The step between Kyrgyzstan and China is big. Two passport stamps and we are brought back nearer the Middle East than towards the far East we imagined China was. Minarets, veils, beards and the Arabic script of Allah popping up from the road signs. The peculiar combination between a culture heavily influenced by Islam and the Chinese letters on the billboards make us wonder where exactly are we and reinforce our feeling that the border we have just crossed is probably the first that might be truly surprising. We are supposed to be in the place where the post-Soviet world abruptly ends, where the influence of Islam slowly fades and where people speak with tones as much as with words. And yet, although officially we are in the lands of the empire from the far East, we should not forget that we are still closer to the Black Sea than to Beijing and we can still count the days that it would take us to get home without a plane. In the lands of the Uighurs we see another face of Central Asia. Geographically we have not yet escaped that huge black whole sitting in the midst of the biggest continent, and culturally we continue our travel through the lands of the Turkic tribes that inhabit it. But things have somehow changed. It is not the Russian, but the Chinese signature stampred around, its influence even heavier and much more present. Xinjiang is not an independet republic with a puppet government orbiting loosely around its master, but an integral part of a country it shares nothing with rather than common history of invasions and wars. Once a preferred ruler, because of its flexible approach over sovereign teritorries, now China has turned into a fearful autocrat. With a milder brush, it keeps on painting on Mao’s picture.
The most difficult border
Our first encounter with the Chinese authorities happens straight at the border post. Quickly, we forget the romanticism of reaching what once was considered the other end of the world. It might be all our fault for not getting to China digging and sweating with a shovel, but we confirm, what we anyway expected – Medieval European narratives are wrong. There are no monsters here and people do not walk upside down. Instead we meet humans, that just like at home, have come up with plenty of absurd rules and regulations that we will have to conform with. A little bit melancholic we cross the other side of the border sadly exploring the Kyrgyz exit stamp on our passports. There is not much time for that, though. A Chinese border policemen collects our documents and we go through a Turkmen style backpack check. A pair of English teachers crossing from Kyrgyzstan with us, almost run into trouble for possessing a t-shirt with an unknown script suspiciously resembling Arabic and for a second that makes the alarm go off. The matter is quickly resolved though, since a specialist confirms the characters are in Sanskrit. However, that episode turns out to be only a prelude to more complicated problems. As we put our backpacks on we are explained that this is not the real border and the proper passport control is some 120 km East. Unfortunately, due to concerns about our safety in the no-man’s-land in between borders we are not allowed to hitch-hike. We must take a taxi or the local bus, which both happen to be the same expensive. Generously stocked up with diary products, honey and bread, heavily influenced by the myth that none of these essentials could be obtained in China, we were optimistivally sure we could make it safely to Kashgar with no money. ‘You are not welcome in China, if you have no cash’– is the police’s response to our empty wallets. Now our conviction grows slimmer and yet we still have no money. Adamant, the border officials, cut off any attempts for negotiation, while a group of taxi-driver starts closing their circle around us. ‘If you can’t follow the rules, you will be deported’. An hour of failed haggling strategies brings no results and the disappointing ‘mei yo’ constantly uttered by the guards. Unable to find an answer to the ‘No money, no passport’ riddle, at least we get a valuable Chinese lesson.The word ‘mei yo’, which later on we find out is somewhat overused, designates an inevitable end of the conversation and roughly translates as ‘no’ or ‘there is not’. Luckily, our misfortunes are brought to a happy end, by the invaluable help of the English teachers, who chasing a plane timetable, finally agree to pay the prize of a taxi. They offer to give us a lift to the ‘real border’ and the police hands our passports to a grumpy, fussing driver, strongly suspecting that we are shameless and ignoble liars. At the end of the day, are there any tourists in this world travelling with no money?!
