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Kashgar: The Mongolian City of China

The Uighur pronounced as Weighur are Mongols of China belonging to the Inner Mongolia in the northwestern province of Xinjiang (Zin gi aang – the largest province of China).

For centuries, Kashgar or Kashi has enjoyed a viable status of being a main city on the silk road, lying at the foothills of Pamir mountains with the Takalamkan desert to the east. Its markets were, and remain a major hub of trading goods on their way east and west.

And, to this day the Cattle Market and Sunday market remain a hotspot for business deals.

Kashgar is not beautiful. It has a characteristic and has an old-world charm, it’s old town which houses 700 families is a world heritage site declared by UNESCO. If one asks me to describe Kashgar in one word I would say ‘burnt umber,’ the traditional houses, the old town, mosques, even newly constructed buildings are all different shades of yellow and mustard.

If one asks me to describe Kashgar in one word I would say ‘burnt umber,’ the traditional houses, the old town, mosques, even newly constructed buildings are all different shades of yellow and mustard. It is the color of desert and its surrounding mountains.

Much to protest and hue and cry of the ladies, the leader of the group Mr. Khawaja Ali stuck to the plan of driving 10 kilometers out of the city to visit the Cattle market. How do I describe it? Dusty, smelly, windy, dry and parched, with nervous hordes of animals being loaded on motorcycle

 

Dusty, smelly, windy, dry and parched, with nervous hordes of animals being loaded on motorcycle carts, somehow mysteriously aware of their doomed fate.

Vendors and vendees haggling over prices of horses, lambs, camels, and yaks. The place stank, it smelt of sweat mixed with dry sandy dust whirling up in mini whorls, time and again, suffocating the breath out of one’s lungs. But, the locals didn’t seem bothered by either smell, or dust, or harsh sun, or even the winds, they seemed oblivious of dryness in the air that was burning our throats, and felt no discomfort in the heat, cladding long heavy overcoats, cardigans, jackets in what seemed like a cauldron. I wonder why and how?

But, the locals didn’t seem bothered by either smell, or dust, or harsh sun, or even the winds, they seemed oblivious of dryness in the air that was burning our throats, and felt no discomfort in the heat, cladding long heavy overcoats, cardigans, jackets in what seemed like a cauldron. I wonder why and how?

 

The Mongol diet is another difficult area (at least for most people, I’d assume), they eat meat – lamb meat to be precise, which is drenched in lamb or yak fat, having a peculiar lingering oily odor, which tends to cling to your tongue and throat making you feel noxious. I, for one, and most of our group are now converted vegans for a long time to come.

The meat is sold everywhere, it is visible and available at every street corner, there are food streets with restaurants sprouting out of every inch and corner with stocky men in traditional caps grilling and steaming mounds of meat.

I, for one, and most of our group are now converted vegans for a long time to come.

As you walk by you see men, women, and children eating on the roadside, kebabs out of long skewers, washing them down with endless cups of green tea.

In addition to the meat, nan made from yeast is consumed as a main staple. Shaped as large rotis or as bagels, they are stacked on kiosks at every ten steps, and are eaten cold.

We couldn’t understand the logic of cold bread? But after a day or so and on getting them heated up by request developed a taste for its yeasty dough.

They also devour samosa like dumpling that is again filled with, you guessed it, lamb meat and, yes, white lamb fat!

We did not really take to the Mongol cuisine. But, interestingly a couple of people in our group seemed quite content with the meat galore to our amazement.

On a serious note, the heavy meat and fat food make sense in such a harsh, dry, and extreme climate where vegetables are scarce.

Kashgarians have very peculiar features, they are typical of Mongolian characteristics with rounded faces, slit eyes, separate and bushy eyebrows especially in men.

Women, even relatively younger ones, look aged far beyond their years, their faces crumpled with wrinkles like waves on a choppy sea, skin scorched red by the cruel chilling winds from the steppes in the north and dry winds from the east.

You find men wearing their beards in goatee style, but mostly longer with hair flying away in all directions. Women, even relatively younger ones, look aged far beyond their years, their faces crumpled with wrinkles like waves on a choppy sea, skin scorched red by the cruel chilling winds from the steppes in the north and dry winds from the east.

