What would it be like to set foot on that timeless soil where Past and Present played hide and seek from the other? Mujeeb Jaihoon writes on the unseen and unheard experiences across NorthWest China— Urumqi, Kashgar, Tashkurgan an karakul Lake. March 2015.
Anticipation is to Travel what kisses are for Love. One incites and stimulates the other. Travel without Anticipation would be like the dark sky full of black holes. Deeper and longer the anticipation, brighter and colorful would be the resultant journey. And memorable would be those dreams which take years to fulfill. And even more will be those wishes which apparently stand less chance of coming true.
It was over a decade back I had watched a documentary on the NorthWestern part of the eastern Nation which was described as the starting point of the Silk route trading caravans. The colorful markets with angelic-faced men and women in caps. The bi-humped camels and furry sheep and yaks. Ancient antiques and carpets. A multi-bordered province with icy mountains and rhythmic rivers. Races and faces from different branches of Adamic progeny appeared on the screen. Dry fruits and giant-size breads filled their markets.
What would it be like to set foot on that timeless soil where Past and Present played hide and seek from each other? My head lectured on the impossibilities even as my heart whispered about the possibilities. And I knew Truth would finally triumph even if Falsehood would stage its deceptive dance to snare my dream. Heart got its due, but only after patiently knocking for more than ten years at Destiny’s doors.
When I came to know about the direct flights to this land from my resident hometown, I immediately recalled the eye-candy documentary which had left my senses craving. I immediately kicked off the travel preparations including documentation and building contacts in the host country. It was no breeze business but I was determined to fight all the obstacles.
And in an unusual departure from my previous travels, I decided to take my son along this historic timeline. For, my ambition soared higher than the 3600m altitude of the mountainous province I was about to step on.
We boarded the morning flight with full of vigor and fervor. The flight was filled with faces similar to those in the documentary. Men with devout beards and head-veiled women with heavily gold-ornamented hands.
The five-hour something journey was indeed long. But how could Time withstand the onslaught of Heart’s anticipation? Body and mind follow one time zone. And heart goes by another. Time is a deceptive drink. It tastes differently in different modes of existence. Time above the soil may not be the same below it.
In the middle of my time-fixing thoughts, I was interrupted by the conversation between my son and the flight attendant of Indian origin. Surprised by the only Indian passengers on the flight, he said we were the first Indian passengers he’d met since the airline began its flight to Urumqi.
At 6pm, I was all set to stand before the Immigration officer at the airport. They looked tough, if not rough, in their olive-green uniforms with the honorary stars and marks blessed by their Red regime. Men and women inspected the newly arrived passengers and probably wondered what were the Indian father and son doing among the Uyghur natives?
The hotel driver received us with a modest name board and drove us smoothly to the residence. En route, I noticed the tri-lingual signboards. Besides English and Chinese, it had the Arabic scripted Uyghur as well.
Yes. I was now officially in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous province. The lengthy description of the locality speaks for itself about the sophisticated socio-political complexity of this Chinese-yet-not-so-Chinese land. Though the name is said to be meant ‘beautiful pasture’ in Mongolian, Urumqi’s beauty is today far from being just another steppe land. Towers and bridges, cars and carts, malls and hotels have filled every available inch of this commercial city which was developed since days of Qing Dynasty.
As the largest city in China’s NorthWestern frontier, Urumqi is home to several ethnic groups including Turkic Uyghurs, the Chinese Han, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Mongols, Uzbek and even Russians, besides other Adamic races. Ürümqi is also notoriously known as the farthest city from any sea in the world.
Formerly an unknown province, Urumqi joined the ranks of Genghis Khan band in 1220 and has since been subject of love and hate of several tribal and puppet rulers. It is said Sufis were popular among the traditional Muslims here, just as in almost any other lands ruled by Turkic emperors, as was in the case of Muslim India under the Mughals.
Urumqi,the capital of Xinjiang, is said to be the largest political subdivision of China and forms a sixth of China’s total area. One can then imagine how well China would be fixing its all-seeing eye on this territory, just as every land and resource hungry country would be securing its soil.
Xinjiang is blessed with several mountain ranges including the Pamir and Karakoram, and borders several adventure and peace loving peoples, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Karakoram Highway, fondly called the KKH, links China’s Kashgar with Pakistan’s capital city over the Khunjerab Pass.
Rivers here are endorheic in nature. They die prematurely, discontinuing half way without reaching the seas.
