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Kashgar, home of the bizarre and the bazaar
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September 14-17, 2007 

Kashgar, home of the bizarre and the bazaar

 We've been in the ethnic boonies since Beijing. It’s continually jarring to find ourselves in almost wholly Muslim territory--in China of all places.

 You know, burkahs, head scarves, mosques, naan bread, donkey carts, livestock markets, intricately carved knives, Ramadan, prayers six times a day. And male ascendancy. Women everywhere lugging bundles and babies—no strollers, no Baby Bjorns.  Clutches of grimy men in skullcaps congregating everywhere—lounging, jawing, and trading everything from cell phones to sheep.  

Though I try to lecture myself about religious and philosophical tolerance I am still horrified and saddened at the sight of women walking and working in sweltering temperatures, covered head and shoulders in dark brown shoulder-length knitted scarves—many, in this particular region, without even eyeholes.

 We’re still in the frontier province of Xinjiang, but from Urumqi we flew some 800 miles further and are now at the far western end of the Gobi Desert. We’re in Kashgar, an ancient trading city and key Silk Road gateway for merchants on camels traveling in caravans, journeying between China and Central Asia.

 Kashgar has 5,000 mosques and 420,000 people, 73% of them Uighurs (pronounced, OY (just like our grandmas) oy-gars (rhymes with cars). The Uighur people are descendants of Mongols who intermarried with Turks, a nomadic people who became Muslims in the year 915 when whoever was king said, “Ix-nay on the Buddhism everyone, I’m into Islam now.” Today they are Sunnis and, though they dare not speak of it very loud, politically separatist—they see themselves as a conquered nation and chafe at living under the Chinese thumb, sneering at the double-speak name of the province: Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

A stunning reminder of their status is the giant concrete statue of Mao that towers over the People’s Square.

 During the 1990s the Communist monolith cracked down on the resistance movement, citing several bus bombings. Later the government used 9/11 as an opportunity to round up and execute what it called terrorist leaders.

 Meanwhile, to stay in control and stem separatism, for years the central government has been packing the place with the country’s majority—Han Chinese—but is clever enough to keep the Uighurs in line by cutting them this bit of slack. Despite the official national ban on religious expression, the government pretty much looks the other way and lets them practice Islam, as long as they do it quietly and don’t overtly educate their children in the religion. Children must go to Chinese schools. And, of course, they can’t join the Communist party in order to get government jobs if they observe religion.

 Their mosques, utterly unlike what we saw in Beijing—all that exquisite detailing and ornamentation the Chinese produced many centuries earlier--are dreary, peeling and uninteresting. Without much artistic merit. 

Kashgar streets, daytime

But oh, those Kashgar streets. For two days we walked constantly, despite the heat, through dark warrens of ancient adobe (Gary would say mud) dwellings, trying to peek through curtains strung over open doors hiding the courtyards and busy family life.




 We watched people in street clothes and ethnic dress shop along the packed neighborhood streets, stopping to bargain with shoemakers, potmakers, breadmakers, fruit sellers. We saw piles of chopped salads, mounds of fruits, tons of flies, and outdoor butchering in scorching heat. 




Livestock Market

We traveled to the livestock market alongside donkey carts and tractors dragging pens of cows and goats and sheep.  


 There we gawked at prodigiously bearded old men contemplating the mayhem through faraway eyes;


 women on blankets shearing sheep with scissors; young boys left to daydream on donkeycarts 


 and older boys tying long lines of sheep together--side to side, head to head--on rope tethers. Gary called this “rack of lamb.”

Sunday Bazaar

We ambled the monster Sunday bazaar, packed with overkill of unbelievable crap. Toys, sheets, hats, shoes, tinny trinkets, rugs, sunglasses, even furs. Alongside, a sprawling second-hand market of exactly the same junk.

 Adorable if grubby kids cavort together while trailing behind their mothers. Big crowds stand around men with microphones hawking herbal cure-alls and mystery potions for every kind of dysfunction--but especially sexual. Entire families gather to “dress” the bride. Women pore over mountains of glitzy fabrics, which they sew into dowdy coats, frumpy skirts and unattractive blouses, worn in multiple layers and often clashing violently. Tired pumps and designer-dropout purses finish off this daily street-wear. The styling may say modest Muslim mama but certainly not the laces, sequins, tiny mirrors and bold prints. 




