Eight o’clock breakfast in Kashgar is a lonely experience; the unappealing buffet is attended by a few bleary-eyed staff and you eat alone, except for a couple of mystified Han Chinese who, like you, are working on Beijing time but, unlike you, believe Beijing time is everybody’s time.
We were in the lobby waiting for Sadeek before nine. At 9.20 I wandered into the 'business centre' and phoned his mobile. It was not switched on. At 9.30 we were planning a day in Kashgar without him when Mohammed Yusuf bustled in, his face full of peevish irritation.
‘I have had a call from Sadeek,’ he started. ‘He says he is ill.’ Big sigh. ‘He said you were going to a village market, did you go to the Kashgar market yesterday?’ We said we had. ‘It will be much the same only smaller. Do you still want to go?’ We said we did. ‘Then I will take you.’
He may have had other plans for his Monday morning, but this had become a matter of honour and he was determined to do his duty, or, in this case, somebody else’s duty. As we pulled out of the car park he made several unkind remarks about Sadeek, the sort of remarks a devout Muslim might make about a fellow Muslim who owned a bar. ‘And,’ he added, ‘I will find you another guide for Wednesday.’
We left Kashgar heading south on the Karakoram highway. Our destination, Upal, was 50km away, another 500 km and we would reach Islamabad via the world’s highest border crossing at Khunjerab. Urumqi, the Xinjiang state capital, was 1200 km behind us, while Beijing was some 3500 km east.
The Karakoram Highway leaves Kashgar as a six-lane road. The inside lane is for donkey carts and bicycles, for old women to sit and eat melons and for small boys to lead five sheep to market on a string. The middle lane is full of heavily laden trucks thundering towards Pakistan, equally laden local buses and the odd rich person (like us) in a private car. The ‘fast’ lane is used by donkey carts and motorcycle pick-ups heading in the opposite direction.
|Mahmoud Kashgari, or someone who may look like him, beckons us in to|
his mausoleum near Upal
His grave lies in a
small building at the top of a wooded slope. Beside his sarcophagus is a plate
bearing a likeness of the great man, his gaze wise and avuncular. As even the
Chinese do not claim to have invented photography in the eleventh century, the
likeness owes more to imagination than accuracy. There is also a small mosque
and a room for teaching. At the top of the hill, where the land stretches away
arid and stony, lies the graveyard for Upal’s common people, their ochre
tombstones blending timelessly into the ochre hillside.
|I enter Mahmoud Kashgari's Mausoleum,|
|The grave of Mahmoud Kashgari|
A few kilometres on and we entered the village. Here the road was further narrowed by encroaching market stalls and slow moving animals. Mohammed parked by a row of restaurants and suggested he would have a cup of tea while we looked at the market. ‘It won’t take you long,’ he said, ‘it’s only a village market.’We walked along the road, now almost completely blocked by people, animals and carts, until we reached an earth ramp that led down to a large cleared area fringed by shady trees. From the top of the ramp the whole market was laid out below us.
Mohammed was right that it was only a village market, but that did not mean it was small and certainly did not mean it was uninteresting. On one single site it was possible to buy everything you might want and several you never knew you needed. There were butchers and cloth merchants, vegetable and livestock dealers, shoe sellers and the inevitable kebab stalls.
|Butcher's stalls, Upal Market|
There were people of all ages, dressed in bright traditional costumes, browsing, bargaining and hanging out with friends. If the people of Kashgar are two hours adrift of the rest of China, there were old men at this market who looked two centuries adrift of the rest of the world.
There was no way we could be a part of the market, we were as alien and exotic to the buyers and sellers as they were to us. It was enough just to be there and to feel the pulse of life around us. Tourism is forever doomed to kill the things it loves: the fishing village in a secluded cove becomes a five mile stretch of high rise hotels, slices of paradise are packaged, denatured and sanitised to suit the tastes of the rich. Kashgar is hardly Benidorm, but we were not the only foreigners at the Sunday market and it sits inside the horizon of tourism. At Upal we had slipped over that horizon, but human beings, like sub-atomic particles, are changed merely by being observed. Mixed with the exhilaration of just being there was the fear that we were the latest link in a chain of foreigners relentlessly dragging that horizon behind us.