Nevertheless, I successfully reached the hotel safely for my stopover stay for the next days flight. The driver could not utter a word to my understanding or vice versa in the twenty-something minutes drive from the airport. The hotel staff were more than friendly and the interiors of the ballroom made me feel if I had stepped into an Islamic land. Fountains and domes, pillars and cushions- everything there was of Turkic-Persian influence. White marble adorned with Golden metallic fixtures, it looked like a tomb of a wannabe Chinese Mumtaz Mahal, the lady love of Mughal emperor Shajahan, for whom the magnificent structure was erected, leaving every lover tantalized in want of such a memorial.
In the spacious room allocated for the father & son, the hotel management made sure all requirements were well-placed, including a prayer rug with rosary and a cap. Besides some tourism-arousing brochures, the regime also did not forget to push their economic theology with a leaflet of the region’s Hualing international economic zone with its slogan of ‘Backyard of God, heaven of peace’. Subhanallah! What was ‘God’and ‘heaven’ doing in the godless State’s developmental sermon? No sooner I could manage to solve this semi-philosophical problem, my son called me to watch the TV news of the riot-religious Indian Premier’s plans to meet his Chinese counterpart in the nearest future. A good sign I thought, if such a meet if the god-fearing Indian PM could MODIfy his Chinese disbelief in the Almighty.
A walk around the hotel’s halls and floors made me realize that I was chosen to stay in the dry Muslim floor which even had a ‘salaam’ plate near the lift. The other side of the building had all the duniya-compliant facilities such as bars and night clubs which were categorized based on ethnicity like Chinese and Thai.
Tourists are the unofficial ambassadors of their native cultures. So it was advisable to be good, being good.
Without further ado, eyes slipped into sleep. And the soul began its usual wandering to anonymous worlds.
We were up quite early, even before sun had opened its starry eyes. I had only one aim in mind. To be on flight. On time. And what did I ever know about what I was about to know from then on, let alone what I had known till then.
China is one heck of an adamant regime. It’s ruthless obstinance has demolished all the idols considered indispensable icons of modern everyday tech-living. Besides topping world’s top three industrialized nations and a military superpower with which other mega players don’t dare to mess with their conventional sanctions and pre-emptive strikes, China is also a technically advanced society for which world’s leading i-companies vie to attract eyeballs and heartbeats. Yet, China showed the way out for three major brands from grazing its internet pastureland. Yes, China’s online galaxy is bereft of three major stars who are otherwise considered the backbone of any civilized nation in rest of the world. Chinese are used to, could be read forced to depending on which side of the argument you stand, offering their online ‘prayers’ without the mantras from Facebook, Twitter and Google. Net users worldwide quench their thirst from these streams originating from the American Silicon Valley. China has successfully withstood the American hegemony, despite being modern and advanced. To cut short, my Chinese days passed by without a single b(i)yte from these brand pies.
However I did not forget to have a bite from the nuru sebi snack from the Urumqi airport along with offering the dawn prayer from the halal-branded restaurant. When all was done and ready for the immigration check, the official refused to stamp the passport as he asked to read the bi-lingual label sticker stuck to his counter which read ‘You have a problem with your luggage’. I returned to the luggage counter and upon opening the bag discovered that the issue was related to the mobile power bank in the luggage.
Finally all was done and in safe condition as I sat in the Southern Airlines flight. However, the ‘safe mode’ didn’t last long as the flight went to roller coaster mode as the air turbulence became more pronounced.
Life in general is like a flight journey. Our childhood is generally safe and sound stage. The jolt starts as we progress on the timeline of age hitting new roadblocks of ideas and experiences.
The flight was destined to land safely and with a sigh of relief I briskly walked across the miniature airport. The clock read 11.11. But it wasn’t so in the Uyghur hearts. Their hearts’ notions and hands’ actions were two hours earlier. While Mao & Inc. world followed the UTC+8 path, the Uyghur land trod on the UTC+6 hours route.
Welcome to Kashgar, read the name board held by the tour guide waiting for me at the airport exit. The luggage clearance hardly consumed a few handful minutes.
Contrary to my earlier non-seen understanding, Kashgar is a modestly developed city with excellent roads and amenities. One would see more of electric scooters than oiled cars. Men and women, some carrying infants, rode the two-wheeled vehicle on a separate track dedicated specially for them.
There are also electric rickshaws for carrying goods of merchandisers and farmers. Most of the old men wear the jackets and the traditional caps while old women are mostly dressed in full length coats and scarves. Believers are generally a practicing lot as I once saw a young entrepreneur offering his prayers as I entered his unguarded store.
