June 10, 2005

Kashgar - Central Asian / Silk Road Crossroads


(We're in Leh now, in Himalayan North India. We've been here about a week, after spendings two days in Rajastan (sp?) and a day in Delhi, and before that two weeks in Thailand, and before that a short week back in in southern China. As always, were behind on our posting. Internet access has been pretty sketchy, as a partial excuse. Our trip continues to be excellent: we're both happy and healthy and enjoying everything It's great to be in the mountains now. We're staying at a wonderful guest house here, and just got back from a three day trek through several distant villages. More on all that later, but for now here's the report and photos from Kashgar, China's northwest-most. Everything's great. Love, nate and aimee)


After Urumqi and the overnight trip to Heaven Lake, we took a 24 hour train ride to Kashgar. Alternately Kashi or Kasha, Kashgar is in the extreme northwest of China, in the desert on the dry eastern side of the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges. It is a crossroads city (easern asia, central asia, middle east, europe), and has been since before the Silk Road. (As the bird flies, it's actually quite close to Ladakh in the north of India - where i'm writing this from - but the mountains and the politically hot borders make it a tough route. Our plan took us from Kashgar to Ladakh via southern China, Thailand, then via Dehli.)

Chinese Soldier Roommates

PLA Soldiers

We reserved a soft sleeper on the train to Kashgar (4 berths to a compartment) and shared our room with 2 PLA officers (China's People’s Liberation Army) in fatigues. One spoke a tiny bit of English, the other none. For the first few hours of the journey they stayed outside while we read (we had the bottom beds). As night approached we started playing cards, with them curiously trying to deduce Gin's rules from a distance. After politely declining a swig of our Johnny Walker, one of them opened his pack of cigarettes and offered some to us. Since we didn't want to be rude, we accepted (as a way of bonding - even though they declined the whisky) and started to walk out of our compartment to smoke between traincars (since the cars are non-smoking). They laughed and shook theirs hands as if to say "no, no" and shut the compartment door. In protest of the pending hotbox, we pointed at the "no smoking" sign on the table. They grabbed the sign and put it under one of the pillows on the bed. No sign - no problem, apparently. Our compartment is now a smoking one with no ventilation...yummy. We sat and smoked (Aimee pretended to smoke mostly) and they loosened up and tried some whisky. We traded the phrasebook and dictionary to converse back and forth. They are very curious about how much american soldiers make, how much our salaries are, how much cars cost in the US, how much my watch cost, and even how much an F-16 fighter jet  and a Hummer costs (haha, yeah, i've got those figures handy...), etc, etc. We cut everything by at least 75% when giving them numbers. It’s now 1:00 am and they motion "sleep" and we nod that yes we're tired and getting ready for bed. They leave the compartment, and we got changed and crawled into bed. About 5 minutes later they unexpectedly returned --- with 4 large beers, local beef jerky and more cigarettes. The beers are poured into Dixie cups, which we drink like shots with immediate refills. As soon as the finished the first 4, they disappeared and returned with 6 more large (and as we've mentioned before, WARM) beers. Before you know it (about 30-45 minutes later) we have drank 10 large bottles of [warm] beer and are pretty drunk and laughing and making broken conversation with any of the words we can use in the dictionary. For me (nate), it was one of the highlights of the trip.


We arrived in Kashgar - a 80%+ Muslim city - in the afternoon. It feels nothing like the rest of China. With some small adjustments (cars, electric lines) it could easily be hundreds of years ago. It's desert, dry and dusty. Carts pulled by donkeys crowd the streets. There are some tall building - apparently the city has boomed a bit in the last decade, including the beginnings of tourism and Chinese intervention/development - but the majority of the structures are mud and straw-covered rudimentary brick. Many of the non-main streets are dirt (though the old streets in the Old Town are brick). The people are beautiful and fascinating looking, a mesmorizing mixture of Asian, Arab, Turkish and Russian. Very curious and interesting and complex: some have arab features with blue, asian shaped eyes.

Musical Friends

Musical Instrumenst

I dropped our bags and Aimee at our hotel, and went for a walk. Kashgar has a famous mosque near the center of town, so I headed that way. After about 5 minutes, a young man popped out of a story and yelled "Hello" to me. I walked over to him, and he asked if we could talk for a few minutes, as he's studying English and wanted to practice. We sat in a dentist office where he had been hanging out and talked while his friends fashioned precise gold teeth from plaster molds. (BET would be envious - tons of people in town had full mouths of solid gold teeth). He was 29 ("you're my younger brother"), had been a tailor, but was now living, along with his wife and son, with his parents while he studied English for two years. After a while, he offered to show me around town. We walked past the mosque, and off the new streets into "Old Town", a expansive maze of narrow dirt streets. He took me to a musical instruments shop that a friend of his owned. The family had been musical instrument makers for at least 5 generations. All types of beautiful instruments. I got to go into the workshop in back where a crew of a half-dozen men were busy making more instruments. The smallest ones take a man-week, while the bigger ones made with all traditional materials (apricot wood, mulberry wood, camel bone, horse hair) take at least a man-month to make. I had tea and bread with the workers, and sat and watched them for quite a while. My friend played and sung a few songs for me on a few of the instruments.

