Doorstep To The Moon


Before we traveled to China, I used to tell people that the most “exotic” place I had ever visited was Israel and the Sinai desert because, although there were familiar elements (especially in Israel), I really felt we were on the doorstep of Asia and another way of living from what I knew. I looked forward to visiting China to finally step across that threshold and begin to understand another culture. Shanghai, despite it’s sky scrapers and fast food restaurants, granted my wish, and more. But more than two thousand miles later I felt on the edge of yet another threshold, to what I could not imagine, yet something was palpably *there* beyond what I had already learned about China in our short stay. Am I that far removed, I thought to myself, from understanding how large portions of mankind live? If so, how do I best describe Kashgar?

First, it is in the center of Central Asia : at the western edge of China where Xinjiang Province meets Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Kashmir region still being fought over by Pakistan and India. It’s as close to the Mediterranean Sea as it is to Beijing. It’s an ancient Silk Route trading post on the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert that separates it from the rest of Xinjiang Province where travelers stopped to prepare for their dangerous trek around this most forbidding obstacle separating the riches of the West from those of the East, or where they stopped to celebrate a successful crossing from the East. It retains the spirit of being an important hub where the world comes to buy, sell, and barter. The city’s graphic symbol is the pomegranate tree, and it’s a wellspring of the Uighur culture where they still make important Uighur products — knives, water kettles, lace hats, string instruments, silk fabrics — by hand, and grow and process much of their favorite foods in the surrounding small farms where 90% of the 3.5 million residents of the Kashgar prefecture live. While Turpan showed some direct Han influence on the Uighur people, the only recognizably Han part of Kashgar was a giant statue of Mao overlooking the main square.

We arrived with little knowledge of the city, only snippets (a *fascinating/hilarious* link!) that we had read about on the web, and the bare list of sites we would visit in our trip itinerary. Most of what we knew about the area came from “Beyond The Great Wall” where Duguid and Alford mention it only as a jumping-off point for their bike ride (!) to Pakistan via the newly opened Karakorum Highway linking Kashgar to Islamabad. The one recurring note was that we must visit the Kashgar Sunday Market…

Our plane from Urumqi landed Saturday night, and we were picked up at a sparkly new modern airport terminal by our guide Lily, a Han woman who actually grew up in Kashgar and who speaks Uighur fluently. Our driver was also Han, a young man driving a relatively new little Hyundai sedan. Lily called him “our driver” and he didn’t seem as interested in us (or as interesting) as Mr. Chou, so we never learned his name — I will call him Hans.

Hans whisked us into the city and Lily checked us into a FOUR STAR hotel located on a major intersection downtown. Our room was not as new as in Turpan, and we were surprised to see that items were labeled with Cyrillic letters as well as Chinese characters and English. Not as surprised, it turns out, as when we discovered that the shower was separated from the bedroom by a floor-to-ceiling piece of clear glass, and that many of the items displayed in our hotel were condoms and other sex aids…Peter Hessler and John Pomfret’s books both mentioned that hotels outside the major cities catered directly to the sex industry, and here was proof.

Still it was a clean room with a nice (if firm) bed along with a pedestal toilet(!), and we were pleased to find out when we woke up that our 10th story window overlooked a schoolyard tucked behind the hotel. Both mornings after breakfast we enjoyed a few brief moments listening to childish shrieks and laughter as the children gathered before or during school.

At breakfast (a buffet again, Han Chinese style, plus yogurt –sweetened– and lots of fresh fruit) we discovered that there were three or four other groups of tourists in the hotel, several French groups plus four American school teachers. We never talked to the other Americans, but learned a lot about them because they were so loud that even by sitting across the room from them we could clearly hear all about their trip to that point, what they wanted to see in Kashgar, and amusing stories about the “brats” in their classes back home. Unfortunately they also fit the world’s LARGE BODY stereotype of Americans. Large and loud.

kashgar_idkhaLily and Hans were right on time picking us up, and our first stop was the Id Kar Mosque just a few blocks away. It was first built in 1442 and is known for being the largest mosque in China that can accommodate 20,000 people, but it is made up of a large paved square in front of a walled park that contains many separate temples and buildings, the largest of them keeping only about 1000 worshipers under cover.

kashgar_tinkersIt was obviously ancient and well used, but we didn’t spend more than 15 minutes inside because Lily had already told us that we would visit the “Handworker’s Street” nearby after the mosque, and that was what grabbed our imagination. Sure enough, after we walked around the south flank of the mosque we began to see shops selling everything, from naan and noodles to hand-hammered sheet metalwork (kettles, pots, bins). Midway along the street, amid a pile of wood shavings, I spotted something I had been looking for: short small rolling pins with no handles that I could use to roll out dumpling skins. Lily negotiated for us and soon I had three different sizes of them for 20RMB.