‘The Han Chinese don’t like to come to Kashgar, despite the multi-incentives move by the government, as they get into problems with the Uyghur when they unknowingly flout the local Muslim norms. The Communist government has spent millions in investment to attract investors from neighboring countries but results have not been much fruitful.’
Uyghurs here follow the conventional Sunni traditions with the Hanafi jurisprudence. A minority of them adhere to the Ismaili sect, especially in the mountainous region. ‘Aga Khan (the leader of the global Ismaili network) has made attempts to impress the people and government with his investments in charitable ventures. But such initiatives have met with cold response from the local Sunni believers.’
‘Hotan or Khotan in south west Xinjiang is an extremely hot area in the desert region with several historic places. The Uyghurs there are more pious Muslims than those in Kashgar.’
Though mixed with possible prejudices, I could learn a lot from the ‘Local Talkies’ of the Kashgar natives. Such talks with the locals would still be far more honest and unbiased than politically or academically brainwashed wise heads. Commoners have no vested interests to impress or depress an outsider with the little experiences they innocently but enthusiastically share with visitors.
And experiences are aimed at the heart and hearts are fueled by spirituality. So in order to gather some spiritual firewood before heading to the frozen territories, I set out for the northeastern outskirts of the town. The spot is regarded as a key pilgrimage centre in Kashgar and I did not wish to break this tradition.
He was a sultan-saint widely popular in Kashgar and neighboring cities historically referred as Altishahr (Turkish word for Six Cities). A strong proponent of the Naqshabandiyya Sufi order, whose spiritual head rests in Bukhara of Uzbekistan whom I had visited in October last year, the 17th century saint’s fame had spread across the Uyghur lands winning hearts of commoners and provoking the minds of rulers. His father, Muhammad Yusuf, who was also initiated in the Naqshabandiyya order, had migrated from Samarkand to Altishahr. The faction of Naqshabandiyyahs order led by his fathers’ group came to be known as the White Mountain Khojas which was rivaled by the Black Mountain Khojas who had established themselves in Altishahr a century earlier. The society and rulers of the region were split between their loyalties to either of the groups. Afaq Khoja is said to have become the ruler of Altishahr in 1679 with the his controversial collaboration with the then Dalai Lama in Tibet. He breathed his last in 1694 which resulted in a non-stop clashes for domination. Some attribute the current suppression of Uyghurs by Chinese to the noble saint.
I however felt curiously liberated as I approached the gates of the tomb of this royal saint. This was perhaps one of its kind in the whole of this ‘godless paradise’.
A forest of leafless trees stood on either side of the pathway to the entrance. The entire area looked ancient and dry with no sign of life. Yet it had a charm of its own. Like in the vicinity of all Muslim tombs elsewhere in the world, a shop was seen selling antiques and semi-religious literatures. The gatehouse was fashioned in amazing Persian design with a harmonious interplay of calligraphy and geometry in white and blue proportions. It reminded of the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum in Samarkand.
The signboard read ‘Abakh Khojam Tomb’ and Iparhan tomb in brackets. Upon entering, the tomb building was decorated with dark green and yellow stones, a combination rarely seen elsewhere. From the outside, the interior looked like a dark room. Not much is visible to the passerby. The magnificent dome in green is surrounded by four minarets.
Once in, the room is painted in simple white. The tombs are arranged in random order. Khoja’s and family members are covered in embroidered green sheets typical of other shrines in Muslim world.
The tomb room is also said to be the home of Iparhan, the fragrant concubine, who was the granddaughter of Abakh Khoja. To the Han Chinese, she was the beloved of the then emperor who missed her Uyghur home. To the Uyghurs, she was a rebel who resisted the Chinese hegemony and was ultimately martyred.
Without taking either side of the conflict, I extended my peaceful greetings to the Khoja and his family members. There are countless hearts who still miss them, whatsoever been their actions in the past. Their thoughts must have been noble even if their expressions were feeble in appearance.
I noticed a mass graveyard outside the mausoleum campus in the shape of large concrete-croissants. A salaam-shoutout to those solitary inhabitants as well. They had already made it to that infinite point of no return. And I was marching at the destined speed covering the destined distance in the equally destined time. This is the only equation in which all variables remain unknown and unfound. All three would unveil their values only after the Death curtain rises. Till then the Adamic journey continues, swimming through the seas of distraction and confusion. Some see the lighthouse of Truth clearly. Others see it faintly. And many see nothing at all.
