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Magic Carpet Ride
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Diverse and vast countries appeal to me. China, where I live, and the USA, where I was born, both encompass several time zones, wondrous geographical and climatic phenomena, as well as dozens of indigenous cultures. Near my hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a few Native tribes have wisely elected to live apart, preserving their culture, language and handicrafts. Sadly, other indigenous American peoples have disappeared, simply dissolving into conventional American culture. China's cultural assimilation patterns are no different but luckily some Chinese ethnic populations still flourish, living as they did thousands of years ago. In northwest China one extraordinary city, Kashi (also called Kashi), exists as a startling example of diversity. Kashgar presents an almost forgotten world: a world technically inside modern China but culturally ancient, with a definite Middle Eastern flair.

Historically the Chinese have denoted the ancient trade thoroughfares in Xinjiang as the Silk Road and the Jade Road, for both products were and are still prized by Oriental and Western alike. And clearly the most important city along these routes is Kashgar, for it pivots along both corridors. Although this remote city is closer to either Moscow or New Delhi than to Beijing its strategic importance throughout history cannot be underestimated. 

"You've got to go there. It's a fabulous place," a chubby Italian photojournalist gushed to me over noodles. "They're Moslems who irrigate their desert fields with the karez, an ancient underground artery system. And the food: melons, almonds, figs: you'd think you were in Iran. The aroma of roast lamb and flat bread wafts everywhere." He kissed his fingers appreciatively. "The Internet has arrived but the city residents still live in the Biblical era. Mosques call people to prayer. Plus Kashgar has largest Sunday market in China."

"Is it safe for a widow like me to travel alone?" I asked.

"Safer than flying to Rome, my dear," he retorted with a wink. "China is peaceful and they are gentle Chinese albeit Turks, full of hospitality and dignified enthusiasm for visitors."

No further persuasion was necessary. I quickly booked my flight. On the plane I mused that via the Silk Road this desert oasis town had connected the world's two great empires, Rome and China, over two thousand years ago. Only a few successful camel caravans, loaded with Chinese silk, spice and porcelain, would enter Kashgar after crossing the treacherous Taklamakan Desert (Literally: "Those Going In Never Return."). Even today the terrain around Kashgar remains rugged: travelers can be buffeted by sandstorms, freak weather and desert conditions. Temperatures fluctuate wildly. Nearby mountains outside the city are covered in glaciers year round. Summers can be as hot as 40 degrees, while winters drop to minus 25 Celsius.
Everyone comes to Kashgar; it still remains an international trading hub. The city pulses with life, especially the famous Sunday bazaar. I gaped as sultry women swayed by in long sequined gowns and colorful headscarves. Children larked in the streets. Large eyed bearded men wearing pale caftans and fezzes displayed their wares, selling everything imaginable for desert life: spices and perfumes, sleek horses and fat sheep, copper and steel pots, leather belts and saddles, wool and cotton fabric, house wares and jewelry, carpets and blankets. 

Leaving the bazaar I biked through the city with Omar, my guide. The husky, fragrant odor of roast lamb wafted after us. Children jumped up excitedly in the dusty streets, waving and smiling. On every corner noisy peddlers hawked glistening melon slices, while others held out freshly squeezed, blood red pomegranate juice. I eagerly purchased some Uygur flat breads from a grinning baker; he had just dusted with them with garlic and onion. Freshly baked, they felt warm in my mouth.

The sound of hammers on metal led us to Kashgar's handicrafts street. I marveled as Turkish artisans worked making clay dishes, copper pots, wooden spoons and steel knives. Then I tugged insistently on my guide's ragged T-shirt, and demanded, "Carpets, I want to see good quality rugs." Patiently he led me to his friends' shops. Finally the legendary Hotan carpets were at my fingertips, as well as killems carried in by dark eyed traders from Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. My guide and I perched on piles of precious carpet, haggling in slow motion, like poker players. Bargaining here is not only acceptable but comme il faut. Finally, after hours of negotiating and drinking tea I victoriously lugged out a beautiful camel's hair rug from Afghanistan.