The craft work was amazing to see, as many shops had someone sitting on the sidewalk working: engraving fancy tea kettles, pounding large pots and tubs from sheet steel, curving wood strips over a fire to make large dumpling steamers; carefully placing wooden inlay on beautiful stringed instruments.

kashgar_rolling pins

In the midst of this, some of the workers had taken a break from their labors to enjoy a hot bowl of sheepshead soup (noodles in broth with pieces of meat picked off boiled sheep’s heads) and chat with their neighbors.


Lily explained that would be visiting the Kashgar Livestock Market plus the Kashgar Sunday Market later in the day, and we shouldn’t jump to buy things quite yet. So we contented ourselves by just browsing, and when we got to the end of the market street, where it met a major avenue, Hans was waiting to take us to our next destination.

kashgar_lm00The car headed out of town on a brand new super-wide four lane avenue boarded by blue construction fence broken by the occasional bare construction site. Clearly the government was planning for the same massive growth here that we had seen in Shanghai. Lily explained that the Livestock Market was held only on Sundays, and it used to take place right in the center of the city, but a few years ago the government decided it was too difficult for the buyers and sellers to transport the animals through downtown, so the created a new Livestock Market area far on the outskirts of the city (to accommodate future growth).

kashgar_lm01A few miles on, we turned left onto a highway and were immediately swallowed and stopped in traffic of all sorts: trucks, buses, motorcycle carts, and donkey cards. For the next fifteen minutes we inched forward until we reached the entrance to the Livestock Market where we pulled off to a parking area, while the stream of trucks continued past toward a distant gate.

kashgar_lm02Between the parking lot (full of brightly colored tourist buses, taxis, and cars like ours) and a pedestrian gate into the market grounds was another bustling market of fruit (melons in huge piles) and other wares. We threaded our way through that and then walked through the gate into a cacophany of thousands of animals that were neatly segregated (cows at the beginning, then sheep, then goats, then donkeys, then horses, then camels) and tied up, interspersed with thousands of people talking about them (sellers) silently staring at them (buyers) or taking pictures of them (tourists).

kashgar_lm03Along one wall stretching from the pedestrian gate all the way to the back were food vendors offering kebabs, soup, noodles, bread, meat, and slices of fruit. It was obvious why it would be a mess to hold this market in the city. A steady stream of trucks pulled into the walled-off market to unload and to pick-up animals.

kashgar_lm04I dove right in, squeezing past clusters of negotiations, cow butts, and cow noses. I noticed that most of the bulls (and all the animals, for that matter) were not castrated — I suppose that gives a farmer options when he buys a male animal. Somehow Alison and Lily followed me through to the other side of the cow area.

kashgar_lm05Together we walked along it and the sheep area until we got to the donkeys, which were mostly tied up in little donkey florets with their heads facing in. Most of them were the smaller cart donkeys we had seen in Turpan and Kashgar, but some were larger, possibly mules. Beyond the donkeys were horses, some of which had been harnessed into chariot-like cards and being driven around the less crowded back area.

A single lonely camel stood beyond the horses — Lily said sometimes there were many camels for sale, and sometimes there were none. These are two hump camels related to the wild Bactrian camels living in the western China deserts. They’re shorter than the one hump variety you see in the middle east, but they’re just as evocative of romantic journeys by foot to the great unknown.

We circled up to the top of the enclosure where we saw a few herds of little white Kasmir goats against the wall, and past them were the many sheep being unloaded, poked, prodded, groomed, and loaded into the back of trucks large and small. They were all large bodied sheep with colored fleeces that ranged from black to light gray, and they all had a funny bisected hump on their butt where the tail should be. I later learned that this was the “Fat Tail” breed off sheep, and they are a very common breed in Asia. I know from experience shearing my own sheep that their tails are mostly wads of fat, so these sheep must have been bred for bigger and bigger tails until they created something that looks like a double-buttocks. According to the breed descriptions most of their fat is stored in the tail, so the rest of their meat is very lean. I took lots of pictures of them because they were so unusual, and I couldn’t wait to show them to the sheep people back in Maine.

