2005.07.17 Kashgar, China

Balloon Over Aksu
Over Aksu, May 15, 2005

Nisagul and I have been traveling together over the last three days. We set off from Urumqi Tuesday evening, taking buses all the way to Kashgar. The train would have been more comfortable, but left at inconvenient times. Armed with a loaf of sliced bread, jar of peanut butter, and jar of strawberry jam, we hit the road. We've broken the journey twice, staying overnight with families of friends.

Overnight bus journeys around China can actually be more comfortable than many other places, as sleeper-buses are common throughout the country. A sleeper bus has three rows of bunk-beds separated by two aisles. I estimated there to be around 36 berths on our bus. Bedding and pillows are provided. Such travel is not as steady or as pleasant as travel by rail, but has the advantage of running more frequently. The bus is cheaper, too.

Our first stop was the city of Kucha, an important stopping-off point along the old Silk Road. The modern city is rather ugly and not very different from many others around China, though the old section of town retains some charm.

In Kucha we stayed at the family home of Arzigul, one of Nisagul's former classmates. Together we hired a car to make the 70 km journey to the Kyzyl 1,000 Buddha Caves, a site where monks practiced in days before Islam came to the region. I'm not sure what the area would have been like in the 7th century, when Buddhism was still the local religion. I am sure that what artifacts do remain owe their existence to their location in the remote desert: so many ancient works in this region have been destroyed in the recent and distant past.

There are scores of caves around the area whose interiors were covered with frescoes of Buddhist imagery. However, I felt what areas were accessible to visitors didn't justify the steep admission price. It wasn't possible to explore leisurely, as a guide follows tourists around, unlocking doors placed at the mouth of each cave. The frescoes were in poor condition. Our tag-along guide claimed that the pigments were original and had not been restored--viewing what was left I found that claim a bit dubious.

More exciting was the journey out to the caves itself. The desert was gorgeous, peppered with high, rocky mountains. While not as richly red as Utah, the terrain was similar. About 15 minutes before we reached our destination, Nisagul called out: "Look, camels!"

Camels are a common enough sight around Xinjiang--even in the metropolis of Urumqi I see them trotting by every now and then. However, this was a herd of over a dozen wild, healthy, Bactrians munching on brush by the side of the road. They were clearly not domesticated, bearing no harnesses, no saddles, or any other evidence of ownership. Somehow this unexpected sight made everybody smile excitedly.

I find it unpredictable what excites me in my travels now. Sometimes it's some small, unexpected encounter that might equally well charm a child. The day after chancing upon the camels provided another such opportunity. We had made our way from Kucha down to Aksu, another fair-sized city in Xinjiang. After spending a night with the family of Rukia--another X.U. alumna--we took a taxi to the bus station. Overhead was a huge, colorful balloon--the kind with a basket hanging below in which to carry passengers. Again, I found myself happy and excited as a child might be: "Hey, look up there!" I told everybody. Upon glancing skyward, we saw not just the one, but at least 15 passenger balloons floating above the city.

Rukia's house
Rukia's house

Maybe such occurrences are more common elsewhere, but growing up in Seattle I think I've seen such balloons maybe two or three times in my life. I don't know what brought this event to remote Aksu. It was clearly international, as one participant had a huge logo for British supermarket chain Tesco on it.

We made it into Kashgar Friday night. Again, we've been coddled by family of former classmates: dinner at one flat, accommodations at another. Kashgar is full of European backpackers. Sometimes I enjoy meeting other travelers, though it's nice to have alternative places to stay this trip. All of our hosts have been locals who know their city and native speakers of Uighur.

This is my first trip to Kashgar in nearly two years. While the city has developed and become modern like so many other cities across China, it still remains one of my favorite places. We visited inside the old Eid Kah mosque yesterday afternoon. When I first visited 12 years ago, the area surrounding the mosque was mostly tea-stalls under trees, all on the edge of a neighborhood of adobe houses. It's now a glitzy shopping area with faux Islamic architecture a la some Chinese rendering of the Arabian Nights. While in some ways it's sad to see such change, there's still something about Kashgar that grabs me, even as its donkey carts, streetside cobblers, blacksmiths, and cap sellers become a thing of the past.