with in Kashgar.’ Another dialling was followed by a brief conversation in Uigher. ‘But unfortunately not on this occasion,’ he said apologetically.

We thanked him and made a move towards the waiting taxis. ‘I have time before my train, would you like me to accompany you to your hotel?’

We had taken up too much of his time already, and we were not helpless. We thanked him again and said it was unnecessary.

I sat in the taxi enjoying the warm glow that is kindled when complete strangers take time and trouble to rebuild your faith in human nature. Then I noticed the taxi driver had not cancelled the meter after his previous fare and was proposing to overcharge us by a factor of two, if not three. The glow diminished, but it was only a pound or so, so I decided to let him get away with it.

Kashgar was, clearly, a different sort of city. The old centre sits on an easily defended mound, and parts of the city walls still cling to the slopes. Outer Kashgar has undergone some ‘Hanification’ but the extensive old town and the twists of the Tuman River confound any attempt to impose a grid pattern.
 Modern(ish) Kashgar - not quite a grid pattern

Our hotel was on the edge of the historic area. Security demanded that the taxi stopped on the main road, so we got out and trundled our cases up the access road and across the courtyard. The lobby was crowded and checking-in laborious. As we finished, we were approached by a small Arab-looking man in early middle age. He identified himself as Mohammed Yusuf, the manager of the local travel company. He had learned about us, he said, when a friend phoned from the station. It seemed our anonymous benefactor had come up trumps with his third call. Mohammed apologised, said he had no idea why the guide had not turned up, and offered to buy us lunch in recompense. It sounded fair to me.

The ‘Best Uigher Restaurant in Kashgar’ was in the new town. It had the same polished wooden furniture, massive curving staircase and balcony as the restaurant in Turpan. The food was the same, too; mutton with rice, mutton with noodles and mutton with skewers. Like most Uigher restaurants, there was no beer but they did a pleasing line in floral scented tea.

After a terse phone call, we were joined by Sadeek, our hitherto invisible guide. ‘Oh well, it happened,’ he said, which seemed a less than fulsome apology. Mohammed Yusuf made it clear that Sadeek would reimburse the cost of the taxi himself, and that if he wanted lunch he could buy his own.

Walking back to our hotel with Sadeek, we passed some damaged trees supported by very new wooden trusses outside a small official building. This, we learned later, was the customs post where seventeen men had been killed in a knife and grenade attack the week before. It was not, as we had imagined out near the Kyrgyz border, but two hundred metres from our hotel.

Sadeek seemed keen to make amends for his earlier failings, so we agreed to go to the bar he owned the following evening and discuss what he might be able to do for us.

Later, we crossed the broad four-laned main road and made our way into the old town. Crossing the road was easy; the traffic that was not donkey powered was largely two wheeled, the few cars were mostly green coloured taxis.

Finding our way through the narrow streets towards Id Kah Square was a trip into a different world. The dirty, dusty buildings housed all sorts of shops; there were bakers and jewellers, a small flock’s worth of carcasses hanging outside a butchers and a medieval looking carpet seller sitting cross-legged on the high wooden threshold of his darkened cavern. Kebab stalls and restaurants abounded. Men sat in the street threading pieces of sheep onto huge skewers while others fanned braziers. It is always kebab time in Kashgar.

Butcher's shop, Kashgar

The men wore shirts rather than t-shirts, often white, frequently long sleeved. They all wore hats - usually the four corner Uigher hat - or at least skullcaps. Women were in colourful, traditional dress. Most wore headscarves, though some were fully veiled and a few covered their head and shoulders with a rough chocolate brown towel; how they could see where they were going was a mystery.

Motorbikes and pushbikes jostled among the pedestrians and the occasional taxi barged through, the driver leaning hard on his horn.

Kashgar - the streets round Id Kah Square

The entrance to Id Kah mosque is on the corner of the eponymous square. Although it is the largest mosque in China, the entrance, painted a dirty yellow, is neither particularly big nor well built. Beside it sits an ornate clock tower while on the opposite side of the square a huge television screen showed a Uigher soap opera.

