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Saturday, September 03, 2005

In Kashgar

So here I am, Kashgar, the city at the end of the silk road (at least in China). A city whose name conjures up all sorts of images - images of an international gathering point, of horse trading and dust. A city of bazaars and carpets and mosques. A city of tourists that has lost some of its soul...all of this depending on who you talk to.

After one day, I think that I can say I've seen a bit of all of this.

On the train from Kuche to Kashgar, I met a woman who is writing some chapters for one of the main travel book publishers. Right now she is doing research on western China. She lives in Beijing and has family in Taiwan, and it has been interesting learning a bit about the expat community in Beijing as well as about the life of a freelance writer. It has also been nice reaping some of the benefits of her position as I am sharing a deeply discounted nice room with her (and no thinking bad thoughts here people...)

We headed out yesterday afternoon for a walk through the old town area of Kashgar, a maze of yellow mud houses and narrow winding lanes. We passed blacksmiths and breadmakers, breadmakers rolling out the dough and stamping swirling designs into them before pressing them against the inside of a fiery hot oven and then taking them out with a burnt metal hook. One woman gave us a freshly baked bread to eat, and though I have had many since my arrival in Xinjiang, this was by far the best.

The streets were full of kids, especially after I took a few photos of people. Soon we were being followed by a group of ten to fifteen asking me to take more pictures and just being kids. They would appear and disappear in the shadows of the late afternoon light. The writer from Beijing (born in America) said "This is exhausting. This happens every day?" Pretty much, I said.

You could see that plenty of foreigners have been through the old town with cameras. While I saw none until we were back out on the main road running through the old city, too many children came up putting an imaginary camera to their eyes and pointing at my camera bag. They made click-click sounds with their tongues. For the most part the kids were sweet...they like to say "Hello" and "What is your name." They would tell me their names with a shy voice. As these were all Uigher children more could say "What is your name" in English than they could in Chinese. It is not so easy to communicate here.

Another example of the tourist element...right in the middle of the old town is a window selling tickets to the old town. They are charging admission now! Of course, all you have to do is walk in from a different part of the town and you don't have to pay..but still. As it was the man let us walk past without paying and all was well.

The main road at 7 PM: Motorbikes and bicycles. Donkey carts and men pulling wagons. People everywhere. Noise. Smoke. Fire. Dust. Knives for sale and cooking wares and dried snakes and frogs and herbs. Hats. Old buildings whose colorful facades and wood carved designs are now faded. Flowers on the balconies. Beautiful children and women, handsome men. Some look Russian, others Central Asian. Women in burkas and veils. Some women with head scarves that leave only their eyes visible, and some of them with their eyes shaded by sunglasses. And back to the beauty for a moment - it seems that among girls and women from about 12-24, a very high percentage have a natural beauty, an exoticism that is stunning. They are often not aware of this, but foreign women I have talked to comment on this almost more than the men do.

Bread stands and fruit stands. Kebabs cooking. Men sitting and eating ice cream while watching VCD's. A mud road and a stand where intestines are hanging by a hook, as well as half a lamb carcass. A basket full of lamb skulls. You should try this, a man says.

Old men with long white beards and funky eyeglasses. A few cripples walking through the maelstrom. Me almost getting run over time and time again (When I start taking pictures or am captivated by a scene my awareness, while heightened, does not extend to the immediate danger presented by passing vehicles - Natalia can vouch for this, I think). [As can his brother.--ed.]

A dinner eaten at a nice Uigher restaurant, the room completely decorated by plastic hanging flowers and fruits, but the food as good as it comes (and for 3 USD, the most expensive meal I've eaten in weeks).

This morning we ate at a Pakistani restaurant. The meat was to be scooped up into a piece of bread like a tortilla wrap. It tasted as good as or better than the burritos at most Mexican restaurants I've eaten at. We started talking to a few Pakistani men here on business. I had heard that Pakistanis were amongst the most friendly people in the world. This, from my first experience, is true. They shared their food with us, and then without us knowing paid for our bill. Later we ran into them and they brought us to this internet cafe, where the cost is half that as at our hotel and the speed is actually fast. Add one more country to the list of that which must be visited...


I feel that this post does not really capture much of what Kashgar is like, and I apologize for that. I also left out my experience of Kuche's Uigher district at sunset the other night and the chaos of the main street. There are so many things I have left out. I wish I could get all of it.

Now I wonder what to do next. Perhaps no Tashkurgan, but yes to Lake Karakul for a few days. Or perhaps several days in Kashgar. Should I stay for the Sunday bazaar here, or check out the one in Hotan, which is supposed to be better in some ways, though lacking in the cattle and horses for sale. And regardless of which way I go, what then? To Xian, I think - but from there Tibet or not Tibet, that is the question. Of course, I have also heard that Tibet is closed off completely right now (anyone know anything about this?).

And so you find one the worst things about travel: The options that drive you mad. Not just of the places you can see, but the people you meet and the potential jobs and lifestyles they reveal to you, all of the choices. And here I am, 29, still can't decide on anything. Where to go, what to do...it all sounds so damn good. To be honest, sometimes this makes living life so painful, such a joke, knowing that I'll only have one crack at it, knowing all that will be missed out on. But then, that is not a healthy way to think, is it? A lucky man I am. That is the belief to hold onto.

4 Comments:

Anonymous shawn grant said...

keep your head up and your shoes on!!!! go baby go! I am soooooo jeaulous. I am here at work right now still wishing I could be doing what you doing. keep it up!!!

2:57 PM  
Anonymous Mom said...

lucky indeed you are...
but so are we, to be able to have vicarious experience of places we're likely never to see. Can't wait to see your pictures!

3:50 AM  
Anonymous Grandma Brinker said...

USA is a nice place to visit, Alan!

5:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its an amazing story she posted about the . I heard about it at www.horseoutlet.com as well last week.

2:04 AM  

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