We spent longer than Mohammed had expected and he had consumed more tea than a man can reasonably drink before we reappeared. He drove us back to Kashgar, but as we neared the city he suddenly swung off the main road and we bounced along a roughly made, potholed track. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. ‘There’s a road block ahead,’ he answered. ‘It’s quicker to go round it.’ Most of the traffic from the main road had followed us. If the people of Kashgar going about their lawful business knew about the roadblock and how to get round it, then so must any potential terrorist. So, what was the road block for, if not just to irritate the locals? It was the first time I found myself asking that question. It was not to be the last.
After the obligatory visit to a silk carpet and jade warehouse, which was disappointing, at least for those hoping to sell us anything, we found ourselves back at the ‘Best Uigher restaurant in Kashgar’. Mohammed recommended mutton pie, a hitherto untried Uigher speciality. It consisted of pieces of sheep in a pastry case; my mother used to make something similar in the 1950s. It was pleasant, but hardly added a new dimension to our concept of Uigher cuisine. Around us everybody else was ordering ‘laghman’, the mutton and noodle dish that is the Uigher staple. Whenever a group of Uighers walk into a restaurant, there is an animated discussion about what they will eat. Ideas are thrown this way and that until eventually someone will say ‘laghman’ and they all smack their lips and smile and order laghman like it is a special treat, although most of them eat it twice a day, seven days a week. Usually, they will have a few kebabs on the side. Mutton pie, on the other hand, really was a special treat so we awaited the bill with apprehension. Pie for two and unlimited rose scented tea cost just over £1.50.In the evening, we bumped into Sadeek as we passed through the lobby. ‘Sorry about this morning,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t well.’ We shrugged. ‘Never mind,’ he carried on brightly, ‘we’ll go to a different village market tomorrow.’ We explained that we had already seen a village market, had no need to see another one, and anyway we would not trust him to turn up for his own funeral. His face fell; he seemed genuinely hurt and surprised that we no longer had any need for his services. Lynne seemed particularly impervious to this attempt at boyish charm. He had had his chance, we told him, and he had blown it.
Later we ventured into a self-styled ‘fast food’ restaurant on the road up to Id Kah Square. We had passed it a number of times and had usually been invited in by the lad sitting outside threading sheep onto skewers. It looked reasonably clean, so now seemed the time to take up his invitation.
Perhaps I was becoming overconfident, perhaps I had seen enough chunks of mutton for one week, but I ordered a couple of kofta kebabs to go with the naan and the regular kebabs. I watched the lad dip his hand into the bowl of mince and press it onto the skewer, fat oozing between his fingers.
Lynne shook her head. ‘They’re dangerous,’ she said, adding something about barge poles and not touching. But was I listening? Of course not, I was too busy scoffing at her apprehension while watching a cockroach scuttle across the concrete floor.
What passed later is best left unrecorded. Suffice it to say, my morning began at half past three and I failed to make it to breakfast at either Beijing or Kashgar time.
The next few hours were spent watching yet more Olympic success for Zhong Guo while Lynne dealt out medication liberally and sympathy rather more grudgingly.
By eleven, I felt fit enough to face the world and we headed for the tomb of Abakh Hoja. Guided by the ever-useful card from John’s Café, the taxi took us past the market site and out to where the eastern suburbs began to melt into farmland. Turning off the main road, he dropped us in a courtyard containing the cold drink and tat stalls that surround the entrance to every tourist site.
In the 16th century the southern Taklamakan was ruled by a Khanate based in Yarkand, 250 km to the west. In the early 17th century Abakh Hoja displaced the ruling dynasty and made Kashgar his capital. He was a strong and capable ruler, but his descendants, seventy-two of whom share his mausoleum, struggled to keep Kashgaria independent, caught as they were between the Dzungor empire to the west and the Chinese to the east.
|The Mausoleum of Abakh Hoja, Kashgar|
The tomb is also the reputed resting place of Ikparhan, a Uigher princess known to the Chinese as Xiang Fei - the Fragrant Concubine – because of her attractive floral scent. The tale of Xiang Fei varies depending on who tells it. In the preferred Han version, she was a granddaughter of Abakh Hoja and became a concubine of the Qin emperor Qianlong. After a difficult start she won him over by her beauty - and indeed body odour - became his favourite and lived a long and happy life, exemplifying the eternal bond between the Uigher and Chinese peoples. The Uigher legend has her being abducted from her husband’s bed, or even being a captured resistance leader. The stories concur in her winning over Qianlong by her beauty (and BO), but in this account her success upset the emperor’s mother to the extent that she had either had Xiang Fei murdered or forced her to commit suicide. This version suits the Uigher sense of grievance, and is just about acceptable to the Chinese as it allows the perfidious Qin to be contrasted with the cuddly Chinese Communist Party.
