Kashgar, On China’s Silk Road

Kashgar, On China’s Silk Road

AT THE END of the world, where the oasis of Kashgar rises like a mirage from the surrounding desert, I expected that the only things on sale might be sand and water. But, even in the age of the information highway, Kashgar, on the ancient Silk Road, clings proudly to its heritage as a trading center.

So, as I pushed my way through the crowd of about 100,000 at a recent Sunday bazaar in Kashgar, I was surrounded by a cornucopia of merchandise ranging from slices of watermelon (3 cents) to silk bedspreads ($20) to ruby-laden daggers ($100) to fine camels ($525). The market area covers more than a square mile, and, in the center of it, I unexpectedly found myself caught in a traffic jam. No motor vehicles were in sight, but the gridlock still lasted for half an hour, as fat-tailed sheep baaed imperiously and horse-cart drivers shouted, “Hosh,” the local equivalent of beeping a horn.

Standing in the vast crowd, waiting for the human river to resume its motion, I surveyed the people around me: bent old men with white skullcaps and craggy faces, peering suspiciously at my camera; teen-age boys on donkey carts, waving their whips impatiently at the stalled traffic; portly middle-aged women in long skirts, each arm tucked around a protesting chicken, and young women draped entirely in veils and cloth from which muffled shouts emerge when they wish to communicate.

For two millenniums or more, Kashgar was the greatest market city on one of the major trade routes of ancient times. Caravans of a thousand camels each traveled along it, transporting silk, spices, gold and gemstones between Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and the central Chinese city of Xian, then the capital. In the mid-19th century, Kashgar again became prominent when Britain and Russia struggled for influence over Central Asia in the intrigues and espionage known as the “Great Game.” The British set up a consulate in a Kashgar villa known as Chini Bagh, now a somewhat seedy hotel, while the Russians set up their consulate down the road, in what is now the quite comfortable Siman Hotel.

Today, Kashgar — now officially called Kashi — has less the texture of Chinese cities like Shanghai than of old Central Asian cities like Samarkand, Uzbekistan, or even of Arab cities like Fez, Morocco. Almost 90 percent of Kashgar’s population of 200,000 is non-Chinese, the overwhelming majority Turkic and Muslim. Its closest borders are with the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and it also has close links with nearby Pakistan. But for all its Arabian Nights atmosphere, Kashgar also contains such 20th-century Chinese Communist emblems as gray socialist concrete buildings and a 55-foot-high statue of Chairman Mao.

Surrounded by the Tian Shan Mountains, the Pamir range and the vast Taklamakan Desert, Kashgar has never been easy to get to. From Beijing, you must fly to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the “autonomous region” in which Kashgar is located. Urumqi is a rather dull Chinese-dominated city where you may have to spend the night before catching the hour-and-40-minute flight to Kashgar. The planes, complete with pilots, are leased from Kazakhstan, and the crew of my plane seemed as lost and bewildered at the airport as any tourist.

Upon landing in Kashgar, I was confronted by a mob of entrepreneurial taxi drivers eager, as a Chinese saying goes, to “zai lao wai,” or flay the foreigner. The expression is meant figuratively, but the negotiations over taxi fares are conducted so aggressively that a visitor might misunderstand.

My first task was to rush to buy a ticket out of Kashgar. It’s impossible for independent tourists to book a round trip, so there’s always the lurking fear that one will arrive and find that all flights out are booked for the next six weeks. In practice, however, seats seem to be available within a day or two.

Expressions like “Silk Road” suggest luxury and comfort, so it’s important to remember that the route could just as well have been called the Pothole Road. Kashgar today has few luxuries to offer visitors, for taxis are mostly donkey carts, restaurants are longer on grime than service, and none of the hotels comes close to meeting international standards. Hot water occasionally emerges from the taps, but so do cockroaches, and the interesting pattern on the wallpaper turns out, on closer examination, to be the result of accumulated stains.