Id Kah Msque, Kashgar

Turning right, we emerged onto the wider, more Chinese, streets by a gigantic statue of Chairman Mao. Rather over-dressed for the climate, he stood on a plinth apparently hailing a taxi. The size is the message: this might be a Uigher city, but China is in charge and do not forget it.

The Chairman hails a taxi, Kashgar
As we circumnavigated the chairman seeking out the best place for a photograph, a Uigher girl stopped her bicycle and asked if we needed help. Short of shifting the sun into a more convenient position there was little she could do, but she shared the attitude of our anonymous friend at the station. The Chinese might find the Uighers revolting; we generally found them pleasant and helpful.

After our walk, we discovered a branch of John’s Café in the courtyard behind our hotel. There are several of these backpackers’ retreats dotted around Xinjiang. They offer internet access, travel advice and ticketing, and food and drink. They also give away small laminated cards with useful destinations printed in English, Uigher and Chinese. We pocketed one for the next morning, but had a little more difficulty acquiring a cold beer as the waiter first had to be prised away from the television Olympic coverage.

John's café, Kashgar

Later, after a shower and our own look at the Olympics, we set out to eat. In the hotel lobby, half the staff were gathered staring upwards at a television suspended from the ceiling, their body language urging the Chinese competitor towards a medal.

In Id Kah Square it was prayer time, and although we had heard no muezzin, men were making their way towards the mosque in substantial numbers. With intense looks on their faces they walked, alone or in small groups, with steady determined steps. The mosque is considered the centre of Uigher resistance to Chinese rule and there was a feeling of tension in the square. The big screen was obliviously blaring out another soap opera to a much smaller knot of worshippers. Uighers, whether religious or secular, seemed less concerned with Olympic success than the Chinese staff at John’s Café and our hotel.

The busy street beyond was packed with eating places, some permanent, some set up just for the evening. Here and there, rows of people sat on benches watching shop front televisions. Clearly, soap operas are important even to those who do not own a TV, though the Olympics were again conspicuous by their absence.

Watching the big screen television, Id Kah Square, Kashgar

The choice was not appealing. Neither cleanliness nor variety seemed to be huge priorities in Kashgar. There were bread shops and a hard-boiled egg stand, there was a man frying fish, and there were kebabs, kebabs and more kebabs.

We were hovering outside a restaurant that looked only moderately filthy when the young man in charge engaged us in conversation. ‘What’s that?’ I asked pointing at what looked like a meat and potato stew bubbling in a huge wok. ‘Corned beef,’ he said, though that clearly lost something in translation.

I ordered some ‘corned beef’, noodles, a naan and, because it seemed eccentric not to, half a dozen kebabs. The food was good, the kebabs were tender and the ‘corned beef stew’ was nicely spiced and satisfying. The meat was tender and tasty, certainly not beef and probably not horse; maybe it was donkey, an animal with many functions in these parts.

We were charged the same minimal sum as the locals, which is always pleasing. ‘Xie xie,’ I said as the lad handed over my change. ‘But that is Chinese,’ he said, ‘I am Uigher.’ I am ashamed to say that my sole word of Uigher was ‘naan’, a word that was hardly new to me, or anyone else who has ever eaten in an Indian restaurant. I asked him the Uigher for ‘thank you’. ‘Rehmet sizge,’ he said. ‘Rehmet sizge’ I said back and resolved to use it more.

Back in Id Kah square discrete floodlights illuminated the front of the mosque. A small crowd sat or squatted to watch the news on the big screen, while others perched on low walls talking and smoking. Families strolled in the evening cool, children played with tops or chased each other across the square. The clock tower - official Beijing time - said it was half past ten, the real local time was probably about eight. Surrounded by Uigher buildings and several hundred people, none of whom were in western dress, we felt that we had finally arrived somewhere foreign and very alien to our normal experience. Globalisation makes it harder and harder to find such places, and you feel privileged when you do.

Id Kah Square, Kashgar

Next morning, before we set off for the Sunday market, we took a closer look at the Id Kah mosque. Our information was that it was open to non-Muslims provided it was not prayer time, though zealous locals sometimes shooed foreigners away. To maximise our chances of admittance Lynne wore a long sleeved blouse and carried a headscarf, I put on a long sleeved shirt. We need not have bothered. Chinese tour groups were wandering about in shorts and t-shirts, the only matter that concerned zealous locals was selling tickets.

