Another time and pace
The conviviality of life on the streets in Kashgar
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.
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