Spellbound in Kashgar

The local bus stopped along the route to pick up passengers. Then it stopped again to pick up more passengers. Then the bales of cotton were loaded, followed by mothers with their children, and then the baskets of leeks. The dusty, grinding, clanging bus inhaled every person who flagged it down and the aisle bulged with bodies, parts of which were squeezed upwards like toothpaste into vacant space along the ceiling. In trying to collect potatoes spilled on the floor of the jammed aisle, a young man’s hip bone became wedged against my shoulder until someone else exited a few kilometers later. Once my suitcase was successfully ejected from the window, the driver left us on the highway at the foot of a long, paved driveway leading to a small airport. As I brushed my case clean, it occurred to me that whoever named this arid, dusty part of the world, the Silk Road, was a public relations genius.

My husband and I were traveling around China for three months towards the end of 2006 and were at that moment catching a plane out of Dunhuang for Kashgar. Dunhuang, originally a well-to-do oasis town along the Hexi corridor, draws around half a million visitors each year to see the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, also known as the Mogao Caves. This is as far west as many tour groups will venture, either for lack of time or interest, or cost. To travel any further west, it’s about 31 hours by train, and more given that you need to change trains in Urumqi. And it’s an inconvenient six hours by air since the required connection in Urumqi had us wasting three hours standing in a benchless departure hall.

Nevertheless, Kashgar proved to be the surprise highlight of our trip, since it was not part of our original plan. But a month into our travels through central China’s polluted cities, the idea of exploring the far west region became increasingly more appealing with each mouthful of coal-infused air. Since we were traveling independently, we could adjust our itinerary to satisfy our craving for a good, deep breath.

The plan was to spend all Saturday in transit so we could be in Kashgar for the night. We wanted to be fresh for the Sunday bazaar. Famous since medieval days and still active today, the weekly bazaar draws up to a hundred thousand people bartering for camels, tin ware, precious metals, clothing, mouser cats, hardware, foods, silk, donkeys, everything including the kitchen sink. Indeed, there were two stalls, loaded with dozens of stainless steel basins in factory boxes.

Positioned near what’s called the collision zone of the Asia and India continents, Kashgar is within driving distance of four countries: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Goods exiting and entering China overland funnel through Kashgar along the same route they have always followed since the time of Scheherazade.

Something I have come to appreciate about this part of the world is that the route to the west existed more than a thousand years before Marco Polo. Educated in western history, Marco Polo is my only connection to Chinese history and I mistakenly believed that he had opened up east-west trade. But the true pioneers of the Silk Road were men of Asia, Chinese Turkestan; people with “big noses” that struck a link between China and Persia, and even Rome. The images of these people are captured in the early 7th century ceiling paintings of cave 420, of the Mogao Caves. These people sponsored caravans that, over several months, followed a route across the Taklimakan desert, up the Hexi corridor, and over the Himalayas, a route that would be known as the Silk Road.

But there’s a romantic notion to the Silk Road that doesn’t bear up to modern day reality. There isn’t much left in Kashgar save a crumbling garrison wall and a comparatively late 15th century mosque. Certainly, nothing remains to belie the wealth of its glory days when treasures like silk, precious stones, and rhubarb rolled through town escorted by guards. Yes, rhubarb! As a laxative, it was highly valued in the west by rich men with more money than dietary fiber.

The charm of Kashgar is in the feel of the place, the Muslim quarter, and in the faces of the people. It is a place that has impressed me as truly exotic. For instance, suddenly one evening at dusk, a handful of musicians began playing over the crowd from their perch on the roof of the mosque. To my ear, the music conjured up flying carpets, plodding camels, blazing red suns casting deep shadows in the sand.
Bemused, my husband would have missed the best photographic opportunity across our entire three months in China had he not been jolted out of his daze. I elbowed him in the ribs with not a minute to spare. I too had been mesmerized, wandering about in my thoughts. To be sure, it was an unusual venue for musicians – three men on a roof, silhouetted against the setting sun, one playing the sunay, an antique reed instrument, the others casting spells from two sets of small drums. It’s more common to hear a call to prayer sung or chanted. But who am I to question magic?

Unlike other cities in China, Kashgar has a strong ethnic presence that seems to thrive in a time-warp. The Uyghur people carry about their business probably in a way not much different than they did a thousand years ago, against the same backdrop of rickety stalls assembled on broken, dusty cobblestones. Signage, always puzzling to my husband and I who don’t read Chinese characters, is even more mysterious since it is bilingual, Mandarin and Uyghur. The latter I thought was Arabic until I found out that the Uyghur language just borrows the written script of the Koran, Islam being one of the great cultural imports to China.

Dan and I spent the first day mastering “hello, thank-you, and good-bye” in Uyghur and it paid off in wide smiles. Even the most stone-faced, humorless old man broke into a toothless grin following Dan’s robust yak-shee-ma-sheesh (hello). But Dan can draw that out of people, unlike me. When he’s not cursing under his breath (a temporary culture shock response he developed in China to excessive spitting on the street), he’s a genuinely kind and friendly person.

