At Xinjiang, find mysteries of China`s Silk route

Last Updated: May 05, 2014, 13:52 PM IST

Rahul Warrier

Experience the highlands of Hotan and lowlands at Turpan,or have the rare melons of the region...Xinjiang is a mix of ancient relics and modern cultures, finds Rahul Warrier.

From my airplane window I could see a vast and arid landscape, dotted with snow-capped mountains on the edge of the horizon. But on landing, Urumqi gave me a vibe of a typical Chinese city, booming in all directions with factories in the outskirts and giant commercial buildings downtown. Urumqi, the capital of China’s autonomous region—Xinjiang, is farthest from any ocean or sea in the world. Soon I discovered it’s also a good place to watch ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs (a majority in Xinjiang, often considered its original inhabitants), mix with the Han Chinese (a majority in the rest of China). Erdaoqiao market`s Da Bazaar (the grand market), one of the city’s main attractions, is a glorious attempt at modernising the traditional markets of Xinjiang; its traditional buildings run on a modern modus operandi selling everything from carpets and dry fruits to handmade knives and jade jewellery. In the evening streets around the market go abuzz with activity and transforms into a street-food haven with kebabs, roasted chicken, samsa (almost like samosa), some noodle based snack similar to Indian chaat and more.

A 2.5-hour drive from Urumqi takes us to the alpine paradise of Tianchi (Heaven Lake), nestled at 2000 mtrs in the Tian Shan mountain range. Our home-stay is in Yurts, traditional tent-houses of Kazakh and Mongol nomads made of plastic and cloth, at a small Kazakh village near the lake. Not only the wooden floor, but also the walls and roofs of the tent are decorated with beautiful carpets. The coal fireplace in the centre protects us from the near-zero-degree temperature outside and we`re offered brightly-coloured, heavy blankets too. Unlike the Uyghurs of Urumqi, Kazakhs are more fluent in Russian than Mandarin or Uyghur. They host with great hospitality and offer amazing home-cooked food–home-made bread, soupy noodles for breakfast, noodles with lamb and local veggies like bamboo shoot and carrots, for lunch and Polo (rice mixed with spices and lamb) for dinner. The Kazakh tea is a strong green tea with a pinch of salt. A day’s stay here will give you a glimpse of the wonderful Kazakh mountain life, but for a taste of urban Kazakh lifestyle and a view of one of Xinjiang’s largest alpine lakes (Sayram Lake) head to Yili/Yining by the Yili river. The small city borders Kazakhstan in northwest China.

From the high of mountainous Tianchi, it’s time to experience the lows of Turpan—a small Uyghur city, near the Turpan depression, one of the lowest points on earth’s surface–famed for its sweet grapes and local Hami melons. We crane our necks to see Emin Minaret and reflect on the ruins of the ancient Buddhist city of Jiaohe. Flaming Mountains, named so because of the colours they take on during summer afternoons are a lovely sight too, but the allure of Turpan lies in the Mazar village of Tuyuk Valley housing brick and mud homes with huge courtyards, little tiled alleyways, negligent number of vehicles, an old mosque in the village centre and mazar after which the village gets its name. The village packs a history of 2600 years and gives a glimpse of traditional Uyghur way of life with most people involved in agriculture. Here life is slow and locals are warm; seeing us an old man offered us some Hami melons he was cutting, invited us to his home and showed us around. He has a simple one-room arrangement and his floors and walls are covered with red colour carpets. Lunch is at a street-side restaurant serving Laghman (pulled noodle) with veggies and meat; a visit to an ancient underground canal system and the local market are a perfect way to end the day. When the curious locals learnt of Indian nationality, they immediately thought Bollywood and Shahrukh Khan. During my bus journeys I realised the popularity of his movies, which among other Bollywood flicks are dubbed into the local language.

On the way to our next destination, Hotan–in central Xinjiang, we first halt at Korla, home to China`s largest fresh water lake–Bosten. Every evening the locals gather at public square and dance to the tunes of Uyghur music. Maintaining minimal physical contact even though they’re dancing in twos, they perform a graceful set of circular moves with profound hand gestures. It’s not as simple as it looks. Turkish or arabic looking girls wore western dresses and some also deck-up with matching caps having a white feather in front. After Korla, we halt at Kuqa, an important junction in the modern Silk Road that’s rapidly losing its charm to developement, and cross one of China’s biggest deserts–the Taklamakan desert, before reaching Hotan.

A major center for jade trade and an important city on the ancient southern Silk road, Hotan is like the Uyghur heartland. The city famed for its woven carpets is a bit slow in comparison to Xinjiang’s other major urban centres, but its Sunday market has a more authentic feel than Urumqi’s. The market covers a large area and the sheer number of traders spread over big shops and street stalls give you a lot of choice. You’ll see more Uyghur than Han Chinese faces, but that’s rapidly changing. And although the night food market is like Urumqi’s, it offers several dishes unique to Hotan–a sweet consisting yoghurt and honey, a snack of cooked rice wrapped in a leaf, and lamb barbeques. My journey to Hotan’s Mazar (tomb) of Imam Asim, on the edge of the desert outside the city, turns out as interesting as the tomb itself. One fellow left his lunch midway to drop me to the right bus stop and explained my destination to the driver, and another local almost rode me to the gates of the Mazar. Despite witnessing hordes of followers on Thursdays, the mazar is amazingly quiet with only soft sounds of chanting. Xinjiang sees a lot of foreign tourists, but few settle down here. So I was delighted to meet a Malaysian couple, who are running a cosy café here since eight years; their authentic Malaysian offerings are loved by locals and travellers alike. Tourists leave notes of their experiences in a journal that some travellers left behind.

The ride to Tashkurgan, which at 3000 mtrs is the last town in this part of China, via the Karakoram Highway is a bumpy one but the view of the Pamir mountains of the bordering Pakistan is wonderful. What differentiates Tashkurgan from the rest of Xinjiang is not only the military checkpoints, but also the Tajiks (a majority here) who have distinct features and a distinct lifestyle. Both men and women wear doppas (hats), young women adorn head scarves and embellished doppas, while older ones wear pristine, white head scarves with black hats. We travelled to (village name), the only village where foreigners are allowed, and were surprised to be invited to an ongoing family function (possibly a wedding). We were offered green tea and snacks, and interactions with guests resulted in one more invitation–this time for tea. After enjoying some hot tea and naan, we headed to Kashgar in time for the Sunday animal market.

It's probably the most unique experience of my trip. All kinds of animals: cows, calves, sheep, donkeys, horses, gigantic double-humped camels and bulls that stand as tall as a full-grown man, are traded here. The activity starts early, crowds grow as the day progresses and the bargaining is so heated that you may mistake it for fighting. Kashgar is a true melting pot of cultures, besides the local Uyghurs and Han Chinese, we meet traders from the neighbouring Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Russia in the market. Interestingly, Kashgar also sees tourists from all corners of the world—a fellow in my hostel bicycled here all the way from UK and I also encountered travellers from Germany, Czech Republic, France…For shopping, the local market offers you silk scarves, leather shoes, dry fruits, Turkish chocolates and much more. A stroll around the old town is a must. It takes you back a few decades with its small mosques, family restaurants, hat shops and workshops where traditional music instruments are meticulously made by hand. While several traditional buildings are being bulldozed to make way for ‘development’, you should take a trip here soon to see the remaining ones. Ending my day in peace, I make a final stop to the iconic Id Kah mosque near my hostel.