120 km of China that is not China and we are dropped at the second border. A big sign reading “Sunshine service” triggers our anxiety. There was one of those just after the Kyrgyz passport check. Nearby a long list hanging on the walls states products and substances that are not allowed in the People’s Rebuplic of China – milk, cheese, honey, drugs, radioactive human skeletons…Oh, no! Our cunning plan to suppress the smell of radioactive human skeletons with diary products and aubergines is doomed to fail. Quickly, we draft a plan. We just have to answer ‘mei yo’ to any possible question related to food or substances in our backpacks.We have seen smugglers at almost every border we’ve crossed, so resolute, we step ahead. We are not giving up even a single drop of Kyrgyz yoghurt…! As our backpacks are being scanned, the lady stamping the passports proceed with an unexpected question that catches us completely unprepared. ‘Have you been recently to any Muslim country?’. Thunder from the clear skies. There must be some real nasty trick here. Obviously, coming from Kyrgyzstan, the question seems somewhat irrelevant. ‘What do you mean?’- we ask genuinely confused. The lady on the counter gives us a clarifying joker. ‘I mean, like Afganisthan, Pakistan, Iraq?’. Next to the Iraqi passport stamp, inconveniently lies the Iranian visa with a chadored picture of Marta. ‘Uhhh…we have been to… Kurdistan…’. ‘Oh, that’s ok. Welcome to China!’ – the customs officers quickly moves on to the next person on the queue. ‘Have recently been to…..” What a fantastic international environment for the Kurds. Their reputation is spotless both in the West and in the East…
Kashgar, the rose of Xinjiang
Kashgar is a dusty, sandy oasis town. One more of those lost, desolate settlements dotting the immensely vast lifeless void of Central Asia. A tiny cradle of life, that somehow has not succumbed yet, to the voracious appetite of the desert, Kashgar is a bizarre place. Populated for centuries by sedentary farmers, the city could count more foreign rulers than rainy days. All the oasis towns scattered across the great drought of Tarim basin were more focused on surviving in their tiny paradises than exploring the desert and that is probably way they continuously fell pray to ambitious conquerors from the East or West. Ironically, places that astonish more with their barren roughness than anything else, were (and still are) considered of strategic importance in the popular human game of power. The colourful, waterless slopes of Tian Shan were a silent spectator of a novel-like saga for the control of Kashgar throughout the ages culminating in colonial times with the wrestle between Britain, China and Russia. It was the gateway to the Indian subcontinent and the far East that made Kashgar so valuable, not its beautiful melons and watermelons. Nowadays, seemingly firmly in the hands of China, Kashgar has not broken with its past and keeps on being and seismic arena of a struggle of interests. Formerly, the capital of the insurgent Xinjiang region, Kashgar is an social and political seismic zone, despite of (or maybe precisely because of) the desperate efforts of the Chinese government to eradicate any hint of secessionist leanings. Secular post-Mao China inevitably collides with the strong religious sentiment of a large Muslim population, creating constant tension, further complicated by the proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. An invasive form of belief built around a robust sense of identity, completely alien to eastern China, coupled with the fashionable surge of nationalism, are the ingredients of this ticking bomb for Beijing. Just a week before we got to Kashgar, the Imam of the main mosque had been stabbed to death after Friday prayer, allegedly because of his pro-government affiliations and statements. At the same time, some 200 km east, in the city of Yarkand, conflicting reports about violent clashes between police and protesters suggest a big number of casualties. Unrest and bombs in the provincial capital Urumqi complete the picture.
But by the time we get there, in the city, a travellers’ hub, normality seems undisturbed. Heavy traffic of silent electric motorbikes and funny three-wheeled cars zigzags wildly, always rushing for somewhere. A hundred markets and bazaars burst with aromatic teas, fabrics, clothes, fruits, street food and dried medical lizards and snakes while waves of tourist and locals stroll across its streets called upon by ice-cream sellers, water-mellon vendors, or restaurant owners skinning sheep on the pavement. Kashgar is the living memory of the market town that inhabits our Silk Route books. Its is a city bright yellow like the spiced tea drunk in cups by the roadside, is red – blood red – a permanent field for sacrifice, is crammed with white long beards and green Uyghur hats, is pink roses embroidered by careful ladies in shady corridors, is children jumping freely around . Kashgar is the smell of wood and of bread mixed up with dust when the storms arrive from the desert.
But Kashgar’s exotic oriental face and hectic buzz might just be the cover of an active volcano. New trends in scarf-wearing have found their way through amongst local women and in an area of religious turbulence and in an age of mistrust and fear of Islam, many consider this a dangerous development. Full hijab gets complemented with pollution masks and the brown woolen veils of married Uygur ladies walk along younger women in colourful head scarves, all around the neighbourhoods of Kashgar. To counter-balance the spread of islamic fashion, besides legal restrictions on religious practice and symbols for civil servants, the Chinese government employs local volunteers who sit in customized open-air offices next to pictures showing different types of veiling and beard-stylesm, marking with a tick the traditional (and acceptable) ones and with an “x” those that are invasive and undesirable.