Yet what a magical place it is! The city is an oasis, and water gushes through canals that run along the main streets and nourish the trees that provide a pleasant canopy. Even in the broiling summer heat, the lakes and canals keep Kashgar relatively green and cool. Delightful alleys wind between mud-walled houses, little boys fish in tree-lined lakes, and traffic on main boulevards is slowed by herdsmen driving flocks of fat-tailed sheep. On the street just outside my hotel, the Kashgar Guest House, children skinny-dipped and splashed in the canals as the donkey carts rolled by.

China opened Kashgar to foreigners in 1983, but in 1990 briefly closed the city again after an abortive armed rebellion in a town 70 miles away. Tensions rose again last June, when a bombing at a hotel in the center of the city killed three local people. The animosity is directed at Chinese, not at foreigners (the hotel — the Oasis — had no foreign guests) and police now maintain tight security throughout Kashgar. But crime appears to be virtually nonexistent, and I felt quite safe as I roamed the bazaars alone during my three-day visit in the broiling summer.

The Uighurs I met were extremely friendly, perhaps because I was an obvious foreigner. Maksoud, a squat blacksmith in his 30’s, took a break from his work for four hours and showed me around the Sunday market. Maksoud spoke easily only in Uighur, a dialect of Turkish, but he knew a bit of Chinese and we managed to communicate in that language. (Only a few merchants and people in the tourist trade speak any English at all.) The only problem was that Maksoud was too polite: he kept buying me a sweet ice concoction that I felt obliged to sip, although I was apprehensive about anything made with the local water. Appropriately apprehensive, I soon discovered.

Maksoud led me down a narrow street and turned to the right along an even narrower mud-walled alley, through a door and announced: “This is my home.” In his living room, he seated me in a place of honor on the carpet-covered kang, the brick platform that in winter is heated by a fire underneath.

“Have some food, have some drink,” he urged. His wife brought refreshments and gave them to him to serve to me. He poured weak tea into a stained bowl, filling it halfway, and then added sugar — nine lumps — until the tea was ready to spill over the sides. He also laid out a local version of the bagel, which I munched on to drive away the sweetness of the tea. Maksoud kept plying me with bagels and tea, and it was more than an hour before I shook hands and strolled back out to the bazaar.

The next day, I hired a taxi for a couple of hours (for $7 round trip) to take me to Kashgar’s most impressive historical treasure, the Abak Hoja Tomb. Set on the outskirts of town, the tomb, which was built around 1640, is one of the holiest places in the entire Xinjiang region. Topped by an 80-foot dome covered with green tiles, the mausoleum is flanked by four slender minarets and surrounded by gardens and an old cemetery. Local Muslims come to pray for favors; one tradition holds that a woman who wants a baby should put a red ribbon in a fragment of the wall.

The tomb contains the remains of Abak Hoja, a 17th-century ruler of Kashgar, and several dozen of his relatives. The best known of them is his granddaughter, an 18th-century Uighur princess called, in Chinese, Xiang Fei, or Fragrant Concubine, who, in one version of her legend, led a rebellion against the Chinese Emperor Qianlong. Defeated, she supposedly was taken to Beijing to be the Emperor’s concubine but committed suicide less than two years later. According to the surly young woman who acts as caretaker inside the tomb, the wooden cart just inside the door was used to carry Fragrant Concubine’s body from Beijing back to Kashgar.

The other prime sight, the Aidkah Mosque, dominates the central square. Originally built in 1442 but renovated many times since then, the mosque is as much a public garden as a place to pray. A yellow-tiled building with square lines that give way to a dome, the mosque contains an area the size of a large city block — filled with trees, ponds and walking paths.

On Friday, the holy day for Islam, up to 20,000 people can squeeze into the mosque and its precincts to face Mecca and join in the prayers. Both men and women come to the mosque, although women tend to remain on the fringes. At less crowded times, young people stroll about or simply read books in the shade of the trees.

In the back of the mosque is the formal praying area, an open hall laden with layers of rugs. A cleric is usually there to turn on the lights and answer questions, but the man on duty the day I was there could speak neither English nor Chinese. He nonetheless tried to be helpful by taking me around.

