Do Shit Magazine Travel Reporter Kynan Elliot is currently somewhere in China, we think. He and his gf Cara Henderson are covering huge distances, tracing ancient trade routes and witnessing first-hand the heartbreaking clash between ancient cultures and the new world.
We join them here on the Road to Kashgar…
Words by Kynan Elliot, Pictures by Kynan and Cara Henderson.
Xinjiang province, China’s far western frontier. Closer to Bagdad than Beijing both geographically and culturally. The Uyghur people are the native inhabitants of this region and despite residing in China, are very much ‘not Chinese’. In fact nothing about Xinjiang feels Chinese. From the smell of sizzling street kebabs to the sound of the call to pray from the mosque. The vastness of the desert to the Arabic sound of the Uyghur language.
“From the Middle East to Inner China stretches the Silk Road, and along it lies ancient cities. The granddaddy of them all is Kashgar. It sits in China’s far western corner like a naughty child.”
Surrounded by desert, distant from everything. Yet huge, remarkable and historically, super important. We put no effort into researching Kashgar, as we wanted it to be as foreign when we arrived as it was to us on the map.
Travelling the Silk Road had been our dream since the beginning. Before plane tickets and itineraries and funds. Back when China’s huge western desert burned for exploration on the globe in my living room.
“The Silk Road would be our Yellow Brick Road, and Kashgar, our Kansas (or whatever that place was they had to get to).”
[Ed: In ‘The Wizard of Oz’ they’re trying to get to the Wizard of Oz. Clue’s in the name.]
However, Xinjiang’s changing fast. China’s campaign to ‘Develop the West’ has brought migrant Han Chinese flooding in and with them a very unwelcomed cultural change. The once dominant Uyghur population now makes up less than half of Xinjiang and their culture (as you can imagine) has taken an almighty blow. Xinjiang’s rapid change has only fueled cultural tensions between Han and Uyghur. Civil unrest, protests, even terrorism, has rocked Xinjiang in recent years and it’s only getting worse. The Xinjiang we had dreamed to find was changing fast, which meant we had to get there before it was too late.
The week travelling the Silk Road to Kashgar was a mix of contrasts and contradictions. Beijing to Dongsheng felt like we were backtracking. Cities became open fields speckled with gurs and horses. The people of Dongsheng were predominately Mongolian. We were back to drinking salty yak milk tea. Another train-ride further west and we were back in China. Fields became mountains. Mountains became bigger mountains. We boarded a train in Lanzou and suddenly we were in Tibet. A carriage of blazers and weathered faces backwards dominoed as we walked down the aisle. We journeyed further with the Tibetan plateau lingering on our left. It was prominent and unmistakable. A giant face of dusty mountains, distant snow and dark gloomy clouds. The image of Tibet was of something foreign and sacred. On our right was sand, and an occasional ancient city ruin with a highway running through it.
A walk from carriage to carriage is a great way to experience segregation at its finest. Sleeper to Hard Seater class is a steady transition from Han Chinese to Uyghur. Classical music from loud speakers becomes Middle Eastern ringtones and the roar of card playing. Freshly cleaned carpet becomes coated in spit and dirt. Space becomes people. Maintenance diminishes. Carriage by carriage, civilization becomes madness.
We spent most our time in madness. Although the official name was Hard Seater, it was also a mix of people without tickets standing in the aisles. It was gruesome, aålthough some of our best moments on this trip have been mingling with the locals during these ordeals. Every trip’s the same.
“At first, people keep their distance and openly discuss our weirdness. Then at some point someone braves up and attempts a conversation and then BAM! The whole carriage surrounds us in a sea of sign language and dried yak meat.”
The last flog of the journey was a grueling 58 hour train ride. Sitting amongst an over crowded and smoky carriage. Playing tootsies with the person opposite me as we both tried to sleep. We were travelling through Xinjiang province now and once again, things began to change. Tibet faded into the distance and we were now in the desert. Bearded men in white robes and women covered in bright fabrics began boarding the train. The food and language changed. Before I knew it, we were in the Middle East. The train pulled into Kashgar.
The Kashgar I expected to find was described in a 1998 edition of Lonely Planet I found in a hostel. It was told by wide-eyed travellers who spoke with excitement and love. Timeless, mud and dust and donkey carts. Haphazard alleyways dividing towers of mud brick houses. When we left the station and walked into Kashgar’s streets, we were greeted with highways, modern apartment blocks and Han Chinese.
“Our hearts sunk. We had travelled so far and yet we were too late. We dragged our sorry selves to the bus stop and waited for our bus to the hostel. We boarded. The bus darted left. And all of a sudden, we were in the Kashgar of our dreams.”
We had boarded a Uyghur bus. It swerved down dusty streets and weaved between families on motorbikes and donkey carts. We passed workshops and bazaars and mosques. We asked the driver a question and suddenly our five phrases in Chinese were useless. We departed the bus wide-eyed and excited. Of course, like the train, Kashgar was segregated. Despite now being largely a Chinese city, Kashgar’s timelessness lived within the Uyghur side of town. We wandered past men in blazers chopping at meat on tree stumps. Inter-sections dominated by farmers selling grapes and watermelons straight from the back of their bikes. Hordes of people communing over barbequing kebabs. Families sipping tea out the front of teahouses. We did 360’s taking it all in.
We spent a week in Kashgar fascinated by the Uyghur culture and the history of the city. We visited bazaars and mosques. We spent the day at a chaotic livestock market where camels, yaks and flat tailed sheep were whisked between punters and farmers. Though as the days trickled by, our excitement morphed back into our initial sadness. We would quickly discover the boarder to the Uyghur Kashgar. Not only was it small, but it was growing smaller.
Wandering ancient alleyways would suddenly end at huge open spaces of construction.
“All around us, the Kashgar we had fallen in love with was being torn down. Neighbourhoods felt like construction sites. Others were obliterated. Blocks spared from complete destruction were being replaced by rendered brick Disney copies.”
A billboard amongst the rubles of a neighbourhood announced China’s upcoming tourist destination: “Kashgar’s old town”. A wall dotted with ticket entries was being built to surround the old town, imprisoning the Uyghur’s with mobs of squawking tour groups.
Thankfully the spirit of Kashgar lives within the Uyghur people. The “old town” might be brand new but the people inside it’s walls are centuries old. Of course things change.
“Kashgar was bound to be modernized eventually. However we could smell injustice. It felt like an annihilation of a culture, but we couldn’t tell if we were just being sensitive Western tourists or simply observant.”
We left Kashgar with a mixed bag of emotions. Fascinated. Pissed off. Inspired. Heart broken. Most of all we were hungry for more. Kashgar was the mother of all Uyghur cities. Perhaps the other Uyghur cities in Xinjiang were still untouched. We spent the next two weeks finding out…