The next day we discovered that our hotel will be populated for a month by an international movie production crew. They are filming “The Kite Runner”, a story set in Afghanistan but the crew is using this corner of China as a logical alternative to war-torn Kabul. By the afternoon, the back parking lot became a beer garden, and we were cheek to jowl with cargo pants, safari vests, dangling ear phones, ATVs, wailing cell phones, and dozens of young men and women who might otherwise be dead asleep under the strain of their work were there not endless burgers to eat, bottles to empty, and speakers to explode with crashing techno-rock music. I can appreciate there’s much to celebrate each week you overcome the challenges of working in China; we feel the same way just traveling about without an interpreter.

Back in the bazaar it occurred to me that we foreigners might strike the locals as odd. If they held the camera, perhaps they would turn it on us.

For example, we came across a boiled egg vendor, not uncommon in China. He was tending what’s known as “century eggs’, brown eggs hard boiled in tea, cracked at the point of hardness so the solidifying whites turn the color of tea. But there was a difference here in Kashgar. The boiling liquid is filled with prunes, cloves, nuts, and I got a whiff of fermenting fruit. The concoction smelled to me like the Christmas I’d miss this year in Canada and I called Dan over. Before long, each of us has our head pressed deep into his steaming cart. No we didn’t want to buy anything. We’re careful about what we eat on the street. We just wanted to plant our faces in his poaching machine and make cooing noises. Then walk away.

Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the marketplace to take a day trip to Lake Karakul, a glacier fed, turquoise lake set against the snow capped peaks of the Karakoram mountain range. We hired a taxi to drive us the four hundred kilometers there and back for the equivalent of $45 US. Because it’s located in a sensitive area near the Pakistan border, we were told to have our passports with us so that we could cross a checkpoint along the highway just short of our destination, though still within China’s border.

We were lucky to get there, a week before the road is closed off for the winter when the border crossing shuts down. Even in late October, the mountain water splashing over the road was freezing on contact with the cement on this highest paved international road in the world. The road itself, maintained well enough to support the transport trucks en route to Pakistan, was washed out by landslides in six places and our car had to crawl around the rubble on gravel packed down by heavy trucks. Every corner of the journey turned up another view of the towering mountains on the horizon, and to my photographer husband’s delight, they showed really well against a clear blue sky, our first after six weeks in China.

On the night of our departure for the east, Dan threw me a crumb. He had never been as enthusiastic about traveling in China as I had been. But tonight, he said he was glad I had forced us both to go the distance to the very edge of the country. It had a restorative effect. We were able to breathe deep and get ourselves mentally prepared to return to the east for another six weeks of traveling. Unpacking my face mask and ear plugs so as to keep them handy in my purse I took a deep breath and felt ready to move on.

Beyond the tour bus
Regardless of what country you choose, independent travel isn’t for everyone. The basic requirement is time. If you only have a few weeks, you cannot afford to spend your day hotel shopping to get a better deal or location, or your nights doing some forward-planning.

But as early retirees with more time than money, independent travel suits us. Besides the fact that our expenses would average $70 US a day per person in China, compared to a custom tour/guide/hotel package at four or five times that price, we’ve become accustomed to the flexibility. We squirm under the confinement of pre-booked, pre-paid hotels and guides. Being able to leave one place earlier than planned, in favour of following up on a recommendation to check out some great monastery town five hours north, is worth the logistics work I take upon myself in self-directed, independent travel.

Besides, retirement isn’t about sitting idle. For us, it’s about opening up different envelopes in our lives, and pushing them hard. I smile knowingly when I tell people, “It’s work!” Though willing to follow my lead on this trip to China, I have to promise Dan that, next time, I’ll do this kind of work up and down the gentle coast of Thailand’s Andaman Sea.

Our budget allowed us to stay at three-star Chinese business hotels, sprinkled with the odd four-star hotel popular with international tourists. It included our Toronto-Hong Kong return flight, all domestic ground and air travel, souvenirs, personal needs shopping, meals, and any tour guide or translator we hired along the way.

English, please
Back in Lanzhou, a railway hub separating central and western China, Dan and I ran into two Canadians at a restaurant sitting with a Chinese woman who turned out to be their guide. Since we were having trouble ordering in restaurants with our studied but poorly pronounced Mandarin, our first thought was food. Dan would divert the attention of our compatriots long enough for me to stuff a menu in the guide’s hand and tell her urgently, “We want chicken!”

Basic instincts aside, I thought it wise to get the guide’s number and an agreement to meet with us later to discuss how she could help us. Falling on someone who spoke English was a find in itself, but even better, “Rainbow Sally”, as she calls herself on her e-mail address, was informed and well connected for our purposes.

She reserved us a room in the Xin Long Hotel in Kashgar. A modest Chinese hotel costing 238 RMB per night, it was located ten minutes by foot from where the Sunday bazaar is held. Like in most of our three star accommodations in China, assistance in English is limited. It helps to have a few sentences written out for you in characters to get you through the check-in process, which Rainbow Sally was happy to provide.

If you’re in Dunhuang, it’s worthwhile to take a side trip to Kashgar even if you have only five days, two of which will be travel days. A one way flight from Dunhuang to Kashgar, purchased three days ahead of time, cost us each 1560 RMB, which is well under $250 US.

Photo credit: Dan Cooper