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21-11-04, 00:58

A World Apart on China's Silk Road


The pounding drums drew me into the alley. Stepping off the main street, I saw an old man with a thick beard and a white skullcap sitting in front of a shop, banging an insistent, Arab-sounding rhythm on a hand drum. Next to him, a younger man with thin stubble kept up a keening wail, like a snake charmer, on a tiny flute.

The music only added to the cacophony. On one side of the alley, olive-skinned men wearing large cotton mitts pulled nan out of a stone oven. Lamb vendors hacked hunks off carcasses; kebab sellers molded fresh lamb onto small skewers. A few carpet sellers laid Afghan-style rugs on the road, grabbing pedestrians by the hand to showcase their wares. When no pedestrians were around, the sellers nibbled dried apricots and sipped a chilled yogurt drink. Merchants greeted each other with "Salaam aleikum," hands to their hearts, and then crowded in close -- prodding and cajoling potential customers.

Suddenly, the riot of noise quieted and a tinny call rang out overhead. "Allahu!" "Allahu!" Kebab sellers wiped their hands; head-scarf sellers packed up their wares; bakers covered their ovens. Men scurried to the end of the alley and crossed the street to an enormous mosque. Women threw themselves on small rugs and began to pray. A quiet settled over the bazaar; undistracted, I suddenly felt the baking hot desert sun.

Welcome to China.

The vast western province of xinjiang has always been a world apart, China's own Wild West, encompassing one-sixth of the country's land. Surrounded by the imposing Altay, Kunlun and Tian Shan mountains and the forbidding Taklamakan and Gubantunggut deserts, Xinjiang was originally settled by Uighurs, a nomadic, Muslim, Turkic people. The terrain and climate, combined with the Uighurs' fierce independence, prevented the Chinese from fully conquering Xinjiang for centuries. In 104 B.C., Emperor Wudi sent 60,000 men to invade Xinjiang. Some 10,000 straggled back to Beijing.

Despite this inhospitality, Xinjiang's location at the heart of Eurasia, and its traditional bazaar culture, made it a welcoming place for one group: traders. During the Silk Road era, between the 9th and 15th centuries, Xinjiang was the fulcrum of a global trade route linking Antioch, Constantinople, Persia, Samarkand and China. Trade intermingled people, and today Xinjiang reflects a melange of Asia and Europe -- wide, dark-skinned Mongolian faces; aquiline, Iranian-looking faces; ruddy, red-stubbled faces that appear Irish. And even when maritime routes between Asia and the West opened up, Xinjiang remained a hub. In the 19th century, as Russia and Britain consolidated Asian empires in the time of the Great Game, they competed for influence in Xinjiang.

In 1949, Beijing's Communist masters ended Xinjiang's role as a center of commerce; Mao closed its borders and shuttered its bazaars. But over the last two decades, as China has embraced capitalism, Xinjiang's links to the outside have revived. Borders have been reopened; traders are swarming into Xinjiang from across Asia; and Beijing has lavished billions on the province, in a "Develop the West" campaign that encourages Chinese businesspeople to invest there. The Silk Road, it seems, is back.

Since the market has been the center of life in xinjiang, any visit must center on the bazaar. It is in the markets, more than anywhere else, that local people are trying to absorb China's onrushing modernity while maintaining traditions that have helped them survive their rugged environment. So, on a trip to Xinjiang in August, it was in the bazaar that I spent most of my time.

As Xinjiang has developed, it has become easier for independent travelers to visit. It is no longer necessary to travel with a group, since there are frequent flights around the region, and English-speaking tour operators in most cities.

I flew first into Urumqi, the provincial capital, on China Southern Airlines, which, during the summer, has four flights a day into Xinjiang from Beijing. Urumqi, only 300 years old, is aggressively embracing modernity. Driving into the city, which rises from hundreds of miles of surrounding flatland, I felt I was on the frontier. Developers were frantically adding to the boomtown's skyline. When I pointed to my taxi driver's new CD player, he smiled and shuffled through a rack of country-and-western discs. My hotel, the Xinjiang Grand, featured a vast display of cowboy boots, which were snapped up by Chinese businessmen.

"Urumqi changes so fast -- every time I go my favorite places are gone," said a Uighur friend, Kurban, a moon-faced 20-year-old woman with oily black tresses and a thin fuzz of facial hair, who proudly wore traditional Uighur dresses, printed in reds and yellows and oranges. Kurban was trying to keep up. She studied Chinese diligently and, when in Urumqi, she hung out at "English Corner," an area of a park where Uighurs chat in English with travelers. At the corner, Kurban learned important new English phrases like "bling-bling" and learned about current events; when I brought her a copy of PeopleInStyle, she easily identified all of Jennifer Lopez's husbands.

The city's small main museum, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum, was under construction as part of a renovation. It was still open, though, and I saw the province's best collection of mummies, silk brocades in Arabic and Chinese styles and other artifacts of Xinjiang's trading history.

