China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: KASHGAR!
Date: Tue, 06 Oct 1998 14:37:09 -0700

13:44 Seman Hotel, Kashgar; Xinjiang--China :: TU 06 OCT 98

Arrived. Yesterday. Finally. More than a little worn and drawn. The last several hundred kilometers subdued by a dusty greyness in the atmosphere, a small blue circle overhead and in the late afternoon a toothless sun would vanish into the air several degrees above the horizon. The Tianshan, the Taklamakan Desert's northern mountain wall, often reduced to ghostly shapes. Were there more terrain than the abruptly obscured mountain range to the north and the vast flatness to the south, the scene could have been eerie, or provocative, or simply beautiful. Instead, an endless ride through the gebi, wind-borne dust leaving a taste in the air.

But I will tell the story of these final crossings another time. Today, right now, Kashgar, to which the last 20 kilometers is a most welcome descending glide. And from the outskirts of town inward is a descent of another kind.

Throw every cliche in the travel guides at Kashgar, and it will stick. That I'd begun to leave the Han Chinese culture behind became increasingly apparent soon after entering Xinjiang. "Toto, I don't think we're in China anymore," I told Emma one day in Hami. We were strolling through the city's Muslim quarter, with its narrow streets bordered by single story white-washed mud brick storefronts. Simple awnings extended over the wide royal-blue doorways, supported by posts cut from tree limbs or saplings, stripped of bark. Inside, wool carpets in patterns of rich reds and deep blues, or trunks decorated with hammered brass. Dry goods and produce, hardware and cookware, restaurants and street stalls serving mutton kebabs and pulou, fried rice laced with julienned carrots and large chunks of mutton on the bone. Butchers hang sides of sheep, legs and hindquarters, from the trees lining the streets.

Look through the back door, or down the narrow side streets into the front doors of homes (always, it seems, thrown open) and see the familiar courtyard structure of residences everywhere in China, but here the colours inside, blues and oranges and yellows and reds, bold and cheerful, often shaded by grape trellises overhead. This is not China.

And in the dress. Men in caps. Skull caps. Golf caps. Further west, thick woolly things pulled low over the ears on the hottest days. Women in colourful flowing skirts, kerchiefs or shawls pulled tightly to their head with ponytail protruding, or hung loose to drape over the shoulders. In the east stockings and pantaloons all on display in the markets where merchant women crouch, squat or sit on the ground, legs haphazardly, carelessly splayed. Further west, the more traditional wear a light fabric trouser, brightly coloured, or at least brightly bordered. For others it's a heavy pair of tights (White, Pierre Cardin: the favourite) covered by sheer panty-hose. Here, the women seem a little more demure about displaying their undergarments. And more demure about showing their faces, often covered entirely by a shimmering square of cloth draped completely over the head. In Kuqa, I sometimes stepped in the path of these women, believing them to be walking away rather than toward me.

Each town along the way, even the large Han settlements, seemed to be a step further and further into a place not like China. After Korla, my smidgen of Mandarin grew only sporadically useful. In Kuqa, the Friday Market sprawled with shoppers and merchants, donkey carts whose drivers unceasingly shout, "POSH! POSH!" into the milling crowd. "Get out of the way!" In Aksu, a remote Han haven, I left the grid of white tile, concrete and asphalt to find the Uyghur homes, tradesmen, shopkeepers and food stalls along a dusty, dirt track curling through the sun-dried mud brick walls.

And now Kashgar. I have been in China more than six months now, and have experienced nowhere like this place. I could throw every travel-guide cliche at Kashgar, and it would stick. The night market in front of Id Khah Mosque is a chaos of rhythms, aural, verbal, visual and, as the men ride bicycles fearlessly through the throng (no POSH! POSH! here), physical. The curvy, meandering streets cut through buildings haphazardly cobbled together. "I think we need a second story here, a balcony there."

It is said of China that at any time, in any place, it is impossible to scan the horizon and not find a Chinese person. In Kashgar, it seems impossible to open your eyes and not see someone in motion. The city teems. Bustles. Horns toot, toot, tooting. Incessantly. Hawkers calling out their offerings. Some guide books have written that this town is like a step back in time, as if time somehow stopped. It did not. Time just never changed its rhythm, or its melody, or its methodology. Kashgar is not a throwback, it is a carryforward. Habit and custom, tradition and culture, technique of life-rhythm. Cobblers and smiths, seamstresses, tailors and weavers: honoured handworkers side-by-side with the departments stores filled with Han and Western goods.

And I have only strolled the night streets for a few hours. So much more time here, to observe and absorb. More, after I let time do its thing.



The great Way is easy,
yet people prefer the side paths.
Be aware when things are out of balance.
Stay centered within the Tao.

When rich speculators prosper
While farmers lose their land;
when government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures;
when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible
while the poor have nowhere to turn-
all this is robbery and chaos.
It is not in keeping with the Tao.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 53
trans. Stephen Mitchell