Kashgar streets, nighttime

After dinner, in the busy square outside the main mosque, kids sat on their haunches, waiting for their fathers to finish the final night prayers and watched Donald Duck on an immense outdoor screen--with bright red Arabic subtitles. Nearby, an even more colorful assortment of congregants. 


 We strolled nearby, through a packed late-night market to the sound of vendors hacking melons and meats on scarred wooden boards; we inhaled the smells wafting from boiling pots of cooking foods.  


But even I was not tempted by boiled sheep's heads and lamb intestines,  

Bare bones

It is fascinating to observe this lifestyle—and at the same time give thanks that we don’t have to live it.

 Gary on the other hand, is less than entranced. He tends to rail about filth, poverty and anything that is not elegant. Has anyone ever noticed this? 

He gets particularly pissed about the food. “They have about four recipes. And they’re all lamb. They chop the lamb into strips or cubes so that each little chunk has some gristle or bone or fat or something you don't want to eat. No rack of lamb, no chops, no leg of lamb--just chunks.”

 Or bones…. 

 He’s got a point. Though we’ve had two superior Muslim meals, this was mainly because one featured a sweet-and-sour fish and another some soy-sauced noodles--without lamb. Otherwise all the meals have been remarkable in their sameness: lamb kebobs, lamb naan, lamb pilaf, some kind of soup with bits of lamb, noodles sprinkled with lamb and not just lamb but my particular bugaboo—cilantro. Pork, of course, is out of the question. And none of this is helped by the lack of wine or beer.

 Good enough for Bill ‘n’ Hill  

Despite the poverty and squalor around us, it didn’t take us long to be complaining about our hotel.

 Our months-old Kashgar hotel, the International, looks perfect—everyone is quick to tell you Bill and Hillary stayed there. But that doesn’t mean they’d come back.

 It’s an Oriental Stepford wife--the bedding looks all crisply ironed, pristine and white, all tufted and soft, but, in fact, the beds are so hard they could be kitchen counters. The rooms present such minor inconveniences as: no drawers—not one; reading lights directed straight down, tantalizingly lighting everything just behind your head. Closets so narrow if you hang your shirt (even a wee Chinese shirt) the doors won’t close. A shower that continues running during your bath. One lone bottle of white wine at the bar (and a Chinese white wine at that—a vintage not currently offering the French any competition.) No safe in your room; however, not unlike the ladies rooms in this country, a communal safe is available to mix your money in.

 No matter who you call, no matter what you ask for, the answer is a very lilting but firm, “No.”  Or, the telephone variation, “No English, goodbye.”

 We all loved the breakfasts in Beijing and Urumqi, which featured both Chinese and Western breakfast foods, including an omelet maker with the full range of onions, peppers, hams and cheeses, and a Chinese soup maker steaming cabbage, dumplings, assorted greens and noodles in clear, boiling broth.

 Gary calls these breakfasts a religious experience--God awful.

 For the most part it’s a buffet of maybe 20 Chinese lunch and dinner entrees: delicacies like pallid fried rice, several kinds of cold noodles (cold even when they’re supposed to be hot) dry, gristly meats, assorted fiery shredded cabbages, bony chicken (at least we thought it was chicken) and a vegetable; bony lamb (at least we thought it was lamb) with (mostly) potato; bony beef (you get the drift) plus strange looking pickled items--anything from pickled cucumbers to pickled sheep spleen (just a deduction from items we’ve seen on the streets)--gummy rice buns, thin gruely porridge and a whole series of shiny, gelatinous objects that I never have to taste because they slip through my chopsticks.

 The offerings for Western tourists are set out on a tiny island of table you can barely get near, because it’s so crowded. When you do, you’ll find (sometimes) some small donut look-alikes that are really corn bread, a few slices of yellowy white bread, some almond cookies, some cardboard-like twists, some more white gruel, and an array of condiments consisting of marmalade and red bean paste. Did I mention butter? There isn’t any.

 Plenty of tea and lots of sometimes weak and watery, sometimes strong and sludgy, coffee, which they make at the table from powdered Nescafe.

 Just one more thing: nobody’s looking anorexic yet.



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