Though we were already far out in China’s western reaches, we were headed still further west. A long way further. The train trip from Urumqi to Kashgar took us over 26 hours, and passed through some of the most spectacular landscapes we’d yet seen in a country that is full of them.
These began shortly after our departure from Urumqi with towering snow capped peaks while the train passed over a 3000m mountain pass, following a series of switchbacks (quite a feat of rail engineering!) as it climbed up to the heights. They finished with beautifully rugged, eroded cliffsides so brightly coloured in places that they almost looked painted. In between were huge swathes of desert (the railway skirts the northern edge of the huge and utterly empty Taklamakan desert), a few settlements of surprising size given their isolation, and a number of industrial facilities constructed out in the middle of Xinjiang’s emptiness for both proximity to raw materials and strategic isolation.
All of this passed us by as we sat in our double decker sleeper cars peering out the windows, playing games, talking with each other, talking with the profusion of other foreigners on the train (almost as many as we’d seen in all of our previous Chinese rail journey’s combined!), eating snacks, drinking beverages (our home infused mango baiju that had travelled with us all the way from Kunming and Milk Beer, a mildly [0.7%ABV] alcoholic beverage made from bacterially fermented milk then sweetened.) That may be a bit of a run-on sentence, but I think it’s kind of appropriate for describing what one gets up to on a 26 hour long train trip.
Tickets had been limited, so my parents had a soft sleeper cabin, while Sarah and I had hard sleeper beds at opposite ends of a car. We spent most of the time on the seats in the hallway outside my parents’ cabin, but also spent a while enjoying a good and only slightly expensive (by Chinese standards) meal in the dining car.
Just before bed, I sat and drank hot water and ate hard Uighur bread (softened into edibility by dipping it into the water or tea) with two of my sleeping compartment-mates, two policemen on their way home to Kashgar.
They reached home and we reached our destination just before noon the next day. We headed out of the station, never to see the inside of a Chinese railway station again (on this trip at least.)
A frieght train descending the switchbacks as we climbed the mountains on the way out of Urumqi
Dark clouds heavy with snow over the mountain passes
“Baiju face.” It had been a while since we’d had any of the Chinese rice spirit we’d hauled all the way from Kunming, and it was a bit of a shock
Location appropriate curtains in the dining car
Dinner on the rails (though not moving on the rails… the train stopped to wait for another to pass shortly after we sat down and started moving again just before we finished.)
Spectacular cliffs as we neared Kashgar
This number of photos for a train trip seems a bit excessive, but it was a looong train trip
Disembarking from the double-decker sleeper train in Kashgar
We made our way by public bus to the Id Kah Masjid (mosque… a Uighur word which I was happy [though not entirely surprised, given that it's the same in Urdu AND Malay] to have guessed correctly) and our accommodation for the evening, which was in one of the few remaining sections of Kashgar’s old town. Exactly why there were only a few small sections remaining was made abundantly clear by a short walk around the neighbourhood. Almost any street you chose to stroll down would reveal old wood and mud brick houses being demolished to make way for buildings of scarcely less modern-looking clay brick with reinforced concrete columns. I suppose the new homes are probably somewhat more comfortable and perform much better in earthquakes, but it was still sad to see. During the eight days we spent in Kashgar we saw several buildings transformed from (perhaps unoccupied) homes into piles of rubble. A few sections of the old town composed of some new buildings and some retrofitted old ones were being done up to give a more appealing appearance, but these were clearly the exception, the token bits to be left over to show to the tourists. Other than these sections it was hard to believe that any of old Kashgar would survive much more than six months into the future.
