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Memories of Old Kashgar

August 13, 2009

It’s with a heavy heart that I read a report by Time’s correspondents that Chinese authorities have nearly completed bulldozing the ancient quarter of Kashgar, an oasis on the Silk Road in the far western province of Xinjiang.  Old Kashgar and its famed Sunday market (which I’ve heard has also been shut down) was one of those places where you felt like you had stepped back into history, or perhaps a tale from 1,001 Arabian Nights.  Perhaps its destruction was inevitable, not only because of the massive inflow of Han settlers, but also the ever-expanding reach of modern life and its undeniable conveniences.  But I’ll take this opportunity to finally write down my memories of my first trip to Kashgar in 1992, before it changed forever.

At that time, the Chinese railroad had not yet reached Kashgar (it only arrived in 1999, bringing with it the Han immigrants).  Wealthy tour groups could take the weekly flight, but for most people the only way to get there was a 3-day bus ride from Urumqi, along the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, stopping to sleep at dusty oasis towns each night.  There was a 10am and an 11am bus, which are both quite early because Xinjiang operates on Beijing time, even though it is almost three hours time difference to the west.  I distinctly remember this because I overslept and missed the 10am bus, and when the 11am bus was about 1/2 hour out of Urumqi, we passed the 10am bus completed gutted in flames at the side of the road.  No one offered an explanation.

The lucky bus that I was on became the scene of a 3-day running argument between the Han bus driver and a Uighur family over whether they had bought the right ticket or not.  For hours, he would scream at them “Get off the bus!” and they would yell back “No we won’t!”  The fracas would die down for a while and then inexplicably start back up again.  The driver never actually tried to remove them from the bus, and they never paid the additional fare.

The other thing I remember about that trip was a short, red-haired Uighur man who spoke English and looked exactly like my red-haired Irish gym teacher in high school, who in turn–my classmates can attest–looked exactly like a leprechaun.  This leprechaun was also wearing a track suit, so I assumed he was a foreigner and asked where he was from.  “I’m a Uighur!” he exclaimed, but I apparently wasn’t the first to wonder, because all the fellow Uighurs we encountered along the way also doubted him until he spoke to them in fluent Uighur.  Sometimes in western China you will encounter people with green or blue eyes or unusually Caucasian features, genetic carryovers from the ancient Tocharians who lived along the Silk Road, though the Uighur leprechaun was an extreme case.  Some people have speculated, though, that the Alans, who rode into France and Spain alongside the Vandals (and gave their name to Catalonia), were originally Tocharians.  The Alans were known for their red hair.

Kashgar itself was a maze of twisting alleys and mud-brick buildings.   The main public transport was by donkey cart “taxi”–you just jumped on the back with your gear.  As my vehicle was clip-clopping its way across town to my hotel, I noticed a dentist’s office–or rather, a squat mud hut with a jar of false teeth sitting in its dark window.  My impression was that the services provided relied more on good old-fashioned pliers than newfangled techniques like sterilization and Novocain.

I stayed at the Chini Bagh Hotel, on the grounds of the old 19th Century British consulate that played a key role in the “Great Game” for imperial control of Central Asia.  It was packed with small-time Pakistani traders.  Most Western travelers stayed at the leafier and more relaxed grounds of the old Russian consulate, who had been the main rivals to the British.  It served the only pizza west of Xi’an, and a decent apple pie.  Vendors in the street outside–most of them toothless, wearing embroidered skullcaps–sold piles of bagels, a Kashgar specialty, and offered to shave your head bald with big bowie knives.

The Kashgar Sunday Market was one of those spectacles that defy words.  It covered several acres, with whole sections devoted to buying and selling camels, horses, and goats.  The customers were expert hagglers and usually test-drove their prospective mounts before buying, which sent the crowd scurrying in every direction.  Booths devoted to beautiful flowing silks stood next to peddlers whose unrolled sheets on the ground displayed every kind of used mechanical or electronics part you could imagine.

But as charming as Kashgar might seem, it was glaringly obvious that the Han Chinese authorities barely had the lid on the place.  Earlier that year there had been a big riot near the main mosque, with several people killed, and the Chinese had put the city under martial law.  I really wasn’t sure I’d be permitted to go there until I showed up.

