A Tale of Two Cities
Leaving the desert, the train entered the foothills of the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountain) range. Together with the great Altai and Kunlun ranges to the north and south, the towering ramparts of the Tian Shan form a forbidding natural barrier that encircles Xinjiang on three sides. Snaking between ravine and snowy peak, we abruptly emerged, mole-like, from one final tunnel, into the bright sunshine and verdant greenery of a heavily cultivated plain. Beyond the wind farms and swaying crops, Urumqi was finally in sight.
Roughly half of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region 's nineteen million citizens are Muslims, living across a vast area that covers one-sixth of all China. With a distinct and well-preserved cultural identity, the majority of these Muslims are Uyghur, claiming a 1300-year old descent from the Uyghur kingdom of Karabalghasan, located in present day Mongolia. After attack by Kyrgyz tribesmen in 840 CE, the Uyghur fled southwest and settled in the oasis towns surrounding the Taklamakan, maintaining trading relations along the Silk Route. Nowadays, Urumqi is a vibrant, interesting mix of Han and Uyghur, with street vendors peddling succulent yangrou chuar (lamb kebabs) and roundels of crispy, delicately spiced nang bread outside shiny new office blocks and department stores.
A useful introduction to Uyghur culture, Urumqi certainly isn 't the real Xinjiang deal. After a day wandering the streets, sampling numerous types of chuar (it 's amazing what you can cook on a barbecue) and lamian (Uyghur noodles), I boarded my hard sleeper train carriage for the 30-hour jaunt to Kashgar. Completed in 2000, the serpentine track between capitals new and old skirts the mammoth dunes of the Taklamakan proper to the south, and the service is plagued by sand storms, ferocious winds and frequent derailments.
I was overjoyed, after a quick glance into the bedlam of the hard seat carriage, that should we be derailed, I would at least be spending my time stretched out on a bed. As the dying desert sun imparted stunning hues of crimson and pink onto the eerie, jagged peaks sliding past the window, I fell asleep to the metronomic sound of my carriages stately progress, and the grunts, snores and wheezes of various traveling companions.
Kashgar, self-styled "crown jewel " of the Silk Route, sits at an altitude of 4,228 feet on the western edge of the Taklamakan. It has been an important trading centre for over two millennia, and merchants from neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan continue to fuel the city with impromptu street-corner negotiations, perpetual bazaars and back-room deals. Shifting geopolitics have re-opened lines of communication, and it 's not hard to visualize a new high-tech Silk Route extending across the region. Kashgar 's future appears firmly rooted in its celebrated past.
Prior to the arrival of the Mongols (the great Genghis Khan occupied Kashgar in 1219), Islam first arrived in Kashgar by the tenth century CE. The city became such a centre of Islamic learning that one of the greatest Muslim scholars and lexicographers of the eleventh century, Mahmud al-Kashgari, was buried just outside of the city in Upal Village (see later text). Al-Kashgari compiled the first complete Turkish dictionary, which has been translated into 26 languages. Here, the early Muslims encountered strong Chinese, Persian, Turkic, and Indian influences, much of which can still be seen in the region 's art and architecture.
Today, Kashgar train station is a glistening, marble-clad monolith connected to the city by an umbilical two-lane highway, freshly painted and totally empty. My battered taxi wheezed past the People 's Park, complete with its outsized statue of Mao (reportedly one of only three places in China still graced by the great leader), and pulled up at the appointed hotel. Despite the glowing neon and selection of shops from the usual Chinese chains, there was thankfully still an air of the exotic about this far-flung outpost. Grabbing my camera, I re-entered the stifling midday heat and immediately headed for Kashgar 's old quarter.
After several years hacking his way through London's PR and advertising jungle, and another couple of years in recuperative sabbatical in France and Korea, Daniel Allen's quest for a more Bohemian-styled life of art and journalism led him to the Chinese capital, Beijing.
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