|The graves of Abakh Hoja and his kin, Kashgar|
Constructed around 1640, the tomb is a sturdy mosque-like building, its towers and dome faced in dark green glazed tiles. That, at least, is how it looks in the brochures. In fact, although the surrounding garden is pleasant, the building itself is in disrepair and many of the tiles are missing. Inside, the tombs look dusty and neglected, while the adjacent teaching hall is only kept standing by large wooden props and is closed to the public. The roof of the open sided prayer hall is supported by a series of wooden columns, each one carved differently to display local skills. It also displays a lack of overall design and, again, a lack of maintenance. Perhaps the local government is less keen to provide funds now it is generally agreed that the concubine who inspired the Xiang Fei legend is actually buried in Hebei, several thousand kilometres away.
|Prayer Hall, Abakh Joa Mausoleum, Kashgar|
Sadly, the tomb was not the only thing in a poor state and we returned to our hotel for further medication, a bit of a lie down and no lunch. China continued to do well in the Olympics, showing particular skill in shooting and beach volleyball, but by mid-afternoon I had endured more than enough televised smugness and felt just about strong enough for a stroll round the oldest part of the city.
The entrance, a hundred metres from our hotel, was clearly marked. As we climbed the steps up and over the city wall, we were suddenly surrounded by a posse of young ladies all elegantly attired in dresses of what we would later learn was atlas silk. This was not, unfortunately, a result of my natural charm, but of their desire to sell us tickets to enter their quarter of the city.
|Kashgar, The Old City|
Old Kashgar is jumble of mud brick buildings set in a maze of narrow streets. There was little else to see and there were few people about, but those we saw were all dressed in full local costume. Several of them stopped to check our tickets.
|Kashgar, The Old City|
I suspect a medieval city would have smelled a lot worse, and it certainly would have lacked the spider’s web of cables criss-crossing each street and feeling its way up the front of every building, but otherwise there was nothing to say we were still in the present century. Many of the inhabitants have moved out to Chinese-style tower blocks. These may be ugly but, for their residents, running water, reliable electricity and the ability to keep warm in the bitter Kashgar winter are worth far more than the scenic charms of the old city. We cannot expect people to live in picturesque poverty for our amusement, but when most have left there will be an opportunity to create a museum town, like Ghadames in Libya. The Chinese, however, are much more likely to bring in the bulldozers, as they have done with much of the rest of Kashgar.
We lost our bearings in the twisting lanes and were a little surprised to come out in a wide street of balconied buildings behind Id Kah Square.
|Not quite so old Kashgar|
This was the street of metal workers, and outside each shop, men sat cross-legged tapping designs onto vases and trays.
We returned to the hotel for more medication, no dinner and an early night.
I felt better in the morning. After breakfast we went down to the lobby where a young man called Hassan introduced himself. He seemed pleasant, and if his English was not as good as Sadeek’s, he was at least there and on time, which counted for a lot more. We took our cases outside and he introduced us to our driver.
Before we left Kashgar the driver had to report to the police station to obtain a permit to leave the city. We sat outside and waited. After five minutes, he returned grumbling and moaning, rooted around under the dashboard and produced a fire extinguisher, which he took to show the bureaucrats inside. Perhaps I should have been pleased by this untypical Chinese respect for health and safety, but I was more irritated by a system that requires you to complete a box ticking exercise before driving down the road to the next town.
This incident set the tone for the day. Every time we moved from one municipality to the next, which was often, there was a checkpoint where a policeman demanded documents. Usually they were only interested in the driver and Hassan, but some insisted on seeing our passports, too. As these were largely village bobbies from some of the remotest villages in China, a British passport was a distinctly outlandish document and finding the picture inside the back page was a major challenge. As one officer took my passport, it fell open at my outdated Mongolian visa. He studied this document minutely before nodding, returning the passport and grunting wisely.
