A snug little town in Mysterious Xinjiang
Tonight When I watched The Yuan Xiao Festival GALA put together and broadcast by Hunan TV station,one scene of the show stopped me with its glamour and ingenuity.Three little boys put on an extraordinary show of their respective spontaneous(most probably endowed) talents and the third one,a hip boy(clad in black leather trousers and strapped with a guitar) with very strong exotic facial features(who initially I mistaken to be of Spanish descent),is actually from Xinjiang Autonomous region of western China. Before he commenced his impressive perfomance,he delivered a couple of festival greetings to the Audience in his mother tongue(regional,that is),and in Chinese,Mandarin I mean.It is the latter "feat" that surprised and intrigued me.Because from my personal experience people from Xinjiang tend to content themselves with their own traditions,customs and well,languages.Tibet aside,Xinjiang could be the most impervious(and arguably subversive) region in China,a "Teflon TM " state,you may say.But this boy seemed to be able to speak very fluent and standard mandarin in perfect pronunciation,a glaring and pleasant exception I must admit.After the show I visited a government website of Kashi ,Xinjiang to know more about this region and were glad to find it well-operated and fairly informative.On its homepage I even found the following article by a correspondent with The Observer about the westernmost town on the belt of historically famed "Silk Route" within Chinese territory,Kashgar.A lore-savvy and interesting little piece.I PREFER TO attribute it to the charm of this snug little town rather than the jounalistic finesse.
Check it out and enjoy!
Once it was the original global market, the point on the Silk Route where empires came to trade. Now Kashgar in China sits beyond the reach of modern commerce
Sunday February 5, 2006
The ObserverIt is the westernmost town in China, and it ought not to exist at all. Geologically and politically, Kashgar is the last town on one of the longest dead ends on the planet. On three sides, it is shielded by the Karakorum and Pamir mountain ranges, on the other by the Taklimakan Desert, whose name translates as 'The Go In And You Won't Come Out Desert'. To get to Kashgar, you can cross over a 5,600m pass from Pakistan, on probably the world's highest-altitude bus route, or you can take a three-day, almost non-stop bus ride through the desert from the nearest Chinese town of Urumqi.
Why, frankly, would you bother? The answer is simple. Kashgar hosts probably the best Sunday market in the world. Its very remoteness is what makes the market so extraordinary; partly due to the exoticism of the produce for sale, partly because it is the only real place to shop in an area the size of western Europe.
The market sprawls over a huge area, with almost nothing packaged up or freighted in or prettified in any way. The food, much of it unidentifiable, is sold in mounds and heaps, or, if you're lucky, a sack. The meat on offer is in the form of live animals. Clothing is basic and functional. The only area of life in which the local people go for flamboyance or diversity is headgear. There appear to be as many stalls at the Kashgar market selling hats as anything else.
The only part of the market where there is any clear space is in the horse trading area; not because this is an unpopular product, but for the necessity of a test-drive track. The human crush only abates for this one clear strip of sand, the width of a tennis court, the length of three or four, in which horse purchasers can test out the wares.
If you stand at one end of this track, the effect is unnerving. A horseman at the far end will mount, kick the horse's flanks with some ferocity, then gallop directly towards you. As they get closer, the speed only seems to increase. For a moment, you feel death is imminent. Then, barely a metre in front of you, the reins are yanked, the horse's eyes boggle and his nostrils flare, and this huge, speeding animal spins and charges back again in the other direction, spraying your trousers with sand.
The inhabitants of this region, known as Uighurs, have a distinctive appearance, more European or Middle Eastern than Chinese. Most of the men have shaven heads, the older ones tending to sport long grey goatees. On one street in the market you will see row after row of men, most of whom look like fairytale soothsayers, sitting on low stools, having their craniums shaved with cut-throat razors.
The population of Kashgar is reputedly swelled by 100,000 every Sunday for this market, but due to the difficulties of getting there, only a minuscule fraction of these visitors are foreigners. As a tourist, markets are not so much an interesting place to shop, as an interesting place to watch others shop.
Wherever you are in the world, when people come to buy, sell and haggle, you are confronted with the greatest spectator sport there is. If you are in a country where you don't speak the language, a market is the best chance you will get to gauge the personalities and lifestyles of your hosts. A market provides you with endless little windows into what people desire, and what lengths they will go to to get it.
The reason this extraordinary market takes place dates to Roman times. Until the sea route around Africa opened up in the 15th century, all trade between China and the west took place overland, along the Silk Route. Kashgar, a key oasis staging post between the desert and the mountains, was one of the most important towns on this route. In terms of international trade, this place was once of giant significance. Then, suddenly, the Silk Route was superseded and Kashgar's prosperity ended.
Four hundred or so years later, Kashgar had another brief moment in the geopolitical sun, finding itself at the crossroads of the Chinese, Russian and British empires, each of which were deeply suspicious of the other two. The so-called 'Great Game' of Russo-British spying in the 19th century (a proto-Cold War) was centred on Kashgar, which found itself playing host to two large embassies.
The former Russian and British embassies are now the two best hotels in town, and in certain rooms you can still sense a bygone era of low-tech espionage, when spies disguised themselves as Buddhist pilgrims to survey enemy territory, hiding their findings in doctored prayer wheels.
China is not so much a nation state as the last great land empire, the only one not broken up by the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. Tibet is the province (or colony, depending on your viewpoint) that gets all the publicity, but Xinjiang, in the west of the country, is another area of equally vast size, whose indigenous population (8m Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs) has as little in common, culturally, linguistically and religiously, with the dominant Han Chinese as the Tibetan Buddhists. Their struggle for independence has been just as brutally repressed.
Few westerners ever visit Kashgar. If I meet one, I feel as if I am encountering a fellow member of a secret society. Our conversation will turn, invariably, to the market. In a world where tourist markets the world over often seem to be selling the same tat, Kashgar market is a unique beacon. The town's fortunes may have originally boomed on the earliest profits of global trade, but it now seems to be one of the places least touched by it: where it is easier to buy a horse than a car, where manure sells better than Nike trainers.