Posts Tagged ‘Turpan depression’

Street stall in XinjiangXinjiang is the huge province in the far north-west of China where we’re getting our introduction to China. That’s a bit like arriving in Great Britain from the Orkneys, it’s not really typical China at all.

The region is vast and takes up about one sixth of China – I don’t know how big that is but we’ve travelled about 1,100 miles across it, and it feels pretty big on hard train seats. It contains a whole desert – The Taklimakan – whose name means something like “Go in but you won’t come out” which is a pretty straightforward message to all those old Silk Road travellers I guess. In fact most of what we’ve seen from the windows of the trains has been gritty old desert with a few oasis towns.

Xinjiang balconyThe majority of people living here are Uyghurs but there are also Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Kazaks, and Uzbeks. The unifying feature of all these people is that they are strongly Muslim and identify more with Central Asia than with Beijing and the People’s Republic.

Now throw into this mix the Han Chinese. They are the huge majority throughout the rest of China, and the Government is working very hard to make sure they become the majority here too. They look nothing like the Uyghur, nor do they speak, write, dress or behave anything like them.

View of XinjiangThey’ve been nominally in charge since 1949 and in the last few decades this has become a reality. The Government launched the “Develop The West” campaign in 2000, and since then has been making huge investments in the so called “Uyghur Autonomous region of Xinjiang”. Ordinary Chinese workers are getting strong economic incentives to move out here, and they’ve gone from being 10% of the population to over 50%. Judging by the numbers of new apartment blocks being built, more are expected!

XinjiangFrom what I can see the two groups do their best to ignore each other as much as possible and make no attempts to speak each other’s language if they can help it. In spite of the propaganda that the people of China are all equal and should work together in harmony for the good of the glorious nation, the message doesn’t quite seem to ring true.

The Chinese Government’s point of view seems to be “Here we are spending all this money on bringing infrastructure, jobs, industry and wealth to you. Look! Motorways, railways, universities, mobile phone coverage, satellite TV.

Cart in a Xinjiang streetAll good things surely, so why don’t you stop going on about your rights and move into the 21st century?” From the Uyghur’s point of view it seems more a case of “Nobody asked you to come here, bossing us around, and making us into second class citizens in our own country. Go back east and leave us alone”

But there are rich mineral and especially oil pickings to be had in that desert so that’s not going to happen. There have already been some anti-Chinese riots in Kashgar and Urumchi, and as there seem to be an awful lot of men hanging around with not a lot to do, I can’t see things getting easier

Kashgar is a strongly Uyghur city with plenty of mosques, bazaars, and Central Asian architecture. There are grilled kebabs on every corner, men in very pretty skull caps and almost every woman has a head scarf (some even go so far as to cover their whole face)

Street ViewMany parts of the old town are being knocked down. People continue to live and work in amongst the dusty rubble as best they can. However, there is rebuilding going on and it is being done in the local style so maybe in a couple of decades the new stuff will have weathered and worn into the same state as the old stuff and at least they might have better plumbing.

From the point of view of the tourists (and Silk Road Tourism has got to be worth quite a bit) it’s the traditional Uyghur markets, mosques, architecture, and picturesque old guys in their traditional hats which we’ve come to see. So maybe they’ll leave enough standing for us to see.

CourtyardThe lovely oasis town of Turpan on the northern branch of the Silk Route (a mere 23 hour train ride away over the Taklimakan) has a much more easy-going atmosphere. The Uyghur people here are friendly and relaxed and seem to live as they always have amongst their vineyards. It’s one of the lowest places on earth, and the hottest town in China, but the weather’s lovely right now. The streets are shaded with vines and so are the family courtyards which can be glimpsed from the street (although they were being cut as we left, it’s the end of the season here too).

Turpan is famous for its grapes and sweet melons. The countryside is full of ancient mud brick “greenhouses” with frames made of vine wood and long rolls of quilted cloth ready to cover them at any sign of frost. There are vines everywhere and airy drying barns where the grapes are dried to turn them into raisins. Although there’s hardly any rain, the fields are watered by snow melt running off the mountains which is collected in an ancient system of underground water channels. Apparently there’s about 5,000 kms of them in Xinjiang!

It seems certain that grapes have been grown here for hundreds or even thousands of years and what a perfect Silk Road commodity they are – light and easy to transport but also an ideal food for life in the desert. We were given handfuls of all kinds of raisins at every turn, but the best were the sweet golden ones.

At the carpet dealersAnyway back to the textile search. We had great hopes of finding something at the famous Kashgar Sunday market, maybe from one of the dozens of carpet dealers there – wouldn’t a nice little Kashgar rug be a good memento? No such luck I’m afraid. The local stuff is garish and pretty ugly and the rest is coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran and we can buy those back in the UK for much the same price. And like carpet dealers everywhere they talked a load of bullshit, says Jim.

So I settled for a length of ikat silk – the standard length to make a long dress and pair of trousers. It was made in Khotan just down the road (well 300 miles or so which is just a spit away in Xinjiang) and it’s the same width and of a very similar design to the stuff we watched being woven in the Fergana Valley.

Turpan MelonsSo there you go, it truly is a Silk Road and women in Uzbekistan and Xinjiang are still wearing the same designs as each other. What’s more the vocabulary of silk textiles is the same all along the route. One of the things we were hoping was that we could use Turkish all the way to China – and in the language of the market place at least, it seems to be still working.

Now its time to get our heads round Mandarin!

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