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In 139BC, The Chinese court in the capital of Chang’an (present day Xian) sent an emissary, Zhang Qiang, and 100 men to the west to seek allies against the barbarians from the north. Thirteen years later Zhang Qiang and two of the original diplomatic corps returned with no allies but with tales of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. The excited court sent another delegation and thus the Silk Road was born.
By 100BC, 12 immense caravans a year were travelling the Silk Road. From China, jade, porcelain, lacquerware and silk, oranges, peaches, pears, roses, cast iron, gunpowder, paper and printing flowed to Rome. In return, cucumbers, figs, chives, sesame, walnuts, grapes and the art of wine making, wool, linen, ivory and gold made their way to China. More importantly, art and religion, especially Buddhism, travelled to China and influenced the Eastern world.
I register at a Muslim hotel where there are signs in Chinese, Arabic and English: “No alcohol. No smoking.”
“Can you stop the Chinese from smoking?” I ask the receptionist.
She laughs. “Not always,” she says.
Xining is a large city where the Muslim Chinese outnumber the Han Chinese and widescale construction casts a layer of dust over the layer of sand from the Gobi desert to the north. Though haggling is a way of life in many Muslim countries, it is generally not a custom here. The people seem relaxed and content with slowly improving their lot in life.
Eight years ago I stood on the Wall in Baodaling near Beijing and now I stand on the western end looking out at the immense Gobi from where came the Mongols who broke through the Wall in 1206 to rule China for the next 162 years.
The desert is not how I imagined it would be with fine sand like Maracas beach. It is a clayey stony sand with pockets of threadbare grass and a river or two and small villages entirely of mud (houses, shops and onion-domed mosques) unrelieved by paint or colour.
Jia Yu Guan is actually an oasis but to say ‘oasis’ is to conjure up images of date palms, wells, camels and Arabs which is entirely misleading. Walking about the streets of Jia Yu Guan, one has no impression of the nearby desert. It is a large town like any large Chinese town with a few multi-storey buildings and inhabitants who are mostly honest and content.
The road to DunHuang is pure desert. On one side the desert stretches to distant hills on the horizon. On the other, small hills looking exactly like crumpled brown paper flank the road. Closer to DunHuang the sand dunes appear and suddenly there is a line of trees and then the town.
The hotel clerk pushes a ticket at m. “Buy this,” she says. “Good value! You can go to the Mogao Grottoes, the Old City, the White Horse Pagoda and many other places. Best value in DunHuang!” I thought so too but it wasn’t what it seemed. It was actually only a bus ticket that took me to the tourist sites that charged tourist prices to herd me around like cattle.
The Mogao Grottoes were carved into the sandstone hills by monks who also carved Buddhist statuary and painted frescoes on the ceilings and walls of the caves. Early this century the Brits ‘discovered’ the caves and bought and pillaged the best of the art for ‘safekeeping’ in the British Museum. It may have been fortunate for the Chinese art world in that during the Cultural Revolution many Buddhist temples and works of art were destroyed. Nevertheless, many of the lesser pieces can still be seen in the grottoes with the aid of torchlight and behind locked doors which unfortunately now make the complex look like a prison.
South of DunHuang is Golmud (Ge er mu) from where buses leave for Tibet. Locals pay 150 yuan, foreigners 1400 yuan. A group of Japanese travellers hope to get into Lhasa on bogus foreigner tickets. “Come with us,” they say. “I have heard stories about that,” I reply. “
The bogus ticket people sell the tickets to foreigners then telephone the PSB (Public Security Bureau) to expect how many foreigners and which buses they’re on. The con men make money, the PSB fine the foreigners and their job is made easier this way, and the bus companies make money when the foreigners are sent back. It’s a business. I will try from Kashgar.” They tell me of a group of three Japanese men who entered Tibet from Kashgar last year and disappeared in the west of Tibet under mysterious circumstances. “Too dangerous,” they caution me.
Urumuqi (Wulumuqi), the capital of Xinjiang is a big, modern city with a heavy Han population but strong pockets of Muslims, Uyghurs and Tadjiks. Mosques and Islamic architecture dot the cityscape and minority communities provide local colour. It is a new city, on the Silk Road but built long after the last caravan passed this way. Oddly, for it lies on the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert and not on any major air routes, it is a metropolis with trendy upscale boutiques and restaurants almost on par with Hong Kong.