The area surrounding the mosque is a congested warren of shops, restaurants and whitewashed mud houses. Many of the stores sell souvenirs, ranging from jeweled daggers to miniature Korans. Their customers are visiting Chinese or other Asians, as well as backpackers who have come overland along the rugged Karakoram Highway that runs between Islamabad, Pakistan, and Kashgar.

About 300 yards east and a bit north of the mosque, the carpet shops begin. Modern Xinjiang carpets are mostly hideous, woven in glow-in-the-dark oranges and greens. The Uighur merchants have realized, however, that foreigners are willing to pay top dollar for old carpets if they’re called antiques, so if you express interest, you’ll be led into back rooms where merchants will show you stacks of far prettier carpets.

They are all wool, mostly made in the old carpet-making center of Khotan, not far away. Similar to the carpets known in the West as Afghan or Pakistani rugs, although perhaps not as well made, most are 50 to 100 years old, and some are worn through in places; almost all are terribly dirty.

Bargaining is expected, and you never know what the lowest price is until you’ve walked away. Felt carpets are the cheapest, around $15 for 4 feet by 6 feet, while wool carpets range from $100 up. I bought one carpet, a red abstract design about 6 feet by 9 feet, in excellent condition, for $200. (After returning to Beijing, however, I washed it in cold water, and the dye ran slightly.)

The weekly bazaar remains by far the most interesting sight in Kashgar, and any traveler should plan to be in the city on Sunday to see it. The open-air market is set up around vacant parcels of ground, with merchants standing beside their goods. By custom, the merchants organize themselves so that the “boutiques” are clustered together: the straw salesmen stand in one area beside mounds of straw, the haberdashers stand together in another clump, the hat merchants in yet another, and so on — with many of the merchants calling out their offerings and prices to attract customers.

The livestock market is one of the most important parts of the bazaar, and peasants from surrounding areas often come to sell sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels. The Uighurs are excellent horsemen, and I saw an old herdsman — probably well into his 70’s — leap onto a filly and race bareback around the field. Apparently satisfied, he purchased it for the equivalent of a few hundred dollars, several months’ earning for most local people.

It was the kind of scene, I thought, that Marco Polo might have noted in 1275, when he is said to have visited Kashgar. Used-car lots may have sprouted in most places around the globe, but Kashgar remains an oasis of tradition. KASHGAR AND BEYOND

A number of agencies offer tours that include a stop in Kashgar (always for the Sunday market). In the following sampler, rates include transportation, all accommodations, most or all meals, airport transfers and the services of English-speaking guides. Most combine western China with the Karakoram Highway and Pakistan; all offer several annual departures. All the agencies listed below will also design custom tours.

ASIAN PACIFIC ADVENTURES, 826 South Sierra Bonita Avenue, Los Angeles, Calif. 90036 (telephone: 213-935-3156), has two Silk Road tours. The 24-day Silk Road Overland trip originates in Bangkok and ends in Hong Kong, with stops that include Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Swat, the Karakoram Highway, Kashgar, Turpan, Dunhuang, Lanzhou and Xian: $3,983 a person, land only (air fare from the West Coast is approximately $1,650). The 11-day China/Pakistan option originates in Kashgar, traversing the Karakoram Highway and visiting Swat, Peshawar and Taxila before ending in Islamabad. Departures every Saturday from June through October; $2,700 a person, land only.

CHINASMITH, 330 West 42d Street, New York, N.Y. 10036 (212-239-2410 or 800-872-4462), offers a 20-day West China tour that starts in Beijing and ends in Hong Kong, visiting Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Kashgar, Urumqi and Guilin: $4,650 to $4,700 a person, depending on departure date, including air fare from the West Coast. A variant 24-day tour follows the same itinerary as far as Kashgar, then splits off to follow the Karakoram Highway, visiting Swat and Islamabad before ending in Bangkok. Prices range from $4,700 to $4,875 a person, depending on departure date, including air fare from the West Coast (East Coast departures are an additional $300).

