Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Xinjiang Travels: Part V

Day 26 (8/14) - Yarkand

My next stop along the Southern Silk Road was Yarkand, which proved to be a lot more memorable than Yengisar. The area around the bus station and my hotel was Chinese, modern, and nothing particularly interesting, but just a bit to the east was the utterly different Uyghur old town. Transportation around town was by small motorcycle-powered pedicab, with me seated in an uncomfortable cart in the back or a covered bench. Many of the drivers were children who looked to be about 6 years away from a driver's permit in America. One tired-looking man powered his cart by bicycle, which felt like a very bourgeois thing to be taking advantage of.

The main tourist attraction of Yarkand is the Altyn mosque complex, an ancient and well-attended mosque with some surrounding spots of interest. The most striking building is the tomb of Aman Isa Khan, the musician, poet, and wife of the local ruler in the 1500's and famous for collecting the 12 muqams, important traditional Uyghur songs. A portrait of her holding a dutar is popular throughout Xinjiang. To the side of her tomb was a small cemetary of the tombs of royalty of Yarkand, with all the graves having been built in a similar, peculiar style with a curved top. Behind the mosque complex is a very large cemetary, a shady place with few people. I've always liked cemetaries for some reason, maybe because of the guarantee of peace of quiet.

The old town that began in the streets around the moque was reminiscent of Kashgar's, but perhaps a little more colorful, and certainly more off the beaten tourist path. The locals struck me as just a bit friendlier as well. I bought two small knives from a group of excitable boys, who ran inside to get a newspaper and pen so they could write down numbers and barter with me. On one of the "main" streets I stopped for some Uyghur ice cream, and in two strange minutes witnessed a man basically beating his son in the street, a small cart get hit and nearly demolished by a large truck, and a man walk by with an enormous tumor coming from his forehead that had an eery resemblance to the pictures of Confucius on the bottles in front of me. Confucius is said to have been very ugly and is usually portrayed with a bulbous, bulging forehead to represent his wisdom.

In a restaurant near my hotel, the TV was showing a Chinese movie with a Western doctor as the main character. They actually portrayed the doctor speaking English and using a Chinese translator the whole time, and I was intrigued enough to finish it in my hotel room. I finally realized it was about Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor who helped China in WWII and Chinese children all learn about. Apparently his Chinese name was "White Doctor", or at least that's what they called him in the movie. Which may have been an on-going series as it ended on a weird note, with his daughter refusing to use the smelly outdoor "bathroom" and him saving the day with a new "ladies only" toilet. As could only happen in a Chinese drama, there was a full six or seven minute scene about someone making a bowl of noodles, which included dialogue along the lines of:
"White Doctor": What are these noodles called?
Chinese Man with Unnaturally Wide Smile: Dao Mian!
WD: Dao Mian!
Small Grinning Child: Dao Mian!
Chinese Man, now with wider smile: Dao Mian!
Second Small Grinning Child: Dao Mian tastes really good!
(Chinese Man now gets cocky, placing the flour he's been cutting into pieces on his head and landing them all in the pot)
(cut to about two minutes of White Doctor eating noodles and having the time of his life, moving on to a second bowl and finishing with a satisfied belch)
I remember once watching a drama on TV with some student friends, and one scene began with a long close-up of the food the couple were eating, before finally scaling back and starting the dialogue, which made the students gasp and exclaim "oh that looks really good!". As the writer Lin Yutang put it, Chinese biology never did advance very far because a Chinese person can't look at an animal without focusing on how best to cook it.

In the evening, I decided to go a little deeper into the old town, which was the best thing I could have done. The old town turned out to be pretty large, and the further I explored, the further I felt I was stepping back in time. Besides the motorcycles powering the carts, the large coolers outside the shops, and a few other details, the place didn't look like it had changed much in 400 years. The whole place was dusty and narrow and ancient, and through the numerous open doors I could see the courtyards and furnishings of the traditional one-story homes. I drew quite a lot of friendly attention, especially from children. One child followed me timidly, until she found her friend and the two of them excitedly bounded up to me. She was wearing a dirty white dress that made her look like Miss Havisham in a children's performance of Great Expectations, and said "rekmet! [thank you in Uyghur]" in a tiny voice when I showed her and her friend The Pirate the pictures I took. Three blacksmiths stopped what they were doing to stare at me, and when I motioned I would like to take a picture, they used body language in turn to suggest "sure, but let us start doing something again!" and got to work, quite amused at their picture I took. As I was buying a bottle of water, I suddenly felt something grab my shoe. A man older than me had bent down to get a good feel of my sneakers to see what they were like and grinned up at me, although I'm not sure what was so interesting about them. After an hour or two of wandering I was taken back to reality by the presence of a car, but it was stuck in all the sand and dust of the alleyways and was being pushed by a small army of children. There are many things to look for in a travel location: famous sights, scenic beauty, nightlife, etc., but I think I'm truly after the general atmosphere of a place and its people, and I'll remember Yarkand as one of the highlights of the trip.