I check into a small hotel in a small street in a small neighbourhood and immediately go out to explore the city. Late at night I return but cannot recognise the street which has been turned into Food Street with dozens of minroity food stalls and a flea market. I sleep in another hotel and in the morning I walk back to the neighbourhood and immediately find my hotel.
Despite the profusion of moon cakes in the shops, Mid-Autumn festival is a low-keyed affair. I celebrate with shaguo or hotpot (pricey in Urumuqi at 6 yuan or 4.50TTD) and a kilogram of green grapes for 3 yuan. Traditionally a night to enjoy the moon, on this night of all nights there is a thunderstorm which blows down the stalls in the flea market sending everyone scurrying back home.
Xinjiang Province is larger than Western Europe but because there are so few towns that distances are deceptive. On my map I estimate the bus ride to Kashgar (Kashi) to take 24 hours. Instead, it takes 34 (38 if I count the 4 hours on the bus awaiting departure) and I meet travellers of this route who counted up to 42 hours before blanking out.
The road skirts the northern perimeter of the Taklamakan and the tedium of watching sand for 34 hours is relieved by a sandstorm during which we follow the taillights of the vehicles ahead of us on and off the road for an hour or so.
The Crossroads of Asia, Kashgar belongs to the Turkic Uyghurs who until two generations ago were nomads. Along the main roads are seen Muslim cemeteries – fields of mud with anonymous graves of mud, most with a gravestone of mud like an oil drum. It is said, “It is the only time that a Uyghur stays put and even then it has to be where he can see the road.”
More than any existing city on the Silk Road (many of the original oases now lie beneath the sands), Kashgar looks like it must have been 1000 years ago. Walking along the Street of Professional Tradesmen is like walking in an Istanbul bazaar.
There are Sellers of Copperware, Sellers of Musical Instruments, Sellers of Hats, Sellers of Wooden Chests for Wedding Dowries, mosques, bakeries, dentists, barbers, women in chadur (cloth covering the entire face) and restaurants. Here, I buy Uyghur and Kazak hats, eat laghman (a stew with tough mutton) and nan (a tough round bread), eat figs (not bananas) off grape leaves,(Grapes and the art of winemaking were brought to China by caravan traders along the Silk Road. Xinjiang is one of the major grape growing regions in China today.) eating pilau (fried rice with mutton) where the chef puts his hand into the rice and pulls out a huge chunk of mutton, rips off a piece and drops it into my plate and later spend a decadent hour on a bed frame in the Chakhana (tea house) eating a type of nan similar to a tough bagel.
Abdul, 10 year old son of the Seller of Hats, introduces me to the tassa drummers and takes me round to the Id Kah mosque and the bazaar where the Sellers of Knives, the Sellers of Dutah (a 2-string sitar-like instrument), the Sellers of Religious Beads and Books and the Sellers of Melons and Yoghurt reign.
They have a variety of handshakes. There is the merest touch of hands for the newly acquainted and a firm handshake for good friends. Old friends hold hands that might linger until they part. And Abdul gravely shakes the hand of older friends and immediately puts his hand on his chest thus carrying the warmth of friendship straight to his heart. Uyghur men and women do not touch as prescribed in the Hadith, the Islamic code of conduct.
The Uyghurs speak a Turkish dialect softly, liltingly, seductively. The restaurant owners have turned the Mandarin “Lai, lai, lai, lai, lai….” (Come, come, come) into an ululation like a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Mohammed is a 20 year old who shakes his head like a horse neighing contentedly when I ask if he speaks Mandarin or English. He offers to teach me essential basic words in his dialect, Opa: tugeh (camel), qatarz (yak), ut (horse), kahr (mountain,) wuzu (grapes), sei (mutton stew also called laghman), narda (tassa drum), machina (bus).
