Shanghaied, Chapter 10 (Field Study Trip, Part 3): The Gabe of Heaven
Where have you been, Gabe? Why is this post so late? Why have you forsaken us?
So apparently travelling across central China for independent travel can make it really hard to upload blogs! But I haven't forgotten about this, especially not my time in Xinjiang, so here's part 3. More coming soon!
So. Back to Xinjiang. When you need to book a hostel for 15 people last-minute in a small town in rural China, you often end up in horrible places with harrowing stories of the conditions that you’ve been forced to endure.
This wasn’t one of those times. Our little Yarkand hostel was pretty cozy. The only noticeable downside was that the “shower” was a showerhead bolted to the wall in the middle of the small bathroom next to the toilet. Still, it could have been infinitely worse, and I certainly wasn’t complaining. A few people the next day would complain of a dog barking all night long. And I would have focused on that more if not for the fact that I was dead tired for camel riding. Also the fact that Jordan snores SO LOUDLY. Oh my god. Picture the loudest snore that a human body should be able to make. Now make it 10 times louder. It was deafening. Anyway.
I woke up in the little Yarkand hostel sore from the camels. So sore. I desperately did not want to move. And of course, the next few days would be full of walking and hiking. It took a lot of convincing to get me out of bed. We were initially just going to head back to Kashgar, but we were in Yarkand and I asked Chris if there was anything worth seeing, since we were already here. A few of us expressed interested in seeing more of the city, and Chris asked around. Turns out Tudajim has some connections because we ended up getting a tour of the Grand Palace of Yarkand.
The Grand Palace of Yarkand is not a tourist attraction. Yet. It’s currently under construction. The palace is a reconstruction of the old royal palace that once stood there. I assume that when it opens it’ll be one of main attractions of the area. As of writing this, it’s mostly completed. The palace is beautiful, and they’re reconstructing it as close to the original palace as possible. There are massive columns, walls painted in pastel colors, and an opulent throne room. Marring this beauty are the plots of dirt that will serve as gardens. The goal of the palace is to create a local historical site to draw tourists in Kashgar to explore the area. This is pretty common in China; they’ll reconstruct a historical site as a sort of cultural reclamation. A lot of my Western friends feel that this is a negative thing; it isn’t “authentic” because it’s a reconstruction. In China, however, people tend to look at is as a “restoration”, rebuilding historical sites and returning places to their former state. It’s a slight cultural gap that I find fascinating.
One of the most beautiful things there was the tilework. The tiles there are wonderfully colored and allegedly made with the traditional crafting styles. And the palace is certainly lovely. They’re currently finished up the tilework, meaning that there are a lot of pretty tiles just sort of scattered around. They let us take a few home with us, which was nice of them.
The rest of the day was working our way back to Kashgar. That night, however, we headed out to walk around town. Kashgar at night is beautiful. All of the old buildings and the lampposts are lit up with flashing colors. We walked down some old streets and admired Kashgar’s impressive collection of random ornate doors. Seriously. They’re painted cool colors or decoratively carved. We walked around the pretty lights and admired the architecture. It’s a nice little touch to an already lovely city. But that’s pretty much it. There’s not much night life here, at least not in the area that we were staying at. In the predominantly Muslim city, there aren’t any major bars, and people don’t really walk around after dark. Nights in Kashgar are brightly lit but quiet.
Kashgar as a city has greatly developed since the 90s. Economic progress has brought increased standards of living throughout the area region. While it lacked the high-rise skyline that Urumqi is developing, Kashgar has managed to preserve its traditional architectural style and artistic culture. Complex politics aside, Kashgar is a growing city and ultimately a prosperous one, benefiting from trade and tourism alike.
The next day was the big one. One of the main reasons that we had come to Kashgar in the first place was to see the natural beauty of the area. Thursday was our expedition to Shipton’s Arch. Shipton’s Arch is a massive natural arch that is taller than the Empire State Building. It was “discovered” by Eric Shipton, the British consul in Xinjiang, in 1947, but the locals have known about if for ages. National Geographic sent a team to rediscover it in 2000, and since then it's been a major tourist draw. In Uyghur it’s called Hole Mountain, and in Chinese it’s known as Tianmen, or Heaven’s Gate. The arch is located south of the Tian Shan mountain range that splits Xinjiang in two, near China’s western border. We took a bus to the village of Artush and from there drove into the mountains. We passed through checkpoint after checkpoint without incident. Winding our way up the road was increasingly difficult, and construction forced us to get out of the bus and walk for a bit for fear that the bus might tip over off the narrow road. Additionally, the weather changed from the warmth of Kashgar to a mountain chill. We were told that it would be cold, but that the hike would be easy, and that there were stairs through the valley that led up to the arch.
They didn’t tell us about the snow, however.
