My Last Fortnight in China


Final Chinese Flavour

When I wrote my website journal from Turpan in late February, I was just leaving the Chinese world after being submersed in it for the best part of a year. But I still had a few days in Ürümqi to come. Since Ürümqi is the capital city of 'Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region', it is the least Uighur city in the area. As I was about to jump on the bus there from Turpan, I got in touch at last with Memet/Sun Yi Xuan, my Uighur-Han friend from the train into China last year. He invited me to stay in his large flat so I happily took advantage of his hospitality for a couple of days! While there I spent my time using my Mandarin to investigate transport to Kyrgyzstan - just 'in case' I ran into problems crossing the Torugart Pass in the south of the region the following week. Memet and I had a chance to fill each other in on how we have spent the last year, and it was funny to be able to speak to each other half in Chinese and half in English - as when we had first met I was totally dependent on his fine English to help me through my first two days in China.

While in Ürümqi I was kindly invited by Memet's father to a large meal in a private room at a restaurant. He was entertaining some business acquaintances and their wives. This was my final large Han Chinese spread: dish upon dish of tasty hot food (nothing I couldn't handle) was brought out after a round of cold plates (a little too much intestine among those for my personal taste, but not bad!). The women present (myself excepted, as you can imagine) were very quiet throughout the meal - they only spoke if spoken to, and scarcely ate unless urged to do so by Mr Sun or Memet. We drank red Chinese wine, which is not too strong, but not like the stuff from Europe or the 'new world' that we swallow - to my relief the principal guests refused the offer of 'bai jiu' (Chinese white liquor). I had to watch my etiquette! You should only drink when there are toasts (though these can happen at any time in the meal), and at that time you should really down the glass. I gave one of my first-ever impromptu toasts, upon request. Little did I realize that in the following few weeks I would have to hone my toasting skills. An opportunity for immediate practice presented itself the following lunchtime before I got on the train to Kuqa, as Memet's colleagues insisted on taking me out to lunch and there was a little wine involved there, too!

I arrived in Kuqa , which is south and west of Ürümqi and halfway to Kashgar, at around eight-thirty in the morning. Except that that was Beijing time (which all of China is supposed to follow), and from that moment onwards it was irrelevant to everything except transport schedules. It was still totally dark! I quickly allowed myself to enter the care of a friendly taxi driver and negotiated a price for the day to be taken to the Kizil Kara caves. First stop on the itinerary after beef noodle soup for breakfast was at the ruins of Subash, a fourth century settlement that provides excellent scope for clambering around. Since it was still so early in the day in 'real' time I didn't have to pay to get in, so clamber I did for over an hour while Mr Taxi slept. Close by to the ruins we stopped too at an ancient beacon earthwork, but Mr Taxi started to bewail his bad luck in life and regret his forfeit of a day's sleep for the bonus of taking a foreigner on tour as we drew closer to the Kizil Kara Buddhist caves. Since it was off-season, the old road leading to the caves was undergoing modernization - twenty men and women were up on the cutting above the road, chopping at the slope beneath them to widen the road. This meant that the rocky surface that had previously covered the road had been replaced by soft dust and the small taxi had little grip. To add to this, when we got to the caves it seemed as if there was nobody there to let me in! The main entrance was sealed, but there was someone at the side, and a guide to show me round with a patter that I made only some sense of (the caves were fairly interesting, but as the guidebook said, not on a par with the marvels at Dunhuang). She came from Harbin - but had not been home for the Spring Festival and was I think missing the cold weather!!! Back in the car I assured Mr Taxi that some of my good fortune in life would rub off on him, and we WOULD be able to get the car back up the steep slope. Or else I would be able to get out and push! I offered to do this at a moment of tension, but he rejected the suggestion, saying that the more weight in the car the better!

Needless to say we made it back to the town just fine. Mr Taxi's wife and brother-in-law ran a small Han fast food restaurant (labeled, as many such places are in far western China, with slogans like 'tastes just like the real thing back home') so I ate with him and left my bags there while exploring Kuqa itself. Down the road and around the corner I found what I was looking for - street life of the Uighur people - at last!!! I bought some dried apricots, since Kuqa is famous for that fruit, and had an enthralling time wandering round since there was a lot to see beyond the people selling things - blacksmiths, bakers, metalworkers, cotton combers, children playing games, and so on. I had a lot of time to kill, as the night-train to Kashgar was not going to pass through until 3.30 A.M. Restaurant owners towards dinnertime started to vie for custom - and a friendly man and his wife and children beckoned me. They fed me tea, salad and kao baozi ('roasted dumpling'), which are parcels of mutton (called 'Samssa' in Kyrgyzstan), and then refused to be paid - a first for me in money-making China!



