We made it to Kashgar! On 29 December we arrived at our Grail – what kept us motivated through the wind, snow and trials of our final days in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A real city, with some Western comforts and the place of our rest stop for about the next week as we recovered from our Central Asian leg.
With a name like Kashgar you may be surprised to learn that, yes, we’ve arrived in China – our twentieth and final country! Kashgar is China’s westernmost city, the country’s gateway to Central Asia. The city sits at the convergence of the North and South Silk Routes that pass through the expansive Taklamakan desert. Kashgar has been an important Silk Road stop for thousands of years, a market town oasis, and today still retains much of the hustle and bustle of traders and sees endless caravans of trucks (the modern day camel) passing through. Although Urumqi is the present capital of Xinjiang, Kashgar was once the capital of several khanates, as well as of the Emirate of Kashgaria 1867-78 (a breakaway territory from the Qing dynasty) and the East Turkestan Republic 1933-34 (a breakaway Islamic Republic from the Republic of China). Xinjiang, with a majority population of Uighurs (Muslims), has a history of striving for independence and remains a headache for the current Chinese government which cannot afford to lose control over the volatile province due to the Mandate of Heaven – their ‘right to rule’. Kashgar now has a slightly greater percentage of Han Chinese than Uighurs due to government relocation programmes, moving Han Chinese to the borders of the empire in an attempt to further colonise and stabilise such an historically and strategically important city.
Arriving in the city late at night after several hours of night riding, the statistics and reality seemed not to match: there were no Han Chinese in sight. Now that we were in China we would finally have no real language problems, everything would be easier, or so we thought. We both have degrees in Chinese and can speak the language well. “Where is the old town?” It was well past midnight and we just wanted to find the hostel. No one seemed to understand the word ‘Old Town’. We couldn’t understand why they couldn’t understand?! No one seemed to speak Mandarin Chinese, we were almost better off speaking the few words of Turkish we still remembered. Everyone was nice enough about it but couldn’t help. Maybe there would still be a language barrier, we quickly realised! We eventually found someone who knew where we were going and led the way. En route she bemoaned the current situation in the city, in a low voice she spoke of how the government was evicting people without reason, selling off public parks to property developers and demolishing huge areas in order to build new and make money. An endless stream of complaints and concerns flowed from her so that I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. She looked around nervously from time to time, for reasons that became extremely obvious later on – the city crawled with SWAT, police and probably more that we weren’t aware of.
Walking down any road in Kashgar it would be a surprise not to come across a police car, a SWAT vehicle or a mobile police office. Flashing red and blue lights were ubiquitous throughout the city. At every junction, on every street corner, outside the pedestrianised zone, outside the central mosque, next to the night market, next to the dancing grannies and grandpas. Large, jet black, imposing, almost laughably over the top SWAT vehicles sat, crosses between tanks and amphibious army vehicles, lights flashing, surrounded by heavily armed men, riot shields and batons standing by. On occasion we’d come across a terminator threesome – three SWAT stood shoulder to shoulder, back to back in a tight triangle, riot helmets, plastic arm and leg guards and full bulletproof body protection, guns held close, eyes constantly searching their 120° zone (as you might imagine, no photo opp revealed itself!). These guys were serious, and it was clear that no one was going to mess with them. Even if they were just for show, they put on a good one!
Walking past these comic bookesque characters everyday became rather laughable for us, but for the locals that live with them imposing on their lives it must be an entirely different feeling. “They are for our safety,” several Han Chinese told us. Recently there have been several violent incidents in the city: knife and bomb attacks, police cars being set on fire as well as the assassination of the chief imam outside the city’s main mosque. The central government is very worried about radicalisation and terrorism in the area. Uighurs were behind the 2013 Tiananmen Square car attack as well as last year’s Kunming train station stabbings. As a result there is a city wide, and even provincial wide, campaign to fight the ‘three forces’ of separatism, radicalism and terrorism. Banners, posters and billboards cover the city calling for ethnic harmony and social stability – the message is clear: ‘Don’t blow yourself up!’