Parallel to this silent fashion fight, another much more tangible battle has been waged in the city. Many of the mud-bricked houses and narrow alleys of the old town have been recently demolished and replaced by new constructions purportedly in traditional style. This expensive project launched by the Chinese government has been heavily criticized and sparked many protests. Accused of wiping away a cultural heritage and re-shaping in their own way the visual side of traditional Uighur culture, Beijing discontinued its renovating project more than halfway through and for an indefinite time. The government maintains it started it out of concern for its own citizens. Kashgar is often struck by earthquakes and the shabby old buildings won’t survive one therefore the risk of major tragedy is at hand. Whatever the combination of reasons behind, the plan succeeded only in stirring the spirits and poured oil into a burning fire. Now half neat and tidy, but probably a bit charmless, and half messy and authentic, resembling Kabul before the war, Kashgar awaits its final judgment. Meanwhile, the life in the oases, protected by a thick veil of dust keeps on happening and its famous water-melons and melons grow as big and tasty as ever.
Hitchhiking in Xinjiang– and why we should stop planning itineraries with history books as guides
Once admitted in and after a few days of tea and pretty tourists sights, we over-optimistically assume that our short troublesome introduction to China is over. In fact, a pinch of sober thinking, would have mentally prepared us for the opposite. It is not that the difficulties stay behind at the border. They begin there, because we are planning to cut overland through Xinjiang, and in the Muslim province which is as remote as it is large, the Chinese government is facing mounting problems. Rich in dust and oil, it is a place nobody would like to let slip out of his hands. With ears, noses and lungs filled with more sand than the the accumulated weight of the all the dunes on the Black Sea coast we traverse a miserable grey landscape. Once, the most feared stretch of the Silk Route, because of its desolation and the violent desert storms raising unexpectedly as if from hell, today Tarim Basin boosts well paved roads that minimize the chances of getting lost. Trucks, these modern caravans, run courses East and West guided by endless oil rig towers. Newly built concrete cities, as miserable as their environment, stand ghostly overlooking the blackish pebbles of the desert. Half empty and still under construction, they expect a flow of Han migrants that slowly bridge the gap between the Mandarin lands and this remote place, historically a home to a long list of nomadic, semi-nomadic and sedentary Turkic tribes. Heavy police presence makes sure that all the vital components of the rule of Beijing are observed – control of all religious activities and strict accent on secular values. The aim is clear – suppressing the main force that could powerfully drive away the far West any moment away from China. In many aspects, far from being brutally repressive as often seen in the West, Beijing employs a whole set of techniques more common to Britain than to Turkmenistan to make sure that it holds a tight grip over Xinjiang. Still, on the other hand, when the Chinese regime feels under pressure, it does not hesitate to show it is well-skilled in the art of totalitarian oppression. Outside major touristic centers, the sense of police control is widely felt and we often have to battle our way through regulations impeding the freedoms of the independent traveller – blocked roads, forbidden cities, special hotels for non-Chinese travellers and the daily visits to police stations and photos and questions that make hitchhiking in the region as tiresome and slow as a proper caravan. Maybe soon, if it keeps on boiling, Xinjiang would follow on the footsteps of the Tibetan Autonomous region and crossing it on our own would be limited too.
With no time for thinking about anything else than eating, moving and sleeping, we hitchhike through a gloomy, grey, flat land that only underlines our love for any shade of green. We breathe dust, eat dust and spit dust. As scary as described by Medieval travellers, Tarim basin stretches for miles. This hostile dead-emitting spot in the heart of Asia has always sliced the biggest continent in two and only those that crossed it in any direction could confirm that life does not end, but actually begins with it. Living in an age where the space, but not places on the Earth are the frontier and well-aware of geography we wonder why do we sometimes try re-creating historical journeys, instead of choosing more pleasant ways? We could have remebered Xinjiang as a beautiful green mountain only if we had chosen to cross it on the Northern side of Tian-Shan. Now, at least, we have a reason to dream of Tibet even more then ever.