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Rethinking China

OCTOBER 1, 1999

Kashgar is a fantastic place. Chester and I arrived Thursday afternoon in a wretched pickup truck that picked us up six hours earlier at the Karakul Lake, between Tashkurgan and Kashgar, where we'd spent the night in a snow and rain storm trying to get a view of Mt Mustagh-ata. As soon as we arrived at the Seman Hotel and paid off the driver and his beat up truck, which incidentally had two electrical fires on the journey and had no starter, we saw a poster of our campsite on Karakul Lake with the missing mountain in the background. By all accounts and pictures, we were in a beautiful spot.

Onto the Seman Hotel—a colossal, 500 room monstrosity—the ex-Russian Consulate from the days when Kahsgar was at the center of the Great Game territory, and Russia and Great Britain sparred over the passes and peaks of the Karakoram, Himalayan, Tien Shan, and Central Asian Steppes for geopolitical control. There aren't many struggles in the Seman Hotel now, no intrigue. Except the perpetually nagging question—why do they have so many apparently useless employees hanging around? Five or six sit behind the monstrous desk, and at least two on each floor, standing about with a ring of keys and a grubby washcloth, "cleaning" the walls.

Out into the streets of the fabled Kashgar. I had visions of mud walled compounds and crumbly mosques; I was not disappointed. Once we left the bustling square at the Hotel, we were into the thick of Kashgar bazaar life. It was October 1, 1999 the 50th anniversary of the People's Liberation of China, or the PLA takeover, depending on how you want to see it. Same as the 4th of July for the USA, but we've grown complacent over 300 years. The Chinese are decidedly not complacent about their years of liberation, enlightenment and the other stuff (oppression, destruction, slaughter, and genocide) that they've proudly accomplished over the last 50 years.

Over breakfast, Chester and I met a local legend, if only in his own mind, Elvis Ablimit. Elvis is a really nice, forward and friendly Uighar, a native of Kashgar and in years past an English student. Now he makes his living selling the occasional carpet and helping travelers with sightseeing, tickets, and general bureaucratic hassles like the Post Office and the bus station. He speaks great English, Uighar, Chinese, and various other languages, and loves to practice on all the women travelers he meats. How we got his attention I don't know. He's a short guy with a broad face, a two-day stubble, and a well cut double breasted suit over a t-shirt and topped by a baseball hat with a Canadian flag pin. He's a great guy and we'd heard tales of him on our way north to Kashgar from Pakistan from other travelers. Elvis adhered to us quickly when we said we wanted to see some carpets, and kindly stuck with us all day, taking us from one shop to the next, stopping only a few times to try and strike up a conversation with a passing western woman. We learned to keep on walking and let him catch up.

We started the tour of Kashgar at his brother's shop, of course, and on the way there had a fantastic morning view of the Idah Khan mosque and the neat yellow tiled edifice with a large inner courtyard that, in our carpet frenzy, we didn't make time to go inside. The crowds in the street grew as we walked to the shop.

At the brother's shop we looked at the remnants of Elvis's collection, relics that didn't appeal to either of us. So we continued, winding past the growing crowds in the streets. The busses and taxis and donkey carts at a standstill were all horns blaring and bleating. It was a chaotic mob scene of fig sellers, melon sellers slicing slabs of orange melon for 5 Maos a slice, and kebab sellers fanning their charcoal fires and shouting prices. Elvis ducked into an alley that turned into a tunnel and wound through walls, past doors and courtyards where tantalizing smells wafted and babies cried. With a key, and a rattle, we left the dark tunnel and emerged into a peaceful and quiet courtyard. A dusty fig tree in one corner and a rickety carved railing around the second floor, where Elvis stored another Kyrghiz carpet—a felt piece in gaudy pinks that looked new and was stored outside so that the pigeons, dust and sun could make it instant-old. Chester and I began to think twice about ever finding a decent carpet.