Ethnic tensions rage on. The locals see the Han Chinese as occupiers in their land. The Han see the Uighurs as barbaric, uncultured and terrorists. Han eat in Han restaurants, Uighurs eat in Uighur restaurants – we hopped between the two asking what each thought of the other. In a Uighur restaurant we were invited downstairs by the boss for coffee. He explained, “Kashgar is not a place to speak your mind, you keep yourself to yourself and certainly don’t grow a beard…”. This a government rule specifically aimed at and enforced upon young Muslims – “as foreigners you should be okay,” he said, pointing at our facial appendages. There is no tenser a place than right in the city centre. Facing out over People’s Square, only ten minutes from the central mosque, arm raised and head held high stands one of the nation’s few remaining statues of Chairman Mao. Beneath his gaze the red flag of China flutters in the breeze, and filling the square below is a small army of SWAT. Passersby tend not to cross through the square. We therefore made our way directly across it, cutting between police and military police. We exchanged friendly greetings and smiles but they were not interested in small talk.
As we hopped from restaurant to restaurant we started where we’d left off in Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan – pigging out! Central Asia had offered very few culinary delights, meaning the myriad flavours of Chinese cuisine sent out taste buds into orbit: a far cry from sugar bread, our own Central Asian invention of piling sugar on bread when there was nothing else on offer – sometimes there wasn’t even bread. ‘Operation Get Fat For Christmas’ had been the plan as we scoffed kilos of baklava and cheese pies. Now, standing topless in front of the hostel mirror, rib cage protruding both front and back, cheekbones more than prominent and looking like The Wild Man from the Woods, I realised that we had failed. I weighed in more than 10kg lighter than in London, a weight I had not been since my early teens. I admit that I took a little jump back when I first saw the stranger staring back at me from inside the mirror. I looked at myself as if reunited with my image after years deserted at sea. As such, to see in 2015 we started eating as much as possible, and what better place than the Radisson Blu’s New Year buffet, complete with roast turkey, steak and sushi.
The reason we decided to stay in Kashgar for a week, apart from sleeping and eating, was to see the world famous Kashgar Sunday market – one of the ‘1000 things to see before you die’. As the tourist highlight of the city, if not the province, it should have been easy to get there. We had been informed that the livestock market had moved in order to expand, so we jumped in a taxi. We had no mutually intelligible language with the driver, so instead we started miming, then making animal noises. He let us go through cow, sheep, goat, horse and chicken before letting out a little chuckle and giving a nod. Leaving the town we joined a country road and were soon accompanied by farmers on tractors, some with empty trailers, others with horses, bulls and sheep on the back. We felt part of the throng as we waved on each overtake. Unsurprisingly the market entrance had a handful of police and a SWAT van. Fruit and veg sellers lined the road. Straw and dung carpeted the entrance, each side had sheep carcasses hanging outside restaurants being stripped down in the halal way as they were made ready to be skewered for the BBQ or mashed for dumpling filling. The basins of blood suggested the freshness of the meat, the hygiene standards were our only concern.
We pushed our way through the crowds, amongst the animals of each area. Sheep in pens, goats tied in lines, rampant bulls attempting to mount each other, sullen yak and bored camels. Donkeys eeyored and horses whinnied. Men on brightly decorated steeds charged up and down testing out the product on offer, turning sharply, before racing away, showing off. Little three-wheeler trucks ploughed through the masses bringing ever more animals. Wads of cash were exchanged over arguments and raised voices. We were offered a donkey at a reduced price but felt it might slow us down in the long run. We took selfies with the camels, tried not to be crushed by the burly bulls but refrained from attempting to pin the tail on a donkey. People had come from far and wide to buy and sell: some had come from other parts of China to source large orders of meat, others just needed a new donkey for the cart. After a few laps, and being consistently stepped on by sheep and goats (fortunately nothing bigger), as well as basking in the sights and sounds, as well as smells, of all the animals, we managed to stomach some lamb dumplings before heading back into the relative calm of the city.
After temporarily eating our fill, a day in the spa, a massage and a basic understanding of the cultural and political situations of the area we felt ready to take on the massive Taklamakan desert that occupies the majority of Xinjiang. It was still cold, but not Pamir cold. The landscape was going to remain fairly barren and we had some long days ahead, not to mention the Taklamakan crossing itself! But we were as ready as we were ever going to be.