An­other time and pace

The con­vivi­al­ity of life on the streets in Kash­gar

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - WIL­LIAM GOURLAY

EVENING is a drawn-out af­fair in Kash­gar, the great Silk Road en­tre­pot lo­cated in China’s north­west Xin­jiang prov­ince.

Of­fi­cial time is in sync with Bei­jing, so in this city four hours’ fly­ing time west of the cap­i­tal the work­ing day ef­fec­tively ends in the mid-af­ter­noon and dark­ness doesn’t de­scend un­til 9pm. I learn quickly that when mak­ing ar­range­ments it’s vi­tal to spec­ify whether a ren­dezvous is on Bei­jing or Kash­gar time.

In Oc­to­ber, as sum­mer has faded and the clear skies of au­tumn hover, stick­ing to Bei­jing time lends an un­hur­ried qual­ity to the gloam­ing.

As else­where in Asia, life is lived on the streets. Walk­ing along Se­man Lu, I en­counter a lively poker game on the broad pave­ment. Women con­gre­gate to chat. Mar­ket gar­den­ers sell grapes, weighed out on bal­anc­ing scales. Passers-by gather for snacks at road­side stalls.

It’s my first time in China, but I can’t shake a sense of fa­mil­iar­ity. It feels un­can­nily like Turkey, where I have trav­elled many times. The card play­ers wear em­broi­dered Is­lamic prayer caps, the gos­sip­ing mothers sport un­ruly head­scarves and flow­ing dresses, the snacks are sun­flower seeds shared from news­pa­per cones. But, of course, the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion are Uighurs, a Mus­lim peo­ple cul­tur­ally and lin­guis­ti­cally re­lated to the Turks.

In fact, the Uighurs are the ones who stayed be­hind when the no­madic Tur­kic peo­ples started their long west­ward mi­gra­tion across Eura­sia in the 10th cen­tury.

The con­vivi­al­ity of life in the street, the ten­dency to clutch the fore­arm of the per­son be­ing spo­ken to, even the way pedes­tri­ans blithely step across ma­jor roads un­con­cerned at on­com­ing mopeds and taxis are so fa­mil­iar it’s as if I’ve found my­self in a Turk­ish out­post squeezed into a cor­ner of China. The lan­guage, too, is sim­i­lar.

A favourite spot for both tourists and lo­cals is the ven­er­a­ble Uighur Tea­house. On the edge of the Old Town, the tea­house, reached via rick­ety stairs, of­fers a view of the com­ings and go­ings on Hand­i­crafts Street. Here Uighur el­ders con­gre­gate at length over pots of tea — an­other pen­chant they share with the Turks — stroking their beards, flick­ing prayer beads and dis­cussing the af­fairs of the day.

At street level, plumes of tangy smoke rise from the grills of the kebab mak­ers. Dec­o­rated rounds of nun bread are on sale out­side the baker’s tandir. When I visit in the af­ter­noon, I spy sev­eral bar­ber shops that also of­fer

PIC­TURES: THINKSTOCK den­tal ser­vices, a vo­ca­tional cou­pling that doesn’t strike me as ob­vi­ous.

On Hand­i­crafts Street, Uighur artisans ham­mer at cop­per teapots or sharpen knives while hold­ing con­ver­sa­tions with pass­ing friends. At the Uighur Mu­si­cal In­stru­ment Fac­tory, a shop reek­ing of resin and wood shav­ings, tra­di­tional in­stru­ments are on sale. Af­ter buy­ing a sou­venir tam­bourine, I am treated to the plain­tive vo­cals and shim­mer­ing du­tar (long-necked lute) per­for­mance of lo­cal muqam mu­si­cians. Out­side, sassy Uighur teenagers check their mo­bile phones while scooting around on mopeds adorned with wo­ven sad­dle bags.

This oasis city on the fringe of the Tak­la­makan Desert has seen the com­ings and go­ings of peo­ples over mil­len­nia. Silk Road traf­fic moved both ways be­tween China and the Mediter­ranean. Dif­fer­ent faiths and all man­ner of trade goods passed through Kash­gar.

