Bradford Philen spends two days in Kashgar and learns about the life long struggle of Uyghur people in China.
When he speaks, Abdul sounds like an American, but he’s Chinese. He tells me he learned English at university while living with an American exchange student. I knew it. There’s no speck of rote learning in his voice. No, Iamfinethankyouandyou. No stutter or mumble to my southern-drawled, “hey, how you doin’.” He sounds like he could be from somewhere like Bethesda or Denver or L.A.: places not necessarily known for accents. Abdul is medium height and pudgy. His hair, dark and thick; his skin, the color of bourbon, but Abdul doesn’t drink. “I’m Muslim,” he says with resolution.
Abdul has applied three times for a Chinese passport, but for now, he’s destined only for the Xinjiang province where he was born: a region of over twenty million. Abdul’s never seen Beijing or Hong Kong or Shanghai. “But, I think it will happen,” he says. “One day. Insha’Allah.” His optimism is quick; his faith firm. In the meantime, Abdul leads English-speaking tours through the Kashgar Prefecture, which is closer to Baghdad than Beijing.
Before finding the Karakoram Highway on the way towards Lake Karakul, a tourist-must-do, we pass the statue of Chairman Mao at the People’s Square in Kashgar. The square is still and cemented, a bit stoic even. A train of Chinese soldiers clad in black practice marching routines. At night, a hundred or more Han Chinese fill the square and line dance to folk music.
“I hope,” Abdul says, “you won’t discuss what I tell you with other people.”
He pauses when he speaks, but not to search for words. It’s as if he’s calculating consequence. I nod no, of course not. Abdul’s Uyghur.
It’s October, but a late summer sun drapes the earth. Corn and wheat fields line the road outside Kashgar. Sheep and goats rustle through narrow village passageways. Wild jasmine massages the air. Puffy, cloud-like cotton bolls float from their brown stems, ready for harvesting. Abdul says most of the Uyghur people are farmers and that families are responsible for a plot of land the government gives them.
“We can’t own it,” he says, “but we can sell a portion of what we grow for money.”
An hour or so later and the elevation swallows the warmth and vegetation. Crater-sized rocks tackle the scenery, and bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks pile and move, like it’s a Caterpillar training camp.
At the entrance of the Lake Karakul area there’s one main border post. Again, Chinese armed guards clad in black. Saddling each side of the border, though, locals sell what they can with a pitiful earnestness; dusty plastic bottles of Pepsi, packaged Ramen noodles, old coins, trinkets and hard-boiled eggs from roadside shacks. There’s no housing development in sight, only road, boulders and bulldozers. I ask Abdul where they live, where they come from, but he just points to the shacks with the rocky backdrop. There. They’re the rock people and this is the modern day Silk Road.
At the post, every traveler must register at either the Visitor or Resident office. Drivers may remain in the vehicle, but passengers disembark and then, with attentive hands and eagle eyes, the guards search – for what it’s not clear, but they know for certain. Abdul says he’ll meet me on the other side. The Visitor’s queue is long, but moves casually. Inside, the linoleum is more stale than white. Other Westerners and Han Chinese line in front and back of me, and when it’s my turn, I present my passport to a soldier who records my name, nationality and visa number. Ni hao ma? I say, but he doesn’t budge. Once through, I reunite with Abdul, and then we ascend the remaining kilometers to the lake. The chilled air squeezes my head; breathing begins to shrink.
Lake Karakul’s waters are crystal clear blue and coldly refreshing. The place, though, is plain compared to the flexing sapphire sky and surrounding snow-capped mountains. Pakistan is some 150 kilometers away, while Muztagh Ata, Kongur Tagh and Kongur Tube – each over 7,500 meters high – stare aloof and unimpressed at the rolling hills and yurts that surround the lake. I envision mountaineers slugging their way to the top of Kongur Tagh, the highest of the heaven-scrapping peaks. It seems so far from the dusty grassland where Abdul and I stand, and even farther from the Hutongs of Beijing or the crab dumplings served along The Bund in Shanghai.
A few Kyrgyz families inhabit the yurts, and elders offer their cozy dwellings as picnicking space. Their rosy-cheeked grandchildren play unaffected by the marvelous scenery and sell handmade arts and crafts. Abdul uses a translator to speak with them. He understands Kyrgyz, but doesn’t have the vocabulary to converse confidently. “I speak Uyghur, some Arabic, some Kazak and Tajik, and some Uzbek,” he says.
“And Chinese,” I say.
“Of course. I must speak Chinese.”
Abdul says that the Kyrgyz families living by the lake come from nearby Kyrgyzstan, while his Uyghur ancestors are from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
“But, you’re all Chinese?” I say.
He looks to Kongur Tagh. “Well, yes,” he says. “Today. We are Chinese.”
A few more vehicles arrive to the lake. Most are visitors – some Western, some Han Chinese – but then a man greets Abdul with some version of As-salamu alaykum. There’s some confusion about my foreigner pass to visit the lake. Apparently, I was supposed to be at the lake two days earlier, but it’s no bother. “It’s just a formality,” Abdul says. He takes out his cell phone, makes one call, and hands it to the Kyrgyz translator, who exchanges words with one of the elders, perhaps the leader. He’s short and thin. Face weathered from the sun. Hands worn too, like a pair of old work gloves. He smiles. His posture sags a bit, as if the surrounding peaks have begun to settle on his shoulders. He looks to Abdul, nods okay and then offers us yak milk.
