You don't see "no donkey cart" signs just anywhere
Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
19Trip End Nov 20, 2007
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Where I stayed
Kashgar is the backwater that I expected Urumqi to be. The streets are almost all paved and are crowded with cars, motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles; people wear clothing made of fabric instead of animal pelts; grocery stores are stocked with the same packaged goods available in grocery stores elsewhere in China (although the packages of silk worms in the snack aisle were unusual, I think); you can have a good dinner in any number of restaurants that serve a variety of cuisines (as long as you want Chinese or Uiger food). And yet there are those indications that you aren't in Beijing any longer, for example, the donkey carts, the occasional horse cart, and, from time to time, a donkey without a cart, plus street signs indicating which streets are off limits to donkey carts, donkeys, and/or tractors. Or the lumber yard that stocks mostly entire tree trunks, stripped of branches and bark, in assorted lengths and diameters. Or the six-lane road that has more donkey carts than cars clogging the lanes. But let me return to the story, where more examples will emerge.
While in Kashgar, we stayed in the Seman Hotel, the grounds of which are the former location of the Russian embassy. The old embassy building is now the hotel cafeteria (the term "restaurant" is too grand), and several buildings of hotel rooms have since been added. We heard that they'd recently renovated the rooms in a Uiger style, which I guess explains the walls covered in plaster-relief frames around plaster-relief flower arrangements and plaster-relief abstract decorations, all painted in bright pastels and covered in sparkles. Too bad they didn't also upgrade the plumbing to add P-traps to the drains so the place didn't constantly smell faintly of sewer gas (or more than faintly if you closed the window at night to keep out the cold), or regrout the granite-tile tub surround, or buy carpets that fit the room instead of lapping up the walls. Then again, it might be the best hotel in Kashgar; this was not the only hotel in China in which I've encountered the sewer-gas problem.
Saturday morning we took our minibus out to a small town outside Kashgar to a street market that Taher thought we'd like to see. Perhaps not every eye in the place was on us as we walked the few blocks of the market, but anyone who wasn't openly staring was merely trying to look nonchalant, I'm convinced. ;-) Almost everyone was cordial, though, and when I smiled, they usually smiled back. We didn't help matters by sticking more or less together, but being near Taher, who we quizzed a lot, helped us understand what we were looking at. Why, for example, were those men emptying large bags of freshly picked cotton onto a big blue tarp? Wouldn't the bags be easier to transport? Perhaps, but the buyer was paying by the kilogram and wanted to make sure that the seller hadn't tossed a brick or two into each bag. What is that two-foot-tall pile of grated white stuff at the food booth? Radish. Gary had already told us to be on the lookout for sheep with unusually large butts (large-tailed sheep?big-assed sheep?). Similar to camels' humps, these sheep butts contain extra energy to help the sheep survive without food for a while. People continued to arrive at the market the entire time that we were there, many on donkey carts with produce or animals to sell, some on foot or bicycle, a couple in trucks with larger numbers of animals to sell, but no one came by car, and certainly no one else came in their own minibus.
On the way to and from the market, we saw some of how rural people in western China live. The road between Kashgar and the market was lined with fields that people were working by hand, including many fields that people walked through bent over or crawled through on hands and knees picking cotton. (I have yet to see a tractor in a field anywhere in China except occasionally a small tractor being used to tow a wagon of produce, and more than once I've seen farmers plowing behind what I think were water buffalo.) We saw a few clusters of handmade greenhouses, with brick north walls and bowed branches on the south side for supporting sheet plastic. Taher said that the greenhouses were used year round; at night during the winter, farmers lean mattresses against the south side to hold the heat in. Homes are walled compounds near the road with solid metal or wood double gates wide enough for a donkey cart, and a house, a yard, and perhaps a barn inside the walls. As at the market, everyone gets around by donkey, donkey cart, or bicycle; on the edge of many fields in which we saw people working, we also saw bicycles parked or donkeys grazing.
Back in Kashgar that afternoon, we spent some time in the old part of town, wandering narrow streets and watching people make by hand things that are made by machines where I come from: copper pots, bowl, teapots, and other cooking utensils; galvanized buckets, watering cans, stove pipe, furnace duct, and all manner of other galvanized parts; lathe-turned table legs, rolling pins, and other decorative pieces for purposes I couldn't guess; knives, meat hooks, hinges, handles, and a multitude of other metal parts; hats and clothing; and other things I'm surely forgetting. The vendors mostly didn't seem to mind being watched and photographed, and some of the kids in the neighborhood had become hams at the prompting of tourists and their digital cameras. I had one group of kids follow me for a while, leap into each picture, and then motion to the camera to indicate that the wanted to see themselves. One little boy followed me longer than the others, and I realized that I could get him killed if I weren't careful when I pointed the camera at a building across the street and he dashed across the street to be in the picture.
Dinner Saturday evening was another of those only-on-a-tour experiences, but with an odd twist. The family of a good friend of Taher's had agreed to invite us to their home for dinner, where they fed us in a room even more flashily decorated in Uiger style than our hotel rooms at the Seman Hotel. (This was the guest room.) The quirk was that it was Ramadan, during which Muslims don't eat until after sunset, so the family wasn't able to eat with us. Mom even apologized (through Taher as translator) in case the spicing of dinner wasn't just right (like we'd know), but she wasn't able to taste the food she was cooking. We could have waited until after sunset to eat with them, but that would have made for a very late dinner for us. (For them, too, but they weren't going to Shipton's Arch the next morning.) All of China has but one time zone, so Kashgar time, which should be two or three hours earlier than Beijing time, is exactly the same, and sunset in late September is after 9 pm. Many of the locals have compensated by operating on "Uiger time," two hours earlier than Beijing time. Taher says this means that people who are talking time need to specify Beijing time or Uiger time.
Much of Sunday was dedicated to two markets that are more famous than they now deserve to be, though in the past they may have been more exotic. After Saturday's market, Sunday's livestock market, also a few miles outside of town, was different mainly in scale. Farmers in a huge dirt field were selling hundreds of sheep, donkeys, and cows, as well as a few horses and a father, mother, and baby camel. Outside, a few food vendors had set up, and a donkey-cart vendor had a half-dozen new carts on hand. Clearly this market was more popular with tourists; most of the locals gave us little more than a glance, and I saw several westerners other than those in our group also sporting cameras.
After lunch at a fancy Uiger restaurant (meaning lots of mutton dishes) and an ill-advised stop at the completely useless Kashgar Museum (housing a tiny collection of local artifacts in display cases on the perimeter of one small room, with few captions, none of which were in English), we spent a couple of hours at the other market, which sells everything but livestock. In a series of enormous buildings across the river from the old-town area, we wandered aisle upon aisle of goods that, with few exceptions (animal pelts, fur hats, hand-woven rugs), you could buy at any department store or hardware store in the west. Vendors selling like goods were grouped together so, for example, the 50 or 100 shoe vendors were in three or four adjacent aisles. I'm not sorry to have gone for the experience, but I won't bother going back next time I'm in Kashgar.