HIMALAYAN INTERNATIONAL TOURS, 121 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. (212-686-5216), has a 25-day Silk Route Adventure trip that begins and ends in Bangkok, with stops that include Lanzhou, Xining, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi, Kashgar, the Karakoram Highway and Islamabad: $3,890 a person, land only.

JOURNEY TO THE EAST, Post Office Box 1334, Flushing, N.Y. 11352 (718-358-4034), offers two Silk Road itineraries. The 20-day Essential Silk Road starts in Beijing and ends in Hong Kong, with stops that include Urumqi, Kashgar, Turpan, Dunhuang, Lanzhou and Xian: $4,085 to $4,185 a person, depending on departure date, including air fare from the West Coast (East Coast departures are an additional $250). The 23-day Complete Silk Road starts in Islamabad and ends in Beijing, visiting Peshawar, Swat, the Karakoram Highway, Kashgar, Urumqi, Turpan, Dunhuang, Lanzhou and Xian: $4,130 a person, land only (air fare from the East Coast is approximately $1,520). KASHGAR ON YOUR OWN

Nicholas D. Kristof’s advice for independent travelers:

Most tourists go to Kashgar as part of package tours. If you go on your own, you must first fly to Urumqi, where you may have to spend a night. If so, the best place to stay is the HOLIDAY INN, 168 North Xinhua Road (telephone: 991-218-788; fax: 991-217-422). A standard double room is about $90, and may be booked in the United States by calling 800-465-4329.

In Kashgar itself, the KASHGAR GUEST HOUSE, 7 Tao Guzi Road (998-22367), lacks air-conditioning, but rooms are reasonably comfortable and there is hot water in somewhat run-down private bathrooms. The Guest House is, however, out of town and convenient only to the Sunday market. The SIMAN HOTEL, on Siman Square (998-22129), is more centrally located and has similar amenities. Prices at both places are the same: $21 a night for a room, whether a double or single. Also similar and quite central is the KASHGAR QINIWAKE HOTEL, 93 Siman Road (998-22291; fax: 998-23087).

All of the hotels have restaurants, sometimes two: one called a “Muslim Restaurant,” serving local specialties, and another serving pork and Chinese dishes. The Kashgar Guest House has a set meal at the Muslim Restaurant ($4.50 a person), but it must be ordered several hours in advance.

JOHN’S INFORMATION SERVICE AND CAFE, on Siman Square opposite the Siman Hotel, is an outdoor cafe with English menus and English-speaking staff. The food, which is mostly Chinese, is pretty good, and a meal costs less than $3 a person, including beverage. The local restaurants offer meals for less than $1 each, but don’t expect much. Dumplings and meat buns, for example, contain mostly gobs of lamb fat. Rice pilaf is a bit safer, and so are skewered meats and noodle dishes.

Avoid local water and ice, and stick to tea, soft drinks, or beer. Xinjiang, the local beer, is potable.

Most hotels rent bicycles for 35 cents an hour. Donkey carts are also ubiquitous, but they are as uncomfortable as they are cheap. You’ll need to negotiate the fare; $2 should take you anywhere. Taxis must be booked through your hotel; I paid about $7 to hire a taxi for a couple of hours to visit the Abak Hoja Tomb.

The best times to visit Kashgar are spring and fall, although I found summer to be hot but bearable. Winters are cold.

Photos: The Aidkah Mosque; a girl practices gymnastics on a back street; young and old arriving at the Sunday bazaar.; Egg merchants at the weekly bazaar; an outdoor pool hall; veiled women selling refreshments outside the Aidkah Mosque. (Bruno Barbey/Magnum; David Robbins (Abbas/Magnum) (pgs. 28 & 29); In the daily bazaar, a boy tneds a stall selling the squared-off skullcaps favored by the Uighurs; at the Sunday market, a girl pauses for lunch. (David Robbins; Ric Ergenbright) (pg. 82); An old Uighur man studies the Koran in front of the Aidkah Mosque; skewered meats and noodles are served up at the weekly bazaar. (Bruno Barbey/Magnum; Ric Ergenbright) (pg. 82)
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