Cut to two hour later, desperately trekking up the snowy path. There aren’t any stairs because the snow is too high. Some of the snow is hard enough to walk on, but the weather, while very cold, is above freezing. As such, the hike becomes harder and harder as we keep sinking into the path. Some of the people are doing okay; Jordan is a mountaineer and is practically lapping us. Others are falling behind because of the cold, the snow, and the lack of oxygen in the mountains. At times the path is narrow and we can only pass one at a time. At other times it becomes painfully steep and we have to be careful falling down the path and taking everyone with us. Not everyone was able to make it up the mountain due to the unexpected difficulty. By the end of the hike, we practically crawled up the huge wooden staircase to the observation deck that emerged dramatically from the snow.
But the view!
Staring through the massive arch through the clear, thin mountain air was one of the most breathtaking views of my life. Beyond the arch we could see the desert valley below, and beyond that, the snowy, gleaming peaks of the Tian Shan mountains. We stood there, panting and cold, out of breath from the climb. Or maybe it was the altitude. One of us had an online altimeter and claimed that we were 9,758 ft. I stood, transfixed on the observation deck, gazing out at the breathtaking scenery. I felt like I was at the top of the world.
Xinjiang is such a wonderful place. I had gone from the sandy desert to the snowy peaks of the mountains in two days. Getting down the mountain wasn’t a particularly hard task, though I did end up slipping down one of the narrow paths and plowed into a snow drift. We rode back, exhausted yet glad that we had come to Xinjiang.
The next day was our main tour of Kashgar. We started out with our tour of the renovated old town, which has been recently repainted and restored. The roads wind, vendors with stands sell traditional Uyghur food, there were tons of beautifl doors. Kashgar’s door game is spot on. Walking through the streets of Kashgar, we suddenly came across a small building labelled the “Egiz Erik Road Museum”. It looked like a large store or…maybe a house? Some sort of combination. No one charged us admission. There were glass boxes with all sorts of artifacts in them. We saw old coins, ornate carved jade and turquoise, and ancient pottery. The room itself had antique carved furniture and beautiful tables at its centerpiece. We were impressed and confused by the display. We spoke with the elderly man who came up to greet us to ask him questions. Or tried to. The problem is that he only spoke Uyghur. His son-in-law came over to us and tried to help translate for us because he could speak Chinese. The translation train from Uyghur to Mandarin to English ensued. Turns out he lived upstairs and this building was his home. He had turned his ground floor into a free museum. He said that he wants young people to come in and learn about Kashgar’s history, and he’s been travelling all over the region collecting artifacts for more than 30 years. He showed us around a bit and left us to explore his little museum. I found it so amazing that he had dedicated his time and money towards building a little free museum in his own home for everyone to see.
Our next tour was the Id Kah Mosque. The Id Kah Mosque is arguably the largest mosque in China (depending on how you measure), and dominates Xinjiang’s central square. Inside the doors are some lovely gardens and trees. Tudajim explained to us the history of Islam in Xinjiang and its importance to Uyghur culture. He told us the story that, during the Cultural Revolution, the mosque was closed by the government, but eventually an angry local broke the lock and reopened it. The government wasn’t willing to push the issue. Since then, the mosque has been in use. And it’s a gorgeous mosque. Past the gardens are large courtyards for prayer. Beyond that is a central building with some huge traditional carpets and an ornate decorated space for the imam to lead prayers. The mosque seemed to be peaceful and picturesque place, but I can only imagine how lively it must be during prayers or holidays.
Another interesting weather thing; it was drizzling throughout the day, and then suddenly started hailing. And before that it was sunny and warm. So Kashgar’s weather can’t really make up its mind.
To end off our time in Kashgar, we were set loose on the handicraft street in Kashgar so people could see the traditional crafts and buy gifts. There were handmade brass bowls, carved wooden plates, and some more traditional Uyghur hats. People led goats through the streets. Some of the brassware (which is one of Kashgar’s most popular crafts) is imported from all over the region. Not far west of Kashgar is a mountain pass that links Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Xinjiang. As such, goods from Pakistan are common here. Trade between China and Pakistan has also dramatically increased lately; Pakistan is one of China’s largest allies and trading partners. Pakistani music and movies are also very common in Xinjiang. Many Uyghurs saw that we were foreigners and asked if we were Muslims and if we were from Pakistan excitedly. They were a little sad when we were neither. Following that, we packed up our stuff, and headed to the Urumqi airport. From there, we flew home via Urumqi to Shanghai, bringing our field study trip to a close.
I’ll leave you with this; China is a strange and wonderful place. It has many diverse peoples living within its borders, all manner of geography and climate, and a magnificent and ancient history. Things in China are never straightforward, but nevertheless, in one of the most politically charged and culturally diverse parts of China, you can see great signs of economic progress. Kashgar is a beautiful city, and its people are curious and friendly. It may be remote, but it's definitely worth the visit. There's so much to see in China, and Xinjiang is an excellent place to understand the complexity and scale of China today.
And of course, this week's worst English is a two-parter. The first is a friendly reminder to be careful in our shower at the hotel. The second is a beautiful poem that we found at the Grand Palace. Now, if only I knew what it meant...