The loud braying of an irritated donkey startles me; I whirl about, trip on loose stones and land straight into a charcoal grill loaded with skewers of roasting mutton flesh. From the grill, smoke is fanning out into an orange twilight haze. Surrounded by a cacophony of bleating animals, loud bartering, heady smells of spices and baking bagels, I feel I’m a time traveller transported back to Marco Polo’s time, 1275. Powdery orange sand, transported by winds from the eternally transforming dunes of the Taklamakan desert, covers everything in this ancient oasis town. The town sits on the westernmost rim of the Taklamakan and is called Kashgar, the heart of the ancient Silk Road. It is home to the Sunni Muslim Uighurs (pronounced Wee-ghurs) members of an ethnic group who speak Turkic, write in Arabic script, have their own cultural identity and predominate in this far-flung periphery of China’s Xinjiang province.
The best way to see Kashgar is to get lost, to meander through the rugged old city where a simple “yakshamoosis” (hello in Uighur language) brings forth warm smiles and photo opportunities. The old city is considered “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia”. Strolling through the labyrinth of ancient narrow winding streets, I float in the surrealism of what I see, smell and hear. Is this a dream?
Donkey carts laden high with turnips trundle past me as men with skullcaps gorge on sparkling fresh citron yellow figs, the juices glisten in their thick beards. There is a cornucopia of food available from clay oven-baked pumpkins stuffed with dried nuts and fruits drizzled with honey to sheep’s testicles, their pungent aroma lingering. In dusty alleyways, blacksmiths clank away at horseshoes, by the roadside a family of cobblers tackle their stack while beside them wait shoeless patrons noisily clicking away on prayer beads, silently reciting Koranic verses. Women gregariously sit together and embroider shawls. Craftsmen hunched over are concentrating as they carve wood, and vendors are hawking everything from sacks of dried, flaking reptilian skins to freshly baked flatbread oozing warm comforting aromas, to slices of succulent muskmelon. It seems to my eyes that Kashgar has changed little from the days when silk and spice caravans slogged their way through this town en route to the West.
At the end of an ancient lane, where homes built of wood beams, clay and straw lean precariously, a bulldozer is gnawing away at the remains of a mud wall, dust obscuring the sky. Swaths of Kashgar’s ancient town are rapidly shrinking as the Han Chinese have begun to raze it citing overcrowding and “earthquake concerns”. Furthermore, they fear that Kashgar is a breeding ground for Uighur separatists who Beijing claims have ties to international jihadis. Hence, they tear down 2,000-year-old courtyard homes that have withstood earthquakes from antiquity and relocate the Uighurs into concrete boxes, although in the same breath promising Uighur styled housing replete with running water, toilets and central heating.
Only men are allowed inside the Ida Kah Mosque as Muslim women are secluded from praying within the mosque. By the side doors of the yellow tiled mosque, women kneel on the wet pavement, gloved outstretched hands and completely veiled, they beg and provide photo ops for brazen tourists. The veils that are meant to hide them only make them stand out, and I find myself staring, rudely. They see me seeing them, but I cannot see their faces through their thick brown gauze like chrysalis. These women adhering to an ancient religious code, do they smile at me?
Beyond the smog, dwarfing the building cranes that dot Kashgar’s horizon stand one of the world’s most daunting mountain ranges, The Karakorums; part of the Himalayan range and home to the highest concentration of peaks over 5 miles in height to be found anywhere on earth. Through the Karakorums runs “The Ninth Wonder of the World” the Karakorum highway, the highest on the planet and touted as “one of the most beautiful road trips in the world”. It traces the path of the ancient Silk Road where now caravans of minibuses spewing out tourists and trucks spewing out black diesel fumes have displaced the camel trains.
This highway was blasted through the flanks of mountain ranges, complicated landscapes of profound ravines, raging rivers, by China and Pakistan. Close to 900 workers lost their lives during its 1,200 kilometres of construction due to avalanches, rockslides, floods, heat and cold as well as ethnic intrusions. Completed in 1980, it took 20 years to carve out this road. It is considered a marvel of engineering.
As the winds blowing off the Taklmakan subside, the icy peaks of the Karakorums, show themselves, stridently soaring into blue skies. The highway is dramatic to say the least as the sight of massive mountains on either side of the road and around every bend shoot out before me causing me to gasp at such natural beauty that my mind cannot grasp. Mountainscapes of glaciers that almost reach the road, ravines in deep shadow, serrated snow peaks soaring to 5,000 metres, desolate rugged mountains hues of red granite peek through blankets of blown sand. Along the shore of a wild river, I see a herd of camels galloping and on the plains; odd black yaks graze with an indifferent placidity.
Round yurts dot the treeless countryside like stars splashed onto an indigo canvas, the sight adds to my feeling of a perennial calmness. Time here seems long and eternal. Once covered in hides and portable the yurts along the Karakorum are canvas, some are made of stone. Far from the frenzy of Kashgar, I make my home for the night here in one of these canvas dwellings. There are two flaps for windows and a rusty wood stove stands ablaze by the stilted door. A silent sigh of a breeze flutters and teases the window flap above my bed in an unsteady rhythm, a crisp night air mingles with the heated air of the yurt, it touches my nose and cheeks and it feels… delicious. In this desolate treeless empty place, I feel safe and warm and burrow beneath the layers of blankets. Bright streaks of light jump out from the stove and gambol across the yurt’s carpeted walls, they blink and wink at me. I listen for the music of jangling bells from distant ghostly camel trains. My eyes grow heavy, varying shapes, colors, sounds, strangely and slowly begin to turn into a dream….and the sands on the Taklamakan still rise and fall.
– Silk Road extended from X’ian (China) to Istanbul (Turkey).
– Sunday animal market on outskirts of Kashgar. Not to be missed.
– Id Kah Mosque the oldest mosque stands in the heart of Kashgar is one of the most holy places in the Muslim world. Nominal admission charge.