“I took a donkey—cart to the hotel…”

Stanley Stewart, Frontiers of Heaven (1995)


Well, Stanley Stewart would have to look hard to find a donkey—cart today in Kashgar. In 1994 (when presumably he undertook his odyssey from Shanghai to Islamabad via Xinjiang) that contraption was ubiquitous, as his narrative makes clear throughout. He jostles through them, fights his way through them, even remarks on a donkey—cart parking lot, a melee of traces and axles. Indeed, other than the buses and the occasional train, there is no mention of modern transport. The car is conspicuous by its absence. Kashgar was still a desert town, pastoral and bucolic.

He would not recognise Kashgar today. For one, the donkey—cart has given way to the battery driven motor—cart. For another, there are enough cars and behemoth trucks (all CNG powered), and enough two—wheeler scooters (again, battery powered, and ridden mostly by chic pretty young things in heart—stopping mini—skirts) to warm the heart of a homesick urbanite. The apartment blocks, commercial towers and gleaming hotels tell their own story. And lastly, Stanley Stewart’s hotel name is now spelt “Seman” (the former Russian Consulate), instead of “Semen”. One doesn’t know if it was actually so spelt, or whether he was merely livening up his narrative.

Of the ancient, time—stilled desert oasis called Kashgar little remains. The New China has seen to it that it didn’t. Kashgar is a City now.

The morning flight from Urumchi was as good an entrée to Xinjiang as any. For the first quarter of an hour the snow peaks of the Lower Tien Shan filled our windows on the left as we flew south and west — the Higher was on the far right, beyond our craning necks. Quite abruptly — there was no gradual fading — the desert took over, with its overhanging grey—brown haze, and for two hours there was nothing but this horizonless suspension. If the Kashgar skyline loomed out of this at some point, only the flight deck must have been aware: there were no outliers visible.

The airport was small and pretty, rather like a provincial one. At the baggage carousel the passengers reclaimed their pieces like a large family back from a holiday: it was evident that my friend and I were the only tourists, indeed only foreigners, a fact confirmed by the sole name placard wielded by our guide outside. The crowd — so unlike the usual airport hordes — dispersed in minutes, and a ten—minute ride through a stately poplar—lined road brought us to our hotel.

The Chini Bagh (written Qini Bagh) International would do credit to any Hilton or Marriott anywhere, if one discounts the minor inconvenience of language, and the air—conditioning which is whimsically set at a fixed 27 degrees (the room thermostats are merely decorative, a tourist emollient). But it being a Sunday, we had to postpone exploration of its other attractions in favour of Kashgar’s two main social events of the week, the Animal Market and the Sunday Bazaar.

It doesn’t do to preface a bespoke Central Asian speciality with a caveat, but one is advised to approach the Animal Market with circumspection. A few hundred acres of livestock of every description raising an afternoon dust is bad enough; if one is squeamish, or worse a vegetarian (and worse still if both), then five minutes is all one can stand. Since sales are done on the spot, disposals too are immediate. Butchers abound, slaughter quickly follows sale, and the air is thick with the reek of raw meat and kebabs roasting on countless spits. Business is frenetic. Elsewhere, motor carts drive away heaped with carcases, cow and sheep heads lolling gruesomely, their eyes glazed in fixed doleful reproach. This is not for the faint—hearted.

I found solace in the trinket sellers outside, sufficiently removed from the carnage. A Mexican dollar coin (common currency in China in the 19th and early 20th century) dated 1882 — for the still—green—tourist ransom of 50 yuan — provided some comfort, while my friend sought camera art in that open—air abattoir.

It wasn’t too soon when we got back into the car.

The Sunday Bazaar was an altogether more cheerful affair. It is not for nothing that the ‘Eastern Bazaar’ is a staple of western orientalist fantasy: the west never had anything like it. And the Kashgar version amply justified the narrative. If you can imagine an amalgam of Delhi’s Paharganj, Madras’s Ranganathan Street, and Calcutta’s Gariahat and New Market during the Puja season, and multiply the whole by a thousand, you’ll get a rough idea. Indeed, there was even a pleasant echo of a popular New Market adage to the effect that you could get even tiger’s milk there, when our guide Alla Bardy (probably a corruption of Ali Vardi) proudly declared that the only thing you COULDN’T get in Kashgar’s Sunday Bazaar was chicken’s milk!

The heat was stifling, the crowds oppressive, and my friend repaired to his room after a cursory walk—through. I needed tea badly — the Indian kind, with milk and sugar, not Central Asia’s hot water—called—green—tea. Alla Bardy knew where: a Pakistani café (helpfully called PAKISTAN CAFE) just outside the gate of our hotel. Not much more than a hole in the wall, half of it taken up by the kitchen, it was presided over by an Uighur woman — so she said anyway — who spoke excellent Urdu. It was a relief after all the Chinese about our ears. The tea though was less than satisfying: the milk I thought didn’t come from a cow, a sheep more like. A Camel (the cigarette, not the desert’s mainstay) rinsed the taste somewhat.

I went back there for dinner in the evening. Maida chapattis, and urad dal fry with tomatoes. After the Shalimar Restaurant in Edison, NJ — where I had had the best Punjabi vegetarian food in my life in 2012 — my expectations of Pakistani cuisine were rather high. Sadly, the Shalimar’s Kashgar cousin didn’t measure up.


K V K Murthy

K V K Murthy

K V K Murthy is a retired banker whose interests run to virtually everything except banking and money. He writes when the spirit moves him — which isn’t often. He reads at the same spirit’s bidding — which is insistent, unflagging and constant. He recently travelled in Central Asia, and lives in Bangalore.