Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saturday Night in Downtown Kashgar

Despite its width, China (unlike Russia) only has one time zone. So when the sun rises in Beijing at 6am, it takes a good two hours or so till it’s light in Xinjiang. Dawn therefore comes late as we approach Kashgar, the end of China and the beginning of Central Asia.
I am almost beside myself as the train pulls into the (very weird) station. I’ve always wanted to come here. Halfway gate of the Silk Road; Kashmir & the Karakoram Highway, Pamirs & Hindu Kush to the south; the Taklimakan Desert, Southern Silk Road and, further, Tibet to the south-east; Tajikistan to the west; and Kyrgyzstan to the north.
We are met by a minibus which takes us to the Old City and the best Youth Hostel in town, although Kenny and I are honoured with single rooms, and the film guys get a twin because of all their expensive equipment.
I head off sight-seeing on my own while Archie & Dostav check out tonight’s venue and the band search for comfort food. Kashgar has changed hugely in the last 10-20 years. A new city had grown around the old. It is much like any other big Chinese city and the PRC flag can be seen everywhere, including the rear window of every taxi. And yet, if you wander through the Old City, which I did for a couple of hours, there is not a trace of Han China. It is Uyghur to the core: its people, language, clothes, mosques, stalls selling carcasses of meat,bread, grapes, all manner of spices. Women wear the full veil or at least headscarf, men caps. Some of the older men wear faintly comical peaked hats, thick dark overcoats and heavy boots looking like ancient cossacks or Hassidic Jews. One can only guess at their age. 
Children play on building sites. The whole of the Old City is a building site. Already much of it has gone, flattened, renovated, turned into a heritage site. Yet it is still large enough to lose yourself in. There is an eastern enclave astride a small hill which is positively medieval - all alleyways and crumbling mud & wood dwellings. It is considered so quaint that an admission fee is charged.
I then took a taxi top the Abakh Khoja Mausoleum on the outskirts of the city. Built for a powerful ruler in the 17th Century, it contains the tombs of five generations of Abakh Khoja's family, each draped in colourful silk.
On the way back I try to find the old British Consulate building and, bizarrely, bump into an embassy colleague, Caroline, while doing so. Talk about small world - I'd no idea she was here.  Between us we find it, tucked away behind a hotel, preserved as it had been all those years ago. It was here that Britain and Russia played out the Great Game in the early part of the 20th Century, their respective Consuls, George Macartney and Nicolai Petrovsky, keeping an eye on each other and their empires' ambitions, while their wives took it in turns serving cream teas. When India became independent in 1947, it was all over, and the then Consuls upped and left.
Meanwhile, Archie & Dostav had had shenanigans with the club owner who was proving himself both elusive and flakey. The original venue had somehow changed into a large Uyghur dancehall which, although encouraging in some respects (decent sound system and we'd be guaranteed an audience), had a seriously bad vibe about it when we turned up at 9pm. It appeared to be, and probably was, run by gangsters who said they knew nothing about the gig and we could play two songs only, after the karaoke contest. It was slightly tempting, just for the surreal heck of it, but the band's instincts were to get the hell out and they were probably right. One song could probably have got us all killed.
So we returned, tail between our legs, to the hostel to drown our sorrows in Xinjiang beer. Embarrassingly, several backpackers who we'd invited had gone anyway as we'd no way to alert them of the cancellation. They were none-too-pleased on seeing us at midnight having sat through some stupendously bad karaoke and overpriced food, waiting in vain for The Fence Collective to appear. And yet, there was a funny side to it all as we heard about the contingent of bedraggled multinational backpackers dancing with the hoods and their molls.

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