‘Shall we move? We still have lots to see’, reminded the driver. I nodded even as I left the Khoja’s garden with half-baked thoughts. I sat in the car while my son kindled further his curiosity to encash on Kashgar’s historic wonders.
Tomb of Abakh Khoja, Kashgar’s sultan-saint of the Naqshabandiyya Sufi order
We moved back to the city across the highway. Manual bicycles and electric rickshaws flooded the roads. Working mothers carried their infants in one hand and the bike’s handle in the other. Mothers will hold onto their children even if they lose grip on their own lives. They will wail to Lord for protecting her babes albeit she may be in her deathbed. She may forget to eat the entire day but not allow her son or daughter to go hungry even for once a day. She would be ready to turn to ashes in order to protect her little ones from approaching from the candle flame. Kashgar’s mothers were no different from their counterparts in rest of the world.
Shopkeepers looked outside eagerly for customers. And bike riders waiting at the red signals glanced at their touchscreens. Schoolchildren walked across the streets during their lunch break. And there appeared the statue of the ‘godly Chairman’ of the ‘godless China’. Born to a peasant, it was during his career in the university library that he came across the Marxist gospel for the first time. For years, Chairman Mao and comrades struggled to establish their belly-based creed across the country. They finally succeeded on Oct 1st of 1949 when China finally succumbed to Communism. His ‘Cultural Revolution’ aimed at eliminating all non-Communist influences in China cost the lives of millions besides destruction of several cultural landmarks. Mao was gone but his iron-fisted regime continued till date. It is not just the compassion of noble souls that thrives. The legacy of heartless tyrants too leave their scars on history.
The car stopped by an old street. As I opened the door to descend, a melodious cry was heard in the air. From where had these God-intoxicating words come in this godless wine shop of Mao? Had Chairman’s regime fell in Beijing? For the first time and perhaps the last during my stay in Uyghuristan had I heard the eternal anthem of the Muslim universe. Mao may be great. Marx may be greater. But the Most Merciful was the greatest. ‘Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar’. The Idkah Masjid, a grand prayer campus, was perhaps the only registered and authorized venue in this part of the world to invite the believer to prayer. And it was more than a pleasure when I realized I was heading there to offer the mid day prayer.
Trees with almost zero leaves cover the huge pathway leading to the main prayer building. An old man passed tissues to the believers similar to the sight I saw across the land of Amir Timur, Uzbekistan. The carpeted prayer area had huge wooden pillars colored in green. Young and old performed their devotional soul-dance.
After the congregational prayer, there was a call for dhikr followed by dua, a practice common in all traditional Muslim pockets, be it comrade EMS’ Kerala or Chairman Mao’s Kashgar.
A Uyghur native shared the incident told by the Idkah masjid Imam during a Friday sermon about how a ‘masjid was open for prayers in China when a Pakistani nuclear scientist who was the state guest at that time insisted for a place of worship to offer his prayers. People of knowledge are respected everywhere.’
The Idkah sights and sounds quenched the heart for the moment. And it was now time to treat my tastebuds with the Uyghur recipe. Without wasting a minute, we hurried to a local restaurant where I happened to have the best pulao ever during my travels. Run by a father and two sons, the outlet had few choices and tables. The hand wash basin is placed outside. Green tea is kept in the kettle-like mug. The cup is rinsed with the drink itself and the waste is poured into a bucket kept below the table. Delicious lamp soup is served as starter and the main course arrives in no time. Dry nuts and raisins along with other countless spices add to the finger-licking taste of the tender meat pieces. Nothing short of a complete mouth-watering experience, the pulao filled the stomach and heart. The young host spoke English fluently and shared interesting insights on local culture and traditions.
I left for the hotel as my curious eyes could no longer carry the weight of the mighty sleep.
The Sun had began its downward journey as I and Junior began the walk across the Old street where our hotel was located. The roads and pavements, homes and the doors, shops and the goods – there was nothing that was ‘new’ in this ancient locality. People here, however, seemed to be unusually calm and composed. They lived fully at the present with no backlog of the past worries and carry-bag of future concerns. Face-veiled women and head-covered men walked with their heads and hearts synced with the earth below. No air of pride nor any desire to be money-laid, they appeared content in meeting their ends.
The pathways were narrow. Men and cars, and sometimes animals too shared the available space with minimum friction. Chinese-modeled ornamental lights hung in the middle of the road which added to the festive look of the streets. Fruits and vegetables were sold in open air and so were fish and meat.
