Kashgar International Bazaar

I walk through the winding alleyways between market stalls.  Knives, dried fruit, raisins, hats, and anything that could be sold drenching the racks.  But I find myself drawn to the bolts and bolts of fabric. Bright colors, patterns, stripes, animal prints, golden thread studded with beads, beads winding into spider webs, flower petals blooming from the breadth of cloth.  I reach out to touch the gossamer thin lace that is laid over thick blue fabric.  It makes art of my fingers. Children play in overturned bolts of fabric, others take naps.  Women haggle over one fabric.

Around the corner, clothing spun from the colors studding the fabric stalls.  Longer tunics reaching the knees, trimmed in golden patterns, the bust carefully pinned with studs.  Matching trousers to go underneath, the skirts swaying.  Some are close to the waist, tapering.  Some lack persuasion, making up for it with color.  I wish I was an Arabian princess just to feel the slide of such fine fabric against my skin.

Imagine opening your closet and seeing this!
Imagine opening your closet and seeing this!

Walking around me, the women.  The lucky ones who get to call this their fashion trend.  I admire the women who fully cover their bodies, faces, hair, with only their eyes peeking out.  But not every Muslim woman dresses like that.  There are younger girls with more modern tops, leggings, fashionable skirts with pockets and laces, and leopard print headscarves.  Some women only wear headscarves.  My favorite look is the long swaying tunics and the matching trousers.  All of them have one thing in common—showing little, but still being perhaps some of the sexiest ladies I’ve ever seen.

I think in the West we assume that covering up is akin to repression. But being here, I have to wonder.  I find myself wishing I could wear such clothing, to know that my body will be much sexier with joyous colors and more left to the imagination.  Women here know how to work their bodies.  They seem to have more power with them than someone like me, who wrestles with pants to find the right combination of shape and cellulite.  Perhaps no woman is truly free from her clothes, but at least women here can wear their clothing with justly-earned pride.

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Night Bus to Kashgar

A Uyghur girl with a shaved head, and a yellow striped dress swung from the rails at the bus station as we waited in line.  She looked at me as I inched forward with a friend in the Peace Corps, backpacks digging into our shoulders.  Woman argued in Uyghur with the ticket window.  In their language that sometimes sounds like purring, sometimes like a drumroll, always smooth.

“We’ll have 2 tickets to Kashgar,” my friend said when at last we’d battled to the window.  We got our tickets and made our ways to the bus.  A night bus, which meant that inside were three rows of bunk beds (“pods” as my friend called them).  Just wide enough to lie down, and then likely sleep on your side, with a pillow and a blanket.  We climbed into our pods and lay down because there was no room to comfortably sit up and stay that way.  Muslim women struggled to climb into the top bunks with their long skirts, and shot me sheepish grins as I smiled.  I’ve found that a smile does a lot when you don’t understand someone and think they’re angry at you.  9/10 times, they’ll smile back.

The pods in the Night Bus.
The pods in the Night Bus.

The man checking that our shoes were off and in plastic bags looked a lot like a guy with an impressive mustache I knew from a college band. I decided to name him Stan.  Uyghur Stan.  The bus started up, taking us through mountains that looked like the bloody knuckle kind, like scraped charcoal.  We went up, up, into the flint mountains, and then settled in for a long ride.  Over 24 hours.  A woman in a blue veil switched beds with her husband in a white cap, since her position was right in front of the TV.  A good decision, too, as the TV flickered on with Uyghur music videos as soon as he rested his head against the screen.  There’s a show lampooning Imperial China.  More music videos.  I got the strong impression that I had settled into Arabian Nights more than western China.

When we stepped out of the bus, heat slapped us like when you step in front of a car’s exhaust pipe.  Luckily, the bus was air-conditioned, so we could relax with the loud lilting music of Uyghur wedding music in the background.   Outside, I had no doubt that the mountains were as hot as a frying pan.  I settled into “Fortress Besieged,” the Chinese novel I found in a hostel.

Hours later, as the dark crept in, someone (Maybe Uyghur Stan) was flipping through the TV.  I saw “Shawshank Redemption” come up, but it’s bypassed for something bloodier—“Gladiator.”   Suddenly, when hearing the opening music, I thought of how far the US really was from all of this.