Day 27 - Karghilik

On the way to Hotan, the only big city east of Kashgar, I stopped briefly in the small city of Karghilik, called Yecheng in Chinese. I was hoping to spend several hours there but there were communication difficulties finding out if there was another bus to Hotan after the next one, so after getting some noodles for lunch I only had an hour. The main sight of Karghilik is the Friday Mosque, which was worth getting a quick look at and is surrounded by shop-lined streets. I didn't have enough time to get a sense of the city, but it seemed like a decent enough place.

The bus to Hotan was meant to take five hours, but I've learned by now to take time estimates lightly in China. After a while it became obvious there was engine trouble, and finally about halfway we stopped with a thick cloud of smoke coming up from the engine near the front and spreading throughout the inside of the bus. Luckily I had a window seat and could stick my head out. We were quite far from anything resembling civilisation when we broke down, so I took a stroll around the desert and maintained some faith that they would fix it like they usually do. At one point while we waited I was the victim of another curious shoe-grabber, again without warning. After he was satisfied with his inspection of my sneakers, with a triumphant smile he insisted I feel his shoes as well. We did start up again after an hour or an hour and a half, but with frequent short breakdowns from then on. Finally, I just abandoned ship as some others had done and got an empty seat on another bus to Hotan for 10 yuan, arriving 7 hours after departure. If I was traveling much longer, the hours of late arrival would soon add up to a full day by themselves.

Day 28 - Hotan

Despite it's very remote location south of the Taklimakan Desert, Hotan is a fairly modern and crowded city, and to me didn't have quite the alluring atmosphere of Kashgar or Yarkand. Hotan is known for making rugs, silk, and especially jade which are famous throughout China, and many of the sites relate to this. There is a small village called Jiyaxiang just outside the city which has a little workshop that makes silk using ancient methods (and ancient people as well). It was a brief but interesting visit, but was overshadowed by my annoyance with my unscrupulous taxi driver, who wouldn't leave unless I also gave him some money for his return trip because he didn't think he'd find someone on the way back that far out. I would rather have walked back most of the way through the village, but the woman at the workshop insisted he was right and there were language difficulties, so I ended up giving him another handsome sum to get me back into town after he waited for me to finish my visit.

I explored the city a bit more, and browsed some of the jade stores. Most of the stuff was quite nice, and also well beyond what I thought Chinese people could afford, but they don't get all that many Western tourists in Hotan. For lunch, I decided to be adventurous in a large Uyghur restaurant and just point to something that I didn't know the Chinese characters for, though the last one suggested it was some kind of bird. A bird indeed it was, just a flame-broiled bird on a plate with the head still attached. It's limbs were folded in a hideous position, that brought to my imagination that it was burned alive while crouching in fear. Not the most satisfying meal I've had here.

Day 29

In the morning I went for a visit to the Hotan Cultural Museum, where business was obviously booming - they had to unlock the doors and turn on the lights for me. It was small and focused on Hotan's long history as a Silk Road outpost. The highlight was certainly the two small mummies in the center of the only room, which still had some hair intact and were incredibly eerie.

I also went to visit another, much more modern silk factory which I read about in the Lonely Planet guide. It was out of the way and the guards were positively amused to see me, and radio-ed someone to say "there's a foreigner here". The woman who emerged and gave me a silent tour seemed much less amused to have to drag me around, but the multi-building complex was worth the visit. I didn't bother trying to prove I could speak some Chinese since I was definitely in over my head vocabulary-wise, and she said little the whole time besides pointing to an assembly line and saying "good" in reference to the boxes of good silk worm cocoons at the end of line, and "bad" in reference to the bad cocoons being picked out by the woman workers. In one building I was shocked to see that they weren't wearing ear protection, since the sound was so loud you wouldn't be able to shout into the ear of the person next to you.

In the afternoon I climbed aboard a sleeper bus and began the mammoth 24-hour journey back to Urumqi through the long, lonely Cross-Desert Highway that cuts through the Taklimakan Desert. There was almost, but not quite, enough room to fully extend my legs in the bed I occupied for a full day, and it was difficult to so much as turn on my side, and impossible to sit upright because I was in the bottom bunk. The sleeper buses in China are roughly the size of a big Greyhound bus in America, but made for 30 people to lie down in three rows and two levels. We stopped twice in the first two hours, first for them to look at the engine and second for a half-hour wait for an accident, but to my great relief these were the only unexpected stops, and the ride was as close to smooth and comfortable as could be hoped.

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