A young boy who helped his iron smith father watched us from a distance as I focused him on my phone’s screen. Uyghur women hurriedly walked home with the grocery shopping bags while others accompanied their children home. A few young men were seen helping their friend to fix his broken bike. Old men moved slowly with their walking sticks.
Silenced domes and minarets appeared at various corners yearning for the face and voice of the man of God. That eternal love affair between a God-conscious heart and the shrine of God… one craving for the other’s companionship to finally cherish their Creator’s limitless glory. Kashgar’s Old Street had thousand and 1 romantic tales to whisper in my ears. I gave my ear to some and let go many…
The Sun was done with its torching career for the day. Darkness set in the street and my driver, as promised, arrived to drive us to another fascinating venue of Kashgar’s nightly attractions.
Old City, Kashgar
As repeatedly testified by visitors to Kashgar, the night bazaar here is unmissable in sight and taste. Almost the entire Uyghur eatables are available here, from veg to meat to sweets to juices. Besides, garments and accessories also add glamour to this everyday Uyghur shopping extravaganza. Noodles were prepared in large containers and smell of kebabs incensed the whole market. But as advised by a local friend to refrain from eating stomach full from these open outlets with very poor hygiene standards, I reduced my appetite with fresh pomegranate juice which reminded of the scene I witnessed at Palestine soil.
I returned back to hotel embracing the smell of kebabs and noodles. Rising up early the next day was important. For, a bigger and longer journey awaited us. To a destination I had dreamt to reach a long time ago. Very long ago.
Night Bazaar, Kashgar
That day finally lifted the veil from the grip of Time. Destiny smiled at my hopes. The car moved slowly out of the Old Street.
I expected the most unexpected at my destination. And I wasn’t wrong in such anticipation. It is a luxury these days to expect nothing and be rewarded in full. In most cases is the vice versa.
The driver didn’t speak fluent English. But that only added flavor to the originality of my Uyghur life. He was nevertheless well-versed in Uyghur and Chinese.
Persian words have been inter-spread in almost every Central Asian language including Uyghur. All of them share a minimum set of common words. I realized this as I spoke to one of the natives here about the river Jaihoon.
Convinced about the Persian connection, I therefore chose to play the Urdu, another Persian derivative, Qawwali while on the seven hour journey. And all the three present in the car enjoyed the enchanting Sufi music.
The highway speed is only 40 to 50 km per hour. Frequent speed RADARS monitor the speed-anxious drivers. We kept our eagerness in chains in obedience to the State’s traffic rules.
I was told prior to the journey that there would be almost zero shops on the route in between the mountains. So it would be wise, read sensible, to get hold of as much provisions at the initial stop. Hence, we decided to heed to this advice.
Arrive Upal Village. A small town believed to be named from the Sanskrit word for ‘a noble stone’. The tomb of Mahmud Kashgari, the Uyghur scribe who compiled a dictionary of the local language.
The pathways were packed with the electric bikes parked very closely next to each other. Butchers and bakers carried on their usual business. Fruit-sellers bargained their customers. Soft and sweet drinks were kept at hands reach. The bazaar here chiefly focused on the travelers heading to the mountains. Little children assisted their patron-parents to manage the trade. Impatient shoppers sat on their bikes while negotiating prices with the vendors. A few old women sold their merchandise which was kept in large sacks. Those who were done with shopping waited for the public transport. We picked up some bananas, apples and pears besides a handful of water bottles which proved lucky as we discovered later in the journey.
Without wasting much time, we continued our journey. Cultivation is a chief passion here, be it out of choice or force. Endless green columns appear on either sides of the road. Horse carts pass by carrying at least three generations of men, women and children. The oldest is in charge of the reins.
After a while the cultivation ends and then on its mountains and mountains and nothing but mountains. Paved highways too end after few hours and then it’s a bumpy ride on stony roads crawling in between cliffs and valleys. Mountains range from brown to black and reddish color contrasted with white clouds and blue sky.
Endless stony wasteland in sight and beyond. Waste only by my infantile knowledge. Nothing in this world is waste, is it? Every object in this world, living or non, breathes with meaning and purpose.
The Gaz Dariya River flows seamlessly parallel to our route. At some places it reduces to a tiny stream. At others it becomes a full-fledged lake like body. Life too refuses to give up, completely. It subsides and catapults at different times. It is never stagnant in one state.
