The Southern silk road

We arrived in Charkliq (Ruo Qiang 若羌) hot, smelly and knackered after 50 hours by bus, and were immediately struck by the pleasant relaxed atmosphere of the town. It was like a sprawling oasis of bungalows,dusty melons, and leaf-shady trees. The population seemed mixed about half uyghur half han, not surprising since it’s so close to the Qinghai border and the asbestos mines/oil industry. We had intended to leave immediately and head onwards for Kashgar, but since there was no afternoon bus we just knuckled down in a cheap hostel to enjoy our first evening in Xinjiang. 

Whereas the day time was ridiculously hot and dry, the evening was about perfect, though there were a few stares at the foreign girls in shorts. It was my first time travelling to a majority muslim area and I felt an immediate need to aquire long-sleeved shirts and trousers so as to fit in. It’s hard to describe how different it felt from the rest of China, really almost like a different country despite the usual communist banners/signs and identically stocked corner shops. The Uyghur people look a lot like europeans and eat a lot like europeans, with lots of bread and milk-products. Though for dinner we had sortof hybrid uyghur/chinese food which was absolutely delicious.

In the morning we struck off westewards along the southern silkroad, which has branched off in order to skirt around the south of the Taklamakan desert. Crack-dry fields with stickily plants gave way to real desert with swirling hot wind and distant sand-dunes. The sides of the road were tightly plaited with reeds to stop the sand constantly blowing over the road, but it was still slow going and with police checkpoints ever increasing in frequency. The checkpoints had started in roughly the centre of Qinghai province, with all passengers being hauled off the bus to show their ID cards and explain themselves to the police. Since ever han person we talked to warned us we MUST NOT go to xinjiang, we had lied and told the police our destination was Pakistan, which after some grumbling they accepted. Of course to get to Pakistan you have to go through southern Xinjiang, so now we continued to repeat our story. But the checkpoints here were more hardcore than before. Often they would require women to take off their headscarves and would photograph them along with their ID card. Posters of dozens of people wanted in contection with the June 5th Urumqi violence featured prominently at the check points. Police scanned the passengers for any similarities. Then let us continue. 

The second town where we stopped was Cherchen (Qiemo 且末), quite a bit bigger in the last. This is a proper regional centre, and once quite an important trading post on the silk road. PLA military tooted up and down the main street and the cheap hostel refused to take foreigners, though eventually we persuaded them it was OK. We spent the morning seeing the sites – a museum (which I thought was very good) and most excitingly, the mummies! To get a taxi there we first had to go to the museum and register with security and borrow a key, then drive back across town and out into the edge of the desert, where a square field was irongated off. The taxi driver opened a rusty padlock and brought us through to a shedlike boxhouse of one room, in the middle of which the excavation pit lay beneath a smooth layer of glass. At the bottom lay 12 or so wrinkled mummies, well-preserved in the exceptionally dry climate. They are indo-europeans! What more, the time they died was shortly before the volkervanderwung pushed our germanic ancestors out of central asia and into europe, where they eventually invaded england and pushed their influence far into scotland and ireland. we could even be related! I was feeling more at home in Xinjiang than ever. 

In the evening we wondered through the shadow-sloping streets, which seemed more middle eastern than anything else. Shops sold carpets silk and spices, restaurants grilled kebabs and had pretty metal tanks set up to wash your hands. The mosque was tall and well-tended (and strictly off limits to girls) and stalls were piled with melons, grapes, figs and other desert delights. I later realised this is a pretty rich place by Xinjiang standards, and not everywhere looks as healthy and self-satisfied. For dinner I accidentally ordered a whole dove on a stick, but luckily there were lamb noodles and ice tea to wash it down. The restaurant owners spoke not a single word of chinese, and I was dumbstruck at not being able to communicate. You get so used to the idea that you can just travel anywhere in China and people can at least communicate the basics, but here they just glared and started talking loudly at us in Uyghur. I was like, what is this?!

So we got a couple of teach-yourself-Uyghur books to read on the bus to Hotan tomorrow 😀


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