I write to you from the ‘Wild’ Northwest of China, in an ancient Silk Road oasis town-turned-city called Kashgar. Adrift in the world’s second largest desert, the Taklamakan, and within spitting distance of Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, this is not China as we know it. In fact, it’s not even China as China knows it, having been largely ignored by the powerhouse cities on the East coast for pretty much ever. Walking down the street, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Pakistan or Afghanistan or any of the ‘stans’. Far from the tea fields and smog of cliché China, this place has a distinct ‘Prince of Persia’ feel to it.
People here are of Uyghur descent, a Turkish people of swarthy complexion, razor sharp knives and eyes that, despite being a long way away from the nearest one, shimmer like the sea. As you walk through the frenetic, aromatic street markets, past young, shaven-headed Uyghur girls whirling around in dazzlingly coloured and patterned dresses, you feel a million miles from Beijing. And you wouldn’t be far off – the actual distance from the capital is 4000km.
Here, the air smells of mysterious spices and sizzling lamb, of the thick, sticky sweetness of dates and bagel-like swirls of hot, doughy bread marbled with diced mutton and onions. Dignified, seemingly ancient old men with shrivelled heads and wispy, white beards creak around inspecting the freshness of peaches and greeting friends with soft, tender embraces. The dignity of the variously burkha’d women I shall leave for others to judge, though you have to give them points for style – peacocking takes on a whole new meaning here. A call to prayer from the nearby mosque momentarily drowns out the incessant beeping of silent, electrically powered scooters and the thud-crack of cleaver on mutton. Nearby, a tethered sheep looks determinedly the other way.
Kashgar is famous for two things – its sprawling, chaotic sunday market that supposedly draws in half of Central Asia, and more lately, terrorist attacks – attempts by the Islamic Uyghurs to shake off Han Chinese rule. I came for the market and though initially wary of the latter, have felt no tension, only warmth, curiosity and a watering mouth.
More specifically, Kashgar is famous for selling knives as beautiful as they are deadly. Yesterday, I asked a man in a store if he had some, and from under the counter he produced a handful of small but razor-sharp blades in a little basket. ‘For apple’, he said unconvincingly – of all the many fruits on offer in the market, apples were not among them. Probing, I asked if he had any larger knives, to which he nodded conspiratorially and led me to a back room. The walls were crammed with ornately wrought, metal tea-pots and cups, colourful scarfs and other knick-knacks, but no knives. I looked at him, wondering if he understood what I’d asked for. Perhaps ‘big knife’ was code in Uyghur for ‘waste my time’. But I needn’t have worried.
Taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked a glass cabinet containing some innocuous-looking tapestries and lifted the corner of one of them to reveal an Arabian army’s worth of glinting Uyghur blades. Handing me one, handle first, he let me inspect the craft on the handle and an edge so sharp it could cut space-time in two. ‘Horn,’ he whispered, holding up a ram’s horn so I knew what he meant by horn. ‘Anarguli,’ he said proudly, pointing at the name engraved on the blade. At the time I had no idea what he was on about but later I would discover that Anarguli were the Bentley of Uyghur blades, made in a town 70km further into the sandy sea. I noticed that he didn’t tell me what these blades were for. He didn’t even pretend that they were for cutting watermelons, which would have been a much easier lie to tell because there were more watermelons than Han Chinese in Kashgar. It was at that point that I questioned the sageness of handling killing instruments in the back room of a shop in a town famous for terrorist violence. My hands now slick with sweat, I handed back the blade and said I might buy five. I don’t know why I said five. ‘We do business’, he said and I told him I needed to go away and think about it but he had a beautiful shop.
This would never have happened in Beijing. Not where I was anyway. Cocooned in the embassy district, I had spent my time dining on michelin-starred crab dumplings, playing cricket with wealthy expats and been measured up for a light-as-air linen suit. There, every second car was an Audi with smoked windows, and there were two Starbucks within walking distance of my gracious hosts’ 27th floor apartment (their mocha is one of my many achilles’ heels and I shall not repent). In the same way that Kashgar is not the China I expected, so Beijing was not. Where one is straining to be independently Uyghur, the other was visibly straining to be western.
In Beijing, the fashion conscious wear t-shirts emblazoned with endearingly confused English lines. My favourite was one ostensibly made by Nike that said ‘As if you don’t know.’ I have thought about it a lot since then and I can sincerely admit that I do not know. I really do not know, though I have consoled myself with the belief that the wearer does not know either. Or, in fact, the designer. Other favourites include a pared-down design by the world reknowned fashion designer ‘Caitlin Kletin’, and an unbranded one that read, ominously: Believe you are going to enjoy it.