We drove through cultivated fields and occasional habitation. The road was not busy, but there was the usual assortment of carts, animals and children. Our driver’s technique for dealing with hazards was to point the car at them and accelerate hard, which was a little nerve wracking but seemed to work for him.
After 70 km we reached Yengisar, the knife capital of Xinjiang. Knife crime may be a cause of much hand wringing to the British, but to a Uigher it is a cultural statement. Since the grenade assault on the Kashgar police station the BBC website had carried news of a knife attack at a checkpoint. I suspect it was frustration rather than terrorism, but what surprised me was that there had been only one such attack.
The main street of the small town is lined with large glass fronted showrooms dedicated to the knife. There are displays of dazzling craftsmanship and scary lethality, but all is not well in the world of Uigher knife making. Security regulations mean that knives cannot be carried on buses, planes or trains and they can no longer be sold mail order. They produce the knives, there is a market for them, but regulations divide the knives from their market. We bought two rather finely made nail clippers. They are undoubtedly the best nail clippers we have ever owned, but are a rather sad reflection of the current impotence of Uigher culture.
Outside we heard what sounded frighteningly like a volley of small arms fire, though the locals seemed unconcerned. Then a funeral came into view. A truck decorated with a large rosette carried the coffin and a dozen or so relatives who were lobbing handfuls of firecrackers into the road to scare off demons. Behind them came a cortege of twenty or so vehicles of assorted shapes and sizes.
|Funeral truck, Yengisar|
We followed the funeral until they turned off at the edge of town. From there, our 200 km journey to Yarkand passed through a landscape sometimes yellow with sand, sometimes green with cultivation, but always punctuated by checkpoints.
Once the seat of a great Buddhist kingdom, later the capital of Chagotai Khan (son of Ghengis) and always a major city on the southern Silk route, Yarkand looked disappointingly like everywhere else in modern China. The main remnants of the old town are the Aleytun mosque – closed to foreigners - and the burial site of the kings of Yarkand.
|The tomb of Sultan Saiyidhan, Yarkand|
Less ambitious in scale but better kept than the tomb of Abakh Hoja, who usurped their power, the graves lie in a pleasant rose garden beside a wide, dusty street. Sultan Saiyidhan has his own mausoleum, a delicate, wooden construction covered in fretwork, but pride of place, as at Abakh Hoja, is given to a woman - though in this case to a woman who is really buried there. Amannishahan, wife of a sixteenth century khan, was a poet, musician and composer. Although she died in childbirth in 1560 she packed enough into her 34 years to still be revered as the mother of Uigher music. Twenty stone arches create a shaded veranda around her mausoleum, which is topped by a blue tiled cupola. Light and graceful, the building would be perfect if it was not for a nagging feeling that this was where Walt Disney found his model for oriental architecture.
|The tomb of Amannishahan, Yarkand|
Half an hour further on, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Lynne and I ordered mutton pilaf while Hassan and the driver sat and discussed and threw ideas back and forward. Eventually the driver said ‘laghman’ and Hassan licked his lips and smiled. A decision had been made.
After lunch, we drove through the desert, the breeze sending streams of sand scurrying across the road in front of us. There were fewer obstacles for the driver to accelerate at now, but soon he was shifting about in his seat, opening and closing the window, and doing all those things drivers do when they are struggling to stay awake. All those things except stop and rest. We ploughed on through the desert afternoon aware that, should we leave the road, we could probably career on for a kilometre or two before anybody noticed.
Eventually, at one of the rare outbreaks of cultivation around a stream rushing down from the Tibetan plateau, he finally took a breather. The driver headed off to stick his head in the water, Lynne disappeared in the bushes on the far side of the road while Hassan and I took it upon ourselves to water the nearest cotton bushes. It was here that I realised I had left my sunglasses in the restaurant.
|I inspect the watered cotton|
Arriving in Hotan around five, we met Khalil, our new guide, and checked into our hotel. We were surprised, even shocked, when Hassan announced that he and the driver were going straight back to Kashgar. We were relieved to have survived 500 km in daylight; I would not have wanted to take the return trip at all, and especially not in the dark with a narcoleptic driver. I hope they made it.
The Chinese Silk Road
Introduction: The Silk Road in China