After bidding smoggy, huge, and oh-so-very-Chinese Beijing adieu, my parents and I boarded a flight for Xinjiang. Xinjiang (which means "New Land" in Mandarin) is an enormous province in the very northwest of China that borders Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia and is inhabited largely by the Uighur minority, a Eurasian Muslim group, as well as minorities of Kazakhs, Kurds, and Mongolians. We connected through Urumqi to Kashgar, about 400 km (200 miles) away from the Pakistani border. Kashgar was completely absent the China I've come to know and love. It was much more Central Asian (for good reason), closer to a Middle Eastern feel than an Asian vibe. Also: the landscape was spectacular. Even flying in I couldn't keep my eyes off the view.
Pictures from the Plane
Silly bureaucratic/stubborn Chinese government decision #902348092348: the whole country, despite being geographically larger than the US, functions as one time zone. This means that Kashgar, something like 2500 miles west of Beijing, is supposed to be on the same time. This also means that in Kashgar the sun comes up around 9:00 and sets around 11:30. Locally, people use an informal "Xinjiang time," which sets everything two hours early. Therefore, when we landed, we were greeted with the following sight (it reminded me a little of Alaska):
Kashgar, 10:30 PM
Our second surprise was our hotel, which was housed in the former Russian Embassy. I guess Russian tastes at the time of building ran along the lines of somebody who ate a bunch of potpourri and Art Deco text books and then threw up all over the place? It was entertaining, to say the least.
Our Kashgar hotel
The next morning we got up bright and early (which in Kashgar is 9:30, the sun hasn't even risen completely yet)and went to a millenia-long tradition in Kashgar: the Sunday animal market. I think that was where we really started to understand how much this Wasn't China Anymore, Toto. The hustle and bustle was that of any Chinese market, but the faces were so very different than the ones we were used to seeing, the smells, the sounds of people talking, bickering, joking. The signs of Islam everywhere (head coverings on the men, various degrees of veil-ing on the women), the Uighur bread (round and pitalike), the Uighur music (sort of a mix of sugary-sweet Chinese pop and the Arabic twang of Middle Eastern music). It was like being transported to a completely different country. This was a China I had never imagined.
My time in Xinjiang in general really made me rethink my definition of "who is Chinese," and my idea of "what a Chinese person looks like." People who looked like me, with brown hair, blue eyes, and hips spouted Mother-Tongue Mandarin. People who appeared 100% Han Chinese looked puzzled when I addressed them in Mandarin and then turned to their friends and continued a conversation in Kazakh. I guess when you get to the border of things this way, the lines blur. And in a world made of so many strong, bold lines, that experience is always the most powerful and moving.
Unfortunately, the pictures I'm posting don't do the experience justice. If you enjoy them, request further viewing when I get back(in 6 days!)
Scenes from the Kashgar Animal Market
Shave and a Haircut (two bits) at the Animal Market
The rest of the day was spent touring around Kashgar seeing the sights, and there were many. The first stop was the largest mosque in Kashgar. When, out of respect, I covered my arms and head with a scarf we'd brought for that purpose, some nearby worshippers asked our guide if I was Uighur (that wouldn't be the last time I'd be mistaken for a Chinese person... but that story comes later, during my Turpan experience.) The mosque was beautiful, really peaceful and spacious. No one was praying there at the moment-- it's only open to visitors when no prayer is happening, and as the holiest place in Kashgar it is only used for that purpose on Fridays.
The largest mosque in Kashgar
Inside the mosque (the first mosque I've ever been inside)
We also visited a tomb nearby the mosque. It's the thickest structure of its type, possibly in the world (or at least in Asia, I know that) and houses something like 9 generations of the same family, whose surname I am unfortunately currently forgetting. While we were walking around with our guide, an American man joined our group, asking if he could tag along. He introduced himself as the former CEO of eLong, which is the Chinese version of Expedia. Very odd to meet a big-wig like that in such an odd situation. He was quite a character, and he gave me his email, in case I ever need help in the .com world.
For lunch, we ate at a traditional Uighur restaurant. Among Uighur's preferred foods are pilaf (a creamy mix of rice, egg, spices, and lamb), chuanr (shish kebabs, essentially), and lamian or hand-stretched noodles. They put heavy-duty spices on everything, so we were constantly having to ask for special orders. I found the food delicious, however (there was always fresh fruit juice, pomegranate or peach, to go with it)my mother's stomach didn't agree so much.
That evening, our guide took us exploring Kashgar's Old City, which was essentially like going back 2 or 300 years. The whole structure is that old, and its winding streets and stucco walls reminded me strongly of Jerusalem's Old City. Apparently, the Chinese government has built brand new apartments outside the city and is trying to get the Old City inhabitants to move into them because the old buildings are so vulnerable to earthquakes (which Xinjiang gets fairly often), but no one has moved there yet. Being there, I understood. Just walking through the streets I felt such a palpable connection to the past, to an old way of life almost lost. If my ancestors had lived there, I wouldn't want to leave either.
We walked the winding alleys, followed by adorable Uighur children begging us to take their pictures, peeking into ajar doorways, discovering tiny neighborhood mosques (in one a call to prayer was being chanted. It was incredibly haunting in the fading light). At one point, a Uighur woman approached us and asked us if we would like to see her house. It turns out she was running a homemade crafts business out of her bare, traditional living room, but that's always the kind of endeavor my parents and I like to support. And getting to see the inside of a Uighur house (there was a tree, inside! And so many beautiful carpets!) was incredible. Again, these pictures don't do the place justice. If you'd like to see more, I'll be happy to oblige.
Scenes from Kashgar's Old City
(The writing on the sign is Uighur script, a modified Arabic alphabet)
Said adorable Uighur children
Next time: Time to break out the White Russians-- Urumqi