The old people smiled toothless grins, but groups of unsmiling youths gathered on street corners looking sullen.  They wore knives on their belts, and their newsboy caps, suit vests over shirtsleeves, and olive skins made them look like Sicilian toughs from “The Godfather.”  They shot billiards on outdoor pool tables and got in angry brawls and smashed bottles when they lost.  Their simmering resentment was directed not just at the Han Chinese, but at all foreign faces.

My own encounter took place over lunch, just after the Sunday Market, in an open-air taverna on a side street near the main mosque–the heart of the old city.  A British companion and I had eaten several skewers of lamb shish-kebab, which normally cost a few mao (1/10th of a yuan) each.  When the bill came, it was ten times the expected cost.  Outraged, we refused to pay the inflated amount.  I figured we would haggle a bit and, having demonstrated we were not fools, be offered a fairer price.  Instead, the waiters surrounded and started shoving us.  I held up my hands as if to say “wait, wait, cool down” and calmly repeated our objection.  They closed in again, this time the kitchen door opening to reveal the cook, built like a wrestler and holding several skewers in his hands.  This gang was not in a negotiating mood.

I held up my hands in surrender and, between my broken Mandarin and theirs, explained that we did not have enough money on us (untrue) and that my companion, the Brit, would run to get more, with me staying behind as a hostage.  I told him, “Go get the police.”  By the time he took off, we had somehow spilled out onto the alley, where an old Uighur woman was beseeching me to just let it go and pay the man.  (Why didn’t I?  Simple explanation:  when traveling for many months at a time, in a world before ATMs, you had to watch every dime.  Getting cheated once might seem easily affordable, but if you let it happen every day–and it would happen–you’d soon run out of money.)  She had a point, though.  There was nowhere to run, and no way I could win a fight.

The Brit came back (kudos to him, he could have just fled), but without the police.  He later told me that he found two Han policemen, but they waved him off and refused to get involved.  We learned that one of their comrades had been stabbed to death on that street the day before, and they weren’t going to stick their necks out for some crazy foreigners.  So, bitterly, we forked over the entire exorbitant sum–maybe a few dollars, total. 

As I handed over the cash, my frustration got the better of me and I spit on the ground in front of them to show my disgust at being cheated.  The moment I did this, I realized it was pretty stupid and maybe the last thing I’d do.  But they just nodded, took the money, and went back inside.  I later found out that spitting is actually the traditional Uighur manner of sealing a deal.  A couple days afterwards, I bought a snakeskin tambourine (another Uighur tradition) and before I could say “what the?” the salesman took a big swig of water and blew it all over the instrument, before stuffing it into a plastic bag.  Holding my soggy purchase, I realized that I hadn’t insulted those shish-kebab hooligans, I had congratulated them–which goes a long way towards explaining why they didn’t beat me to a sorry pulp (or impale me on their skewers).

After this incident, I went back to the Chini Bagh and strapped a big khukri (a curved Nepali knife used by the Gurkhas, which I had bought as a souvenir) to my belt.  I mean, everybody else had a knife.  At the same time, I wondered if I might be over-reacting and inviting more trouble.  In fact, it was just the right thing to do.  Instead of sullen, contemptuous stares, I received nods of newfound approval for this large and exotic weapon at my hip.  Tough-looking Uighur men would approach and respectfully tell me, “That’s a really nice knife.” 

In China’s wild west, a knife signified you were a man, not a victim.  It could make friends and win over enemies.  I began to realize what cowboys in the American West must have felt, swaggering through town with a six-shooter at their hip.  Of course, a lot of them ended up getting shot.  As for myself, I put my knife away when I crossed the border into Pakistan, where everyone was toting guns (thus honoring the eternally wise dictum, never bring a knife to a gun fight).

Now that world doesn’t exist anymore.  It’s being torn down as I write.  There are plans to turn the streets around Kashgar’s mosque into an Epcot-like tourist attraction, “with a staff of actors enacting traditional Uighur culture.”  And our world will be a bit less colorful, and just a little sadder, than before.

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