A shortened version of this feature first appeared in the Travel & Indulgence pages of The Weekend Australian on September 7-8. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/travel/another-time-and-pace/story-e6frg8rf-1226712070378
Evening is a drawn out affair in Kashgar, the great Silk Road entrepôt in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. Official time is in sync with Beijing, so in this city four hours’ flying time west of the capital the working day effectively ends in the mid-afternoon and darkness doesn’t descend until 9:00pm. I learn quickly that when making arrangements it’s vital to specify whether a rendezvous is at “Beijing time” or “Kashgar time”.
In October, as summer has faded and the clear skies of autumn hover, sticking to “Beijing time” lends an unhurried quality to the gloaming. In and around Kashgar’s Old Town this just gives the locals longer to congregate outdoors.
As elsewhere in Asia, life is lived on the streets here. Walking along Seman Lu I encounter a lively poker game on the broad pavement. Women congregate to chat. Market gardeners sell grapes, weighed out on balancing scales. Passers-by gather for snacks at roadside stalls.
It’s my first time in China but I can’t overcome a sense of familiarity. It feels uncannily like Turkey, where I have travelled many times before. The card players on Seman Lu wear embroidered Islamic prayer caps, the gossiping mothers sport unruly headscarfs and flowing dresses, the snacks are sunflower seeds shared from newspaper cones. All of this echoes streetlife in Turkey. But of course, the local population are Uyghurs, a Muslim people who are culturally and linguistically related to the Turks.
In fact the Uyghurs are the ones who stayed behind when the nomadic Turkic peoples started their long westward migration across Eurasia in the tenth century. Yet while 1000 years may separate the residents of modern Turkey and the Uyghurs who mill around me, the similarities between the two peoples are overwhelming.
The conviviality of life in the street, the tendency to clutch the forearm of the person being spoken to, even the way pedestrians blithely step across major roads unconcerned at oncoming mopeds and taxis are so familiar it’s as if I’ve found myself in a Turkish outpost squeezed into a corner of China. The language, too, is similar. When I enter a shop and use my halting traveller’s Turkish to buy bottled water I am gifted an array of smiles.
A favourite spot for both tourists and locals is the venerable Uyghur Teahouse. On the edge of the Old Town, the teahouse, reached via rickety stairs, offers a view of the comings and goings on Handicrafts Street. Here Uyghur elders congregate at length over pots of tea – another penchant they share with the Turks – stroking their beards, flicking prayer beads and discussing the affairs of the day.
At street level , plumes of tangy smoke rise from the grills of the kebab makers. Decorated rounds of nun bread are on sale outside the baker’s tandir. When I visit in the afternoon, I spy several barber shops that also offer dental services, a vocational coupling that doesn’t strike me as the most obvious.
On Handicrafts Street, Uyghur artisans hammer at copper tea pots or sharpen knives while maintaining conversations with passing friends. At the Uyghur Musical Instrument Factory, a shop reeking of resin and wood shavings, collected traditional instruments are on sale. After buying a souvenir tambourine I am treated to the plaintive vocals and shimmering dutar (long-necked lute) performance of local muqam musicians. Outside sassy Uyghur teenagers check their mobile phones while scooting around on mopeds adorned with woven saddle bags.
This oasis city on the fringe of the Taklamakan Desert has seen the comings and goings of peoples over millennia. Through here came Silk Road traffic moving both ways between China and the Mediterranean. Different faiths and all manner of trade goods passed through Kashgar, a plethora of cargoes on the backs of mightily laden camels.
Marco Polo once passed through making dismissive comments about the local “Turkis”. During the height of the Great Game in the 19th century the city was prone to “international melodrama” as the spies of the British and Russian empires sort to outpoint each other. And at intervals came Chinese dynastic armies expanding out of the east, seeking to subdue and envelope a vast frontier territory of which Kashgar was the focal point.
Most recently, in 1949, the People’s Republican Army marched in. The Chinese claim Xinjiang as an integral part of China, citing Han Dynasty control in the 1st century BC and episodes of central rule since. The Uyghurs largely see it otherwise, pointing to long intervals when Turkic sultans and khans or local warlords held sway. Some draw parallels to the situation in Tibet and maintain demands for autonomy or independence.
For now, Beijing is firmly in control, marshalling the Xinjiang region (fully one-sixth of the Chinese landmass) for redevelopment and modernisation. Redevelopment in Kashgar centres on the Old Town, much of which is being demolished to allow ranks of apartment buildings to be constructed. Winding alleys, shaded courtyards and centuries-old stucco houses adorned with carved wooden embellishments are being bulldozed in the name of progress.
Authorities claim that the Old Town is an earthquake risk and new housing is necessary. Local opinion is divided. One local, Khadija, tells me it is “good and bad”. She likes the idea of modern conveniences but fears the dispersal of her neighbourhood community. Another, Mustafa, tells me, “Some Uyghurs say that [existing] buildings are old and small. But mostly they say ‘no, no, no…’”
Parts of the Old Town are being preserved, however, as a “living museum”. I buy an entrance ticket and wander several streets. Here, life is lived at close quarters. Little girls play on doorsteps. Boys kick footballs in alleyways that have coded paving stones, hexagonal for throughways, rectangular for dead ends. There are no cars, just the odd pedlar arriving on a three-wheeled motorbike to deliver vegetables. Conversations echo in enclosed spaces. Hearing the Turkic lilt of Uyghur voices, I could be in old Istanbul.
Some see the pulling down of the Old Town as a move towards smothering Uyghur identity. Others claim the Chinese government’s action, whether done with good intentions or otherwise, will ultimately lead to the assimilation of the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs and the Han Chinese already share many characteristics: a flare for communal storytelling, gregariousness, a predilection for round-the-clock cups of tea, eating breakfast with chopsticks. Will Uyghur distinctiveness eventually be lost?
I prefer to think that a culture and lifestyle as vibrant and boisterous as that of the Uyghurs will not be so easily overcome. I think of the sassy moped pilots, the noisy pavement poker players. At the Sunday livestock market I watch burly Uyghur farmers wrestling yaks onto trucks, man-handling sheep and taking donkeys for “test drives”. These dignified men, with calloused hands and buttoned waistcoats, are no push-overs.
This region has long been a melting pot. Cultures and creeds have intermingled and overlapped here since time immemorial. Chinese and Uyghur cohabitation need not be a zero sum game. My last meal in Kashgar is evidence of this. Surrounded by Chinese and Uyghur chatter, I eat chilli-encrusted lamb with pulled noodles and braised cabbage.
Leaving the restaurant, I pause at the kerb. Twilight again. A brooding sky. Swallows zip overhead. The street lights suddenly ripple on. I abandon myself to the traffic and step out amongst the racing mopeds.