With apologies we left the pleasant courtyard and the hot pink carpet and returned to the street, where the activity had notched up another level. Everywhere stuck traffic, constant horns and smoke, and sellers of everything. We picked our way as best as possible back towards the Mosque. Chet and I with no idea where we were going were unable to talk to Elvis over the din. After a minute Elvis stopped at a motorcycle with a sidecar and we three piled in, the driver appeared, and we were off, somewhere. Down a lane of fur hats, green Uighar pillbox hats, white hats, mink hats, kid’s hats, then another street of knives, decorated Kyrgiz knives, Uighar knives, tourist knives, kitchen knives, around potholes and through more bazaars, we emerged a few minutes later at the grounds of the fabled Sunday market.

After the abortive attempts at carpets in the Elvis family, we arrived at the professional's—all prices switched to US dollars, and usually in 100-dollar increments. We were quickly out of our league, but spent several pleasant hours looking, feeling, counting knots, and asking the meanings of various patterns. Kashgar is still, as in ancient times, a crossroad of trade and commerce, and the carpets came from thousands of miles around. Uighar herdsmen appeared at one shop we were in with a bundle of old carpets for sale under their arms. Almost everything we looked at was old and worn; the dirtier it was, the higher the price. Kyrgiz, Turkmenistan, Tibetan, and lots of Khotan rugs, with both wool and cotton foundations and varying in quality from junk to 1000-knot silk intricacies. It was quite a show, and I emerged a few hundred poorer but possessing a great Khotan rug with a strange dividing line down the middle, a really unique piece. But how to get the blasted thing home?

We sat at a street cafe and tried to eat greasy Pullau rice with mutton. My stomach had been on strike for several days and, with the first bite of boiled mutton, its doors shut again. Elvis congratulated me profusely on the carpet, between mouthfuls of mutton, and while my stomach turned we worked out details of shipping. Elvis, of course, could "Handle everything," and for a few hundred Quai, about 40$, I left my carpet and address in his care, and "Insh'allah" I will see it in Colorado in a few months. After this we made plans to meet later in the day for a beer and to see whatever celebrations the National Day would bring.

Chet, Elvis and I wandered home along the streets of the city that swelled and strained. It was obviously getting busier and busier. All the schools and businesses in the buildings were closed, everyone had at least a week off work, and the streets were alive with vendors of everything. Traffic honked and swerved around one large intersection that overflowed with hundreds of men silently facing Mecca and praying at the prescribed hour, peacefully oblivious inside themselves while taxis, donkey carts, busses and people pushed past. There was such a variety of people. Uighars are the dominant population, for now, in Kashgar and the surrounding areas. But, like everywhere else in Chinese claim, the Chinese are actively flooding the city with Han Chinese and pushing the natives out, marginalizing their areas of the city until business is impossible.

Uighar parts of town have dirt streets with reverse-potholes—clumps of ragged pavement sticking up, making travel difficult. Power is intermittent. Chinese streets are wide boulevards, paved of course, with high concrete buildings, wide sidewalks and modern shops. They are very sterile but are maintained and new. And, of course, all the public works and administration offices are there, relegating the local people to second-class status. Kashgar is unique in that this subjugation is not fully in effect yet. The Uighars are still in the majority, though, like the provincial capital of Urumchi where they are outnumbered 10 to 1, this may not last long.

The Uighars on the streets of Kashgar present a terrific variety of hats. They are fantastic. The traditional hat is like a square of cloth with the 4 corners folded into the center—a rounded pie with 4 slices—usually in white with green embroidery. Then there are the black top hat shaped pieces with fur rim. Or the more Russian looking all-mink colossus, with earflaps. And the occasional white knit skullcap symbolizing the wearer as a Haji, or one whom has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Then there was the one hat we saw on a guy in the main Chinese street. He was dressed in the thickest robes, blankets and furs, all sewn together in a random pile, with the fur inside out. He was topped by what looked like a whole sheep, and a small child clung to a trailing piece of pelt from the back of the cloak. The herder dazedly navigated through the city streets, more of a stranger in his own country than us.

