Published: September 16th 2009September 15th 2009
10 sq km in size, 30m deep. freezes completely during winter time
Kashgar, the city that used to be central Asia's nexus on the southern silk road, now borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. While Urumqi is the official provincial capital , Kashgar is the Uighur's unofficial capital in Xin Jiang. Kashgar's population is 94% Uighur, with the rest made up by Han (4%) and other ethnicity. Tajiks are Shi'ite, while Kyrgies and Uighurs are Sunni. The latter two have some inter-marriage, but overall it's a very separated community. Similar to Tibet, the entire region here is high altitude, averaging 3200m, with highest inhabited zone at 4200m.
Our itinerary was packed, visiting each of the following sites per day: Tashkurugan->Karakul Lake->Taklamakan desert->Kashgar old city/market->Shipton's arch. I've been taking random notes and thoughts throughout the trip, so the rest of the blog might seem piece mealed. Communication with the outside world is limited, with internet and text completely gone, and limited international phones calls. Apparently internet access will be restored either by 10/1, or next year.
Tashkurugan (literally means stone city) houses a stone fort built in 220BC. It was built by Tajiks for defense purposes on the silk road, and had many European features. Now there are only remnants of the fort,
as the stones were taken by locals to construct their houses over the centuries. Part of Kite Runner was filmed here, with the rest filmed in old city Kashgar. Our guide, Tudajim, actually worked on the set as a production assistant. Young but hardworking, he would be a great guide if anyone decides to go to Xin Jiang in the future, especially if y'all are interested in desert camping trips.
Patrol is tight. Every day we passed two check points with heavily armed police and/or soldiers. In Tashkurugan and Kashgar, there are soldiers stationed in the city, patrolling or training with real weapons in public. They are here partially for border defense, and partially for intimidation. The locals are used to them as part of the natural scenery though. While minority ethnicity can join the army and be stationed locally, apparently they are not issued weapons. What we also learned that while by law, the autonomous region leaders are local, the real #1 is always appointed by the central government, most likely Han.
On the way back from Tashkurugan, we stayed over night at a Kyrgy family's yurt near Karakul lake. Kyrgies have similar language with Uighurs, and
they fought together in the 40's against the Chinese. There are 8/9 generations around the lake, so they've been here for close to 800 years. During the summer they rely on tourism related business (yurt stays, horse rides, selling stones and carpets). During autumn time they sell animals, and during the winter they migrate to areas with more plentiful grasslands for the livestock. They were the most hospitable, inviting, and caring hosts, and we were more than welcomed, which was a slight concern for us given the ethnic riots and needle pricks in Urumqi.
With surroundings that even the most extreme urban dwellers (e.g., Brian Hong) would kill for, life at the foot of heaven (as the locals call it) is peaceful and serene. Sure it lacks the material comforts we are accustomed to and the environment can be harsh, but it's void of pollution, violence, greed, and corruption. Civilization has created wonders throughout history, but also byproducts. With human creativity and persistence, we have the responsibility to stride towards equilibrium. Else, we may lose what we hold dear, both life enhancing tools and life enriching elements.
Last day in Kashgar we went to Shipton's arch, which is
discovered in 1940 by Eric Shipton, an English mountaineer. The location was lost to the western world, until National Geographic rediscovered it in 2001. It is the tallest natural arch in the world, standing tall at 1200 ft height. It was a bit of an adventure to get to, as we drove on a dried river bed for an hour and climbed some ladders to get there. I tried to scale the rock face on the far right side to get to higher ground, but only got half way. Vaihbav or Parker would've made it to the top with just their pinkies.
During this trip, the Uighurs always refer to Han as Chinese, never Han, and they always refer to themselves as Uighurs, never Chinese. It is interesting that we arrived here during Ramadan, as our eating habits somewhat adopted with the tradition, eating only breakfast and late dinner everyday. However, there isn't much cultural or ethnic integration here in Xin Jiang. Few Uighurs speak Mandarin well, and vice versa for the Han. Intermarriage is somewhat frowned upon. Social hangouts are segregated by will.
While we got around fine, racism between the different ethnicity is evident. Uighur cab
Boardering Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan
drivers don't respond to us, waiters giving us cold shoulders, locals starring at us on the street. The Hans are no better, speaking to Uighurs as if they are inferior. Much of this tension is perhaps due to the poorly designed integration, or assimilation, of the ethnicity by the old guard back in the 50's. Problems are rooted deep and may not be repairable, and much of the policies have changed little.
For example, the Oytag glacier used to be pasture land for Kyrgies, but when it was opened as a national park in '05, government forced some locals out to ease the burden on the grassland. The Tarim basin in the Taklamakan desert (2nd largest desert in the world, shifting 100m per year north and west bound), holds 60% of China's oil, but according to the locals, not much of the profit is returned back to Xin Jiang. Qur'an is not permitted to be taught in public in Xin Jiang, but it's actually permitted by law. Then again, every country had similar stories in its history book.
Now back in Sichuan, will be visiting families, and heading to Beijing to get my Iranian visa. Crossing my fingers.
There are more photos below