Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Friday, September 28, 2007

Book (for want of a better name) Tag

Tagged by Szerelem. (Don't you guys have anything better to do?)

Total number of books owned:
(It's all the same freaking book, man.)

Last book bought:
- Maharanis: A Family Saga of Four Queens - Lucy Moore
- Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia - Karl Ernest Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac

Last book read:
Probably The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. Long overdue and horribly good. Literally.

Currently reading:
(Oh god. In no particular order...)
- The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor - David Landes
- A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead - Dennis McNally
- The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet's Lost Paradise - Ian Baker
- The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam - Barbara W. Tuchman
- Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar - Simon Sebag Montefiore
- The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 - William Dalrymple
- Genes, Peoples, and Languages - Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza
- Selected Short Stories - Rabindranath Tagore (translated by William Radice)
- Maharanis: A Family Saga of Four Queens - Lucy Moore
(Yes, I am a multi-tasker. Yes, you may say I have ADD.)

Books plan on reading next:
Whatever I buy next. Oh, and Doubt: A History of Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. It's shameful -- I've owned this book for nearly three years and am still excited about it but never found the right occasion to read it. Weird.

Five books that mean a lot to me:
Another strange question. What exactly does "mean a lot" mean, anyway? Here's a set of five that I have fond memories of / that marked important things that happened to me.
- Stories for Five Year Olds. I have no idea who edited this wonderful anthology. All i remember is that it was soft-cover, green, and had a big 5 on the cover, which had dozens of kids crawling all over it. It was really a great collection and as evidence I offer up the fact that neither Stories for Six Year Olds nor Stories for Four Year Olds could hold a candle to it. I have long wondered what became of it; I would really like to see this book again. (Runners-up in this category - Moldovan Folk Tales; Masha Nikiforova's somethingsomething.)
- The Book of Knowledge. This was a ten volume encyclopedia that my grandfather brought back to India from England in the 1920s. My mother and her siblings grew up on it and then, as the eldest grandkid, I got to inherit it. (Later, we sent it back to Calcutta for my young cousin's benefit.) I spent hours squatting on the floor next to the bottom shelf it had been kept on (side by side with the eight volume Children's Dictionary, of similar vintage, which had one volume missing.) The science, geography, and history sections in this Book were interesting all right, and in fact almost every section had something to say for itself, but the stories! Oh, the stories. They were from all over the world and nearly each one was a doozy. I loved each volume of that huge hefty book, hard bound, soft glossy fragile pages, to pieces.
- The Mahabharata, by C. Rajagopalachari. In retrospect, my interest in psychology and human behavior can be traced all the way back to this masterpiece. The content is unparalleled, of course, but the presentation - wise, low-key, unintrusive - has you completely gripped. I had my copy of this book from when I was five right till I was twenty-five or so. I even wrote my first term-paper in b-school about it, jointly with my roomie who I introduced it to - he stayed up the night reading it, gripped.
- The Structure of the Universe, by Jayant V. Narlikar. I have posted about this before. If the Mahabharata was what got me into psychology, and that's an if, this book is what got me into science.
- War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. No, not what you think. I don't remember the plot of this book, I don't even remember the names of any of the characters. The story behind this inclusion is a little more twisted than that. My first job in Bombay, a devious HR manager landed four of us in the situation of having to find an apartment to live in with exactly three days notice. The place we found was almost completely unfurnished, and a two hour slog to work each way. We had to leave for work at 7 and found ourselves returning close to midnight each day. One of my roommates and I decided that this wasn't the life we wanted, and so we did one of the few things in our power to improve it. We resolved to read and so, the next Sunday, went out and got ourselves a few books. I bought War and Peace, and a few others. Still, that was just the easy bit. Turning the key to step into an empty concrete shoebox at midnight, having battled the stench of guttural sweat for two subhuman hours at the end of a twelve-hour day, we just hadn't the strength to make progress on our reading. But we tried, a few pages each night. The next week I contracted a high fever. These were the days before cell phones. I didn't have the strength to go downstairs to look around for a doctor. My roomies were all out of the house all day. For three days I lay on a thin cotton mattress, in August heat often with no electricity, trying to force my eyes to focus on the pages of War and Peace. In all of those three days I read no more than five pages. And then, the fourth day, under the influence of some OTC drugs that my roomies had brought back, the fever abated. I hadn't known how much better I was suddenly feeling until that evening, when I realized I had read five hundred pages that day.

Now that's a good book.


I don't normally pass tags on but there's always a first time. My good friend Mock-Atlas Drugged-Turtle ... you're it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sun set and plane rise over Boston

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Days 9 and 10)

Abdul was again due to pick us up after breakfast at 10, so we decided to make use of the early part of the day by ourselves. We finished breakfast by 9 and set out on our own. Embedded in the general objective of walking around early-morning Kashgar for an hour was my specific intention of visiting Chini Bagh. Now a hotel that lay just round the corner from ours, this was the residence of George Macartney, the British Resident in Kashgar during a key period of the Great Game at the turn of the 20th century. It was a hub of social and political life in the city, and several of the great Silk Road explorers stayed here when they passed through town. I felt I could not leave Kashgar without paying my respects at this shrine of adventure, and if it hadn’t been situated so close to us I would have made sure that Abdul take us there. As it was, we had passed it a couple of times the previous day and so we knew where it was.

