To the desert, part II: In Kashgar

In Kashgar, they were tearing up the sidewalks but we stayed at a hostel with an open courtyard and traditional Uyghur carvings. A dirty white puppy and kitten who ran on the rugs that covered the patio-like area where we’d sit, legs folded under the short tables. The man who slept under my bunk snored and slept in his black briefs; you could feel every motion. The pillows were buckwheat which I couldn’t stand but P. said he got the best sleep he’s had here in China. On the first day, weak with hunger and travel diarrhea (one has to be honest while traveling), we somehow thought we could walk to the livestock market. Instead, what we found were dirty 1¥ public bathrooms, a ferris wheel with streaked windows that gave us an amazing view of the city, a small open food market with chinese 快餐 (buffet style) as well as rice pilaf and lamb, a stream that separated an older part of town (with sheep!) from a bazaar that sold clothes and cake in a cup and watermelons and brooms and donkey rides. A few kids clung onto the back of an electric back; one shouted “Hello!” as they drove past and waved at us a live duckling clutched in his fist, its webbed feet sticking out underneath. 

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There was Mattock Street and demolition/construction everywhere so that kids wandered around dirt piles where adobe houses used to be. On Mattock Street, there were shops of meat hooks and iron files, sharp pointed ice picks and small pocket knives. On the street where our hostel was, located within the “old town”, were dentists with paintings above their doorways showing the teeth through a side profile of faces and a man who carved wooden instruments, beautiful stringed instruments whose name I cannot remember with carved birds on top. And he played for us, a long tune and then another before we had to leave. Copper shops as well with metal-working happening on the sidewalks. There were sheep carcasses and every day, you’d see the meat pie shops across the square from each other making their fresh meat pies of lamb and fat and a little onion, only 2rmb a piece. 

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We found babies and samsas (those lamb meat pies) wrapped in rugs, as well as the seats of motorbikes. Also, metal detectors everywhere but no one to actually watch those who set them off (they did not go off, broken maybe? No one cared.) The women here wore headscarves of various colors, tied in various ways. It is hard to tell if there is a correct way or even if they are all Uyghur; there are women who cover their entire faces in a brown veil and women who cover everything but for their makeup-darkened eyes. One night, P. got a free dessert of a sweet soaked apricot placed in sugary liquid because he’s from America. One day, we went to Afaq Khoja Mausoleum with its pointed-top coffins within and without. Within the mausoleum, they were covered with cloths. A lot of black and gold. On the outside, the mausoleum was being renovated, green tiles in neat rows at the base and scaffolding everywhere.


One of those days, a trip to Karakul Lake with our Uyghur driver, Islamjah and a Chinese tourist our hostel had found for us who asked us to call him 头灯 (headlamp) because of his bald head. I borrowed a puffy orange jacket from the hostel; they were amazed that I hadn’t come with any heavier clothing than a button-down shirt and jeans but I’d thought I was going to the desert! Little did I know how cold it got at night and how often it rains (oxymoron?) and of course, tempestuous weather near the mountains. On the way there, we talked about Uyghur marriage customs (300-500k in money to the bride, multiple wives allowed if you can support them) and the likelihood of Chinese-Uyghur marriages (mostly rich Han girls to Uyghur men because Uyghur men 很帅![very handsome]) Also, the wild marijuana of Xinjiang. Along the path, an accident where a truck carrying rocks had crashed into the side (driving too fast for the weight, brakes not strong enough.) We waited for it to clear for a few hours; we’d leave the car for a few short cold-blasted moments—it was snowing and so much colder than the city. Around us, mist-shrouded, snow-covered mountains. This was after the checkpoint where guards had checked our passports and let us through. The lake, when we arrived, was smaller than expected, sheep and yaks grazing alongside and across the road, tombs overshadowed by mountains. Kyrgyz men on motorcycles with scarves around their mouths came and tried to sell us “garnet” necklaces and bracelets from Afghanistan. I felt a headache coming on from the cold and altitude and tied my scarf around my head which got the attention of our driver who offered me 800k and free rides everywhere for marriage and American citizenship, ha. The bride-price does seem a bit high, do they actually pay that much? A bright blue sky with clouds. We didn’t have much time at the lake due to the accident but on the way back, there were red-streaked mountains and laghman and Uyghur songs in the car. Also, less conversation as we picked up a Uyghur hitchhiker who didn’t speak any Mandarin at all. 250rmb each for the day.

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Back in Kashgar, a pair of children smelled my hands then made faces and laughed. We did not hold a common language. By the mosque, a fried chicken fast food joint that was circular in shape and where we pretended to film a George Clooney film. From the windows, you could see the lone camel and ram in the square, bored and ready for photo-taking. We got lost in dusty alleyways and one dusk, children came and found us to take photos of them: all together, one by one, with a friend or two or three. One photo with three boys and a younger baby whose toy they threw to the ground so that he’d take the photo with them but you could see his longing, the way he turned his head and looked in its direction. Two girls chased after us as we walked away and when they realized it was too dark for photo-taking, turned to me and asked for first food then money. Another thing about the children here, particularly the girls: how they wear these bright dresses to school, like space princesses and their utter confidence. Gold headdresses and tiaras and uyghur caps.

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One day, two women woodworkers waved at us from a window in a newly constructed home then unbarred the door and let us in to explore. 3 levels and then the roof, one of the highest of the buildings around the area. And inside, a foyer that reached to the skylights of the roof, carved pillars surrounding every room. At night, too, stumbling into another building in the process of construction. They plugged in a rice cooker and the wire caught fire for a few minutes before they shut off all the electricity, bare-chested, laughing. The fumes were strong even with huge fans so while P. took photos, I went outside and watched the sunset, the man on his motorbike in the alleyway, his face lit by the light from his smartphone.

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What we did not see: Shipton’s arch, one of the tallest arches in the world. But there was a 25 hour sleeper train waiting to take us to Turpan.


3 thoughts on “To the desert, part II: In Kashgar

  1. That house! It’s like a geode, or a pomegranate or something, you know what I mean?

    I went to Kashgar 6 years ago, and back then all those winding lanes of small (clay?) houses – some of the lanes were even covered, so truly wormhole-like – were still standing, and many, many of them were marked “chai.” Looks like they got on with it. And it also looks like the post-intervention neighborhoods are going to be much more centralized into a few sumptuous buildings.

  2. Wow, I can’t imagine what it used to be like! Part of it still feels very much like it hasn’t been changed but I think even the newer buildings have their own character (some beautiful woodwork going on, for example) that doesn’t feel at all chinese to me.

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