Kashgar and the Silk Road

(for more pictures of the people of Kashgar, click here)

Paul took a trip to western China soon after the kids started school and before his teaching began.  The highlight of the trip, which followed the Silk Road from Dunhuang to the western border of China was Kashgar.  Still an active trading center, Kashgar was the last place the ancient silk road traders stayed before heading east across the brutal Taklamakan Desert on their way to the Middle East (or, for those traders heading the other way, Kashgar was the first bit of civilization they'd seen in months as they left the desert and arrived in China).  Trade flourished as people either picked up supplies for the desert crossing or unloaded some of the stuff that they'd been schlepping all the way across the Taklamakan..one guesses they were willing to get rid of it at bargain prices at that point.




Kashgar is tucked in the northwestern corner of China near Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan (don't pull a muscle trying to say that one), Tajikistan and Pakistan, a few hundred miles to the south.  (Not far, incidentally, from the site of this fall's devestating earthquake in Kashmir.)







Kashgar is a fascinating blend (read: clash) of cultures between the Muslim Uyghurs (pronounced WE-ghars), who represent about 80% of the area's population and the Chinese.  The area has been the site of some serious unrest as a result of the Chinese government's policy of paying native Chinese from the Han majority to move there...a policy similar to the one used to dilute, and eventually eliminate, the Tibetan culture.  It's a harsh corner of the world.  The Muslim way of life dominates...mosques are everywhere (including one visited recently by Rafsanjani of Iran), many women wear full bhurkas and the flavor of the markets bears little resemblance to the markets of eastern China.  When I asked two local Uyghurs to characterize the tensions between the Muslims and the Chinese, both refused to answer...in spite of their eagerness to talk on any other subject.  Foreigners were allowed to travel to this part of China starting in 1985 and it is one of the few areas within China that has avoided being consumed (and completely changed) by the explosion of development that characterizes so much of the country.

This is one of my favorite pictures...not for aesthetics but because of the giddiness these Chinese soldiers had at the thought of taking a picture of each other on top of a camel amidst the cultural tensions.







A sign...not particularly comforting...above a door in Kashgar.  I was glad no emergency root canal was required.  In spite of my best efforts, I was unable to figure out what the guy on the left had had done (or needed to have done).  Based on the dental work we saw on the locals, the dental sciences in Kashgar have a way to come.

A collection of local medical supplies...antelope horns, toad, seahorses, snakes...standard stuff.  The tall box is sitting on a pile of saffron.  Saffron was available in much larger bins at many stalls selling spices and generally cost a few dollars for 50g...nearly *two ounces* of saffron.  Check out the weight of the saffron sold at your local market next time you're there.







Our trip actually started out in Dunhuang, a small city in the Taklamakan Desert.  The most notable thing about Dunhuang is the battle it is fighting with the dunes, called the 'Singing Dunes' by Marco Polo because of the sound they'd make when the wind blew over them.  Local government has planted a lot of trees where the desert meets the city...one has to admire their optimism, but I'm betting on Mother Nature.





It's not everyday (or everywhere) that you see a camel herder rounding up his crew.  Camels are still used to transport things out to some of the more remote areas of Xinjiang, the northwestern province of China.  Much of the area is still not served by roads.


The next stop was Turpan, notable for a few things: 1) it is the second lowest point on earth, after Death Valley, 2) its raisins are considered the best in China and 3) the valley is irrigated by a remarkable network of manmade underground channels that bring water down from lakes in the mountains roughly 300 miles away.  Here is local woman harvesting grapes that will next be moved to a drying shed until they become the prized 'mare's nipples' raisins...named because of their shape.




There are 1500km (nearly 900 miles) of channels in this underground aqueduct network, all carved centuries ago and still maintained by crews that are lowered into well-like holes so they can clear out silt and gravel to keep the water flowing.  It was over 100 degrees during our visit and the water, when it surfaced in Turpan was crystal clear and about 50 degrees.  This picture was taken through a gate to farmer's plot of grapes.  Note the hills in the distance.  That's what the entire area looks like except for the small valley of Turpan...all possible thanks to the remarkable engineering of these canals.  I think I'd have chosen to live somewhere else.  (For more pictures of the colorful people of western China, click here.)