So we set out. As we emerged from our hotel’s driveway, the low sun blinded me and I made to change out of my regular spectacles into my sunglasses. As I did, a decrepit old man rushed towards me. Short, bent, wizened, and draped in a long grey overcoat that looked like a Kashmiri phiran, he reminded me of Makhanlal, my childhood neighbors’ old retainer from Srinagar. But the sight of a tattered old man rushing towards one is an unnerving one, more so in a strange city. I recoiled, and his outstretched arms stopped a few inches short of me. He was making strange wordless noises, and I realized that he was grinning from ear to ear. Half-hugging himself, he grinned and he smiled and he made repeated little bows up and down in front of me. S and I stood there transfixed, not knowing what to do. We smiled back, and made a few noises ourselves. He gestured – an act I interpreted as asking after my well-being. I smiled and nodded further. He waved us on. We walked on. He walked by. It was all very … different.

We walked along Seman Lu – the broad road that ran in front of our hotel, and turned left at the big intersection when it came. Chini Bagh was just a few meters down this road, and then into a lane on the left. That lane served as the approach road for the new hotel. We walked around to the back where the original old building lay. It was in good condition. I stood there and imagined all the people who would have passed through those doors a hundred years ago. Beside the old bungalow a modern apartment building rose, four storeys high. Much to our surprise, Abdul told us later in the day that that was where his apartment was! He’d been right there inside, getting ready, while we stood downstairs and looked up at what was his window.

We took a few pictures in reverential silence and then backtracked to the main road. It was still early and we had a lot of time left. Both of us wanted to keep walking around, but in different directions. I wanted to head back in the direction of the hotel so we didn’t get too far away. TPB wanted to follow an interesting looking lane that ran by the side of the Chini Bagh entrance. It was long and narrow and seemed to stretch on forever. As opposed to the main road that we stood on, which was relatively broad and tarmacked, and had shops on both sides rising at least two storeys in height, this one was flanked with low buildings, predominantly mud-brick construction, and, as everywhere, a butcher stall at the corner and melons lining the sides of the road. Impervious to every curious eye that turned on us, we took the plunge.

It was an interesting walk. Bent old men peered out at us from under their colorful decorated caps. Proud women with long straight noses, some wrapped up on dark brown headscarves, marched their infants schoolwards. Shopkeepers woke, shaking the dust of a new day off the steps of their establishments. We walked on. A few minutes down the lane, I began to start thinking. Surely the lane would intersect a main road shortly, and we’d turn left and be back on Seman Lu. We walked on. There was no sign of any intersection.

Slowly the pleasure of the walk, the excitement of the sights, began to be overshadowed by this worrying anticipation of the left turn that was not to be seen. Eventually, about fifteen minutes down that road, we came up on a cross street. It was certainly bigger than the one we were on, but it didn’t have the same city feel that Seman Lu exuded. There was no sidewalk, for one – not a problem on the smaller lane that we’d been on, but on this big road, it felt a little dicey. But who knew, maybe the street would change character in a bit. We walked on.

We came up on an intersection. To my consternation, our road ended right there. An even more highway-ey sort of road went off at an angle to the right, and another long narrow lane to the left. “Let’s go right,” said TPB. “No no!” said I. Four left turns should get us back to where we started. I turned left and continued walking. Lagging behind me, she kept up the mantra. We should have turned right back there. I stubbornly didn’t reply, clinging to the belief that four left turns would get us back to where we needed to be, on Seman Lu, and not on this narrow empty lane with mud brick walls and melons for company. We walked on in silence.

Eventually, we saw another big road looming ahead. Could it be, I wondered, that the left turns we’d taken hadn’t all been exactly ninety degree? If they had been obtuse, then maybe a fifth left turn would get us back onto Seman Lu, and maybe this road ahead was it. I voiced the opinion and was at once told that we should have turned right back there. Well, we hadn’t, and I was walking ahead, and I was going to follow my instinct. We turned onto this big road. It was a large intersection and there were modern-looking buildings across the way. Unfortunately, none of them looked familiar. I marched on.

Finally, TPB’s resolve broke, and she broke the silence to ask why I wasn’t asking anyone for directions. I said I thought that if we walked on we’d be at our hotel. She looked at me, scarcely credulous, and asked whether that was it, had *I* been waiting for *her* to ask someone? I said she could ask if she wanted. She wanted. She let a couple of weathered-looking people pass, then sprung on an educated-looking middle-aged Han gentleman. Of course, he knew no English. But by now we knew a smattering of Chinese, and so we managed to communicate the key words – Seman Lu, Bangchen Bingguan (hotel). Ah!, he said with a light airy laugh. And pointed down the road. Our hotel was on the next block.

Back in the lobby we found Abdul and the driver looking not a little worried. It was well past 10, and the folks in the hotel had had no idea where we were. We made light of the matter, saying we’d just gone out for a walk, but really – I was glad to be back! We got into the car and drove off.

The agenda for that morning was basically a bunch of touristy stuff. The first stop was the mausoleum of Abakh Hoja, a noble from the seventeenth century. Abdul got into the story with gusto, telling TPB how exactly Uyghurs all hated this gent: he was the first one who ‘invited’ the Chinese to take over this land. Now that is stretching the story a little, but facts are malleable from every angle. There was also the small matter of the Fragrant Concubine. Interspersed with the Abakh Hoja thread is that of this lady, his grand daughter. The first part of her name stems from the contention that she smelled sweet from the moment of her birth. The second part – given to her by the Chinese rather than the Uyghurs – owes its origin to her consortship of the powerful Chinese emperor Qianlong. The Uyghurs naturally claim that she was abducted by the emperor, and resisted him until she was 55, at which age she committed suicide. Either way, this family does not enjoy very much favor from the Uyghurs, at least, as evidenced by Abdul. That however has not had an effect on the beauty of the structure as a whole. Flanked by ornate gardens, a white structure adorned with colorful square tiles rises, looking much like what a contemporaneous Mughal structure might. The tile work on the walls, the colorful round towers, the lines of dark tombstones inside, all made it a fascinating place to stand and look and wonder. And all along, Abdul kept up his commentary, alternately praising the Persian designs and denigrating the un-Islamic people who would have their graves laid out so ostentatiously.

Next door to the mausoleum lay the Jumma mosque. This is a comparatively recent structure, built by Yakub Beg, the last great Uyghur chieftain in the late 19th century. However it is no longer in use; it functions only as a tourist distraction – the patterns on the pillars are all faded, and while every other pillar has a new and different design of stone cut at the point where it meets the ceiling, the designs need to be looked for to be seen.

Our next stop was the Etigah mosque – a 15th century building that is still in daily use, the largest mosque in China. A little etymological probing confirmed to me that “Etigah” and “Idgah” were indeed the same. Abdul suggested we walk through Artisan Street to get there. It was still early in the day, and Artisan Street hadn’t yet got its act together. Many of the shops were closed, and a few people were setting their stalls out. We stopped briefly at a wood-carver’s stall. TPB looked at the goods on offer – trinkets mixed in with useful household merchandise. A type of narrow tube, of which he had many, appeared to be a flute or a pipe, but no – it was a device meant to be inserted into an infant’s diaper, to redirect waste products into an external bowl. “You change diapers, but we do this smart thing,” said Abdul happily.

We walked on, and stopped at a figseller’s. A small pile of squashed yellow spheres lay on a basket. “This man sells excellent figs especially in the morning,” said Abdul, “I will treat you.” The price was three figs for two bucks. We bought a handful. I bit into one, not expecting anything much. To my absolutely surprise, it was divine. I had never tasted anything as succulent, juicy, and sweet. “Anjeer,” I heard the seller say to someone. “Anjeer! Anjeer! I blurted through my full mouth. “Yakshe anjeer!” using the Uyghur word for “good”. His face broke into a delighted grin. He nodded rapidly at me – “Yakshe anjeer, yakshe anjeer!” A connection was made… and yet again I get the feeling that we should have bought more of those figs.

The Etigah mosque, just round the corner, had a very different, much more used, feel. Naturally – everyone in the city used it every day. Abdul himself told us that he wakes up and visits it early in the morning; and everyone tries to be here on Friday afternoons. We took our shoes off and went inside, and saw the central point of the mosque from where the Imam reads his prayers. Two long carpet-covered hallways stretched on either side; we exited from the far one which was relatively empty. I sat down by the side to soak the place in. Abdul stood by. A couple of minutes later I asked him if it was okay to sit there – he said, “Well actually no, they used to allow it but not any more. Bloody Chinese tourists used to come here and sit and talk and fart. Can you imagine? Farting in a holy place.” I hurried to put on my shoes.

On our way out of the mosque we were stopped by another fruit vendor. This person was selling “fruit-of-the-heart”, an orange creation that looked like a boondi laddo that had to be peeled to reveal the bright red edible flesh inside. I passed on this, taking just a taste. It was, surprisingly, almost tasteless.

We proceeded to Kashgar’s Grand Market. Going back to the Middle Ages, this enormous sprawling covered bazaar has unending lanes crisscrossing rows and rows of stalls set up in inexorable arrays. Each section itself is unending – carpets, hats, spices, clothes, hardware – quite like a giant IKEA or Costco nightmare come to life. Some of the merchandize was more distinctive – yes, those things in the picture are exactly what they look like. Uyghurs grind them up and make a tea, Abdul told us as if it were the most natural thing in the world, that is supposed to have medicinal properties. We stopped at a hat sellers, and got us a few hats, and at a tea sellers to see if we could get the sweet tea that we had had at dinner the previous night. Now, the exact formula for that tea was proprietorial but Abdul thought he could make a reasonable approximation. The key ingredient according to him was rose petal tea. This gentleman happened to have some on him. However, in a nice demonstration that capitalism didn’t quite make this part of the world go round, we could not close the deal with him. We went away (to my relief, frankly) rose petal tea-less.

Lunch was at the Orda (“palace”) restaurant. This place is famous for its rendition of the Uyghur speciality, pilao. The food took forever to come but when it came, yellow-stained rice with chunks of lamb, and side dishes, was excellent. Even better was the live music – two middle-aged gentlemen raging a duet on their tambours. After lunch we had an hour and a bit to kill before heading for the airport. We drove in and around the old city, a place that time had touched really very lightly. The roads were tarmac, some of the vehicles motorized, electric poles on the sidewalks and some of the clothes of Western cut. The rest of it – mud buildings, street corner meat stalls, donkeys, mosques with little minarets, could have jumped in from any of the last half dozen centuries or more.

We then drove out and to the Petrovsky’s house. Nikolai Petrovsky had been the Russian Consul during the peak of the Great Game, when George Macartney had been at the helm at Chini Bagh. Things had gotten so tense between them that there had been a period of four years when they hadn’t spoken to each other even once, despite being practically the only foreigners in that part of the world. We didn’t stay for long there, and still having about half an hour left, I asked Abdul if there was any place I could get hold of a CD of Uyghur music – the real stuff, the stuff that he liked, rather than the packaged “greatest hits” curiosities that the Han Chinese liked to sell. We went back to near the old city, and parked outside a row of shops. Abdul took me to one – a tiny dingy room occupied by a young-looking man in glasses and his ten-year old sprouting much attitude. CDs and DVDs of Indian, Pakistani, Uyghur, and Arabic movies and music spotted the shelves. Amazingly, they didn’t have any CDs for sale. Abdul said that the local government had just swept down on piracy, so there was a marked shortage in supply. The man went out to see if he could get a hold of a CD – I know not from where. Meanwhile Abdul located something, and gave it to the kid who popped it into a CPU that lay hidden under a table. It refused to play. The man returned after a while with another CD. This one worked. They slipped it into a floppy cardboard holder that was at least thrice the size of the CD in area, and handed it to us. Ten bucks. We thanked them, paid, and left.

The airport was not far and check in was not a problem. We said good bye to Abdul and the driver and slipped them each a tip. Then we went upstairs and sat in the departure area, looking at the mountains in the distance and thinking about this long, strange trip.


Back in Urumqi, we picked our bags up off the carousel. They were bigger now, and substantially heavier thanks to the carpets – the Kirghiz camel one and the Kashgar silk ones. The crowd oozing from the arrival area into the reception area was being screened by two of the local authorities. They were stopping people at random to inspect the baggage tags. It was funny – when we were five deep in the crowd I caught the eye of one of them and knew she would intercept me. Indeed, she let the others in front go and made a point of stopping me. I did not like that, so I told her what I thought of her. Under my breath. In Bengali.

Our old friends Lily and the Far Side Kid were waiting for us on the other side, and they picked us up with happy greetings. We drove to our hotel for the night – a Holiday Inn, after all this. It stood nearly thirty stories high right in the middle of downtown Urumqi. Stepping in, we saw our first double bed in a week. The bellhop had been trying his English on us – how are you, where are you from. As he put our bags down, on impulse, I stopped him. I asked him his name – Imam. “Imam, dost, can you do me a favor?” I gave him the slip of paper containing the address of the Kirghiz lady from whom TPB had bought the silver bracelet from, back on the shores of Lake Karakuli. I asked him to translate that from Uyghur to Chinese. He did, and was delighted with both the job he got and the tip he received for doing it.

Lily was waiting for us downstairs in the lobby. We walked out with her, to go the five minutes to Urumqi’s night market for dinner. Much unlike the night markets we’d experienced in Turpan, Dunhuang, or Jiayuguan. This place was crowded, raucous and maniacal. A single long street with stalls of food-sellers on both sides, and seating space set up on the sidewalks behind them. It took us over fifteen minutes to walk a few blocks from the end where we entered to somewhere near the middle, where we turned back. There was no shortage of choices, especially for the meat lover whose pulse quickened at the sight of heaps upon heaps of skewers, and the maddening smells that played upon his imagination. We bought nan from a stern looking Arsenal-jersey wearing ten year old whose countenance cracked open when we said Rehmet. (Thank you). TPB bought a burrito-like concoction at a stall and we settled down at a table behind them, I ordered a couple of skewers of spicy marinated lamb from the next stall. A variety of vendors walked by, hawking their foods to us. I bought figs that were much more expensive than the ones we had had in Kashgar that morning, but turned out to be nowhere near as tasty. Part of that may have been our fault – the fig seller wanted to give us a couple of pieces that didn’t look quite right to us, and so we asked for a couple of others which he didn’t seem to want to give. He may have been right, after all. We stopped at another stall for seconds. And then, stuffed to the gills, we walked back.

Lily said goodbye and left, and TPB decided she wanted to buy a drink. So we walked round the corner. Outside the night market, the character of the city was completely different – urban, traffic, noise. But the one store we found had a round and jolly Han lady attending, who sold us an unpalatable drink of our choice and then posed happily for a photograph with her two children.


Early the next morning Lily picked us up and dropped us off at the airport. Our flight to Beijing was eventless, indeed, I have no recollection of it. However, Beijing airport was a teeming nightmare. The procedures were opaque to us – all foreigners have to fill out two exit forms each, but the forms are not freely available and it is not clear where to submit them. And all this happens Before check-in, so one doesn’t even know which direction to head in. Check-in was empty, and handled by two lackadaisical ladies who said it was too early to give us a gate assignment – four hours before departure. The line at Immigration was correspondingly long, and they were enforcing the no-liquids policy which made it even worse. And then our flight was delayed; no telling how long. We finally got on a couple of hours late, and it was way past dark by the time we arrived in Hong Kong. And thus ended what was technically the last day of our Silk Road trip.

Once in a lifetime, for sure, but who knows, maybe not. Xie-xie, rehmet.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 8, Part 2)

Since everyone else seemed to be ambling south after lunch, we decided to walk northwards round the lake. Within a minute or two, round a rare large rock, we were completely alone. It was *just us*. A very few other humans (exactly seven in all) wandered by within visible range during the next hour and a bit while we walked by the lake, over a little wooden bridge over a stream that fed into the lake, and then sat by the north bank in complete solitude. We sat in silence on a grassy sloping bank under the towering mountains, skipping pebbles over water, taking a video of the waves lapping at the thin strip of sand by our feet. The black lake stretched in front of us, reflecting the glory of Muztagata. Away to the left, and behind us, the land stretched far, far away, and mountains rose up like walls of different colors. To our right a hill interrupted the view, red, rocky, and immediate.

As our time there drew to a close we slowly walked back the way we had come. We’d only walked some 90 degrees around the perimeter of the lake but it was still overwhelmingly satisfying. I got a little taken aback when TPB suddenly skipped off to a rock by the side, and soon comprehended why when I saw her picking up a bottle of water placed on it – she had left it there on our way out.

We knew we were nearing the camp when a horseman thundered past us. Soon we walked past a few parked camels and donkeys, and were at the camp. As we walked past the yurts I noticed TPB, not for the first time, looking out of the corner of her eye at some of the rugs that the Kirghiz folk had laid out for sale on a couple of stalls outside. I asked if she wanted to take a closer look; she said no, because then they start pressing you to buy. But when and where else would one ever indulge one’s wife, if not at a time and a place like this? So I pressed just a little bit more – I said, if you like it then just see it, no? So we stopped to look.

One rug, slim, long, narrow, looked nice. We lifted it up to see. Suddenly we were surrounded by about a dozen locals, curious to watch us and what we did. A plump middle-aged lady, evidently the owner of the stall, materialized. TPB looked at the other two or three rugs on display – nothing was as good as this one. And then she saw the one she liked. A lady, about two feet away from us, was sitting on it, on the side of a low mud wall. TPB pointed. The lady got off at once, and a man brought this rug to us. It was just as slim as the other one, and way longer. TPB loved it at first look. She turned to Abdul who had quietly joined us – Ask him how much it is. The man said 100 RMB per meter. We said that’s too much, meanwhile the guy said – eight meters. Abdul measured it out in cubit-approximates with his arm and said he thought it was shorter. He asked the man for a meter scale. “Mitter, mitter!” the cry went round, and a lad was sent running off to a yurt slightly apart from the others, the one I had had my abortive flute lessons outside. The scale arrived and the rug was ceremoniously measured. It came to a little above 5 meters. TPB said – I’ll pay 300 for the rug. The man thought a little while and said – 400 for this rug and this other one, and he threw a little one on top of the long one which now lay concertina-ed up from its measurement. The entire conversation was being translated through Abdul, except for the numbers which were being flashed on fingers as well, although my rudimentary Mandarin managed to keep abreast. We thought about it. He broke the silence by lifting a section of the rug and telling us it was authentic camel wool – as evidence he pulled out a lighter and set a fiber alight, then made us smell it. We both smelled the burning fabric and nodded dumbly. He also told us his grandmother had knitted it herself thirty years ago. TPB responded to all of this by saying she’d pay 300 for both rugs together. I gasped a little, inwardly. The man responded with a grand gesture, theatrically pulling the little one out. 300 for only the big one. We said okay at once.

And the atmosphere, which had been tense and thick and quiet, changed all at once. Everyone was laughing, shaking hands, and talking. “Photo!” said I, not forgetting my priorities. Abdul stepped forward and gestured to my camera, saying, “Let me help you,” and the man and the lady only stopped smiling when they posed for the camera.

We took the rug, tied up in an old white plastic bag, put it in the trunk of the car, and drove off from that wonderful place. As we left, Abdul informed us that the man is a local headman, his name is Daoud, and he owns the yurt we had eaten at. He asked us to guess at the age of his wife. From the tone of his voice, I tried to guess as low as I could go. Forty? I asked with some hesitation. Abdul burst out laughing and said – she’s at most 31 or 32. “That’s what the sun and the wind do to them.”


TPB slept as we drove. I plugged in the poodle and listened to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. After the passport control stop (a room by the side of the road where a bored looking Chinese official wearing shades wrote down the names and passport numbers of all travelers going in either direction) I decided to resume the conversation. I asked Abdul – he said he’d been to Pakistan, had he ever been to Kashmir? He said no, and asked me what exactly the problem there was. I explained the historical and political contexts briefly. He listened carefully as I spoke, and then said, “That is why I never trust politicians. It’s the nature of politics. What’s good one day is undesirable the next day. That’s the problem with politics. It’s essentially…” he searched for the right word, “… capricious.”

I was completely stunned by this statement. I would have been impressed if it had come from several of my regular friends; to hear it from this tour guide in the backwaters of China was beyond surprising. Feeling slightly lightheaded, I opened up a little and told him about the beauty of Kashmir, and the Persian verse that had described it as Paradise, “Firdaus”. His expression clouded over at once. “That’s stupid,” he said. “You can’t compare anything with Firdaus. That’s meaningless. It’s against the Quran. It’s against Islam. What kind of people can write this?” I tried to point out that the verse said *if* there is heaven on earth, but he was having none of it. He described the Quran’s depiction of Firdaus to us: your favorite things all within easy reach, streams with sherbet running at your feet, just dip your cup any time you’d like to taste any of anything, even your wife is there – and if you don’t like her, someone else is there. TPB stared fixedly out of the window. I changed the topic.

Back in Kashgar at 8, we found the car stopping in a deserted side lane outside a place that wasn’t our hotel. Abdul turned and said – this is a carpet factory. I recalled I’d told him that I wanted to go to a place that sells carpets; I thought we’d be going the next morning, when we were due to visit Kashgar’s famous Grand Bazaar. But here we were. We walked in through a wide hallway where women sat weaving carpets into a large warehouse like space chock-full of exquisite carpets of all sizes. The merchandise on display was simply amazing – breathtaking handwoven silk carpets ranging from mousepad size to those that could cover an entire wall – carpets layered with intricate motifs and designs, patterns and colors that changed with the angle that they were viewed from. We threw ourselves into the carpet-inspection process; a smart young American-accented Han salesman came to help us out. At the end of it, several shortlists options, and counter-offers later, we emerged with a small carpet and a medium-sized one for what I thought was a very decent price. They even wrapped them up tightly – the entire package small enough to fit into the extra space in the suitcase I had been carrying around for just this eventuality. Back in the car I asked Abdul what he thought of the price. He said it was good. I said, no, tell me what you really think. Without missing a beat, he said – you are not a bargain-hunter. I chuckled; I thought that was remarkably accurate. He was right – if I did it his way, I’d have had no time left to do anything else in Kashgar.

We went for dinner to a restaurant just opened by a close friend of Abdul’s. It was called Miran, after a nearby oasis town. The food: chuchura (miniature lamb dumplings in soup), lamb skewers, sweet saffron tea, and samsas, was excellent. Our smiling driver commented to Abdul about our proficiency with chopsticks, then rationalized it by saying that we were from Hong Kong. Abdul refilled our small cups with the subtle tea, saying, this is how we hang out in the teahouses of an evening, and our women honor us by pouring our tea. To my surprise, TPB poured the next round. “Thank you for your hospitality,” said Abdul. As we ate, he kept pointing to various aspects of the overblown décor, ornaments such as the central chandelier, the water fountain, the mock stone vases that were actually carved from wood, and the chairs, and telling us how much each of them cost.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 8, Part 1)

Breakfast was at the cafeteria downstairs, the same one with the cigarettes in the drawer. In sharp contrast to our experience at Turpan, here we found a sumptuous Chinese buffet laid out, consisting mostly of Sichuan food plus a variety of dumplings and steamed breads, and some excellent stuffed pancakes. This was easily the best breakfast we’d had in the entire trip. Only, the venue was so small and crowded that the two of us had to go sit by ourselves at a large round table in an adjoining banquet room.

Our hotel was situated on one of Kashgar’s main arteries. From our bedroom window the road was indistinguishable from a major road in any other city in the world except for the distinctive Islamic flavor to the architecture of the long low building across the street. However, as we drove out of the hotel that morning, things began to look very different. Abdul had said the previous evening that “we like to carve on everything”, and that assertion certainly found a lot of evidence all around us. There were engravings on every door and wall, and the main doors of houses were brightly and attractively painted – reminding me of an aphorism I’d learned in a rural marketing class long ago. Even more striking was the difference in the quality of the roads and buildings the moment we took a couple of shortcuts – the houses became single or at most double storeyed structures made of unpainted brown mud and brick blocks, the road a mud track. Women sat outside their houses, “gossiping” as A put it. Donkey carts and tempo trucks labored by, overloaded with melons or firewood. Carcasses of freshly slaughtered sheep hung at every other street corner, ready to cook for lunch. Piles and piles of watermelons and honeydew melons lay everywhere. But soon we were through this mélange of interesting sights, and on to a straight, broad, nearly flawless strip of road heading south – the Karakoram Highway.

This brand new highway, running all the way to Islamabad, was completed just last July. The nature of the terrain it traverses can be guessed at from the knowledge that an astonishing 870 people lost their lives during its construction. But Abdulwali’s pride in it was tempered by something else – a barely hidden contempt for the Chinese contractors who had built it. Apparently the amount of graft involved had been beyond belief, and it was showing the way the top surface was coming off in places, less than a year into use. Besides the mountains in the distance, colored white, red, brown, and black, the single other interesting sight along the first stretch of that drive were the tall radio towers that appeared at regular intervals. Broadcasting China-loving messages? I wondered. But no – their task was more high-tech than that. These were radio interceptors scrambling signals beamed in by the Voice of America and Saudi Arabian radio. The Chinese rulers of this Muslim-majority land were intent on keeping a tight hold on the airwaves. I noted the conjunction of American and Wahhabi with interest – in the contexts of politics, bedfellows, and your enemy’s enemy not always being your friend.

Our first stop was at a little village called Opal (“Opel with an a,” as Abdul put it). A line of fruit sellers had set up stall by the roadside. We tasted a couple of types of melon and TPB decided we’d go with the standard light-orange one rather than the green one that Abdul said was both rarer and in season for just a few weeks. A couple of other buses with tourists appeared a little after us. Not all contained Chinese people, for a change. Some of the goras went for short walks around the village – the local mosque was just off on a lane to the left. Others milled about near the fruit stalls, tasting, buying. A very pretty, young baker lady selling bagels (“girde naan”) stood bored by her stall – people were more interested in the fruit than in her wares. I thought she was incredibly beautiful; my surreptitious attempts to take a picture kept getting spoiled by tourists marching across the frame in their quest for the perfect melon.

We drove on. The scenery kept getting increasingly beautiful the further we ascended up the mountains. An hour or so later we stopped again, at the local tourist office / gift shop, to use the facilities. It was basically a couple of buildings by the road, across from a dry river bed in the foothills in the middle of nowhere. In the shallow of the riverbed a tiny shepherd tended to his flock. A few stray sheep wandered over nearer us – I had one lined up for a beautiful picture looking right at me from a couple of meters away with the gorgeous red mountains in the backdrop, but my camera strangely malfunctioned. I got a few more in, but none were that expressively naïve. I continued trying to get a good angle on the few sheep that were there, but they were wise to it and kept presenting me with variously angled rear views. TPB and Abdul stood by on the middle of the road - the Karakoram Highway - talking, and watching with mild amusement. A single passing motorcycle that they stepped aside for reminded me that this was indeed an international thoroughfare. A few moments later, a shepherd lady appeared from somewhere and made a clicking sound with her mouth – my friends the sheep ran straight to her. Clearly these guys knew which side their bread was buttered.

The next stop was at a heart-stoppingly beautiful lake where the Kunlun mountains were reflected in perfect, pristine, stark, ethereal glory. A group of Kirghiz nomads had set up a couple of tables by the side of the road, with a few handmade trinkets laid out to sell to passers-by. I skipped down the slope and walked to the edge of the lake, taking great care not to slip in the slush. It was hard not to take good photos in that place. When we got back to the car, a couple of the Kirghiz girls followed us. They smiled when TPB waved goodbye, their expressions of startled pleasure suggesting to me that this was not something that they were used to seeing the average visitor do.

As we drove, Abdul kept us a steady conversation with us. His English was excellent due to a few years he’d spent working in Dubai, and, as we discovered later that day, he had few qualms about sharing his strong opinions. But at first we were just getting to know each other, so the conversation was bright and informative. A major part of the discussion during those first few hours was the mutual discovery of common words in Uyghur and Hindi. Among those we discovered were (Uyghur meanings in parentheses) khan (king), huzoor (a term of respect), bai (like bhai, a rich man), aka (another term of respect), khalam, daphtar, khitab, and korma (a thin soup of mutton and vegetables, usually served at weddings). We also asked him about Arman – the name of the brand we’d seen so heavily advertised in Turpan, and he affirmed that it means hope. He also told us the story of the brand – of how the brothers Adil and Radil who had founded the powdered-drinks company just eleven years ago had built it into such a success story that they already were multi-millionaires, rivaled in the grocery business only by the Ihlas brand (ihlas meaning to do things with passion as opposed to just for the heck of it).

We stopped again in a few minutes at a vast dry salty lake bed. TPB wandered off all the way into the distance, and Abdul walked ruminatively round the car to where I was standing. He asked me what it takes to do an MBA. I mentioned the GMAT (pronouncing it G-MAT). It took him a moment and then he got it, spelling out all the letters. He’d heard of it - asked me what it entailed. The moment I said it had a math section he said he’d never clear it then but his genius younger brother might. He said he’s interested in doing an MBA to help him set up his own thing in the tourism / hospitality business. I told him there are specialized MBA programs as well, and they may not require GMAT or math proficiency. He asked if there were any on Hong Kong; I said probably not, but there may be some at the large universities on the east coast. The conversation went to Hong Kong. He asked me if I’d seen any outlets of a particular French brand there. I said no, but he said he had, during his three day trip there a few years ago. With a bashful air he said his decisions weren’t always rational – he’d spent the equivalent of a hundred US dollars on a pair of jeans he’d liked a lot. I was stunned – he didn’t look particularly rich or poor, but that’s a whopping amount of money in Kashgar.

TPB had gone out really far onto the lake so I decided to get a little more chatty. I asked him his opinion about America and Iraq. His response was unequivocal: “Kick their asses out of the place. Did you know they have killed 780,000 Iraqis?” The response wasn't unexpected, but the accuracy of the number intrigued me. Unfortunately, right that moment I couldn't think of a non-leading way to lead him on. I needn't have worried; he would soon open up.

Later he told us about his view of Islam and his passion for the Quran, how beautiful the verses were. Then he told us about his time working in Eastern China, on the job with Buddhists as colleagues – how he made fun of their “little God”. “That little jade thing is your God? That will save you if I hit you right now?” TPB’s eyes went wide, really wide. Then, when talking about Pakistan he mentioned the Aga Khan and his known preference for fifteen year olds, whose marriage prices appreciate sharply after a night spent with the esteemed man. Abdul’s voice dripped with contempt as he spat the words “against Islam”. This was truly a dumbfounding - not to say unnerving - change from the urbane young man who’d been discussing MBAs and French-branded clothing!

We drove through the Karakoram range. Karakoram in Uyghur means mountains that fall in black layers and folds, and indeed, the stone faces we drove past were majestic and black. This was now plumb spang on the Pamir Knot, and, five minutes later, we were there. Karakuli, the black lake, with Muztagata, the Father of Ice Mountains rising grandly to over seven and a half thousand feet behind it, and ringed by the Kunlun range and the mountains of the Pamir Knot. A group of maybe five cars were parked in a depression between the lake and the road (what a change from the teeming crowds at Heaven Lake!), and five or so round yurts were lined up to their left, roughly perpendicular to the lake shore. A few Kirghiz nomads dotted the area, standing, sitting, walking their donkeys, horses and camels, asking if you wanted a ride. There could not have been more than a few dozen mammals there, all told.

The views were beyond magnificent. The lake stretched to the east of us, we were on a long edge of a very large oval shape. To the right loomed the glorious Muztagata, dominating the skyline, reflected beautifully in the water. And all round, some closer, some further, ranged the mountains. It was cool, crisp, and quiet. The occasional Kirghiz thundered by on horseback. Two young nomad children, cheeks impossibly rosy, played with a toddler by the side of the pool. We stood there, just breathing it in.

Abdul came by and suggested we have lunch so the afternoon time goes uninterrupted. We said okay, but in ten minutes. We walked around, trying to take it all in. Scrambling to road level from lake level, a climb of a few mere feet, left me breathless, reminding me that we were now 3,500 meters above sea level – TPB had nearly collapsed with altitude sickness while snowshoeing at a thousand feet lower down, in Colorado just a few months ago. So we entered the food yurt, white on the outside but bright red with colorful patterns on the inside, little square windows covered with netting, looking out onto the lake and the mountains. Lunch consisted of yak, mutton, and vegetables with noodles, followed by the melon we’d bought in Opal. It was too much for the three of us plus the driver, so as we stepped out after eating TPB gave the few remaining slices to some of the local kids. It was hard to tell which side was more delighted at the transaction.

We separated momentarily after lunch, and walking around, I came up on a middle-aged Kirghiz gentleman. He tried to ask me some stuff but the only words we had in common were mama, baba, and Yindestan. He asked me, mama? Baba? I gestured towards Mount Muztagata – Yindestan. He nodded. He was carrying a thin bone flute with three holes. I tried to see if I could play it, but to my dismay not a sound came out. He tried to coach me, but to no avail. I tried really hard. A non-resident Chinese tourist who had wandered up also tried, and quit at once. Abdul came up to me and said we have two more hours to spend here. Just then I heard TPB calling me from the entrance to a yurt slightly further away from the others. She’d found a bracelet that she really liked, being sold by a Kirghiz lady, and had agreed to the first stated price of fifty bucks without bargaining. Now she wanted help in the form of a photographer, and a pen so she could take the lady’s address. I served both functions. Inside the largely empty yurt the sweet looking plump lady wrote her address in Arabic script on a half-torn off sheet from the back of a school notebook (the exercises were in Chinese), and looked quite bewildered possibly at the fact that she’d made a sale without having to engage in any bargaining. We took the photos with her and her husband, thanked them several times, and walked off leaving my pen behind.