Shanghaied, Chapter 9 (Field Study Trip, Part 2): The Adventures of Gabe and Guanyin
I have been to the edge of the world. A rim of the great desert, on the precipice of presence and absence. I stood on a high dune and watched green scrubland melt into an endless sea of sand. Yes, I have been to the edge edge of the world, in the geographic heart of Asia, a world away from my home on the near-opposite side of the planet.
And it had camels.
After staggering off our train, we found ourselves in the ancient silk road city of Kashgar. Kashgar is one of the most populous cities in Xinjiang and, unlike Urumqi, it is predominantly Uyghur. Kashgar more closely resembles the Middle East than any Chinese city. It’s a vibrant, confusing, and beautiful place, and we would spend most of the remainder of our trip there. The streets are lined with desert poplars, the architecture often uses old mud-brick construction, and the signs are mainly written in the Uyghur script, which is a modified form of the Arabic script. It feels far authentically Xinjiang than Urumqi by quite a margin.
Monday morning, as we settled into our beautiful hotel near the old city, we prepared for a day of touring. We met our tour guide, Tudajim, who is a super friendly local. We headed out to get some breakfast, and there we first encountered the security situation in Kashgar. As we were entering a shopping center, which in order to enter you must first pass through a metal detector, they suddenly closed the doors, trapping half of our group inside. All the shop owners had gathered for the mandatory raising of the Chinese flag and the singing of the national anthem, followed by a fairly long speech by a party official on some patriotic topic. We were not allowed in until this was over, which took thirty minutes. Those inside were quickly escorted to one of the restaurants to avoid distracting people. There wasn’t much to do outside besides observe the security. Several armed soldiers were busy cleaning a large armored truck. We were quietly informed that we were not allowed to take pictures of the soldiers or the vehicle. Eventually the gathering ended and we were finally allowed inside. It would be the first of many similar incidents.
We set out to first see the Afaq Khoja mausoleum, which is the mausoleum of one of the leading religious and political families in old Kashgar. The mausoleum itself is beautiful, decorated with gorgeous green tiles. Green is the color of Islam, the main religion of Xinjiang. Tudajim, in flagrant violation of the “No Tourist Allowed” sign (one of our worst English signs of the week), led us around the back of the mausoleum to take pictures. It’s a pretty and peaceful place. Interestingly, the main tourists there were Han Chinese tour groups. All the girls in our program wore headscarves (known as a hijab in Arabic and Uyghur) out of respect. The Han tourists didn’t, however.
We next set out to explore Kashgar’s famous Sunday Market. Unlike the Urumqi bazaar, the Sunday Market is quite old, and is heavily used by locals rather than being a purely tourist market. It originally assembled on Sundays as a livestock market, but over time evolved to sell basically everything. Tudajim joked that the only thing they didn’t have were chicken milk and camel eggs. He’s not wrong, either; there were stalls selling a cookware, scarves, traditional hats, all kinds of clothes (both traditional and modern), hardware, handmade wooden instruments, tea, more than a dozen kinds of raisins, electronics, and pretty much anything else you could want to buy. And on Sundays they sell camels.
Anyway. Emma and I wandered through the market, looking for good souvenirs. We were continuing our strategy of haggling together. Haggling in Xinjiang works something like this; you select the product that you want as they carefully watch you. You ask how much it is. They give you an outrageous price. You and your haggling partner exchange hushed words, feign outrage, and give a counter-offer of maybe a third or a fourth of the price. The shopkeeper, in turn, feigns outrage, and you bicker over the quality of the good in question in a mixture of English, Mandarin, and Uyghur. You keep offering prices. The Uyghur shop owner takes your hand, clasps it in his, and offers you a final price in a sort of haggling ritual. You ignore it and offer a lower one. Repeat several times. You settle on a price somewhere between a third and half of the asking price. If you’re good, you can get it lower, but as I found out, they’re less willing to drop the price than they are in other parts of China.
All in all, I emerged with a nice jacket, some cashmere scarves-
Actually, side note. Silk and cashmere in China is often fake. Here’s how you tell if it’s real: get a lighter and light a small fringe of the scarf on fire. If the cloth burns into a fine, odorless black ash, then its real. If it withers and smells weird, its nylon, and thus fake. Any reputable seller will demonstrate that its real if you ask. If they get offended, find another seller. Now you know!
God, I feel like half of this post is just instructions.