In Beijing, the adverts depict good-looking Chinese people with skin as white as ivory. Not only do the women’s moisturising creams contain a whitening agent, but so too do the mens’. In the art district, 798, it is even possible to get a legitimate flat white. And lest I forget, Beijing is home to the world’s largest outdoor television screen. How much more like America could you try to be? A towering beacon of Chinese lunacy, the screen is built to face downwards, so the only way you can view it is by either craning your neck or lying down. It is essentially a very, very expensive roof. And to add pointlessness to lunacy, the screen is so long that even if you were blessed with the wide-angle vision of a fly, you would still not be able to see what was being shown. Which, by the way, is nothing.
Yet try as it might, Beijing is not of the west. For every Starbucks, there is a restaurant proudly serving up rabbits’ faces. For every air-conditioned, luxury shopping mall, there are a hundred thousand million billion ‘squat and plop’ Chinese toilets. Though here I must clarify. ‘Plop’ suggests that whatever you produce drops neatly into water. But there is no water, just a fetid hole that even the most festival-hardened Brits would baulk at. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to bother the Chinese though. It’s like they have an olfactory on-off switch that they can flick to ‘off’ at will. (FYI, if anyone is planning on invading China any time soon, I can advise against the use of gas as it will have absolutely no effect whatsoever.)
In general, the Chinese have a very different attitude to their bodies. In Beijing, as I strolled through the blissful serenity of the ‘Garden of the Temple of Heaven’, contemplating what ‘As if you don’t know’ meant, my epiphany was stalled by an old man expelling air out of his posterior with the force of someone who stopped giving a fuck about what the west thinks a long, long time ago. Or maybe he was just old. It happens. And again, at one of China’s most idyllic spots – ‘The Heavenly Lake’ near Urumqi, my spiritual enrichment was disturbed by a father holding his little daughter aloft over some manicured shrubbery as she pissed all over it without a care in the world. Apparently, this is entirely acceptable. And, after experiencing Chinese toilets first-hand, I have to say I would prefer a giant lifting me up over a tree too.
They do exercise very differently here too. On my many jogs around city centre parks, I have seen old people walking backwards for 45 minutes, a man slamming his body against a tree trunk while expelling air forcefully in a mega-burp, and every variation on hitting yourself that you could imagine. Some of the young do modern things like jogging, but mostly it’s a load of old people hitting themselves and holding their arms up in a surrender gesture as they walk.
It’s not just the body that is viewed differently here. In the west, we have this idea of ‘private space’, a small bubble that surrounds every human, into which you do not step unless invited or drunk. In China, this does not exist. When I visited ‘The Forbidden City’, I was initially amused by, then irritated by, and ultimately dismayed at, the level of full-on jostling that went on. Spearheaded by a screaming guide with a flag on his head, hoards of Chinese tourists armed with every conceivable camera would violently elbow their way to the front of every photographable thing, casting foreigners and countrymen aside with equal indifference. One time, on a rush hour metro train, a young lad looked puzzled when I pushed him away from me. Seemingly, there is nothing wrong with pressing your genitals onto the genitals of another man in China.
Feeling out of your depth and ultimately very confused about almost everything is part of what makes travelling worthwhile. Feeling stupid is an important step towards not being quite as stupid as you were before. But being on the back foot all the time does not a fun time make. It takes random acts of kindness to bring you back from the brink. Here is where China comes up trumps. Many times, I have been led out of rickety mazes of ‘Hutongs’ (Chinese for ‘street’) by kind-eyed, silent locals. More than once, a Chinese person has phoned an English-speaking friend of theirs to explain a situation to me, and most memorably, a Chinese man called Richard guided me through a particularly troublesome check-in experience at an airport, despite having just had his passport and suitcase whisked off into the desert by a taxi-driver.
When I told him I was coming to Kashgar, he flinched and said ‘Maybe it’s ok for white people there,’ referring to the recent anti-Han volence. He told me he was from Nanking, the city famously torn apart, plundered and raped by out of control Japanese forces in WW2. I asked how he felt about the Japanese and he replied: ‘Last night I sat with an old Japanese man and we talked and drank and shared cigarettes. I smiled a lot and was open. At the end of the night, we toasted to peace. No-one wants war. The Chinese are the same.’ As I watched an old person walking backwards down the road in slow motionl, I thought to myself ‘yes, the same, but bewilderingly, entrancingly different.’