As the Qawwali tracks began to conclude, my son began to hum the lyrics of ‘Ya Muhammad Noor-e-Mujassam…’, the naat song incredibly popular across the subcontinent.
He continued to rehearse the lyrics until we reached the heavily surveilled Gezcun border crossing. The native driver sat in the car as the Indian father and son walked into the passport checking cabin. The military officer looked twice upon seeing our navy blue passports. The air was convulsing in bitter cold. So one can imagine the state of human bodies in such merciless ambiance.
We walked past the barricade where the driver awaited us. The journey continued.
From then on, the mountains replaced the landscape completely and so did the cold. As warned, not a shop was found anywhere in the next few hours. Flock of sheep crossed the road without their shepherd around. Humanity’s situation today is somewhat not much different. Individuals and families, societies and nations are endlessly grazing minus an able leader to show them the right direction to the right pastures.
Rivers began to freeze and it was becoming hard to differentiate between the two states of matter. The frozen river and the road’s concrete appeared almost lookalike. Appearance may be deceptive and treacherous. One wouldn’t know fully until he or she goes nearby. Every other form is today photoshopped to fit today’s unfit times.
At random intervals I came across heavy construction related vehicles and laborers. All sorts of infrastructure development were in progress. Some bridges were paused halfway in the air. Megatons of concrete and steel were employed to facilitate travel across this mountainous territory. Mountains were lavishly cut to the liking of the engineers. But Mother Earth may not infinitely put up with the doings of her Adamic children. She is incredibly patient, but one cannot rule out her rare reactions at the reshaping of her landscape.
The chocolate mountains began to turn vanilla in look, if not taste. I realized were slowly approaching the sky limit where clouds and hills shared the same altitude. Cold was at its peak and so was the excitement.
After a while we reached a tourists’ rest area where none but air was there. It was newly built and well designed. I climbed up the terrace via the stairs. It was a vast ground with sitting benches around. The air stung with cold. I thought the blood in me would freeze. But it was a challenge and yet intoxicating moment to spread the rug on the ground to pronounce ALLAH is indeed the greatest. Heart shivered in the freezing wind. But the warmth from the fire of HIS remembrance comforted the body and mind.
‘O Creator and fashioner of earth and skies. Glory and Perfection are Yours. The cool of our joy and warmth of tears are Yours. Heat and Cold praise Your Infinite Power. Anything and everything You designed are nothing but perfect. Forget us not and forgive our imperfection.’
We continued the journey with renewed rejuvenation. A small township was soon approaching. Schoolchildren walked in blue and white track suit carrying their ‘knowledge-load’. It seemed their school was nowhere nearby. They had been walking for not less than an hour as was our car was moving at a modest speed and still they were walking and walking. I could not resist from capturing their angelic frozen faces.
It had been pretty long since we bothered at our stomachs. Therefore it was imminent that we stopped for a bite. The car parked by a street which had lots of kebab and pasta. Freshly barbecued mutton along with soup helped to fight the cold. Tajiks and Kyrgys men and women came to dine at the tiny venue. They did not speak much, perhaps due to the freezing temperature. Chinese military officials along with few tourists from neighboring localities add to the diverse population here.
Upal Village, Tashkurgan
On driving further, many moderately raised tombs were seen around this ‘stone city’. This is the area known as Tashkurgan, the border town to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Karakoram Highway (KKH) extends from here connecting China’s Kashgar to Pakistan’s capital city. As part of Communist China’s ‘leapfrog development’ program, Tashkurgan has attracted several investment plans. But it is yet to been how far would be the consequences on this border town with very less political and cultural accessibility to China’s mainland.
The hotel we stayed here belonged to a Han landlord. It was extremely quiet here with hardly a human soul around. Despite the cold, I decided to have a walk outside. It was only 8pm and shops were closed already. A few students still walked to their homes. The street was ghostly and dogs could be heard howling from close by. The icy mountains appeared dark at a distance.
I am told that only one masjid was allowed here for Friday congregational session. The call to prayer is not permitted for fear of endangering the Communist creed.
Tashkurgan, NorthWestern China
We left early morning to the peak destination and experience of Uyghur land. The chilling cold continued to bite. And the school children could be still seen walking to their bookish institution. The roads were quite with very little traffic.
And the journey went on. Earth still has a vast area, unexplored and uninhabited. The childish greed conflict for land is really unwanted and uncalled for. Why do its inhabitants quarrel over territories? It is their minds which are narrow, not the land and hence the conflict.