From Rome to Xian, Kashgar’s Sunday Market is famed for its exotica. Here one can buy Persian rugs, kilims, hats of stoat fur, Uzbek hats, Tadjik dresses, brass and ivory opium long stemmed pipes, hand knotted prayer mats, salt in crystal form like quartz, embroidery for Uyghur hats, knives hidden in pens, gamecocks, racing horses, sheep expensive at 400 yuan each and camels cheap at 1000 yuan per head or 500 yuan per hump.
There is only one time zone in China, all of China carries Beijing time. But Kashgar is so far from Beijing that if the banks were to keep Beijing time they would be forced to open before the sun rose. Xinjiang therefore, unofficially adopted a time zone 2 hours behind Beijing, confusing visitors who are never sure what time their bus leaves or what time to check out of their hotels.
By now my funds are too low to attempt a Tibetan entry. Still, I idly ask my Aussie roommate about a bus to Kailash in western Tibet.
“Haven’t you heard about the Japanese boys that disappeared near Kailash last year?” By now I’m wondering if this isn’t a rumour started by the Tibetan border guards to discourage people like me.
The stretch of Silk Road between Kashgar and Rawalpindi in Pakistan is called the Karakoram Highway and is a joint venture between China and Pakistan. Though the actual border lies on the Khunjerab Pass the closest towns are Tashkurgan in China and Sust in Pakistan, 220 km distant from each other.
The bus to Pakistan leaves from the Qiniwake Hotel which was until 1949 the British consulate in Kashgar. Kashgar was so politically important that the Brits, Russians and Chinese all vied with one another for half a century to gain influence, the Chinese winning in 1949.
Now, with the Pakistanis in their djellabas loading on top the bus boxes of electronics, bags of quilts and clothes, bicycles and carpets, the hotel has taken on the appearance of a caravanserai.
The Karakoram Highway is a narrow road through rugged, mountainous wilderness where it snows in September and where camels wander along the rivers waving their long graceful necks. The road is like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces broken off and washed away in the fast flowing rivers and where detours seem more perilous than the broken road.
There is a blizzard of swirling snow that blocks the windscreen and forces the driver to put his head through the window. Though the Karakoram is new (it was completed in 1982) it follows the Silk Road and caravans travelling this route 2000 years ago must have undergone great hardship from the weather, harsh terrain and the caravan raiders that infested these lands.
Tashkurgan is a dusty, quiet frontier town abutting the Pamir Mountains. The main street is lined with shops, guest houses and restaurants. The side streets lead to large, dusty compounds surrounded by low, solid blocks of homes with stout doors and walls.
In Urumuqi’s bus station I noticed a group of young women with tow aunts. They were all slender, tall and well dressed. They laughed quietly and kissed cheeks. They were elegant. They were Tadjiks.
The young Tadjik men shake hands, the older ones kiss cheeks. The young men kiss the hands of the women but the old men offer the palm of the right hand to old women to kiss. They live a slow, courtly life where time has no meaning and months go by like an evening.
National Day, 1st October, is a special one this year – the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But in Tashkurgan, where they set their clocks 2 hours behind Beijing, they celebrate National Day 24 hours ahead of Beijing.
Early in the morning they gather in the town square and form sections for a parade: the police, the army, doctors and nurses, hotel staff in uniform, bank clerks with Tadjik hats and balloons, schoolchildren in track suits and white gloves and men in caps and ill-fitting suits looking like Polish refugees fleeing the Second World War.
The parade ends in the very large schoolyard where a party of officials make speeches and the Tadjik teenagers make eyes at one another. Three Tadjik girls on bicycles see my digital camera and ask if I’m from a Beijing newspaper come to cover their parade. I don’t have the heart to say “No” and nod, yes.
I climb the hill to a fort overlooking Tashkurgan, at the limits of China and also of my endurance and finances. In 50 years China has come a long way from the early chaotic days of the Revolution to a major power on the world stage. There is peace and stability and prosperity and though the dark early days are dimly remembered by the greyhairs, the New Generation (as one Beijing youth describes his contemporaries) says, “This is a new age. This is our time.”
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Northern Route | North-west China : The Silk Road | China : The Centre of the World
Journey to Shangri La: Yunnan | Journey to Shangri La: Dali | Journey to Shangri La: Lijiang
Journey to Shangri La: Zhongdian & Deqin | The Year of the Dragon