Erdaqaio, Urumqi's central market, is at the forefront of the city's change. When I visited in summer 2002, Erdaqaio had been a moderate-sized, mostly open-air bazaar with little apparent organizing principle. Now, two years later, the Chinese government has constructed an enormous indoor market there, nearly a million square feet in area, with towering buildings in a gaudy faux-Islamic style. Outside Erdaqaio, Chinese families posed on fake camels and bought overpriced local melons from Uighur men bashing open honeydews with cleavers. Inside, I wandered for hours through rows of shops. Each area sold one type of craft, and many seemed geared to Chinese tourists. I walked through floors of new silk carpets made in Hotan, Xinjiang's weaving capital, Uighur skullcaps embroidered with gold and Chinese figurines carved from local jadeite. I ste pped into Oktur, the market's best shop for handcrafted Uighur daggers, long blades with handles inlaid with bright stones. "How about this?" asked Oktur's owner. "It's beautiful, but I don't know what I want," I lied, knowing I could never take his dagger on a plane. "No problem -- you can browse them on our Web site," he replied.

Western stores are riding Urumqi's boom, too. At one end of Erdaqaio, K.F.C. and the French supermarket chain Carrefour have built outlets catering to Urumqi's nouveau riche. Some locals were having trouble adapting to the change. At the entrance to Carrefour, Uighur families stared dumbfounded at the enormous racks of shopping carts. Near another door, two craggy, older Uighur women in head scarves were cowering, pointing at the escalator, clearly scared to get on. A crowd, mostly Chinese, surged behind them, yelling and pushing. The Uighur women stumbled onto the escalator but regained their balance, smiling as they ascended.

But traditional Uighurs have not given in. At night, they take over Erdaqaio, converting blocks across from the indoor market into a sprawling outdoor bazaar selling useful items, not just tourist crafts. Unlike the indoor area, the outdoor market has little organization -- vendors just drive their carts in and sell goods off the back.

Every night, the entire open-air bazaar felt like a celebration, as if Urumqi had won some great sporting victory -- perhaps people were just happy to be outside, because in winter Urumqi is bitterly cold and dark. Thousands of Uighurs, Chinese, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Pakistanis crowded the streets after 7 p.m. local time (two hours behind Beijing time), shopping, gabbing over supersweet cantaloupe, crowding around stalls showing Turkish films.

If Urumqi is rushing ahead, turfan, an oasis town 120 miles southeast of the provincial capital, is better at balancing old and new. I was driven to Turfan in a car provided by Mark Zhong, an extremely helpful Urumqi tour operator. The modern highway snaked through the desert, past ocher sand dunes, alkaline dried lakes, herds of camels and even a few Kazakh round yurts. Outside Urumqi, the horizon line dwarfed Montana's big sky. Far away, I could see refineries flaring natural gas.

In less than two hours, we arrived at the newer part of Turfan, a soulless jumble of blocky buildings. As in Urumqi, the city has begun to cater to tourists, with glass-and-steel hotels featuring karaoke and theme parks with Uighur girls dancing for Chinese tourists.

Still, much of Turfan hadn't changed. We drove 20 miles east of the new city to the Bezeklik caves, past Flaming Mountain, a 60-mile-long mesa-topped canyon that turns an intense red-purple in the searing sun. Bezeklik is a series of cave temples from Xinjiang's Buddhist period, which lasted until the 12th century, when Islam gained control of the region. At the beginning of the 20th century, the German explorer Albert le Coq looted Bezeklik, then fastened the artwork he'd stolen to the walls of the Berlin Museum. When the Allies bombed Berlin during World War II, the Germans could not remove the tightly attached art, and the larger grotto paintings were destroyed.

Though the nearby ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang, a former Uighur capital, are probably more interesting to archaeology buffs, the remnants of Bezeklik are still relatively impressive -- large, dome-topped sandstone dwellings carved into the side of the canyon. Think Tatooine from "Star Wars," or a smaller version of Petra, Jordan. Several grottoes still contain bright frescoes depicting prancing bodhisattvas, though it's hard to tell which are originals and which are replicas.

Returning from Bezeklik, we wound through Grape Valley, a five-mile older stretch of Turfan, where grapes have been grown for more than 2,000 years. At the lowest altitudes in China, with intense heat -- up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit -- and long summer hours, the valley is ideal for cultivating fruit.

As we drove, I would occasionally stop and ramble through random orchards after saying hello to their owners. The houses, made of clay and wattle and packed deep into the ground, kept cool in the desert air; Uighurs had fashioned roofs from sticks and trellises of grapevines. Out in the orchards, the vines were arranged in neat rows, and farmers in peaked caps picked the ripest bunches. Next to their homes, Uighurs set up stands displaying more varieties of raisins than I'd ever seen -- 20, 30 different types, in browns and blacks and greens and yellows, so sweet they were like candy.