And the journey went on. Mountains are eagerly embracing and welcoming the sun’s early days. There seems no friction between the two creations. Sun enjoys its glory during the day and mountains during the night. Sun beautifies the earth while mountains protect it from its own imbalance.
And the journey went on. iPhone isn’t china friendly. Or vice versa. Data doesn’t seem to flow well on 3G here. Anyway who would want the virtual when Nature is showing off its charisma in full form?
And the journey went on. Our ears were tuned to the royal recitation of Al-Afasi. Sun was getting in form and warm too.
And then the journey ended. At 9am, we stopped the car near a stony yurt, a dwelling used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. The Sun was extraordinarily bright for our sleepy eyes but so was the cold. It was sand all around and a colony of yurt houses. Yes, we were going to spend a whole day in this remote corner of the world.
We were now officially at an altitude of 3600m and the Karakul Lake, known as the highest lake of the Pamir plateau and surrounded by snow-covered mountains throughout the year, appeared at visible distance.
A Kyrgyz man, dressed in entirely furry fashion, came to help us with our baggage. We were directed to the stony house which appeared to be his living space as well. After opening the lock-free wooden door and a corridor of not more two steps, we entered a living room full of immense traditional architecture and artifacts providing both arts and facts to take home.
The house had two women both of them who seemed to be in their late forties. We received a warm welcome, literally.
We were seated beside a ‘live and cooking’ natural stove. Warm Yak milk was served along with defrost pieces of Naan. The entire house consisted not much more than this single room. Living, cooking and entertainment all happened here.
The boiled water from the kettle placed atop this stove was dearly used for all purposes, including cooking, bathing and other uses including ablution, as I discovered in the course of my stay. The waste water after rinsing the utensils was sprinkled on the stony ground which would dry off in minutes.
The room was decorated in bright fabrics with piercing hues of red and orange. Pillows and cushions were understandably thick and heavy to protect from the merciless cold. Sunlight enters vaguely through the dusty windows.
The Kyrgyz ‘yurt-hold’ had few chores to perform except look at each other, for no other reason except the icy winds outside. The only other serious source of distractive attraction was the laptop-TV device. Alas! What were they watching in this remote village surrounded by icy mountains? What were Indian saris and sherwanis clad actors doing on the mini screen in this Kyrgyz stone house?
Upon a close observation I realized the Uyghur satellite channel was screening Indian soaps dubbed in the local language. And in the discussion that followed, it was clear that the Bollywood Khans reigned as heartthrobs in Uyghur hearts and minds.
The purpose of our 7 hour tiresome journey was not to just stretch legs at this yurt. My son was restless to experience the ‘white wonders’ of the Black Lake.
Despite the icy winds outside, we stepped outdoor. A vast expanse of steppe appeared before us. Icy mountains covered all six sides of the view. The atmosphere was dry with not a drop of moisture. And sun was bright and handsome. The winds became stronger as we began to walk towards the water body. The distance seemed longer than we thought as if the Lake moved farther as walked closer. Cold pierced deeper into our bodies and for a moment we thought we’d give up our passion for the Lake.
After a long battle between internal ambition and external condition, we reached a little but active stream. The Sun superimposed itself on its surface. The stream was brownish with sand underneath and there were some waste items which required a cleanup.
Tiny fishes swam diplomatically against the mild water currents. For, there are different ways to fight the unfavorable conditions. Not all enemies need to be confronted directly. Well-planned strategies help to avert causalities and save lives.
The stream water finally led to the grand Lake. But before reaching the lake, certain parts of the stream betrayed its original shape and color. Water lost its liquid softness turning to angelic white ice.
Crystal like ice formation makes this area look like a massive showroom of expensive diamond collection. The huge sheets of ice on the surface, impenetrable as it may seem, would tempt any onlooker to run wildly despite the shivering wind chill. The tundra biome in this thick blanket of ice is haunting but then Death too is a form of life.
As I walked further, I noticed another marvelous phenomenon in between the chunks of ice. Icicles, the cute-looking ice spikes of the portion of water, which froze as they struggled to join their liquid cousins in the lake.
And then not far away is the amazing sight of water silently seeping under the glass-like ice tiling. The walk finally led to the ‘Black Lake’ whose color spectrum ranges from dark green to azure and even light blue.
After enjoying the ice walk and Lake view, while pretending to ignore the violent winds, we decided to call it a day.
