My flight was a 9am flight which meant taking a taxi to the airport in the darkness since it doesn’t get light in Wulumuqi until after 8am. I was sitting beside a fidgety Chinese guy who started reading the safety instructions and advertisements in the inflight magazine aloud. I asked him if he would mind not doing that and he obligingly shut up – nice of him I guess.
Kashgar airport makes things convenient by running a free shuttle bus that drops you wherever you want around the city center. The driver dropped me off at the Hengyuan Hotel. I checked the rooms there and they seemed reasonable and well priced, with free Internet access as an added bonus. However, just to make sure I was getting a good deal I checked out the hotel next door before checking in, only to be cheerfully told that the running water was off due to a broken pipe and not expected to be back on until tomorrow or the day after. The Hengyuan suddenly seemed a no brainer. On reflection though a lot of people in northern China go days without washing (even student dormitories often limit showers to twice weekly), so perhaps a day or two without water didn’t seem a big deal to the staff.
The Hengyuan Hotel overlooked the central square, which is dominated by a massive Chairman Mao statue, the biggest in China. For some reason it seems that people are not allowed to climb the steps to the dais on which the statue stands. I was chased away by a Uigur custodian when I tried. During the rest of my stay in Kashgar I asked several taxi drivers about this but couldn’t get to the bottom of why it was not allowed. One driver darkly hinted at Han oppression, one said it was to protect the marble against wear, and another said the custodian was just a grumpy old man who gets kicks out of throwing his weight around and the best thing was to ignore him.
In any case, after being chased off the statue I wandered round the corner to the mosque and the old town. The mosque was located opposite a largish bazaar selling mostly clothes. I couldn’t get into the mosque because prayers were happening so I took a look around the bazaar instead. The bazaar wasn’t especially interesting, so I headed into some of the back streets. The area around the mosque was extremely Uigur and looked pure Central Asia rather than China. The bilingual signage was the only evidence of a Chinese presence. I’m not sure if I saw a single Chinese person, though I guess there must have been a few given that the modern Chinese center of town was only a ten minute walk away. The streets wide enough for cars to access contained restaurants, lamb wholesalers, ice cream shops, hand beaten copperware shops, bakeries and so on. Behind the streets large vehicles could access was a warren of dusty lanes leading into residential areas.
I wandered down an alley marked ‘Kashgar Old Town’ not knowing what to expect but expecting it to be touristy. Why else would there be a piece of English signage here? I walked down a couple of clay brick lanes containing traditional Uigur houses until footsteps running up behind me told me I should have bought a ticket. A Uigur tourist guide sold me a ticket and as she was going to find change a Japanese tourist arrived, so the pair of us got a tour of the area. Unfortunately none of the numerous mosques in the neighborhood were open for viewing, but the tour itself was good. We went inside a few buildings, saw craftsmen making copperware, and the guide gave a lot of information about local history. There were an amazing number of mosques in what looked like a smallish community, and apparently all of them were regularly used. The neighborhood apparently included something like 20% Uzbeks besides the majority Uigurs, but according to the guide they were assimilated and lived as Uigurs.
After the tour finished I teamed up with the Japanese guy, Mr. Tang, to visit the tomb of the Fragrant Concubine Xiang Fei (Abakh Hoja). It was an impressive mausoleum, though apparently the bodies buried there were of members of her family rather than of the woman herself, who is buried somewhere in China proper. I then arranged with Mr. Tang to share a taxi to see Lake Karakul and the Stone City, an old fortress near the Tajikstani dominated town of Tashkurgan close to the Pakistani border. We got a price of 600 RMB for the trip, setting off the next day at 7 am Beijing time (5 am Xinjiang time).
After saying goodbye to Mr. Tang I took a look at the Kashgar mosque. It hadn’t been possible to go into the mosque when I passed earlier in the day because prayers were happening, but prayers were finished by the time I returned. The mosque had a simple design, really just a courtyard with an impressive wooden hall in the back of it, flanked by two covered areas filled with prayer mats. It was more or less empty when I visited, but apparently the services can attract tens of thousands of people. In the courtyard a sign giving some brief history of the mosque contained predictable Chinese propaganda detailing how Beijing’s recent funding of a toilet in the complex demonstrated its commitment to religious freedom.
There were a couple of privately run museums on Uigur culture near the mosque but I didn’t bother with them. Private museums in China tend to be mainly a way of screwing money out of tour groups, typically charging high entry prices to see a small collection of cheesy models and other mock ups. From a cursory glance these two seemed along those lines, though the lights were off (you had to pay to have them turned on) so it was hard to tell.