Uyghur Stan led us off the bus in the night, where there’s a BBQ spit surrounded by the snake lights.  The air felt like silk then, and I could believe that I was in another world.  The front of trucks illuminated like ghosts by passing headlights, a discarded cigarette box gilded from streetlights.  When I got back on the bus, I rearranged the pillows and blanket, and settled in for what I hoped would be a good night’s rest.  We were woken up once for a stop at a CNG to pee next to entangled barbed wire amidst the veiled women. Surprisingly I slept well, dreaming that I came back to America to become a freelance gravedigger.  Uyghur Stan looked a little disheveled from driving a portion of the night while the other driver slept, but we awakened slowly, crunching nuts and snacks for the morning.

Once we got at the outskirts of Kashgar, we went through a police check.  The guard held my passport with a scrunched up face, twisting it around.  “Amreeka?”  he asked.  I nodded.  He let me through.

We arrived in a dingy bus station in Kashgar, and that was that.  I gathered my backpack, my bag full of random things gathered along the way, and my purse to get off.  I waved at Uyghur Stan and he sort of laughed and waved back.  And then we were gone, into Kashgar, into the land of silk and sun.

Urumqi

I’m not so naïve to think that the army green guards lurking in the shade, with their riot shields out at the ready, are there to protect tourists like me.  I know that in the past, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, has been a hot-spot for ethnic tensions between the Muslim/Turkish “Uyghurs” (pronounced “wee-gurr”) and the Han Chinese. Still, to come off of the bus in front of the hostel and find all traces of Uyghur all but gone, in the sprawl of a Chinese city, was a bit of a shock.

Oh yes, there’s a Uyghur part of town.  Tucked away around the mosque, crowding under the red market tents buying fruit and yogurt ice cream.  But for the end of Ramadan, Urumqi remained relatively quiet. Perhaps a sigh of relief for the Chinese government.  Perhaps grim satisfaction that yet again guns and shields positioned strategically around this area will maintain its position as a “Chinese” city.

One look at the Xinjiang Museum tells me a lot about how the cultures collide.  Plaques discuss how important Han Chinese are to the Xinjiang identity, even though Xinjiang is one of the only homes the Uyghurs have.  The Uyghur artifacts are shown as old relics that are no longer relevant.  Han Chinese crowd around a mummified Uyghur woman, and I can’t help but think of possession as grim hands smear the glass.

The rhetoric is that China is unified, and that Xinjiang is of course a part of China.  But that’s crap, sorry.  The Uyghurs are a completely separate culture, with a separate language similar to Turkish.  When I found a pocket of Ramadan dancing, I was caught in a circle of Uyghur people trying to ask where I was from.  A Chinese woman goaded them to ask me certain questions, but no one understood Chinese.  Because they are not Chinese.

So why would China bother?  If I was being optimistic, I would say that it’s because China believes in cross-cultural understanding and won’t give up so easily on land that has historically been a part of its empire.  If I was being cynical, I would say that it has something to do with the oil drills and wind turbines supplying energy in droves all over the province.  Whatever the reason, this is the story of Urumqi—two groups not understanding, not integrating, and the fight to keep them separate as long as possible.

Turpan- Land of Grapes

I spent most of my time in Turpan as any person might—lounging under a grape trellis for an afternoon/evening xiu xi (rest), popping grapes into my mouth.  From my back looking up, the leaves glittered in goldenrod and serpent-green.  Supple green heaves of ripe grapes bulged from above.  I had never seen so many grapes before in my life.

“Here,” the gardener hosing the vines said.  “Eat as many as you’d like.”  And he’d motion to the biggest bunches above for me to taste.  Sometimes he sang, but mostly he slunk around with his hose in the scorching heat to tempt more grapes to flourish.

Worth every bite.
Worth every bite.

There’s nothing for it in Turpan.  The blazing heat is such that in the mornings and evenings you can go out as much as you’d like in this desert oasis relatively barren of Chinese tourists.  As for the bulk of the day…have as many grapes as you’d like.

The End of the World

According to the old Chinese empire, the beginning of nowhere is beyond the fortress walls in Jiayuguan, Gansu Province.  In the desert, with nothing but sand, harsh rocks, and the tightly pressed mountain walls of the Hexi Corridor on both sides, the fortress waits for something to come out of nowhere-lands.
 