For some odd reason, I found most faces somber verging on the sad. It appears they are carrying heavy burdens of some unknown past, reflecting stories of a hard life on their faces. These people are Stoic – making do with less. Luxuries such as western fashions, wafts of perfumes in the air while walking the high streets, presence of made up girls and women, or for that matter, smartly dressed men are alarmingly absent. You feel the lack of the finer things in life, an absence of color, of laughter, of vibrancy, of music, of

These people are Stoic – making do with less. Luxuries such as western fashions, wafts of perfumes in the air while walking the high streets, presence of made up girls and women, or for that matter, smartly dressed men are alarmingly absent. You feel the lack of the finer things in life, an absence of color, of laughter, of vibrancy, of music, of

You feel the lack of the finer things in life, an absence of color, of laughter, of vibrancy, of music, o a life lived well.

When you normally think of China and its inhabitants, religion doesn’t seem an important benchmark. But, on the Silk Road things are different. In these far-flung frontier regions, religious belief is manifest in shapes of mosques, head covered women, Buddhist temples and their ruins. When caravans carrying, goods came into this area they brought along new creeds such as Buddhism initially and then Islam. Buddhist religion found its way in from India in the south and the west, Buddhist monks carved out temples and living quarters in the hardy mountains of Tian Shan, the remains of which can be seen in the Kizil caves or the famous Thousand Buddha caves. These structures are stunning, on the outside almost camouflaged in the sandy mountains to ward off potential enemies. Inside the structure is usually divided in separate caves with beautiful painted stories of Buddha and his life, all around the walls of the semi-circular caves including the domed ceilings. The paintings are frescoes and some survive from the 3rd C.E.

Most of these caves have been ransacked and looted by poachers in every ensuing age.

The frescoes have been removed to be sold or were looted by the Europeans to be transferred eventually in western museums. The remnants of the paintings show not only the religion of Buddha, and his life, but is a window into the past – displaying faces of people praying to Buddha having Indian features and other central Asian terrains. It shows animals not normally found in this part of China such as Elephants,

The remnants of the paintings show not only the religion of Buddha, and his life, but is a window into the past – displaying faces of people praying to Buddha having Indian features and other central Asian terrains.

It shows animals not normally found in this part of China such as Elephants, rabbits, and Ibex. This is a clear indication of how the Silk Road was a significant conduit of ideas, thoughts, culture and people. It played a role like that of web in the modern era.

When caravans carrying, goods came into this area they brought along new creeds such as Buddhism initially and then Islam.

Buddhist religion found its way in from India in the south and the west, Buddhist monks carved out temples and living quarters in the hardy mountains of Tian Shan, the remains of which can be seen in the Kizil caves or the famous Thousand Buddha caves. Islam also came to China, and for a long time a Muslim dynasty ruled Kashgar. They were the Khoja rulers, now famous for their family tombs and the Id gah mosque which is a spectacular specimen of Islamic art (but very basic and simple in the Mongolian tradition.) It is a sprawling complex of different praying areas spread over 16,400 sq. feet.

Its columns are green and its main open areas are lined with large trees making it a cool refuge. It gives an impression of a retreat, a place not only for offering ritual prayers, but a sanctuary to meditate, to reflect and to be quiet.

The Khoja family tombs is a large mausoleum that houses the graves of 72 members of the ruling clan. It also has the tomb of the ‘fragrant concubine’, a present from the Qin emperor to the Khoja. Adjoining the mausoleum, is the common cemetery which has graves on top of graves in designated family tombs, for the ordinary people. The grave tomb belonging to each family houses generations of its family members, and are shaped like a cradle, emphasizing the journey of man from cradle to coffin.

Kashgar, like most of the autonomous regions of the northwestern China is a city oppressed by the Communist Government. The excessive police check-points, the over bearing visibility of riot police in full gear and at attention speaks volumes of the suffocation permeating the very air. A gargantuan pale yellow Mao stands erect and tall overlooking the city, with an arm stretched out almost pointing dissidents and free-thinkers into submission. It is a city under police and heavy governmental control. There is a show of power always with army drills and parades on main roads without prior announcement shutting down that street or area for hours at times. Once, we remained stuck for 2 hours in our hotel as the riot police marched up and down the main promenade as if to remind the public, plus anyone who is visiting, of the seat of power and the strength of the communist party in China. These autonomous regions are heavily militarized to inhibit, discourage, and keep in check any separatist movement, and by the looks of it is very much a successful exercise.

The inhabitants look harassed, tired and burnt-out. They also look shabby and in need of showers and fresh change of clothes. It is as though they have given up on life and are merely struggling along with whatever fate has handed down to them. Kashgar to me is an embodiment of disenchantment, of a city deprived of its spark and vigor.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not represent ARY policies or opinion.

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