Anyway. Jacket, real cashmere scarves, and a pair of stretchy loose pants that I would later find out were really women’s pants. Thanks Emma. Our last stop of the day was the old city of Kashgar. While much of modern Kashgar has been renovated, this part of the only city was hundreds of years old and had only minimally been reconstructed. To get to it, we had to climb a staircase covered with an overhang because the area was built on a sort of raised platform or hill with steep walls. The narrow roads were paved with old tiles and were oftentimes covered as the buildings on both sides connected overhead. Tudajim explained that since the residents had to give up some of their property to widen the roads, they build upwards, adding another level or building outwards to get more space. As such, the whole city resembled a shadowy labyrinth made of crumbling mud-bricks. Despite being dirty and dilapidated, it had a certain charm; children played in the streets, tight winding roads led up and down the sloping town, and people ran handicraft shops out of their homes. We stopped by a family that made and fired their own glazed pottery. They had an old kiln that they still used and invited us in to examine their handmade wares. Much of old Kashgar, like many Chinese cities, was torn down for renovations or heavily reconstructed at the expense of the traditional architecture. This little dirty pocket of Kashgar, however, was as close to authentic as you’d find, and I enjoyed being able to see it up close.
The next day began our trip to the desert. To the east of Kashgar lies the Taklimakan desert, a huge desert in southern Xinjiang. We boarded our bus and began the long drive to the wilderness. And there we finally saw the real Chinese security presence in Xinjiang. Every hour or so for our 5 hour drive out east, we would be stopped by one of the many checkpoints. Soldiers would ask our guide why we were in Xinjiang and where we were going, among many other questions, and ask to see our permits and passports. One time, soldiers stopped us and claimed that someone had taken a picture of the checkpoint, and were preparing to confiscate our phones to look through our photos before they were convinced to let us go. There wasn’t a Hongshan park to subtly (well, not particularly subtly) display China’s rule in the province. It was demonstrated through police and soldiers.
We briefly stopped in the town of Yensingar, which is famous for its knives. Craftsman made knives in front of us as our group clambered to buy some. There were simple knives, comically tiny ones, huge blades (more like swords), beautifully decorated knives of various colors or inlayed with mother-of-pearl, etc. I haggled for a bit and got a few at a reasonable price.
Past that, there’s really not much out there. It’s mainly scrubland dotted with desert poplars, the only tree that grows here. We passed through the historic town of Yarkand, which had the mausoleum of a historic queen. We walked through the streets to briefly look around, where we were stared at all the way. Westerners don’t come here very often.
Oh, and by the way, people stared at us all throughout Xinjiang. But it was a little more polite rather than just gaping and pointing. Some people tried to speak a few words of English to use and smiled at us when we waved. In other parts of China, you wouldn’t get that reaction.
Past Yarkand, though, I really got to understand what exactly nothing was. The yellow scrubland wasn’t nothing. There were a few trees, at least.
The Taklimakan was nothing. A vast, sandy ocean of nothing.
It’s not gradual. You kind of just slam into the desert. The ground goes from rocky to dusty to sandy in a space of around 50 feet. We arrived at the last rest stop, a series of small wooden and stone structures on the edge of the desert. There were a herd of camels and their herders standing by the small road on the edge of a little poplar grove. Past that were the dunes.
Okay. Nothing is an exaggeration. There are dunes. Dune after dune, hill after hill of sand, for literally thousands of miles across Xinjiang. There was a delay with the police that prevented us from heading out, so Emma, Eryn and I hiked up one of the dunes to get a better look. It’s just endless sand, as far as the eye can see. Someone had set up a sort of swing that we played on for a bit, and another dune had a large wooden lookout structure that we could climb. The view from there only enforced the vast emptiness of the desert.
We were supposed to camp out in the desert for the night, but even though we had the correct papers, the local police told us that there were hazardous weather conditions and that we weren’t allowed. We decided not to push the issue. At that point, the plan was to ride out for a few hours on the camels, have a cookout with the Uyghur camel herders, and then find a hostel in Yarkand.
Let’s talk about camels.
Camels are large mammals originally native to central Asia. These particular camels were Bactrian camels, meaning that they have two humps. They’re kind of adorable. And they’re horrible monsters. Camels are temperamental, mean, and they like to spit. At people. We kept our distance. I love animals, and I was distressed to see the camel herders yelling at or dragging the camels around, but if I tried to approach the camels I’d get a sort of warning growl, and I kept my distance.
The camels were a…colorful lot. For the hour or so that we waited for the police to finish negotiations, I saw the following:
-One of the camels found a discarded plastic bottle and began eating it. When his herder tried to pry it away, a minute-long tug-of-war ensued.
-One of the camels tried to eat another one of the camels. He started nibbling at her leg. She didn’t seem to mind, though.
