The harsh reality and subtle beauty of everyday life in Kashgar.
Kashgar is my favorite city in China and Xinjiang is my favorite province. Although it feels strange to say that these places are in China, as they don’t feel anything like what China is ‘supposed’ to feel like. On the ground the region feels like a Central Asian republic being occupied by China. The tribulations of European colonization being repeated in the modern world.
The first time I went to Kashgar was in 2007 after hitching and busing up the Karakoram highway in Pakistan. Pakistan is a great country to travel in and an even greater country to leave. By the time I arrived in Kashgar I needed a break. A whiteboard sign on the Chini Bagh hotel stated a small school needed an English teacher. A phone call later and I had a job. I would teach basic English to children 5 days a week and in exchange the school would pay for my accommodation. I worked with a an American who spoke Uigher and had been in Xinjiang for ten years. He looked exhausted all the time. I was looking forward to picking his brain about the region. After the first day I never saw him again. One of the students’ parents told me he did a lot for the community. That’s travel and life. People come and go.
Since the price of the accommodation was never specified I picked a hotel I would never have splurged on and got a room with a shower, replete with an old babushka who sat at the end of the hallway and refilled my thermos with hot water. Her colorful headscarf covered her graying hair. Her wrinkled hands passed a large key ring filled with enough keys to unlock every door in the entire city. On my way to breakfast she would either sit stoically or point manically outside the window and put her hand over her mouth. I asked a guy at reception what she was doing.
“Warning you about dust storms,” he replied.
My free time was spent wandering around what was left of the old town, feeling shocked at the rapid pace it was being destroyed. Infused with Peter Hopkirk tales, I meandered through the former British and Russian consulates trying to envision the city when it was the listening post for the Great Game. At nights, Tsangtao beer was drunk with Pakistani students. We sat in the glum corridors of our hotel, the dark gloomy hallways felt like the movie set of what a director might have thought decaying communism looked like.
The Pakistani students were off to Shanghai. Life there was brash, exciting and full of prospects. China had given them trade deals and economic opportunities. A new and different life that they could hardly imagine. They cajoled me to go Shanghai or Beijing. Why live life on the margins looking at old people who hold keys?
Trade with Kashgar had brought lots of Pakistanis. Along with students, older men came bearing rugs and upholstery. The bus back to Pakistan was erratic. Once a week, weather permitting. Many of them sat idly around the hotel waiting for their departure day. A cafe even began serving parantha, fried eggs, and sickly sweet tea to accommodate them. I joined them a few times. Where the younger generation saw opportunity and excitement the older one looked at their surroundings with skepticism and frustration. They saw China as an economy to embrace out of necessity.
One night a girl, claiming she was Tajik, approached me and wanted to know if I would teach her English. We met a few times a week. She told me about her grandma’s hardship. In her words, the Chinese forced her to move out of her apartment because she couldn’t fill in certain paperwork in Mandarin. She claimed the government wouldn’t let her do it for her. While her brother and her had plenty of room in their homes, the Chinese would not allow their Grandma to say with them. She lived on the streets. Her brother, who illegally sold goods in Kyrgyzstan, would take her food.
“The Chinese are terrible,” she would mutter. As I walked to and from work I started to notice the old Uighers on the street and wondered how many of them had grandchildren who would bring them food. My student claimed she was Tajik, but spoke Uigher. The place seemed to grow more complex everyday.
The Chinese are terrible, or some variation, was something I heard consistently behind closed doors or when a few Tsangtao’s gave a sense of inflated security. The two societies seemed like horizontal parallel lines and the Chinese were always on top. People complained about the transformation of their Mosque into a tourist attraction and how all the jobs went to Han Chinese and how they just wanted them go away. While they acknowledged that China offered them university education and a more ‘economical’ lifestyle, it didn’t seem to matter.
“How much money would you take for your people?” my student asked me on the street one night.
I stayed in Kashgar five weeks. A good stretch. I don’t have any particular memories of getting sick of the place, maybe langman noodles started to wear on me. But as with any traveler, the road began to beckon. It was time to head to Kyrgyzstan.
On my last day of work my boss, a somewhat recent Han arrival from another part of the country, approached me.
“You shouldn’t leave,” she flatly stated.
I must have looked surprised, the thought of staying in Kashgar seemed to be like the thought of living on a different planet. It’s not that it wasn’t an interesting idea, it just never occurred to me that I could stay there permanently.
“We can give you a job, you can work, and you can have a great life,” she said optimistically. She held her baby boy while sitting on the back of a small red scooter.
“Do you ever miss China?”
Even then I found it strange that I said China and not home.
“Yes, of course,” she said. “But you can have a great life here. You should stay.”