Kashgar, once a key centre of the ancient silk road, visited by merchants and famed travellers such as Marco Polo, lies in the autonomous region of Xingjiang in North Western China. The fabled city sits as a giant oasis, 1240m above sea level on the eastern border of the Taklimakan desert.
The journey from Northern Pakistan to Xingjiang takes us through a multitude of different panoramas. At 4730m the Kunjerab pass forms a natural border between Pakistan and China and, in the winter months, becomes impossible to cross, blocked by the cold, harsh forces of nature. From here the road winds on through a vast, mountainous desert, capped with snow. There is little in the way of vegetation, but donkeys and double humped camels can be seen plodding aimlessly along the plains of this dry and arid land.
Xingjiang is home to many ethnic minorities, such as the Uigur, Tajik, Kazakh and Uzbehk peoples, and the Chinese, making it a culturally diverse region. The first city along the highway is Tashkurgan (3600m), a predominately Tajik town, where ruins of a 600 year old fort overlook green pastures that are surrounded by snow topped, desert mountains. In this wee town we have our first taste of Chinese cuisine and our first lesson. Back in the hotel we discover we've been ripped off, having paid triple the usual price for our meal. We learn that our foreign faces signify 'loads of cash'. Our lesson - always know and agree on the price before ordering and eating. The food was excellent by the way.
After travelling through Pakistan it was almost shocking to see women's bare arms and legs again. The first Tajik woman we saw wore a frilly white dress, stockings, red high heels, and a small head scarf, her face painted white like someone off an opera stage. Two months in Pakistan, where women covered themselves from head to toe, had taken their toll and I wondered how many brothels there were in town.
It was an incredible fight to get on the bus to Kashgar. There weren't enough seats for the amount of tickets that had been sold. People pushed and shoved to sit themselves down, there were no pleasantries. The bus was jammed with biscuits, kitchenware and fabrics from Pakistan and a wild array of people including Pakistanis, Chinese, Tajiks, Uigars, two Japanese, and us - a Brazilian and a New Zealander. Travelling eastwards we passed a few nomadic settlements, looking as if time had never touched them. Camels sat parked outside tents made of animal hide, while children ran about playing without any cares.
Soon the scenery became dominated by the 7540m Muztagh Aga (Father of Ice Mountains) and Mount Kongur (7720m). Lying in the laps of these mighty mountains is Lake Karakol creating spectacular desert scenery of water, sand and snow. At the lakeside the bus stopped for a lunch break, and although there is no town, there is tourist nomadic tent style accommodation, a couple of restaurants, souvenirs and the chance to have a picture taken with a two humped camel. We thought the scenery was worth an overnight stay, so we caught a bus onwards the next day.
From the lake, the road takes us through more desert scenery finally plunging down into the Ghez river canyon and onto the plains. Small towns and signs of agriculture begin to appear. We take a break, from the arse breaking bus ride, at a small town where horse and carts are still the main mode of transport. The atmosphere of this timeless place more like that of the old Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. The men wear shirts, trousers, blazers and caps, and women dress in knee length frocks, stockings, high heels and cover their hair with small, colourful scarves. Young boys play pool in an outdoor hall surrounded by noodle and bagel stalls. Not many tourists visit this town, and the towns people are most curious about our foreign faces. On the road again we finally arrive in Kashgar after 10 hours of a dusty, bumpy but incredibly scenic ride.
The majority of the 200,000 people that live in Kashgar are Uigur, though the population of Chinese is forever increasing. Uigur people are followers of the Islamic faith, their written script is Arabic, their language closely related to Turkish and their physical features more or less Caucasian. Although the Chinese have done a great deal to improve the living conditions in the region such as building roads, railways hospitals and industry, there is an air of tension between the Uigars and the Chinese. Understandably, the Uigars cannot forgive their compatriots for their past wrong-doings, such as once replacing all Arabic script taught in schools with Chinese characters, the closing of the mosques during the cultural revolution and the past centuries of misrule by the Chinese. Or maybe it simply comes down to present religious and cultural differences.
Id Kah mosque is the center of Uigur activity. Muslims pray at five set times during the day and Friday is Sabbath. Fridays are exceptionally busy at the mosque. Exotic faces from the past, come from the city and surrounding countryside, ambling into the mosque to find peace and prayer. It's a religious and social event. Uigur men arrive with long beards and dress in their finest fur coats and embroidered caps. Women, although not permitted into the interior of the mosque, are also around for the event. Some in long dark dresses, their heads and faces covered with large brown gauze scarves. Others take a less severe approach wearing knee length dresses, sequined material a favourite, stockings and small head scarves that cover only their hair.
Around the mosque a maze of narrow streets make up the market place. Kashgar is a hat making center, here milliners make and sell felt caps, embroidered Muslim caps and exotic fur lined hats made from sheep, goat and occasionally snow leopard or marmot skins. Knives are another specialty of the region and are especially ornate. On the roadside blacksmiths pound their anvils and coppersmiths beat out urns and pots. Shoe repair men work with simple tools and pieces of string. Old bearded men sell Muslim prayer beads and Koran's decorated with beautiful calligraphy. Everywhere you look there is a scene from another time.
First thing in the morning the aroma of freshly baked bagels lingers in the air, caressing the olfactory senses. This bread is definitely at its best while it's still warm, as it turns into a some kind of rock formation on cooling. But the food on the streets does not always tempt ones optical senses. Chicken feet and heads are a local delicacy along with the heads of goats and sheep. Savoury dishes of offal and intestine steam on street corners and are eaten with gusto. Apart from these fine foods, you can find delicious dumplings filled with meat or vegetables which are rolled and steamed in front of you, certifying their freshness. Outside restaurants, culinary experts swing their dough producing perfect noodles to make tasty chow miens and soups. The streets are filled with local culinary delights.
On Sundays the shopping focus shifts to the eastern outskirts of town. Traffic jams of horses and carts carrying produce and passengers, block the main road as people from the country side pour into town for the Sunday Market. It's a huge event. Live stock for sale includes horses, fat bottomed sheep, goats, cattle, yaks and camels. Amongst the animals men bargain and fight for the best market price, puffing on and offering cigarettes in the hope of a good deal.
In the fruit and vegetable market the choices are numerous. Sweet melons, grapes, oranges and apples. Choice tomatoes, cabbages, green vegetables, spring onions, garlic and ginger. In the fabric section sequined women bargain for the choicest cloths, the gaudier the better. In restaurants noodles and odd delicacies are munched on while watching loud c-grade movies, each establishment competing for noise space. The markets is alive with bargain hunters and merchants. It's a fascinating place to spend the day watching and wandering.
We went to Kashgar having no idea what we would find. What we found was a hospitable and almost timeless people, fighting to hold onto their culture. Though not as exotic as its silk route days, Kashgar retains a uniqueness in its ever changing motherland. Despite the white statue of Chairman Mao in the main street, the city stands a world apart from greater China as its minorities fight to hold onto their autonomy.