Nowhere is a perilous land full of rocky plateaus clicking together from a distance, ruthless sand and unforgiving heat beating down like boxing gloves, one two, one two.  The wraiths and caravans rumbling along this road come from a faraway land, a land labeled as a lack-thereof or more succinctly, a question mark.
 
On this edge of Nowhere, I stood on the fortress walls, trying to embody the warriors waiting for something to materialize like a mirage and try to decimate the dream of the empire.  The clench of their fingers against stone.  The listless beg of sleep as their post as First Defense for the West felt less like glory and more like excommunication.  They were the guardians of Somewhere, keeping phantom dreams of barbarians and demons at bay.  
 

Today, Nowhere is marked by kids riding camels, families happily shooting tennis balls out of cannons, and couples wheeling through the men dressed up in thin tin armor marching along in formation with fake spears.  The fortress still has a drum that you can pay to smack.  Construction crisscrosses all over the walls. 

 
 
Loudspeakers hawk fake jade and overpriced sausages.  The trashcans are designed to look like treasure chests.
 

This is the nowhere, I kept thinking.  I am standing on the edge of what used to be absolutely nothing, save footprints of Silk Road travelers long ago.  That ought to mean something.  

 
I tried very hard to press my imagination beyond what modern travelers (myself included) have warped the past into.  But Nowhere is just about as barren as a beach on Labor Day.
 
So I got on my train to Dunhuang, another stop along the Silk Road.  The wind from the train pressed lightly against my arm.  The desert yawned all around, faint black rips of mountains in the distance.  
 
And it struck me how funny the whole fortress situation is, actually.  The nowhere-lands, full of what dark dreams may flit from eyelid to eyelid, suddenly interrupted by a structure informing you that you have now arrived at Somewhere.  The guards prodding you to see if you’re going to try and kill them.  You still in slack shock from having toiled in sand and scraping wind to find metal men and their metal lives telling you that You Have Entered the World.
 
What is the world of Somewhere, anyway?  To me, the dust-mote walls and fortified entryways are just as Nowhere as the places outside.  The only difference is that Somewhere decided to label the solitude.  
 
And in Nowhere, looking far into the stars cutting sharp into the black expanse of empty space, with the cool dribble of night-sand on skin, we’re nothing but advancing footsteps into whatever the demons out there have planned.

Where Are You From?

Jaunty Oklahoma!-esque music warbled out of the radio in the train station at 7AM.  I sat in my wobbly plastic seat, reading the end of a book I hoped to trade ASAP once in Dunhuang.  Tired, not pleased to have a soundtrack to a waiting room.
 

A man in a plaid shirt leaned over to look at the book I was reading.  I tried to ignore him, then succumbed to curiosity and looked up from the pages.  He grinned at me, gesturing to the book.

 

“Are you French or Russian?” he asked me.

 

I looked back at my book, in neither language.  “Russian,” I said.

 
“Ah, of course.  VERY GOOD!”  He gave me a thumb’s up to emphasize this.  I smiled as best as anyone can at 7 and went back to my book.
 
“Are you a student?”
 
“Uh-huh.”
 
“Russian, wow.  You know three languages.  THREE LANGUAGES!”  
 
As he held up three fingers to emphasize this, too, I thought about correcting him and saying that, actually, I’m an American English teacher.  But that would also mean admitting that I was lying to him for absolutely no reason other than frustration at always being asked the same questions and giving the same answers.
 
“Yes,” I said.  
 
I let him think about it for a while and then went back to the book.
 
“Are you going to Dunhuang?” he said.  
I mean, I could lie and say that, no, I was actually going to one of the podunk towns in the middle of the desert that the train stopped at, but decided not to.  Yes, I said.  Yes I’m going to the obvious destination on the train.
 
We were silent then until the conductor said the train had arrived. 
 
“The train has arrived,” he told me.
 
“Thanks.”
 
And I grabbed my bag and shlepped it onto the train.  By now I’m more or less used to the stares and the mutters about the foreigner, and all of the theories and lives Chinese people concoct about me.  Sometimes, they’ve already decided who I must be before we even exchange words.  A student from England.  A Russian.  A French teacher.  A one-time traveler who is terribly confused and mystified by everything in this Great Land.
 
