Yurt

 Karakul, Xinjiang, China قاراكۆل

I made one last sidetrip from Kashgar before leaving China. Again, it didn’t feel like China. But it didn’t carry at all the Uyghur character of Kashgar either — this is Kyrgyz land.

Karakul means “black lake” in a variety of Turkic languages, and there are multiple places carrying that name in Central Asia. The one in China (Kalakuli Lake 喀拉庫勒湖) is within a Kyrgyz (Ji’erjisi 吉爾吉斯/Ke’erkezi 柯爾克孜) autonomous prefecture, and it’s got two very small settlements around it.

Taking a shared car heading for Tashkurgan, a town in the neighbouring Tajik autonomous prefecture and along the China-Pakistan Karakoram Highway (whew, all these different groups), we passed the gorgeous and touristy White Sand Lake 白沙湖 before I hopped off at Karakul. But the weather quickly turned — we weren’t in the desert lowlands anymore, but rather at an altitude of 3800 m, in the Pamir Mountains. Things were fine at White Sand Lake, and only a mere 35 km down the road… uh oh.
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Bazaar

 Kashgar, Xinjiang, China قەشقەر

Kashgar — the name itself already evokes the Silk Road. (The Chinese name, Kashi 喀什, not so much.) At the furthest western end of China, it’s closer to Iran and even eastern Turkey geographically than it is to Beijing and feels nothing like China. Well, at least when you’re in the areas of interest: there’s a new downtown that’s Han-dominated and looks just like every other major city in China. But the rest of the city? The ethnic mix is nothing like I’ve ever seen before, and a big dose of culture shock.

Xinjiang is China’s largest province (Tibet is number two), its bland name (literally “new frontier”) masking its heavy diversity. While officially a Uyghur autonomous region, the Uyghurs (Chinese: Weiwu’er 维吾爾) also constitute the largest ethnic group in the province… at less than 50%. Other significant groups, some with their own autonomous prefectures inside the province, include Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Russians, Tajiks, and Mongols.

And on Sundays, the busiest day at Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar, that’s basically who you’re seeing. No one’s speaking Mandarin, unless they see me or another tourist and they want our business. Despite the large variance in physical features within the Uyghur population, it’s very clear that there are other ethnic groups present, buying and selling at one of Central Asia’s largest markets. Sure, there’s the Uyghurs: men with their traditional caps — circular-fitting, square-topped, and pyramid-like if viewed from the front — and their thick eyebrows and thick moustaches that Chinese men can never possibly grow; women with colourful silk scarves tied around their hair, thick white makeup with exaggerated eyes, fashionable unibrows (real or drawn-on), and even moustaches! But there’s also people with blonde hair (Russian?), people with very dark complexions (Pakistani?), and men and women wearing distinctly different headgear than the traditional Uyghur ones, like tall white hats for men (Kyrgyz for sure) or ornately decorated red ones for women (Tajik?). While Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz are similar, mutually-intelligible Turkic languages, the others are not, and hearing them within the crowds does make it all the more overwhelmingly not Chinese.
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