Kashgar, the farthest-west city in China, has an even longer trading history than Turfan. One of the original towns built by caravanning merchants, it has always retained its importance. During the Great Game era, Russia and Britain stationed diplomats in Kashgar, where they spied on one another and cultivated local warlords. My lodging in Kashgar, the atmospheric Seman Hotel, actually encompasses the old Russian Consulate, a squat, yellow structure that resembles a miniature St. Petersburg palace. Inside, the slightly shabby consulate wing of the hotel features murals of hunting scenes with titles written in Cyrillic and, in the common rooms, oval conference tables perfect for plotting intrigues against the English crown. Kashgar also has always been the center of Islam in China. It was the first place the religion spread in the Middle Kingdom, and it remains one of the more conservative parts of Xinjiang, with far more veiled women than in other cities. "People who live in Kasghar are so traditional," Kurban told me, marveling that some of her friends there had been married at 16.

Today, Kashgar is reclaiming its places as a bazaar mecca and center of Muslim life. On my first day, I saw people scurrying to prayer, just outside Aidkah Mosque, Kashgar's central structure. When prayer time was over -- non-Muslims are not allowed in during prayers -- I wandered onto the grounds.

The interior surprised me. It was far simpler than the ornate mosques I'd seen in the Persian Gulf or in wealthy Southeast Asian states like Brunei -- just white tile floors, a small chair for an imam and rows and rows of basic red rugs creased from thousands of knees. But simplicity can be power. In contrast to the construction rising outside the mosque walls, new buildings few Uighurs seemed interested in, Aidkah was packed, even after prayer. Its cool shade and small gardens, just outside the central mosque, drew hundreds of Uighur men, who stayed to chat and nibble dried fruit, secure in this oasis from frenzied Kashgar.

That night, a knowledgeable guide, Abdul Wahab, recommended dinner at Radlik Bagh, an open-air restaurant in a small orchard, where guests eat sitting on carpets on the ground, Uighur style. Over a dinner of laghman (hand-pulled wheat noodles), kerdah (Uighur-style sesame bagels) and fresh local watermelon, I watched a crooner take the center of the restaurant and launch into folk melodies in Uighur, which sounds like a cross between Arabic and Russian.

At first, the music was slow, mournful. In Urumqi, Uighurs had danced for tourists on a stage at Erdaqaio. Here, they danced with one another, for one another, their bodies erect, tracing slow circles in a formal waltz, twisting their wrists in the sky. As the tempo picked up, men and women tossed their heads back, snapping their fingers jubilantly above their heads.

On Sundays, Kashgar hosts a gigantic bazaar -- including a nearby animal market -- that draws 100,000 traders from China, Central Asia, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Russia, even Eastern Europe. They come any way they can. As I walked down to the Sunday bazaar, I passed farmers driving in on donkey carts, Kazakhs riding in along the highway on large steeds, men on tractors and bicyclists -- all screaming "Posh! Posh!" ("Move!") as they bulled their way in.

It was chaos, so crowded that by 11 a.m. local time it was difficult to move. On both sides of the main road, covered and open-air stalls stretched for 10, 15 blocks, with everything on offer. I passed Kashgar's spice merchants, famous for their arrays of cardamom and saffron, silk sellers with bolts of fabric in every print imaginable, Chinese herbalists with jars of ginger root, sea sponges and snakeskins. Carpet sellers enjoyed a place of pride in the market's center, and as the sun rose, they cooled off with doch, fresh ice cream made from huge blocks of ice, homemade sour yogurt and sugary syrup. Everyone screamed as loudly as possible, advertising their wares, bargaining and looking for deals. One Uighur boy, enchanted by the English on my shirt, which advertised Laotian beer, offered to buy it off my back.

When I tired of the main market, I taxied over to the animal market, which gets going later in the day. Farmers whipped flocks of sheep, cattle and goats with majestic long white horns into the crowded market, where they lined the animals up in close ranks. Buyers grabbed the animals, feeling the sheep's tail fat, considered a delicacy in Xinjiang. Bargains struck, buyers and sellers adjourned to the sides of the bazaar, where butchers foreshadowed the animals' future, slaughtering fresh sheep carcasses into lamb hunks to be grilled as kebabs for hungry customers, who downed them with bowls of tea and caught up on gossip.

But even in old Kashgar, the past is not static. After five hours at the Sunday market, the heat and dust overwhelmed me, and I started walking back to my hotel. I underestimated the walk, because 30 minutes later, I was still nowhere near. Exhausted, I stumbled into a building, seeking air-conditioning.

I quickly realized I was in yet another bazaar. Behind individual counters, Uighur merchants competed for customers, grabbing people as they walked by, hollering out deals, spitting almond shells on the ground. Men huddled around a few counters, comparing prices, their arms around one another's shoulders.

As my eyes focused, I realized where I was. It was the cellphone market.

Joshua Kurlantzick is foreign editor of The New Republic.

21-11-04, 02:47
In 106 B.C., Uyghurs had not migrated to Xinjiang yet. Whoever defeated Chinese were not Uyghurs. This reporter has no credibility