Friday, January 18, 2008

China--The Magic of Kashgar

Kashgar is by far one of the most magical cities I have ever seen. It is a very old city, located at the juncture of the north and south routes of the Silk Road (The Silk Road was actually a series of trade routes. The southern routes went through what is now Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan [areas such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and Merv], while the northern routes went through current-day Kyrgyzstan and the southernmost portion of Kazakhstan. These routes joined in Kashgar and then extended eastward. When Islam was introduced into Central Asia, it first took hold in cities, and today there are still a large number of Muslims (mostly Uyghurs) in Kashgar. The Id Kah mosque in the heart of the old city is considered to be one of the most sacred sites by Muslims in China.

The downtown area of the city is divided into two distinct sections. The southern half is clearly non-Uyghur (and probably mostly Han Chinese). There are stores that sell alcohol, restaurants, and shops that follow a more western style. It is even possible to order pork in restaurants (We had one dish that actually had bacon. Sheer bliss! It was the first bacon I’d had since August, since it is not readily available in Almaty). The northern half of downtown Kashgar is the original city center. Everything is centered around the Id Kah mosque (pictured in a previous blog). There is a large square in front of the mosque, with a covered bazaar opposite. Small stores and vendors line the streets, and it is not uncommon to see a man leading a donkey cart laden with goods down the street. There is a large square in front of the mosque that can accommodate upwards of 100,000 men for services on holy days. Men in green uniforms patrol the entire area, ensuring that people adhere to the strict code of behavior. No smoking or drinking alcohol, no gambling, no spitting, no littering. Even animals are affected by these rules. There are several places along the side of the square for tourists to pose with a camel, a donkey, or a pony. All of these animals stand on some sort of carpeting to keep any effluents from falling directly on the square. The poor pony even had a bucket tied around its girth to catch any urine.

When we first arrived at the mosque, it was shortly before the muezzin (call to prayer). Within minutes of hearing the call, the square was full of men dressed in black. I don’t think there was any religious reason for the prevalence of black clothing, though. It is a common choice for clothes in this region, where washing machines are scarce and dust is plentiful. Sarah, Amelia, and I definitely stood out in our brightly colored, western-style winter coats.

We spent a fair amount of time exploring the narrow alleys and warrens behind the mosque. It was absolutely fascinating. Many of the buildings have complex geometric patterns, and some of the buildings were clearly once mosques. Vendors sell all sorts of ‘street food’. My favorite? A bar made of walnuts and some sort of honey/sugar coating. Absolutely delicious-but expensive. It cost all of 30 cents for the walnut bar! The ones made of cashews or assorted nuts were only 15 cents.

Walking around for a while, we came across a street full of artisans creating their wares. Metalsmiths making copper ornaments, woodworkers carving dishes, other artisans making/playing traditional Uyghur musical instruments. It was possible to stop at stalls along the street and buy loose tea, nan (bread), just-picked tangerines, and many other items. Restaurants dotted the street—recognizable by the mutton hanging outside the door, as well as by steaming trays of manti and braziers with grilling meat out front.

English is not a very common language in Kashgar, and the city also appears to be divided by language. Uyghur is spoken in the Muslim area, and Chinese (probably Mandarin) is spoken in the remainder of the city. Unfortunately, we did not speak any Uyghur—but that did not prevent us from trying to communicate with store owners and waiters in restaurants. One restaurant we went into had a food that we couldn’t wait to try—pumpkin manti. Usually, manti is meat (m’yasa) without vegetables. To order our meal, I had to take the waiter out to the street and point to the manti, then show him 3 fingers (one order for each of us). They were nearly out of pumpkin manti, so we augmented our order with regular manti. The cost for this delicious lunch? 7.2 quai—just under $1 for three meals.

Shopping in the stores was definitely a unique experience! Bargaining is expected—but how do you bargain when you don’t speak the language?? Our technique was quite simple. We knew three phrases in Chinese (‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and ‘how much does it cost’), so we would ask the cost and then give the shopkeeper a piece of paper and pen. They would either write the price down for us, or would punch the numbers into a calculator (or cell phone) and show it to us. We would counter by writing a lower number down—if they shook their head to indicate no, we would start to walk away. Usually, the shopkeeper would follow us and agree to the lower price. It didn’t always work, but often had the desired result.