A while ago, Maeva and I decided that to spice things up when the interrogations got to be too much, we should just say “yes” to whatever theories were made.  Or, in the even that there are no theories, say we’re from lesser known countries.  ‘Oh no,’ I once said.  ‘I’m from Holland.’  And since China hardly knows anything about Holland, that was it.  
 
There is kind of a sick joy to changing identities so easily.  Slipping into other skin whenever it suits me best.  One day I’ll be me, but for now, when someone asks where I’m from, it’s a creative challenge.
 
Where am I from?  Guess.

Sandstorm

For our final adventure together before parting ways, Maeva and I decided to rent a jeep to take us rolling around in gigantic sand dunes.  The sand dunes, known for being extremely tall, are in the Badain Jaran Desert on the edge of Inner Mongolia.  And, coming from someone who actually hadn’t seen a desert before, they were pretty awesome.
Our jeep driver, a calm Mongolian, drove the jeep through the powdery sand and over peaks and bumps with the jaded air of one who’s played a video game long enough to memorize every level.  He said he’d been working in the company for four years.  He also said it wasn’t interesting anymore.  And his hand easily adjusted the gears as we shrieked and whooped at the cliff of sand below us.  (Don’t worry, mom, I was wearing my seat-belt).
It was like live-action Mario Kart.  The sky so blue, it didn’t look real.  The jeep fumbling and revving through sand around steep bends.  The lunacy of seeing road signs sticking out of the sand.  We stopped on the edge of sand dunes to get pictures.  We made sand angels.  We rolled down dunes.  We gripped the handles in the jeep over bumpy roads, grateful to have eaten a light breakfast.
And the dunes went ever on and on...
And the dunes went ever on and on…
The desert felt so unreal to me, partly because it’s such a strange one.  There are lakes in the desert.  LAKES.  We swam in one of them (to the amusement of our guide).  There are towering dunes that look unimpressive and puny from a distance.  There are tracks from jeeps in lines, definite roads created from wear.
Yeah, life in the desert is very hard, trust me.
Yeah, life in the desert is very hard, trust me.
I kept thinking ‘This is a desert.  This is a deadly place.  FEEL THE POWER.”  But instead, I raised my hands in the air as we went for another roller coaster ride. Then the jeep stopped.  We got out and our guide said we could go climb what was allegedly “the biggest dune.”  I wore my hat, a scarf and effectively looked like Zorro.  Maeva wrapped her head in a scarf for a more Lawrence of Arabia look.  And we began the climb.
The thing with sand, we realized, is that it’s really hard to climb.  You take a step up, and your foot sinks in and drags back almost to where you’re started.  It sifts beneath you and tires you much faster than packed dirt might.  We were panting within 10 minutes, gasping in 20.
“Right now, I hate the desert so much…” Maeva said as we rested, still a fine distance from the top.
Behind us, I could see our trail of footsteps leading up and up.  The jeep disappeared behind the dune.  It was just the two of us.
Gone without a trace (almost...)
Gone without a trace (almost…)
Something I learned is that there’s a certain silence to the desert I’ve never experienced before.  No birds, no rustle of trees, no animals pawing around.  If anything happens in the desert, you know a long time in advance because even the scrape of a branch against sand is deafening.  And everything leaves a mark, even tiny rain droplets from the night before, impressed in the earth.  The desert has an excellent short-term memory.
In the silence, I felt a brief horror for what it would be like to be marooned here.  Sand, which seems so much worse than snow.
Once we made it to the top, we collapsed on the ridge and panted.  There were clouds rumbling in the distance, so we paused not much longer to say “Yay!” before heading back.  And we stepped with an elephant’s stride, the sand easily bending with us to take us away from its peaks and into its belly.  The sandstorm never came for us, though we were still covered in sand anyway.  In the course of the night, our footsteps would probably disappear from wind, and all traces of us would be gone.
But all traces of the desert stayed with us as we got in our yurt, shaking sand from our shoes, hair, clothes, everything.  And if that means anything, well it means you can always take the desert with you.  Until laundry day.