I went for a very late lunch in a restaurant overlooking the mosque. Here the table menus had no Chinese, and nor did any of the staff seem to speak any Chinese. I was surprised because it looked to be the most upmarket restaurant in the area. Eventually somebody found a bilingual Chinese/Uigur menu and a waiter who spoke a little Chinese came over. I wanted him to explain a couple of the more interesting looking dishes but his Chinese wasn’t enough. In the end I ordered by pointing and ended up with more kebabs, lamb dumplings and yogurt. The lamb dishes were average but the yogurt was excellent. It might have been made from sheep’s milk.
There was nothing much else to do but go back to my hotel. On the way back I bought some bottled tea and an interesting looking almond wine in a Chinese grocery. The guy in the shop decided to use sign language to communicate with me so I did the same with him, making sure my signs were sufficiently bizarre to make communication completely impossible. As we went through that pantomime the other staff in the shop discussed what country I came from, and finished up evenly split on whether I was American or Pakistani – a hung vote I would never have predicted.
Back in my room I tried the almond wine which turned out to be disgusting. I always get tempted to buy unusual Chinese wines and they are always awful. I messed around on the Internet for a few hours then popped out for a bowl of Lanzhou style beef noodles, not my favorite dish and very average as usual.
Back in my room I got a knock on the door from a hotel massage girl. These kind of late night visits happen a lot in China. This time was a little different though. The girl was Uigur, spoke excellent Chinese, and had her head wrapped in a scarf that lent the visit a distinctly cloak and dagger atmosphere. It was all too surreal and before I knew it I was inviting her in. She accepted a glass of almond wine, removed her veil and sat down. Clearly the veil was for appearances only, as I suppose veils are when you think about it.
Despite living in China for years and often visiting Uigur restaurants I’d never spoken more than a couple of sentences to a female Uigur. The Uigurs working in the big Chinese cities are mostly male, and the few women working in Uigur restaurants in China proper are usually either dancers or waitresses, and therefore often uneducated with minimal Chinese abilities. The conservative and chauvinist nature of Uigur culture also tends to mean the women are not encouraged to chat with strangers. So this unexpected visit was more or less my first chance to speak with a Uigur girl.
After we sat down, her on a chair and me on the bed, and she introduced herself as Mina. She seemed in no hurry to actually give me a massage, and so we chatted and drank the awful almond wine.
She was a university drop out from Wulumuqi Normal University (or maybe the Education Department of Wulumuqi Univeristy), making her probably the most educated Uigur I had ever talked to. For some reason she was expelled by the university. She wouldn’t tell me the exact reason that this happened, but it seemed she had been caught cohabiting with her boyfriend or something similar. She said she had grown up in the area around the mosque in Kashgar. She was quite anti-Chinese on some levels, but simultaneously very negative about her own people. While she didn’t think the Chinese should be in Xinjiang she saw Uigurs as backwards and unsuccessful compared to Chinese and therefore destined to live under Chinese control. She complained about traditional Islam being restrictive. I asked her why she wore the headscarf if the religion bothered her, and as I expected she told me it was just for use in the hotel so she wouldn’t be recognized by people she knew who might happen to wander in. Hotel massage girls in China are usually prostitutes as much as masseuses so it made sense. Her parents didn’t know about her job because they were working in China proper. They thought she cleaned rooms. When I asked about the risks of doing that type of work in a small town like Kashgar she told me that the customers were more than 90% Chinese with a few Uigurs visiting from other cities and the odd Pakistani, and so there was almost no risk of her meeting anyone she knew. She asked me a lot of questions about New Zealand and Shanghai. I asked her questions about Uigur culture and other places in Xinjiang.
Eventually the massage center called to ask where she was. It was about then that she told me she was really a prostitute and didn’t know how to do any massage, and moreover that after chatting with me she saw me more as a friend than a customer and didnâ€™t want to sleep with me for money. Bizarrely she said that the next night was her night off, gave me her telephone number, and told me that if I changed hotels tomorrow we could go out for dinner and after dinner maybe she would come over and sleep with me – no charge. More cloak and dagger stuff.
She kept picking up a magazine or her veil to cover her face when she laughed or the conversation moved to a delicate topic. It was very exotic, and the possibility of proceedings continuing the next night added a Sheherazade touch. She hung up on the massage center’s calls a couple of times and we talked some more. Eventually she said she was going to be in trouble and I would be charged for an extra massage if she didn’t head back. I paid her for a straight massage, she disappeared, and I slept.