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Wednesday, September 06, 2006


China's Wild West

The Uighurs call it Kashgar, and the Chinese call it Kashi (they can't say the R). Regardless, it is a three thousand year old silk road city that for centuries has been marked by trade for horses, jade, and of course silk. China's claim to Kashgar is somewhat tenuous, as the majority people are Uighurs (Muslim ethnic Turks). However, decades of Chinese intervention and westward migration means that Mao (at least physically) looms largely over these people.

We arrived by plane from Urumqi and were immediately in awe of the central asian vibe. The music blaring from cars or donkey carts was no longer chinese pop but a central asian uighur variety that sounds like it belongs more in Bishkek (Kyrgistan captial) than Beijing. At every corner hot ovens serve a variety of breads, called nan (think naan), including a local version of the bagel. Incredibly tasty when fresh, they have a shelf life similar to a piece of hubba-bubba (for those of you older than 40 thats about 3.5 minutes) and biting into it after that is sure to induce winces of pain. The streets are filled with women covered in head to toe, with a headscarf that covers their eyes. Some are beggars (we haven't seen many beggars in China). In the narrow alleyways of the old city, daily life proceeds in decrepit yet beautiful old buildings as craftsman pound tin and iron into kebab barbeques, knives, musical instruments, and teapots. Supposedly these buildings are being torn down at a rate of over a thousand a year to make way for white tile and blue glass 'modern' chinese developments. Government billboards all around town praise the merits of progress and development, with smiling Uighurs and proud officers, but I doubt that the Uighurs are as likely to abandon their traditions like the Chinese did (or were forced to do).

We spent our first two days exploring the city, visiting the famed Kashgar bazaar, and enjoying local food. There aint nothin' you can't do with mutton is clearly the motto - it is served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We visited a local tea house. Kim was the only woman in the place, and it was packed. We enjoyed visiting local musician shops - but when the call to prayer strikes everyone closes shop and heads to the local mosque. Nonetheless, we felt very comfortable being American Jews in a largely Muslim area. First of all, I didn't have to worry they were going to slip us the pork (as the Han chinese like to do). The children would follow us around, asking us to take their picture, and die laughing when they saw their image. Lastly, this is still China, and the PSB (Public Safety Bureau) is as strong, if not stronger, than anywhere else.

Then we took a nine hour bus ride to Hotan (pronounced Chotan in Uighur, Hetian in chinese) - a city almost two thousand years older than Kashgar, to view their Sunday Market. Kashgar and Hotan have competing Sunday Markets. Kashgar, with a real airport, and a train stop, wins all the tourists. Hotan, with only a beaten up road linking it Kashgar is off the beaten path. It is on the Southern Silk Road, that traverses below and through the Taklamakan desert and through many sand swept cities that have seen little change. Though we had to endure close to twenty hours of bus ride in two days, the market was worth it. There were no other westerners - just thousands of locals clammering into the streets to sell anything from livestock (see video below) to jade. We hoped to get a silk carpet at a bargain but to no avail. After a day to recoup in Kashgar we headed in a different direction from Kashgar; the Karokarom Highway.

One of the highest highways in the world, this road connects Pakistan to China through a series of high passes between ice mountains and desert plains. Although we didn't have the chutzpa to go all the way and cross the border to Pakistan, we went halfway and spent the night at Karakul lake - a shimmering high desert lake ringed by ice mountains. Of course we stayed in a yurt, but this time we stayed in a Kyrgryz yurt. Kyrgryz peoples have been living in this region for centuries and judging from our night with them not much has changed. The central furnace of our yurt which supplied warmth, hot water, and cooking heat was fueled by a mixture of dried twigs, pages from chinese schoolbooks, and of course, animal droppings. I am going to try that at home with my Weber.

We stayed with an entire family and it was interesting to see how they interacted. The family member we interacted with the most was Dinara, their one year old daughter, who crawled around the yurt, butt exposed with chinese style diapers (ie slit down back of pants), was fascinated and frightened by us. Actually, mostly Kim was the one doing all the scaring. For some reason all Kim had to do was look at Dinara and she would break into tears. She didn't have her usual magic touch with babies (maybe only american babies like her) but that didn't stop her from trying. We saw how the mother would calm the baby with song in their makeshift swing crib, and how the dad would coo the baby. We were kind of in the party yurt. After a dinner of noodles and noodles (two varieties! yum) a parade of family members came in to have a smoke, a cup of yak milk tea, and a piece of surprisingly tasty cantelope.

The lake was gorgeous, and we hiked into the wilderness. Actually, it started with a run, as the lake is ringed by swarms of black flies, and we had to scramble up a small rock wall to get to a higher ground where they wouldn't fly into our mouth and ears. The terrain from then on was like another planet - just rock, sand, and the occasional animal dropping. We could see over to the grazing yaks on the hill side and could see the glaciers on the mountain sides.

After a breakfast of two day old nan (solid as a rock) and yak milk tea we headed back to Kashgar. We had our last Uighur meal at our favorite local spot. We had the 'special' polo (rice pilaf) which included apricots, raisins, leeks, and mutton and an order of the filet mignon of mutton - wal kebab. The english translation would be waist kebab, the charade would be to point to the upper flank, but it really is just straight up mutton back. You eat it right off of the back bone, and its pretty damn good, especially when spiced with a bit of salt, pepper, and cumin.

Tommorow we leave the Uighur Autonomous Region (AKA Xinjiang) and head to Gansu and Sichuan (Szechuan) provinces where we will spend some time in Tibetan areas. That means a totally different culture and people, and yak butter tea. First stop is Xiahe, the largest Tibetan monestary outside of Tibet province.

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