Back Alley Soccer


Aimee and I explored the Old Town more each day. The streets are filled with donkey carts selling dried fruit, fresh vegetables, breads, cloth, old hardware, knives, firewood, straw, and everything else. The storefronts offered musical instruments, tailor and hat shops (Kashgar has a dozen types of traditional hats), antiques, painted tin chests (that are given to the brides family filled with gifts in exchange for her hand in marriage), dumplings, rugs, blacksmiths, and more knives (the locals are famed for their knife-making skills). Off the main road in this part of town, even smaller passageways, walkways and tiny streets go in every direction. We ducked down several and were immediately in another world. After a few lefts and rights we found a group of young kids kicking a soccer ball around. They greeted us with "Hello, Hello" and we spend the next few hours playing with them, having a great time. More and more kids, and eventually several women kept appearing from somewhere. Some were shy, but all warmed up. We just sort of watched each other, and played, and smiled, and communicated as best we could. We examined each others books, and wrote sentences in our native languages that the other half couldn't understand. Piggy-back rides, soccer drills, clothes examination, pictures, and smiles. Magical.

The Market

Kashgar is particularly famed for it's market. Locals from all around converge on Sunday to buy and sell everything. The guide books say well over 100,000 people. It was immense, and bizarre. Kashgar lives almost exclusively on meat, specifically lamb/mutton and goat. All over, skinned carcasses were hanging from hooks, with parcels chopped to order on the spot on well-worn wood chopping blocks. We walked east down one of the roads, past an initial meat area, then a dried fruit and spices area, a horse/donkey harness/tack area, a hardware and mechanical area, and stumbled upon the parking lot. Not a car parking lot; a donkey parking lot. Probably several hundred donkeys tied to posts, still harnessed to their carts. Many had bags of fodder tied over their heads. Across from the donkeys were a bunch of hair-cutting stations. Men getting their heads shaved clean with straight razors, and all types of facial hair styles. (The well-tanned herders and farmers looked pretty funny with extreme tan lines in their heads when all the hair was removed.) Intermixed throughout the market was vendors selling fresh-made ice cream, fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, iced-milk drinks from large, open-air fly-friendy vats, watermelon and countless other things. North of this area was a large covered market area, where clothing, beautiful cloth, blankets and rugs, jewelery, and "medicines" were offered from probably 500 stalls.


Making Dumplings

I couldn't resist the dumplings. We had met a traveller at Heaven Lake who reported hallucinating for 2 days after getting some type of food poisoning in Kashgar, so I tried to find the most-busy stall. Near the main crossroads one stand looked particularly active. It is quite a process to make the dumplings, with about 6 people working "the line". The first thing that catches your attention is the meat chopper. Full sheep hanging in front of him, he wacks off large chunks and dices in frantically with a pretty scarily huge cleaver. Wack, wack, wack...rotate the 3 or 4 pound pile, wack, wack, wack. One guy is busy preparing coals in a nearby pit, while anotehr guy mans the oven. With a how-can-it-still-exist arm, the oven guy reaches deep into the kiln and slaps the dumpings to the inside walls. Once he puts a whole tray's worth in, he grabs a hand-cranked fan and bellows the coals. After a few minutes, the dough cooks and the dumplings fall off the walls indicating that their down. They guy with the magic arm reaches all the way down to the the bottom of the oven and retrieves the finished dumplings. They are delicious, with blistered, crunchy outsides containing chunks of meat still boiling in liquid steaming fat and onion juice. If you eat them at the stall, they come with a bowl of tea for washing down and/or dunking. If you take them away, they come in a plastic bag, still too hot to touch, for the price of 2 for 1 yuan, or about 6 cents each. I ate about a half-dozen of them. Delicious.

Making Dumplings

(I'm a pretty adventurous eater, but my western refrigeration and sterilization sensibilities, and the fresh story of non-recreational hallucinations leave me somewhat apprehensive as I gobble them down. But, even with the room-temperature chopping block splattering the dough-pressing station with every wack, and the tea bowl cleaned out from the customer before me with an off-handed wipe of the server's apron, I can report no ill effects.)


Kashgar is close to Pakistan, sharing a border. Pakistani-based commerce is big in Kashgar, as I suppose it has been for 1000 years. After a month of Chinese food of varying degrees of vegetarianism, we, especially Aimee, were eager to eat some Pakistani food in Kashgar (especially as the other choice was between mutton kebobs and mutton dumpings). The first night we found, after some searching, a small restaurant recommended in our guidebook. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall, with two tables outside and two tables inside, and a propane kitchen beyond. It was excellent. As with most of our meals, since many of the menu's don't have prices on them (and this place didn't even have a menu), towards the end we'd take bets on how much the bill would be. Our meal consisted of two entrees, I had some sort of chicken in lentils with dal and nan, and Aimee had a vegetarian plate of various dishes to accompany our nan. We split a large beer. I guessed about 80 and I think Aimee guessed 60. Turns out it was our cheapest meal of our trip, and Aimee says cheapest of her total travelling experience: 15 yuan. At a little over 8 yuan to the US$, the dinner for two, with drinks, was under 2 bucks.

Near our hotel was another Pakaistani restaurant, and we went there a few days later. The food was equally as good, and we were both getting used to breaking bread and eating with our right hand only (especially tricky for me being left-handed). We talked to a few Pakistani people in the restaurant, who were without exception very nice. A few funny things came of it. First, when it came up that we weren't married, the guy said, begrudgingly, "well, that's [sort of] OK here in China, but [basically] don't come to Pakistan until you're married". The other funny exchange happened when we told them we were heading to Ladakh. A look of near-panic came over the guys face because he thought we were going to go overland. While we have met travellers on the road who have made that trip, he reminded, as the headlines do nearly every day, that it would be a hazardous journey, one that he clearly advised against. He was relieved when we told he were we flying via Delhi.

Kashgar was a great adventure. It felt very other-worldly, and to experience such difference is why I'm travelling.

June 10, 2005 at 11:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack