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.