Marco Polo once passed through, mak­ing dis­mis­sive com­ments about the lo­cal ‘‘Turkis’’. Dur­ing the height of the Great Game in the 19th cen­tury the city was prone to ‘‘in­ter­na­tional melo­drama’’, as the spies of the Bri­tish and Rus­sian em­pires sought to out­point each other. And at in­ter­vals Chi­nese dy­nas­tic armies came from the east, seek­ing to sub­due and en­velop a vast fron­tier ter­ri­tory of which Kash­gar was the fo­cal point.

Most re­cently, in 1949, the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army marched in. The Chi­nese claim Xin­jiang as an in­te­gral part of China, cit­ing Han Dy­nasty con­trol in the first cen­tury BC and episodes of cen­tral rule since. The Uighurs see it oth­er­wise, point­ing to long in­ter­vals when Tur­kic sul­tans and khans or lo­cal war­lords held sway. Some draw par­al­lels to the dis­puted sit­u­a­tion in Ti­bet and main­tain de­mands for au­ton­omy or in­de­pen­dence.

For now, how­ever, Bei­jing is firmly in con­trol, mar­shalling the Xin­jiang re­gion (one sixth of the Chi­nese land­mass) for re­de­vel­op­ment and mod­erni­sa­tion. In Kash­gar much of the Old Town is be­ing de­mol­ished to make way for ranks of apart­ment build­ings. Wind­ing al­leys, shaded court­yards and cen­turies-old stucco houses are be­ing bull­dozed in the name of progress.

Au­thor­i­ties claim the Old Town is an earth­quake risk and new hous­ing nec­es­sary. Lo­cal opin­ion is di­vided. A lo­cal woman, Khadija, tells me it is ‘‘good and bad’’. She likes the idea of mod­ern con­ve­niences, but fears the dis­per­sal of her neigh­bour­hood com­mu­nity. Mustafa says: ‘‘Some Uighurs say that [ex­ist­ing] build­ings are old and small. But mostly they say: No, no, no.’’

Parts of the Old Town are be­ing pre­served as a ‘‘liv­ing mu­seum’’. I buy an en­trance ticket and wan­der sev­eral streets. Here, life is lived at close quar­ters. Lit­tle girls play on doorsteps. Boys kick foot­balls in al­ley­ways that have coded paving stones, hexag­o­nal for through­ways, rec­tan­gu­lar for dead ends. There are no cars, just the odd ped­lar ar­riv­ing on a three-wheeled mo­tor­bike to de­liver veg­eta­bles.

Some see pulling down the Old Town as a move to smother Uighur iden­tity. Oth­ers claim the Chi­nese govern­ment’s ac­tions, re­gard­less of the in­tent, will ul­ti­mately lead to the as­sim­i­la­tion of the Uighurs. The Uighurs and Han Chi­nese al­ready share many char­ac­ter­is­tics: a flare for com­mu­nal sto­ry­telling, gre­gar­i­ous­ness, a predilec­tion for round-the-clock cups of tea and eat­ing break­fast with chop­sticks.

Will Uighur dis­tinc­tive­ness even­tu­ally be lost? I pre­fer to think that a cul­ture and life­style so vi­brant and bois­ter­ous will not be so eas­ily over­come. I think of the sassy moped pi­lots, the noisy pave­ment poker play­ers. At the Sun­day live­stock mar­ket, I watch burly Uighur farm­ers wrestling yaks on to trucks, man­han­dling sheep and tak­ing don­keys for ‘‘test drives’’. Th­ese dig­ni­fied men, with cal­loused hands and but­toned waist­coats, are no pushovers.

ol­droad­tours.com

A ven­dor seeks shade at a mar­ket in Kash­gar, above, while much of the Old Town, be­low, is be­ing de­mol­ished to make way for apart­ment build­ings

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