"You did well for a foreign lady," commented Omar. "And you certainly do not look your age." He glanced at my sweaty bosom. Pleased and somewhat flattered by his attention I blushed at his non-Chinese behavior. Omar, like over ninety percent of Kashgar's 300,000 residents, is of Turkic origin. He is part Uygur and part Kazakh, with fine brown hair, black eyes, with the eloquent but passionate manners of the Arabic races. His city truly represents an eternal human melting pot, for Kashgar city is filled with Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Chinese, Persians and Indians, all who long ago assimilated with Arab traders, Russian adventurers and Hun warriors. This exotic mélange of races and cultures get along well with each other. The Chinese government has taken steps to preserve the traditions and culture of this extraordinary city. "Tell all your friends I welcome them to Kashgar," said Omar, pressing my hand warmly in the airport before my departure flight. "Come back soon!" 

For tourist 

Kashgar is out of the ordinary, remote and not expensive plan to spend about a week in the area, exploring the city and outlying tourist sights. Remember to drink much water and be sure to bring layered clothing. If you are healthy, cautious and brave, the best way to see Kashgar is by rented bicycle, preferably with a guide. Taxis, however, are cheap, buses run regularly, and the main parts of the city are all in walking distance of each other. There are many tourist sites of interest in and around Kashgar. Local long distance buses run to Hotan and other cities of interest. It is possible to go to Tibet via Kashgar, and to cross the Chinese border to other countries if your visas are already established. Any foreigner who really wants to get to know China and her people should visit this remarkable place.

Sightseeing around Kashgar

The Sunday Bazaar: Absolutely imperative to experience. This market has been open for centuries. Everything one's heart desires: exotic fruits, Hotan carpets, live animals, from crystal earrings to camel hair coats -- the bazaar has appeal for all. In the city itself are many smaller markets that entice shoppers but nothing compares to the Sunday market.

The Id Kah Mosque: Located in the center of the city, this mosque contrasts strikingly to the Chinese-styled mosques in Xi'an. It resembles Pakistani or Afghani mosques. Saqsiz Mirza, who ruled the city in 1442 AD, built this structure. Others have enlarged and renovated it over time. Id Kah stands as the largest mosque in China. Around the mosque is a lovely tree-laced courtyard. For the devout there is a pond lined with pots for perform the ritual ablutions. The pillars are wooden and exquisitely decorated.

Karakuri Lake: Not far from Kashgar at the foot of Mount Maztagata is Karakuri Lake, "the father of glaciers." At 3600 meters (11,808 feet), this trip is not for those with high blood pressure. The local tourist agencies describe it as "Shangri-La". From May through August is the best time to visit. Beware that the weather fluctuates; it is mountain weather. Tour agencies take one to four day trips up there to hike, ride horses, sleep in yurts. Local buses leave in the morning every day.

The Three Immortals Buddhist Caves: The Three Immortals Buddhist Caves are located 11 miles north of Kashgar. These are ancient Buddhist caves, perhaps the oldest in western China, dating back to 03 AD. Each cave has a rectangle shaped entrance and two chambers. One particular cave houses 70 Buddhist murals. Located on a cliff, they are hard to access.

The Tomb of Apak Hoja: This man was a 17th century Kashgar ruler and revered as a holy prophet, second only to Mohammed. Built in 1640, his tomb is three miles from Kashgar. Like many tombs, it houses five generations of Apak Hoja's family. It also contains the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine: Xiang Fei. This female was Apak Hoja's grand-daughter, also called Iparhan. She became the concubine of Emperor Qianlong during the Qing Dynasty. Her Chinese name translates as delicate fragrance, which supposedly wafted out of her body. After her death some 120 people spent three years lugging her coffin back to Kashgar so she could be buried in the family tomb.

(China.org.cn by V.Sartor July 6, 2007)

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