The Silk Road, China

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Kashgar & The Southern Silk Road


Kashgar's location has always been significant: it is the Silk Road hub that connects China with Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan via two high altitude mountain passes, both of which I have been lucky enough to experience in the last few weeks (and one of them twice!)

I had expected Kashgar to bring to a close the Central Asian chapter of this trip and had even braced myself for the more testing aspects of Chinese culture that I had read about, such as the staring and the real difficulty being understood even if attempting Mandarin.

All of these concerns proved misplaced - at least for now. Kashgar, like most of Xinjiang province, is far more Central Asian than it is Chinese. The local Uighar people look different from the Han Chinese, speak their own language, are Muslim and have the same customs and food tastes as their Central Asian neighbours - as one person put it quite simply: "I am not Chinese."

The Uighar people in fact have a history of resisting Chinese which extends to the present day, despite the mass migration of Han Chinese into the province which has done something to diminish the Uighar's domination of the population figures in Xinjiang. Within a few minutes of meeting them, a number of people have expressed their dislike for the Chinese (i.e. Han Chinese) - citing reasons as diverse as cultural differences or discrimination in areas such as finding work.

So Kashgar is a muddle of contradictions: a gigantic statue of Chairman Mao (hailing a taxi?!?) is a short walk away from the Id Kah Mosque. Amusingly, the Xinjiang museum attempts to smooth over the cracks in the region's history with an upbeat historical narrative of how regional culture has all contributed to the greatness and unity of the motherland...

Kashgar is most famous for its Sunday market - a magnet which brings thousands of Central Asians together every week to buy or sell just about anything imaginable. Billo and I managed to experience it en route to Pakistan.

Our visit to the animal market got off to a bizarre start with the tourists (and there were rather more than we were used to) beating the locals to it and somewhat outnumbering them. Within an hour or so, however, the market was in full swing with cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses and the odd camel changing hands at a furious pace. The sheep were even given the salon treatment to ensure they fetched the best possible price.

The rest of the market was so sprawling it felt more like an area of
town than a market as such, comprising indoor bazaars and a mass of street markets. The real buzz was invariably the latter, where we watched people scrutinizing everything from water melons to the sales pitch of some obscure Chinese medicine. The variety of ethnic groups at the market, each betrayed by their wonderful local hats was wonderful. We spent as much time looking for people as we did for things to buy.

An unexpected highlight of Kashgar was meeting two like minded Londoners - literally as we were waiting at the traffic lights on our rented bikes. Fred & Cederic (from Switzerland) completely humbled us and our little trip by having cycled from Tehran to Kashgar. We enjoyed a couple of great evenings swapping stories and helping them celebrate the end of their trip (it made us think of the bad weather we had experienced at the Torugart pass in a completely different light) with some good food and several very good Chinese beers. Their trip may even have inspired us to seek out some adventure of our own on the Karakorum Highway...

The Southern Silk Road - a road less travelled

The Chinese traders had a tough deal. Heading west from Xian, they had to leave the protection of the Great Wall and contend with the Taklakaman desert in Northwest China - just over a quarter of million square kilometres of some of the most inhospitable nothingness on earth.

Of course they skirted around its edges it rather than battle with the sand dunes in the middle, hence the Northern Silk Road via Turpan and the Southern Silk road via Lop Nor and Khotan. The two roads were reunited at Kashgar, whereupon the Chinese caravans would head up into the Pamirs to exchange their wares (which would either head south into Afghanistan and India) via the Kunjerab pass (see the Karakorum Highway posting) or north to Tashkent and Samarkand (see the Pamir Highway posting). Meanwhile the Chinese merchants retraced their steps 3,000 back to Xian, once again braving the deserts and marauding bandits as they went.

Of the two routes, the Southern is the older and historically more significant - many of the famous travellers (including Marco Polo) took it. In its remoteness lay its attraction to the caravan trains - even the bandits thought twice before attempting it. Today it still lacks any major cities and is certainly the road less travelled. Armed with a Mandarin phrasebook in a Uighar speaking province I was to experience the vast emptiness of the Taklakaman desert first hand and find virtually no one who spoke English for the best part of a week.

Even the desert was not what I had expected. Instead of the evocative sand dunes at the heart of the Taklakaman, the landscape was a simply vast formless desert stretching out to the horizon. In the course of a week of bus journeys, just a few dunes (often stitched together with carefully planted grasses to prevent them from shifting onto the roads) and the odd (two humped) camel was all that interrupted the flatness between the Silk Road oasis towns that remain today.

Instead of searing heat and glaring sunshine, the desert was both windy and cloudy, meaning that the sky muddled together with the horizon in a dusty haze. My first stop was the dusty town of Khotan, famed for its carpets, silk and jade production.

I arrived expected a tour of the carpet and silk factories and hoping to buy a carpet. Quickly my expectations adjusted to the difficulties of traveling where it is hard to communicate and there is absolutely no tourist infrastructure: one factory was closed (the second attempt was more fruitful) and in the other one my 'tour' involved me poking my head into various buildings to see what was going on. The speed with which the women worked (while keeping up an impressive level of banter) was as incredible to me as my inability to tie one knot was hilarious to them.

Women at work at the carpet factory in Khotan

I couldn't leave without seeing the silk production process, and when I finally made into the silk factory, it was was worth the effort. From the silk cocoon, one of which I was able to take away with me, I saw the silk threads being wound onto individual spindles by machines and then eventually being cross-weaved into wide sheets of silk. It was fascinating to watch and the process from start to finish is so incredible that is hardly surprising that many people in the west used to think that silk grew on trees.

Beyond these 'sights' there was little to do other than wander around the few oasis towns and surrounding countryside where the bus stopped and I would spend the night. Each town had a street market that was alive with a Central Asian buzz and the irrigated outskirts were made up of lanes of flat roofed mud houses, each with livestock outside and wheat or maize smallholdings nearby.

The country lanes just outside Ruoqiang

Even in these small towns (which must be rural backwaters compared to the cities that are driving China's economic growth) the charge for modernisation was hard not to notice; sparkling new constructions adorned the few 'downtown' streets, even though the tarmac gave way to sand just a few hundred metres away. The pace of change is clearly rapid; my impressions and experiences were quite different from the descriptions I found in the various books I have with me; yet both were published within the last five years. It is clear that even the remotest parts of China are rapidly being hauled into the twenty first century. Travelling overland right through China will be a fascinating experience; moving east is like travelling through time.



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Judith McCue said...

I enjoyed reading your blog. I traveled the Northern Silk Road in 2012 and want to do the southern route to Kashgar, and beyond in 2013. Change in China proceeds verywhere at an exponential pace. Apart from the desert, which also is changing, I wonder if any of the other wonderful things you described will still be there. I can only hope.