Past the sheep was the cow area, so we had just about closed the circle exploring the market. We had told Lily that we wanted to buy some of the famous melon (Ahamd had told us the name of one variety to look for), so she guided us to a vendor who was cutting chunks of melon to taste with a giant knife. She asked him for three samples, which he cut and passed around to us. I’m not melon lover, but I could tell that the soft yellow flesh was the good stuff because it was rich and so sweet it was almost syrupy. When I had finished my slice I looked for a trash can…instead, on the ground at our feet were hundreds of discarded rinds. I threw mine to join them. When I looked up Lily handed me another variety, this time with green flesh. It wasn’t as sweet, more cool and refreshing, though not as crisp as a watermelon. Neither was the variety Ahmad had mentioned, but we told Lily we liked the first one and she bought a whole melon for us to have at lunch.

We exited the livestock area, and Lily went shopping for some more fresh fruit for lunch (she found us figs and grapes) while I shopped for a Uighur hat (30 RMB = $4.50). Once we collected our things, we headed back to the car, but then a man tapped Lily on her shoulder and said something to her. She laughed and waved her hands like she didn’t want to buy what he was pushing on her. Then he gave her a melon, said something, and she said, “Ret met.” Which had learned meant “Thank you” in Uiguar. He smiled and walked away, and then I remembered that we had seen him when we tasted melons. “He wants you to have this melon — the one your friend asked for,” Lily said.

Hans drove us back to Kashgar, and parked in front of a restaurant. “Very famous restaurant in Kashgar,” she said as we entered. There were few people at the tables, and it was hard to tell if we were early or late for lunch time. When the waitress came for our order, Lily ordered for us and then gave her the fruit she had purchased at the market. Pretty quickly the dishes began to arrive: rice pullo with mutton, kebabs, lagman noodles, a small dish of chopped vegetables, and a bowl of yogurt for each of us. Everything looked and tasted different from our restaurant meal in Turpan, but it was all very good. The yogurt was super thick and rich, and I asked Lily if it was made from sheep milk, but she didn’t know, and neither did the waitress.


As we ate, people began to fill the other tables at the restaurant (mostly the tourist groups we had seen at the Livestock Market), and halfway through our meal three musicians — two men and a woman — arranged themselves on a platform in the middle of the dining room and began to play stringed instruments and sing. Lily told us that every Uighur family owns an instrument, and at least one child is supposed to learn how to play it. The music was very nice, and no surprise that it sounded Middle Eastern, not like classical Chinese music. When I glanced around the room I caught a few Uighur men singing along, so they must have been playing folk songs.

After lunch we drove to the Afak Khoja Tomb, translated (by the Chinese) as “Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine.” It is actually a complex of mosques, graveyard, gardens, and a mausoleum at the center where the tomb of the Fragrant Concubine, named Iparxan, is kept along with dozens of other family members including her grandfather, Afak Khoja, a revered (among the Uighurs) Sufi and Kashgari separatist leader from the 17th century. It is considered a holy Muslim site by Uighurs, and a symbol of Chinese unity with their non-Han citizens by the Han people.

Obviously the Chinese government doesn’t promote symbols of resistance to their hegemony, but they can’t ignore or destroy an important site to the Uighur people either. So instead of telling tourists that it’s important because Afak Khoja took back the “Kashgaria” from the Chinese emperor for a hundred years or so, instead they describe (in Chinese characters and English words) that the monument we stand in front of is dedicated to his granddaughter who became a famous concubine of a later Chinese emperor either because she smelled so good (Han story), or because she always pined for her homeland so much that she asked that her body be carried back to Kashgar from Beijing when she died (Uighur story). It’s a lie told in plain site. The Uighur visitors ignore the lie because they don’t read Chinese or English, or because it’s one more stone to swallow as they remain connected to the Chinese nation.

Almost every place we visited in Xinjiang contained some element of this kind of lie — it’s just that the Afak Khoja was such a beautiful (in all senses of the word) example of this extant duplicity that none-the-less forms a major building block of modern China. This is something I learned on our trip.

After our requisite inspection of this Kashgar landmark, including taking a photo of the mausoleum next to a sign that said, “Take Picture Here” in several languages (which produced an excellent picture, and very casual browsing of the empty gift shops outside the gates, we got back in the car and headed for the main event: the Kashgar Sunday Market.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.