Originally built in 1443, Id Kah is the oldest and most active mosque in China. It was never much of an architectural gem and has been refurbished so many times, somewhat extensively after the Cultural Revolution, that there is little sense of antiquity. Inside the walls is a pleasant rose garden, two outdoor pulpits and a large, very plain, central prayer hall rather spoiled as a place for meditation by the guardian playing tunes on his mobile phone. Ten thousand people regularly attend Friday prayers but Sunday morning was distinctly quiet.

A little disappointed we returned to the hotel to change, hopped in a taxi and showed our laminated card from John’s Café.

The Kashgar Sunday Market is the region’s main attraction. Up to a hundred thousand people from a dozen ethnic groups come from cities, villages and nomad encampments to trade everything from a bull to a bolt of silk, from a tractor to a teacup. At least that is how it used to be. The authorities recently decided the market had outgrown its site, and banished all livestock to a new location outside the city.

Arriving at the Sunday Market, Kashgar

The split may have taken an edge off the excitement, but arriving at the animal market, it seemed like all the donkey carts in Asia were converging on this one place. There were carts of melons, carts of carrots and carts full of men dressed up for a day out. And there were sheep; all along the dual carriageway we passed lorries packed with dozens of them, donkey carts with four or five ewes strapped on the back, and men leading one or two on a leash.

Arriving at the Sunday Market, Kashgar

Our taxi dropped us at the entrance where would-be traders were dealing with the inevitable Chinese bureaucracy. Along the roadside, men sat in chairs, sheets round their necks, as a team of barbers wielded cutthroat razors.

Getting a shave, Kashgar Sunday Market
Threading our way through the crowd, we stood beside a mountain range of melons stretching into the middle distance.

Melon Mountain, Kashgar Sunday Market

Beside it, new carts were laid out for inspection, and a lad of about thirteen operated a makeshift smithy hammering out spare parts.
Smithy, Kashgar Sunday Market
There was a section for cattle, compact healthy looking animals, a section for donkeys, their braying audible half way to Beijing, but by far the largest area was given over to sheep. They were there in their thousands, standing side by side, tethered in long lines, with looks of patient resignation on their benign if not very intelligent sheepy faces. The local breed has no tail, but instead sports a large cuboid of fat on either buttock like woolly bookends.

Sheep, Kashgar Sunday Market

There was haggling and spitting, laughing and shouting, backslapping and, very probably, backstabbing. It was exclusively male, almost exclusively Uigher and not in the slightest Chinese

Kashgar Sunday Market

The authorities intended to separate off the livestock, but already there are vegetable and fruit stalls and kiosks selling the sort of gewgaws a farmer might take home for his children. Officialdom is no match for human nature, and it cannot be long before they discover they have not one market split in two, but two separate full-scale markets.
Vegetable stalls at Kashgar Sunday Livestock Market

Another taxi, another flash of John’s laminated card and we were at the original market site on a bend of the Tuman River. It is a sizeable river with a fair flow of water, all doomed to evaporate in the desert. Outside the permanent market, donkey carts were parked like cars outside Tesco’s, though in less orderly rows. Inside a huge crowd drifted along the alleys examining the produce.
Carts outside the original site of the Kashgar Sunday Market

Each trade had its own area. There was a row of spice stalls, a square of shoemakers and menders; there were areas for gold, silver, silk, jade, cheap clothes, expensive clothes, scrubbing brushes and washing powder. Whatever you needed there was a choice of vendors competing to sell it to you. There were women in this market, too. Housewives bought vegetables, veiled women haggled with stallholders, and some of the brown towels were now round their owner’s necks rather than over their heads and being used to wipe away sweat. How they ever managed to fit in a livestock market was a mystery.

Market stall, old Kashgar Sunday Market

Our hotel which was built in the grounds of the former British Consulate where the redoubtable Sir George and Lady McCartney spent 28 years providing friendship and hospitality to the explorers, adventurers and antique thieves of the early twentieth century. They also kept a close watch on the Russian Consulate as the two mighty empires played the ‘Great Game’ of spying and manoeuvring, seeking to exert their influence over Chinese Turkestan, India and the ailing Ottoman Empire. The railway to Kashgar was completed in 1999 and the tarmacked road only twenty years earlier. One hundred years ago the city must have seemed fabulously remote.