-One of the camels was frothing at the mouth. I don’t really have an explanation for this one. He wasn’t rabid or anything, he was just…foaming at the mouth. We named him Frothy.
-One of the camels made a break for freedom, wandering off into the desert before a few herders frantically ran after her to catch her and bring her back.
-Finally, one of the camels proceeded to make kissy faces at me for the entire hour. She really looked like she was blowing kisses at me. I ended up choosing her to ride with. She seemed nice.
This would be a terrible, terrible mistake.
After being helped on to the camels by the herders, we set out into the desert. We climbed up and down the, through the ocean of sand and the occasional thorny bush. I named my camel Guanyin, after the Bodhisattva (sort of a Buddhist demigod) of love and compassion. In retrospect, a better name would have been Lilith. Guanyin was the kind of camel who did not like being told what to do. She would refuse to climb up dunes, or having finally consented to climbing, would refused to come down. Occasionally she would start to run frantically while her herder ran after us. She would occasionally try to bite people, include (or especially) me. If pressed, Guanyin would make horrible, almost human noises, and attempt to shake me off, which was terrifying. She was less than fond of me. I wanted to pet her or feed her something or do anything to endear myself to her, but I was warned against getting near her mouth for fear that she might bite me or spit at me.
We rode around to a massive dune to camp for lunch. We ate naan and the trail mix that we had made, and I introduced Oreos to the Uyghurs, which they seemed to like. The herders were very friendly and we taught them how to play Ultimate Frisbee. Or just Ultimate. I think Frisbee is trademarked. Anyway, we tossed the disk back and forth on the sand dune, occasionally throwing it off the edge of the dune, which was essentially a cliff. And an incredibly steep and high cliff too, maybe 100 ft. tall, but it was made of sand, so you could climb back up (with great difficulty). In turn, they taught us one of their sports, dune jumping. Essentially, you get a running start, and throw yourself off of the edge of the dune. Whoever lands farther down wins. I was skeptical about hurtling myself off of a perfectly good sand dune, but it turned out to be a tons of fun! It’s surprisingly hard to willingly leap off a cliff and fall maybe 20-30 feet downward. The sand cushions your fall and you just sink in harmlessly, but instinctively you don’t want to jump. It was a lot of fun.
(At one tragic interval, someone threw the disk too close to the camels, and when one of us went to retrieve it, Frothy suddenly spat at us, splattering us with camel foam. It was just as gross as it sounds.)
Finally, as we were getting back on the camels, Guanyin refused to get up. No matter how much the herder tried to get her to move, she wouldn’t budge. He was hitting her with a stick and I was trying to tell him not to because it was deeply upsetting to watch. I leaned over to try and talk to him (he only spoke Uyghur, which complicated things), when Guanyin finally made her move. Feeling that I was off-balance, she reared up quickly sort of bucked, throwing me off her. She’s around 9 feet tall. I seemed to fall in slow motion, watching everyone’s horrified looks and I plummeted. I landed painfully on my back in a cloud of sand and dust and Guanyin haughtily loomed over me. In all honesty it was hilarious. But ow.
Going to the desert was a wonderful experience. It was vast, empty, and quiet. There were no sounds but the soft winds and the awful grunts of the camels. There were dunes as far as the eye could see; a great nothing, stretching on for miles and miles. Between dunes, when you could see nothing but sand, we could have been in the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles away from civilization. It was a powerful experience.
After our ride back, we had a little cookout by the rest stop. I ate several roasted mushroom skewers while other people ate mutton, and we danced with the Uyghurs around the fire. It was a fun way to end the day. The Uyghurs are surprisingly good dancers, too. They’ve got sweet moves. Afterwards we went over to the dunes away from the fire and lay down in the sand. It was so quiet and still. It’s stunning how quiet the desert is at night; no sound and barely any light. If it had been less cloudy we probably could have seen some wonderful stars. Even so, we ended off our day of activity all lying next to each other in the darkness, quietly contemplating our time in Xinjiang and listening to the deafening silence.
I’ll leave you with this: I may have had to leave Guanyin behind, but I take comfort in knowing that she’ll always loathe me with all her heart. As she loathes everything. She’s a hateful creature. And I was sore for days after that camel ride. It was really painful. What I’m getting at is that camels are terrible, ridiculous creatures. I’ll always have a soft spot for them, though.
This week’s worst English, aside from the sign mentioned above, is another favorite sign from Hongshan back in Urumqi. I know that was last blog but this one is also hilarious.
Zaijian, or as they say in Xinjiang, xayri xosh!