Article by John McGovern
It was 9:45pm Beijing time and the sun was nearly set. We were sitting in a restaurant with a huge plate of roast chicken in front of us. “Please don’t begin eating until 9:53” said the waiter, “but here’s more melon to keep you going.”
The Xinjiang people take Ramadan very seriously. Of course, we could buy snacks in the shops and food from the hostel kitchens, but if we wanted proper Uyghur food that day we had to wait until 9:53.
The Kashgar markets soon filled with crowds of Uyghur men, congregating around restaurants, eager to break their fast. Their ever-increasing chatter and the sweet smells of melon and tea gave us a feeling of communal euphoria, like none we’d felt anywhere else, as the clock crept towards 53.
We had crossed the border the day before, from Osh in Kyrgyzstan, a stunning drive which we did by private car; then we took a lorry through the no man’s land between the Kyrgyz and Chinese customs houses before taking a third car into Kashgar.
South Xinjiang is the place to be. Urumqi, Turpan and the Kazakh areas up by Lake Kanas in the north are certainly amazing, but the old oasis towns south of the Taklamakan Desert, from Kashgar to Hotan and onwards, are a part of China like no other. In Kashgar you are closer to Tehran and Damascus than to Beijing, though they are still on Beijing time and so the summer evenings are long.
The next day we went to the cattle market out of town, where breeders come from miles and miles to bargain over their stock.
Goats, cows, horses and the odd camel contributed to the cacophony, but rarely failed to drown out the heavy bargaining going on.
On our way back into town, we hailed a motorized trike taxi. The five of us sat in the back and the driver delighted in hurtling down the road, hitting the potholes as best he could and seeing if we could hang on, turning every now and again with a grin on his face.
He slowed down a bit after a Uyghur woman with her young son and small baby got in. When we reached their stop the woman suddenly thrust the baby into my arms as she helped her son out and then climbed out herself. The driver saw his opportunity and after the woman had got out he sped off leaving me panicking as I still held the baby in my arms. He stopped about 50 metres down the road and started roaring with laughter as the woman slowly walked up to us with a look on her face as if to say, “I know you and you’re a very mischievous man!” She found the whole incident amusing, and our driver evidently had a great time. We were left thinking that Uyghur humouris not exactly as we’d expected.
The old city in Kashgar is slowly deteriorating and the new town, of course, looks the same as any city in China. But Yarkant county town, about halfway between Kashgar and Hotan, is a real treat. We looked around the old mosque before being led by a bunch of children playing in the alleyways to the royal cemetery nearby. As daylight was starting to dim we found ourselves amongst the mausoleums and tombs, being led down the overgrown windy paths by the children who had made this place their playground.
That night near midnight there was a knock at our door. Four Uyghur police officers, though not too intimidating, had been dispatched to our room to check through our cameras, ask questions about where we came from and what we were doing, and generally to assess the situation.
“We don’t have many foreigners here, so our chief of police instructed us to come and check you were okay.” Just like in North Korea, where border guards will spend a while looking at photographs of your holiday in Spain, these police officers lingered over the photos of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, fascinated by these countries they had never been to before. They left after one in the morning, with a wave and a smile.
We left onwards for Hotan early the next day, preparing for our trip through the desert, with the last words of the police officers still fresh: “Xinjiang people are the friendliest in the whole of China, make sure you come again and tell all your friends too!”
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