Hauling away the remains of old town Kashgar
Note the pretty decorative shelves built into the interior wall of this mostly demolished building
Another of the lovely built in shelving units
A lovely mosque in a section of old town that was still hanging on. Kashgar mosques were more often just pretty minaretted entrance arches and cool courtyard gardens than actual buildings
For all that, Kashgar did still have charms. In the centre of the city where we were staying, central China’s influence seemed a million miles away. Virtually all of the faces one saw were Uighur. In the case of women, there were a noticeable number that you DIDN’T see, hidden away as they were behind veils of a thick brown gauzy material. And instead of just one neighbourhood full of distinctly Uighur/Muslim food and goods, it was the entire central city. A couple of blocks (hard to define given how twisting and chaotic the old town streets were) away from us was a whole street devoted to bakers. Each had a tandoor out front and each baked three or four different types of bread. The delicious bagel-like buns we’d had in Urumqi, savoury onion-laced bread “plates” for serving kebabs or other food on, samsa (baked meat pastries), slightly sweet sesame-honey rolls… These were baked in lots throughout the day, so if you were after a specific type of bread you just needed to check who was baking it at that moment and you’d be guaranteed a piping hot incarnation of it, straight out of the oven.
We saw all of this and more as we wandered around the streets surrounding the mosque.
Kids “harvesting” mulberries from a tree near the square by repeatedly throwing a basketball up into its branches
Checking to see how the “Xinjiang bagels” are coming along
Making rose ice with fresh rose petals. This perfume wafting down this section of street smelled heavenly!
Pigeons (doves for the more romantically minded) over the entrance to Id Kah Masjid
Id Kah mosque in the late evening (which given the oddity of time in Xinjiang was actually about 23:00 at night, Beijing time.)
That night we headed (all the way across the street from the mosque!) to the small-ish night market. This too was a feast. Both in the figurative sense, as in “For The Senses,” and in the literal sense, with more towers of freshly churned sticky-sweet ice cream, genuine intestine-cased offal sausages and big pots of sheeps heads simmering away in broth for the not, somewhat and very brave respectively.
Ice cream in the night market. Obviously this guy just doesn’t eat as much as he sells… I know from personal experience that eating this stuff with a big beard is tricky
It may be a bit tough to make out, but the rear pot is full of sheep feet, the front one, sheep heads
The next morning we continued with our marketing, heading to the famous Mal (animal) Bazaar. This is a highlight of the visit to Kashgar for many and always features on tour itineraries. We grabbed a taxi nearby our hostel and headed out to the new market site some 15km away from town (I guess there’s only so much animal poo people in the city cared to smell, thus the change in venue a few years back.) Even if the taxi driver had no idea where he was going it would have been simple enough to find. Streaming along the roads were heavy trucks, pickups, donkey and horse carts and lots of three-wheeled cargo-motorcycles all with live domestic animals packed into whatever cargo space they had available. As we drove we took turns with our affable taxi driver explaining the names of each animal we passed in our respective languages (cow=cava, dog=sheeit in Uighur for those who are interested )
The entrance to Kashgar’s Mal Bazaar
The market space was a rectangle, very roughly 400m on a side and was packed with animals, their sellers, vehicles coming and going… It looked, sounded, even smelled like chaos. But there was clearly organization to it. Cows were being hauled by ropes tied ’round their horns. Sheep were being pulled, shoved, hauled. Stubborn goats were being manhandled and maneuvered. Donkeys were being surprisingly well behaved (except for one that was browsing at a cart full of silage that was stuck next to it in the market traffic.)
Sellers gathered their stock in sections divided up by the type of animal for sale and buyers browsed the appropriate section for what they were looking for. We started out in the cattle section and only moments after we’d entered the fray I was made to feel even more a part of it when a cow being dragged in a direction it wasn’t keen on managed to take a step away from its owner and onto my foot, butting me with its head at the same time.
For all its foreignness, it very quickly felt a natural place to be. There were plenty of other tourists snapping photos, and no one really seemed to mind our presence. There were no camels or yaks or exotic animals there, which was a bit disappointing (apparently they only show up in fall.) So it wasn’t quite fabulous pinnacle of our trip that some sources had suggested it might be (there are, after all, plenty of livestock markets in New Zealand that aren’t all THAT different except that animals are sold by auction instead of individually and the people don’t throw rocks at the sheep to get them to move.) But it was still a fun place to visit, and worth timing a visit to Kashgar for a Sunday in order to make it there.
A tidy row of sheep. Aside from the fat bottoms on many of them, the sheep for sale at the Mal Bazaar differed from NZ sheep in that they were BIG. Some of them must have stood 1.2m high at the shoulder.
Whole flocks of sheep were kept in order by tying their necks together in opposing rows like this. No individual could really move, and sheep just aren’t smart enough to move collectively
Sheep were by far the most popular animals for sale, followed by cattle, with all others far behind
Some of the goats had spectacularly long and twisting horns
Sarah riding her Mal Bazaar purchase. Not really. When she found out there were no yaks or camels she quickly lost interest in making purchases (though for those who are interested, a nice sheep would run you around $150.)
That afternoon there was still more marketing to be done, this time back in town at Kashgar’s Sunday market. We found our way there by wandering through another section of old Kashgar undergoing “renewal” and then crossing the river and its wide, green floodplain. The Sunday market is actually open seven days a week nowadays, but Sunday is still its indisputable peak. The streets surrounding the market were PACKED with people. It was still possible to maintain independent motion, but at times only just. The market sold a very wide variety of goods, ranging from auto parts in one section to bed linens in another to dates in a third. But I thought the most interesting things were the squarish green embroidered caps that almost all Kashgari Uighur men wore and the brilliantly coloured fabrics for sale under bright lights a bit deeper in to the market. All in all it was less touristy than Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, but more so than, say, Damascus’ souq. Both of which it felt more similar to than any other market we’d seen in China.
Sarah and I actually got to see relatively little of the market that day, as she started feeling a bit ill a few minutes into our visit and the two of us eventually walked back to the hotel so she could rest, leaving my parents to continue browsing on their own.
Gorgeous or gaudy (or both?) Silk fabrics at the Sunday market
On our way back from the Sunday market, Sarah and I stumbled across perhaps the prettiest and best preserved section of the old town. It seemed to specialize in selling headwear… Brilliant silk hijabs for the ladies, handsome embroidered caps for the men
A mosque near the “hat district”
Sarah hadn’t fully recovered by the next day (it’s still unclear how she ended up having so many more stomach troubles than me, given that we ate all the same things.) So she stayed at home to recuperate while my parents and I walked our to the Abakh Hoja tomb on the city’s northern fringe. On the way out we had another look at the (much less busy on a Monday morning) Sunday market, and also caught yet ANOTHER of the city’s places of commerece, the rather smaller wholesale fruit market. I actually really liked this one, partly because of the way we just stumbled across it. Huge trucks full of fruit pulled in and were picked over by shopowners and wholesalers alike. The fruit de-jour was watermelon, though my attempts to find out if they were grown in Xinjiang or elsewhere were misinterpreted as attempts to buy some, so we may have just avoided having to carry a dozen or so of them home with us!
This small section of the old town was visible from the city’s main park and had spotlights surrounding its base. I gather this is to be the one section that will be preserved as a tourist attraction once all the rest is gone
Watermelons for sale at the wholesale fruit market
Aside from the markets, the walk out to the tomb was pleasant enough. Thankfully there were sidewalks most of the way there as, compared to in central China, Kashgar traffic seemed to have taken another step away from organization and towards total chaos (and given the state of the roads in central China, you can probably imagine that it takes some real doing to be noticeably MORE chaotic!)
The tomb itself is found in what used to be an independent village but has now been swallowed up by Kashgar’s sprawl as tens of thousands of immigrants from central China arrive each year. The village wasn’t immune to the plague of demolitions that affected the centre of old Kashgar and whole blocks of fascinating old homes had recently been bulldozed to make way for more modern structures out here as well. That said, there was still a lot more traditional construction left out there than in the city centre, and the final km of the walk was made strolling down a street lined with adobe walls and tall delicately swaying poplar trees.
The tomb and surrounding areas were the resting place of Abakh Hoja (bet you could have figured that out from the name…) a popular emir of Kashgar and revered Muslim spiritual figure, as well as many of his prominent descendents.
There were a few shops and cafes outside, but it was really a very peaceful place. You entered through a gorgeous archway of glazed tiles and entered a lovely complex of gardens and buildings. The first of these was a mosque with beautifully carved wooden columns, each of which was supposed to have been the work of a different Uighur master wood carver. These were brightly coloured by the fading remains of ancient paint, or in many cases by brilliant (to the point of gaudiness) new oil paint (though I suppose it’s at least possible that that’s what the faded old oil paint looked like before it faded.)
A man leading a camel out of the entrance arch to the tomb (though I’m not sure where he’d come from or where he was going…)
The base of one of the unrestores wooden pillars in the mosque adjacent to the tomb
Next was the tomb building itself, a domed structure with towers at its corners that resembled a small, squat Taj Mahal. Though there was nothing on the level of that structure’s semi-precious stone Pietra Dura inlays, the exterior was covered with more pretty glazed tiles, varying from patterned blue and white ones to surprisingly vibrant solid green and mustard colours. Inside the tomb was less ornate, and was packed with sarcophagi, including that of Abakh Hoja himself and of his granddaughter Ikparhan. Ikparhan supposedly led a revolt against Qing Chinese rule, lost and ended up as one of the emperor Qianlong’s favourite concubines. (She was known as the “fragrant concubine” as she supposedly “exuded sweet odours” from birth without the use of perfume or other artificial scents.)
Alongside the tomb were a large rose garden and the even larger cemetery where hundreds of less renowned members of the Abakh Hoja family were laid to rest.
The tomb itself
The tiles on the exterior of the tomb reminded me of less refined versions of the Iznik tiles in Istanbul’s imperial mosques. Though the green and yellow colours were clearly close relatives of those used on much of the Tang dynasty ceramic sculpture
The outdoor cemetery next to the tomb. Several other such tombs and cemeteries surrounding Kashgar have fallen into disrepair and been demolished to make way for more housing for new migrants
By the time we were set to leave the tomb, it had begun to rain! Something of a rarity in Kashgar, but entirely in keeping with my parents’ habit of bringing rain with them whenever they visit deserts (their record currently includes the Sahara, Death Valley and Las Vegas, Nevada multiple times.)
Id Kah Masjid in the parentally induced rain
That night we went out for a fancy dinner, as it would be our last together. It was the first real “restaurant meal” we’d had in ages… With waiters (wearing white gloves!) coming by to refill your water glass and asking how you were enjoying your meal. Virtually all of our meals in China felt more like “commercial home cooking” than restaurant food, so despite its many similarities to dining out in Wellington, this actually felt very odd.
The menu was in Chinese, Uighur, often Russian and only occasionally English, which made ordering a bit of a challenge, but in the end we did pretty well, ending up with some fabulous fried, slightly spicy green peppers; a tasty salad and a heaping platter of deep fried lamb ribs with delicious bits of onion and potato. This was topped off with yogurt and watermelon juice (writing this while sitting on a bus and rather thirsty makes my memory of the watermelon juice particularly fond.)
The next morning was spent collecting things to send back to Canada with my parents on our part, and packing on theirs. Around mid-day the time came to say goodbye. We exchanged hugs and warm wishes for safe and happy travel and then we parted. My mom and dad headed east, back home to familiar comforts, Sarah and I west to the entirely unknown former Soviet ‘stan countries of central Asia.
I must, of course say thanks to my mom and dad Michal and Nancy at this point. I’m so lucky that they often come to visit during my world travels. When I was younger I loved their visits because (amongst other things) it meant that they’d be there to pay for things. Now it’s mostly nice just to see them again after long separations and to have someone to share the planning, excitement and wonder of the journey with. In western China they were, as always, great company and were very understanding when Sarah and I got to bickering about silly and inconsequential things (though I must say, I was kind of distressed to realize that our arguments were almost exactly the same as many of theirs, with me playing my dad and Sarah my mom… Scary to realize that you’re turning into your parents!)
Finally, I’ll conclude by remembering my Aunt Jane, who we learned passed away while we were in Kashgar, as well as her family Jack, Adam, Vicki, Courtney and Crystal. I never know what to say or do under circumstances like this, but if any of you get around to reading this, know that our thoughts and hearts are with you.
Tags: China, Kashgar, Kashi, Llew Bardecki, Travel, Xinjiang