Elvis appeared around 6:30 and, together with a group of three Swiss women he'd rounded up somewhere, we headed down the streets to the Mao. The Mao statue is the center of the Chinese town, and, of course, the Idah Khan mosque is the center of the Uighar town. The Mao is about half way to the Sunday market from the mosque, and about a 20-minute walk from our hotel. The crowds on the streets swelled as we approached the Mao, and a block shy of the statue we were totally blocked by crowds, police barricades and mass confusion. Chester lost himself in the crowd, looking for dinner, and Elvis, the Swiss and I continued on. We had to walk a mile away from the statue to a cross street, over, then back up towards the main Chinese road. On our way up the fireworks started. We had emerged downwind of the statue and the fireworks, and soon the air was thick with acrid smoke as the explosions continued. I was sure the show would be over soon, Kashgar being a provincial podunk outpost city at the farthest extremity of China, but I was wrong. We wandered closer and closer through the crowds, the constant stream of fire in the air. Green fountains of fire emerged from the surrounding buildings, showering the Mao in flames, while howitzers thudded into the sky and exploded overhead in one of the best firework show's I've ever seen.

Soon the Swiss women wandered off to their hotel, tiring of the thudding, fire and shrapnel; and Elvis, seeing opportunity slip away, rode disconsolately off to the disco, leaving me alone with the masses to enjoy the show, which went on and on and on. It must have been over an hour of explosions and great whizzing streamers with the continuous green curtain around the Mao, still invisible to me from the side street. The air by this time was almost too thick to enjoy the show, and I wandered up to the main Chinese drag we'd left a few hours before, thronged with crowds held in place by the police and soldiers.

For no discernable reason, the main street was blocked off and deserted, and the crowds were forced to watch the show from several blocks away, so much of the effect was hidden behind buildings. Near the statue itself was another large crowd, but they must have encamped there hours before because the police cordoned off the whole area at least two hours before the show. The lucky few had a great view, and when the show was over they came pouring out towards us. Apparently, the crowds around me, myself included, were guilty of the indecent crime of standing down-wind of Mao. As punishment for our crime the police held us for 20 minutes, amidst much jostling and pushing on all sides, while the people poured out of the center of the city. A convoy of VIP Landcruisers and minivans came out through our crowd, and I was pleased to see that most of the VIPs were ordinary looking Uighars. I'd expected the van to be full of Chinese.

Still the police kept us back. A small boy broke through and ran up the street into the crowds coming our way, but a quick cop raced after him and brought him screaming back. For no reason whatsoever, thousands of people trying to get home were held back by the police while the street ahead emptied out. I tried to obliviously wander through the police line several times, thinking maybe as a westerner they wouldn't bother with me, but like the boy, I was soon brought back into order.

Finally when the police were concentrating on the right side of the crowd the left side broke through, and twenty of thirty of us walked up the street, waiting to be brought back. The crowds leaving the Mao had thinned out to just a few on the wide street. We kept on walking up and away from the inane police wall. When I looked back a few minutes later, surprised at not being caught, I saw the remaining people still being cordoned off and held back, presumably waiting for word from Beijing itself when it would be safe to let them go.

Up past the Mao—the 50-foot concrete statue of a rather portly Mao, left hand raised and overcoat flapping in the hypothetical breeze—I walked with the crowds back towards my hotel. Food stalls opened up for the night and plates of puffy chicken feet glared at me as I walked past. My stomach, still on strike, did not welcome the thought of that delicacy, and the screaming of a sheep tied up outside a kebab stand, in the batter's box so to speak, did nothing to improve my appetite. So I wandered on towards the hotel with the festive crowds all around. A truckload of soldiers singing patriotic songs drove past and the people around me picked up the tune as they went on out of earshot. I was looking for discord between China and the Uighars, or for some sign that the great fireworks show was a forced celebration, or at least that the party was a sham. Maybe I was just being pessimistic, looking for trouble on a great evening, but I didn't find any. The festive 50th Anniversary night, from what I saw in Kashgar, was a genuine good time, with a fantastic fireworks show from the land that invented fireworks. It'll be tough to top that night in town, except perhaps by a good meal and a cooperative stomach.

-Nathaniel Pulsifer
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