On our way back, we met a student scientist, wearing a ‘weather professional’ sweater, studying the environmental impact of the sun on the icy landscape. Beauty is different for different minds. Some appreciate its experience while others anticipate it in figures. Some absorb while others observe. Nevertheless, the human mind is eternally wedded to Beauty.
After reaching the yurt, lunch was served in a bowl along with green tea. A mix of vegetables, rice and boiled meat pieces was essential to fight the chilling enemy.
The hosts advised to offer the midday prayer at the yurt as foreigners are forbidden from attending the Friday congregational prayer. Mao’s earthly men keep a close watch over the spread of Heaven’s influence here.
We kept the conversations as much as we could while the content and commercials continued to sound and shine on the mini screen. All nations today share the same creed, including the godless China. Commercialism has won the hearts irrespective of gender or race.
The man in the house was absorbed in an anthology of a local poet. His two children were studying at Kashgar city. The girls here get married at the age of 20, said he with a smile.
Morning. Sleep was seldom. The heavy blankets weighed on the body though it helped to beat the freeze. A lamb from somewhere nearby had cried all night. It was only in the morning that I realized it was sleeping in the same room as ours. In a cardboard box that is.
After a breakfast of warm yak milk and Naan pieces, we sped to Kashgar. Light battled to pass through as the magnificent mountains covered the sun’s rays. Would it be this gigantic mega matter that shall flow around like cotton on the Final hours? Indeed the children of Adam are in the constant struggle to humanize these mount forests. Nevertheless, it is the Glory of Lord which is present in every mountain as well as every rock that falls from it.
Nature and its wonders innocently proclaim that the purpose of Life is far more important than Life itself. Purpose, the Pearl. Life merely the shell. And travel is an excellent endeavor to discover that Pearl.
We reached Kashgar town in the afternoon. It was dusty and misty that day.
Check posts & unrest
On the way we passed through several check posts. Who would like barricades, thorny wires and armed gunmen in their dear neighborhood? Not me. Not even my son would like to be told what to do, where to move and how to run. So do the Uyghur people being checked and stopped at various border crossings and barricades setup around their locality. The result is hatred and suspicion giving rise to conflict and confrontation.
Following a light lunch, we rushed to the last adventure venue near the city. The road leading to this natural wonder is passing through a rich fertile land. The border to Kyrgystan is nearby. The Shipton’s Arch, with steep canyons over a river bed terrain, is among the least kown natural destinations in the world. We walked on the gravel land and played with the ice pockets in the canyons.
The Last Supper
Our final program for the day was supper at a native Uyghur home. Dry fruits, dates, naan bread, fresh fruits and green tea was just the starters.
‘Guests are baraka. Abundance of guests is a sign of a good family. Uyghur people prefer lower floors than higher to make it easy for guests to visit‘
Deliciously boiled lamb, chicken and mutton arrived subsequently one after the other. And my host went mouth-watering when he learned I live in a region close to the Hijaz, for, one of their greatest wish is to visit the two Holy Shrines there.
‘The Hajj journey is permitted for Uyghurs who are between the age of 40 to 60 years. And obtaining a passport costs up to Thirty Thousand Yuan in bribe. ‘
The young girl of the household approached us and sang a melodious song of ‘Asmaul Husna’ as she had a bite from the apple in the fruit basket. When I asked if she learned it from the school, her father replied, ‘Madrassahs are banned here in Kashgar. Only Mao’s creed is taught in schools here. She learns her songs from iPad watching online videos. Children not to be taught religion from home either. Teachers regularly spy on them to monitor any religious influence from their homes’.
Kashgar’s daughters are dreadfully silenced too, not just the minarets.
The little girl’s Arabic-Uyghur song continued to echo in my heart as I went to sleep that night. How far could a people go on, suppressed and repressed in this fashion? When would this culture of forced silence come to an end? When would she able to openly sing her love for the Beautiful Names of the Merciful Creator ? That night the sleep was heavy.
The next day we left for the airport and on the way had a brief visit to the Livestock market. There was a huge delegation of Uyghurs in the waiting area who were traveling to Turkey for ziyara via Sharjah.
Finally, all done and said, when I was about to ascend the stairs to the flight, the Chinese security official asked me to step aside. There was an immigration issue as informed from the airport. All the passengers in the long queue entered the flight while I and son remained outside soaked in the light rain. I thought Mao’s men had the better of me. My son grew worried about this last minute twist in our Kashgar adventure.
And then they let us in. It was someone else they were looking for whom they tracked in the flight.
We thankfully bid farewell to Kashgar, the land of silenced minarets and censored joy.