The consulate building is still there, across the courtyard, through another wing of the hotel and into the garden at the back. The single storey house is now, somewhat prosaically, a Chinese Restaurant, and that was where we went after our morning at the bazaar.

We sat on the veranda where the great men of far eastern exploration had sipped their sundowners, and ate chilli chicken and drank Xinjiang beer. A group of four English women sat in the courtyard below, having a long and loud discussion with the waitress about the need to avoid anything too spicy, heedlessly undermining all our hard work on this subject. Under a tree, a group of well fleshed Chinese businessmen were working their way through a typical Sichuan dish that required them to hunt for little pieces of chicken in a huge mound of red chillies. They were involved in one of those Chinese competitions where each has to prove his wealth and generosity by buying more and bigger dishes than the others. They were true trenchermen, but for all they ate they left as much on the table, waiting to be thrown away.

Lunch at the former British Consulate, Kashgar

Later we ventured down to Sadeek’s Bar. Through another hotel courtyard, we found a small fenced off area with tables and chairs. At the end was a wooden hut with a sign saying ‘Sadeeks Bar’. It looked like a beach bar, though few places in the world are further from a beach.

Seven or eight people were clustered round a table where Sadeek held court. The other tables were empty, so we chose one and sat down. Sadeek brought some beers and sat with us for a while. A stocky character in his thirties with a baseball cap permanently clamped to his close-cropped head, he spoke excellent English and told us of how he had studied English at university and then become a primary school teacher. Finding that frustrating he had moved to Shanghai, where his Central Asian looks must have been as exotic as our pale western faces. He had returned home to marry, open a bar and do some guiding on the side. He suggested we might like to see a village market as a contrast to the big market today. We agreed a price for the trip and he arranged to pick us up at our hotel at nine o’clock the next day – Beijing time.

Back in the hotel, we caught up with the Olympics. A typical hotel television has some fifty channels; twelve from the national broadcaster, CTV, plus a mishmash of commercial and local, sometimes very local, stations. At any one time forty or more will be showing either a game show, a soap opera or a sword and sorcery epic – essentially a soap opera with costumes and magic. CTV9 is the English language channel, offering all the news they think you should hear, worthy but dull travelogues and the occasional studio discussion in which foreign experts are permitted mild criticism of the Chinese government, although the presenters quickly point out the errors of such thinking.

The Olympics sprawled across five of the CTV channels, though not CTV9 which, being an international station, was barred from Olympic broadcasting. The variety of sports covered was impressive, shooting, weight lifting, beach volleyball, in fact any sport in which a Chinese competitor was winning a medal. It was early days but the hosts were obviously doing well. We understood nothing of the regular Olympic round-ups, but we did notice that almost every sentence started with the words Zhong Guo – China – and clearly Zhong Guo was mighty pleased with itself.

Later we returned to the street beyond the square, although again nothing seemed particularly appealing. An old man with a dirty apron stood behind a table where chunky fillets of unidentified fish lay on a metal plate. Beside him a wok of boiling oil sat on a brazier. No bacteria could survive that seething cauldron, so we perched on his rickety wooden bench and indicated we would like some fish.

Two fillets disappeared into the oil and a few moments later reappeared on grubby metal plates being pushed in our direction. We ate with our fingers, picking out the bones and dropping them onto the pavement. It was a good, firm-fleshed river fish, not unlike Nile carp, and the oil had contained a judicious mixture of spices and seasonings.

We bought a couple of buns and strolled back to the square nibbling them. They were clearly baked the day before, or at least long enough ago to have become solid and unappealing.

We sat on a low wall in the square watching a young boy push his even younger sister in a pushchair. We suspected their parents were around, but could not see them. The lad looked at us, looked at our bread rolls, walked over and held out his hand. The smaller towns of the previous week had been almost entirely free of beggars, but Kashgar, like Xi’an and Shanghai had its compliment. This boy looked far too well dressed to be a beggar but we gave him the bun anyway. He ran off, looking remarkably pleased with something so unappetising.

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

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