Kashgar and southern Xinjiang

What I saw in Kuqa was the beginning of the new world - where the Han Chinese people really are the minority, and Mandarin is spoken little. In Kashgar, Karghilik, Yarkand and Yengisar I realized just how easy I had been having it up 'til then as a result of all those hours spent studying in Beijing. But this ceased, and I re-entered the world of 'communication by gesture' for my short week in southern Xinjiang. The food began to taste very different too - although I was still eating meat noodle, it now tasted more like spaghetti bolognaise than Lanzhou la mian. I did not visit much in the way of historical 'sights', but I had a very colourful few days in these towns. To walk along streets where most people travel by horse and cart felt as if I had gone back in time - and it certainly didn't feel like the rest of China! The people of course look different (in Karghilik I saw only TWO Han Chinese people) and speak a totally unrelated language - which written in Arabic script starkly contrasts Chinese characters on signs and notices! The architecture was different too: arched verandas on street buildings, and many buildings made of mud.

Kashgar is the crown of the Uighur world - and I made sure that I was there on a Sunday, the day of Kashgar's great bazaar. The bazaar is supposed to be a meeting point for Central Asia: since Kashgar is so close to so many other countries (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tibet) people come from all around to buy and sell. I saw Uighurs, by and large, but it was still very colourful indeed! On the approach to the main bazaar area, there are ranks of carts and donkeys or ponies, waiting to take tired shoppers and their goods home again. But inside the market area there are also 'car parks' - if you can get a space!

I have never been to an open market as crammed with people and activity as the one at Kashgar - The Tolkuchka bazaar outside Ashgabat in Turkmenistan compares in terms of geographical area, but not in terms of energy level and business transacted when compared to Sundays in Kashgar! Massive areas are given over to one class of goods. For example I walked into an area crammed with men, only men, and a few boys. What was for sale? Mostly second-hand (or third, or fourth, or...) TVs, tape recorders, and the occasional VCR. And row upon row of very bootleg videos. Round the corner I reached a huge mass of women - and the sounds here were not the blasts of stereos attempting to impress, instead there was an urgent murmur as the women bought and sold bits of square black cloth that they carried with them in wads or had stuffed in plastic bags. These were not just any old bits of cloth: they were all to be made into the stiff square embroidered Uighur skullcap, and were in various stages of the production process. Given that there are also several shops in Kashgar which sell nothing except that particular type of headgear, and that the vast majority of men I saw in Xinjiang in February were wearing either flatcaps or long-domed black velvet hats rimmed with brown fur, I am not sure that the market demand warrants the frenzied activity! How many of these skullcaps does each Uighur man and boy need? I suspect that a lot of the embroidery is done by hand, and a finished article is more embroidery than black cloth, so a lot of work must go into making these caps. Perhaps they all wear them in summertime, and get through each one very quickly!

All these shoppers and vendors need to be able to eat, of course, so there were great things for me to sample! I am not quite sure what it was I ate for 'lunch' - something mutton fat and rice related, anyway! I had had an appetizer of freshly made ice cream: made as I watched, getting some of the first batch of the day!

Also while in southern Xinjiang I spent a silly amount of time trying to find out about going over the Torugart Pass, and realized in the end that there is a conspiracy against independent travelers doing this: you have to have a permit, and the only way to get a permit once you have got all the way to Kashgar is to go through a travel agent with 'contacts', who also then provides your transport into the mountains in a jeep at an extortionate rate. You are handed at the border to a Kyrgyz travel agent (pre-arranged) who continues the rip-off (all the way to Bishkek for a further thousand dollars if you want!!). Too late I discovered that there is a bus to Bishkek from Kashgar once a week on a Monday for fifty dollars - but that still the foreigner needs the permit supposedly, and the permit has to be got in Ürümqi. Unfortunately my Kyrgyz visa did not start till Tuesday and my Chinese visa ended on Wednesday, or else I would have tried the bus without a permit. As it was, I decided not to spend six hundred dollars going a distance in jeeps that on a bus within China would cost about three dollars. Much as I don't like flying I therefore flew all the way back to Ürümqi (just wanting to GET THERE at this point) and there onto a service offered by Kyrgyzstan Airways to Bishkek. Total price around three hundred and fifty dollars, and it meant I could see Memet again, very briefly. The second plane was a bit shaky - not the most modern, and not stretching either to a magazine or (more importantly) to sick bags for me to take a sample of for my friend Yvette's collection! But the views of the Tian Shan range were stunning, so I do not even slightly regret giving the expensive jeep option a miss - and one day I will take the bus...

To return to Kyrgyzstan had been a plan for a year, so my excitement (and not the aeroplane) was turning me to jelly once I got to Bishkek.

To read the rest of the April 2001 News, please go to the second installment!

Thank You!


The tiles on this page are of fruit and nuts on sale in the heart of Kashgar's old town. |Click here to view the original photo|