There was one store where we all agreed not to bargain. There are about five or six stores selling traditional musical instruments on this particular street. In the first store we went into, we were surprised to be greeted in English by a young man tuning an instrument. Amelia was interested in several of the different instruments, and I wanted to find something for my nephews. The young man (Kurbanjan Ablimat) spent substantial time explaining the different instruments to us, and ensuring that quality of the gifts for Ryan and Campbell (he wasn’t happy with one of the instruments, and found a better one to replace it). He also gave us directions to a store where we could buy CDs of traditional music.

We went into some of the other music stores afterwards, but the prices were all higher, the instruments weren’t as nice, and the storekeepers were not particularly friendly. We really had no intention of buying anything in the other stores, though—our plan was to go back to the original store for any other purchases. Before doing so, we went back to the hotel to drop off our bags and to make arrangements for a camel ride in the Taklamakan Desert the following day. [Thanks to Amelia’s sister, Sybil, who lives in China and speaks the language, we were able to communicate with the front desk at the hotel. Amelia called her sister, told her what we wanted, and than gave the phone to the receptionist. It took a little while, but it worked!].

By the time we returned to downtown Kashgar, it was getting late—about 5:30pm Beijing time. We weren’t sure how late the stores would be open, and needed to finish shopping for gifts that afternoon. There wouldn’t be time after camel riding, and we were returning to Urumqi the following day. Fortunately, the first music store we went into was still open. Kurbanjan greeted us and immediately began telling us more about the instruments. Amelia wanted to look at a qushtar (a stringed instrument played with a bow), and Sarah was interested in a rawab (another stringed instrument, but which is more similar to a banjo). The qushtar that Amelia selected did not have a bridge, so Kurbanjan constructed the bridge while he told us more about the store and his interest in the instruments. His family has handmade traditional Uyghur instruments for five generations. Each instrument is carefully inlaid with different types of wood, and elaborately decorated. Even the small models of these instruments are handmade. He spent time showing us how each instrument is played, and demonstrated several traditional Uyghur songs and also played some Mozart for us. It was truly a fantastic experience. We were in the store for nearly two hours, listening to music and learning about each instrument. When it eventually came time to pay for our purchases (and I am not saying what I bought, since they include several gifts), none of us even thought of bargaining. It wasn’t just a shopping trip, but an amazing cultural experience—by spending the time to explain the instruments and music to us, Kurbanjan gave us a gift that won’t soon be forgotten. Before we left, he also presented me with a CD of traditional music—which is simply beautiful.

Our day in Kashgar ended at a Chinese restaurant. It was my turn to order dinner from the menu—ordering consisted of turning several pages and pointing to items in a different range of prices. And, yes, I did manage to order hot and spicy intestines (a picture of which is in a previous post). Fortunately, the prices were very reasonable—if we didn’t like a dish, we looked around the restaurant and indicated to the waitress that we would like what another table had ordered (this is considered normal behavior in China). The total bill for the five dinner entrees? 97 quai—or about $13. When we returned to the hotel, we calculated how much we had spent on food for the entire day—the total for each of us was about $5.25, including that pricy dinner.

As enjoyable as Kashgar was, we were all excited about the next day and camel riding. We had no idea just what an adventure it would be!

China-Taxi Ride from Hell-Pictures

1. Road to nowhere

2. "Fixing" the car--we put the blocks on the tires, not our taxi driver

3. Directing traffic around the car

4. Waiting for the car to be fixed

5. Area right by the 'garage'--note the repairs made to the broken telephone pole. Just stick two concrete posts into the ground, and tie the pole to them. Yikes!

China--Urumqi to Khorgos--Pictures

1)Lake Sayran

2-4)Herding on the highway around Lake Sayran

5)Amelia at an overpriced "Starbucks" in Khorgos

China-train ride from Kashgar to Urumqi-Pictures

A few pictures from the train ride from Kashgar to Urumqi. 1)Highway in the Taklamakan Desert near the Flaming Mountains 2)Settlement near the Flaming Mountains 3)sunrise from a plateau above the Turpan Depression 4)largest windfarm in China, near Turpan