Empty malls replacing ancient neighborhoods, the police patrolling the streets, and a place where Uighurs and Chinese come together were all part of what Lawrence Hamilton found when he returned to Kashgar.
My second time in Xinjiang and Kashgar was in 2013. It was a completely different animal than my first trip six years before. Instead of coming up from Pakistan I had come from Beijing. The rapid modernity of Eastern China had peeled away somewhere shortly past Xining, in Qinghai province.
Getting to Xining was a straightforward affair — a prompt 18 hour train ride with a bed, food, and friendly conversation. According to my map I was now halfway to Kashgar. Another long distance bus ride and I would be at the launching point for Central Asia.
I soon learned that after leaving Xining things would become far more complicated and time-consuming.
While there were several train options to go north and through Urumqi, it would require me to travel far out of the way of my final destination. The best route was just to go ‘straight’ west. I initially figured at most it would be a really long overnight bus. I completely misunderstood the vastness of China, and of Xinjiang in particular.
For starters most of the buses only travelled during daylight hours and usually for about 5-6 hours at a stretch. To get from Xining to Kashgar took me roughly five days.
Five hot days of terrible food, a monotonous landscape, and the absence of any language I could understand. We drove through a town made of asbestos and I got arrested. It was grueling, boring, scary, and exhausting. A great trip all around.
I felt I saw a side of southern Xinjiang that few travellers see. Instead of the camels, like Frances Younghusband might have tamed, I had to tame inscrutable bus timetables. Instead of slyly negotiating with a Buddhist monk like Sven Hedin, I had to forcefully negotiate with a mother on a sleeper bus who picked her baby up and quickly pulled his pants down just in time for the little brat to spray the floor and my mattress with crap.
Across my travels I stayed with a Chinese hotelier who had come from somewhere back east to set up shop in this far-flung region of Western China. I hopped off one bus to be directly invited to a sort of school dance that seemed to attract the whole town. The towns eventually blurred together, united by the dust blowing down the streets and the grey sky that hung overhead.
For the most part the Uighers and Chinese seemed to be living in two separate worlds. The Uighers would dominate the market areas with their wares and kebabs scattered onto the street. The Chinese seemed to say tucked away in their restaurants or businesses. This is not to say that Uighers and Chinese were completely at odds.
I stopped for a beer and noticed the bar had booths that looked like they could be hired. Over my drink I observed several liaisons between Chinese men and Uigher women. My mind would have to fill in any details about what happened inside the booths.
By the time I made it back to Kashgar I was again exhausted and in need of a rest. The first difference I noticed from the last time I was here was the appearance of quite a few more independent guesthouses. Although like a lot of guesthouses around the world, they had a certain blandness, a historical nature about them. They are manufactured to fit into any culture — it could exist in Lisbon or Xinjiang. I chose one overlooking the historic square.
From time immemorial, Kashgar has been attracting all kinds of thrill seekers and those in pursuit of intelligence, excitement, or just strange adventures. Nothing has really changed. At my guesthouse I met an Uzbek Christian missionary, a group of sound artists from Melbourne, and an African-American guy who claimed to be traveling the world in search of knives and openly expressing his desire to ‘show the police something’ here in Kashgar.
The main difference between 2007 and 2013 seemed to be the police. At every corner there stood an armoured battalion of police waiting for something. Rumours around the guesthouse said there had been a recent attack. Violent militants had attacked police, with knives. The Chinese, at least in the media, seemed fixated with knives. The fear of knives and the idea of brutality seemed a way to paint the Uighers as barbarians from another time with no deserving place in the new China.
Just as Younghusband plotted the overthrow of czarist and other incredible ideas, the modern traveller still has wild ideas, just on a different level. The sound artists from Melbourne were scouring the country looking for emptiness in which to create music. They had climbed a tower at an abandoned Disneyworld outside of Beijing. I showed them how to get on the roof of a five star hotel and we even played keyboard up there. We drank and talked about elliptical narratives and Carl Jung.
At the entryway to a covered market a man was shouting to a crowd which circled around him. At his feet was a green bucket turned upside down. When he had the crowd in the palm of his hand he flipped the bucket revealing a rather large scorpion.
We ate in markets and took photos with locals. I remember two women holding goat skulls to their mouth like they were drinking something out of them. It seemed at every juncture the police were around. I don’t think they followed us, but it felt like they were everywhere.
It was hard not discuss the continued police presence.
“This is why we have guns in America, so the police can’t push us around,” the crazy American guy told us over dinner one night. He wanted to take photos of the all the police in China and somehow use them to foment something. I’m not sure what.
“They wanted to take my camera at the train station, but I wouldn’t let them,” he boasted.
The Chinese presence had magnified in the past six years. The old town, which was virtually destroyed when I was first there, was even smaller now. Most of it just appeared to be piles of bricks strewn carelessly.
It was easy to stroll down bazaars, fully immersed in watching a goat being sacrificed and then quickly dip over into an air-conditioned Chinese mall, replete with broken elevators and stores devoid of actual customers. When I was sick of rice I could switch to kebabs and vice versa. It was like traveling in two countries at the exact same time. While the Chinese side of town looked bigger and more menacing, the closer you looked many of the shopping malls had their doors shuddered or were just plain run down.
Uighers who could speak English would barely hesitate to speak of the problems they faced. They claimed leaders had been assassinated and stories of ethnic violence planted in the media. Some of their stories seemed believable and some just plain ridiculous.
A look at the Uigher Congress’s website reveals just how intense China’s footprint attempts to be. From the government severely limiting, if not banning, Ramadan, to media campaigns forcing Uighers to enjoy beer and most recently the death of a woman in Chinese police custody, it makes the outrageous claims I heard in Xinjiang appear quite believable.
While China and Uighers may politically be at odds I managed to find one place where they got along. The bar — or those holes in the walls that straddle the border between bar and brothel. These little drinking spots catered to truck drivers and labourers. Near the old city there was a whole street full of them. The beer and baijiu flowed, as workers, both Uigher and Chinese, would drink and sing. Traditional instruments were brought out. Each little place seemed to have a dark room in the back filled with rough looking women. I stopped to enjoy the music.
As the alcohol kept flowing the emotion in the songs kept growing. The instruments would reach a crescendo and then suddenly they would crumble to silence. A smattering of applause would come from the gritty hands of working men. A woman would appear from the dark with fresh bottles. After some bantering in Mandarin the songs would start again. In this small dive, lost in a vast desert in a vast country, the Uighers and Chinese seemed to finally speak the same language.