“Do they still have family in Kyrgyzstan?” I say.
The yak milk is thick like buttermilk, but sweeter.
“Probably,” Abdul says.
“Is it far?”
“By foot, of course it is.”
I can’t tell if Abdul is being sarcastic. Other Westerners must have tiptoed around the same border-driven question with Abdul.
“But can they go back to Kyrgyzstan?” I say.
Abdul’s lips curl, as if he’s trying to smile.
“Probably not today.”
We have another cup of yak milk, and I give the old man a couple hundred Chinese Yuan. The children come back to me, insistent that I buy something, but I just smile and say, bu yao. They laugh and scatter, eager to play again.
On the way back to Kashgar, I ask Abdul if he’s been to Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to see family.
“To be honest, I don’t know if we still have family there.”
“But, if you did, could you visit them?”
“I know what you mean,” he says. “You know, the Chinese want you in, so you can’t leave.”
The next day, back in Kashgar, we walk through the Old Town, an ancient Uyghur settlement. The mud-brick homes are a part of the land. The place, dusty and tanned. Décor, deep reds and blues and lasting. Passageways, maze-like. Heavy but secretive doors mark abode entrances. The place is pleasant and warm and feels familiar, like a charming place visited in a dream. I ask Abdul why there’s such an influx of armed guards throughout the region.
“It’s probably because of 2009,” Abdul says.
He passes quickly, though, when I ask him about that. We’re at the edge of the Old Town, and across the street, the new Kashgar waits and a towering Ferris wheel grinds through the ancient blue skies.
“You know by 2015 they will move over a million more Han here,” Abdul says.
“It’s their way to take over the region.”
Earlier that morning we visited the Abakh Hojam mausoleum. Abakh Hojam was a 1600 Sufi leader – and prophet to many – from the area today known as Uzbekistan. Abdul’s ancestors followed Abakh Hojam and his teachings along the Silk Road to settle in Kashgar. As generations passed, Sufism intertwined with Islam. Abdul said there are not as many Sufis in Kashgar today, but the tomb is still the most popular tourist destination outside of the famous Sunday Market. Alongside Abakh Hojam is the tomb of Iparhan, the wife of one of Kashgar’s Islamic leaders of the eighteenth century. Iparhan, revered for her beauty, was kidnapped by the Qing army and delivered to the Qianlong Emperor. The fragrant concubine, as she was called, lived in the Forbidden City until the other inhabitants of the harem murdered her. They were afraid of Iparhan. It was rumored that the Emperor favored her over all the others. Moreover, Iparhan was thought to have wanted to kill the Emperor, avenging for the seizure and occupation of her homeland. 120 men hauled her body back to Kashgar by foot. The trip took three years. The carriage, still deep red and sturdy, sits in the mausoleum hallway.
Outside the Id Kah Mosque, storeowners sell clay pottery, wool hats and coats and Dervish garb, old rugs and elaborate scarves from the region. On the street, vendors sell the fruits and vegetables of the season. Uyghur script decorates the streets and store signs. We find a music store lined with rawaps – a five-string instrument resembling a guitar – and the longer, two-stringed dutars. There’s a workshop at the back of the store and a bearded man chisels the frame of a new rawap.
“You know in 1990 they closed our Islamic schools,” Abdul says.
The clock on the wall reads 3 p.m. That’s Kashi time. My watch reads 5 p.m, China official time.
“Yes. And only a few mosques in town can make the daily calls to prayer.”
Abdul and the man exchange a few words in Uyghur. The man laughs and gives me a quick glance. He stands and swaps his chisel for a sharper tool. The workshop smells of polish and burning incense.
“But, don’t worry,” Abdul says. “It’s not all bad. They filmed The Kite Runner in the Old City.”
“Really? Great film.”
“Yes, but the book was much better.”
Later in the evening we eat Laghman noodles. I soak pita bread chips in the soup and eat the lamb meat with chopsticks. Abdul says he’s the oldest of four and grew up in a small village outside Kashgar. Adbul grew up picking cotton, but did well in school, and scored high enough on the national tests to attend Urumqi University. I listen and then tell Abdul about my father’s modest upbringing: grew up on sharecropping farm in Alabama, first in the family to attend college, now owns his own cattle farm. I think my father’s story will somehow make Abdul say he knows, now, I understand his life, but he just nods and gulps down the rest of his soup. Later, over tea, Abdul tells me about what happened in 2009.
“We were protesting during that time. It was in Urumqi. First, it was peaceful, and then we were terrorists. That’s what they say.”
Abdul doesn’t go into great detail, but I don’t ask. I just wonder. I can see the streets of Kashgar, but I’ll never feel what it’s like for Abdul.
“You know, the good jobs go to the Chinese every time,” Abdul says. “That’s the problem. They’re squeezing us.”
There’s much more. Abdul says only a handful of Uyghur Chinese are allowed to take the pilgrimage to Mecca every year. There’s so much more.
“Even if you have money,” Abdul says, “you can’t live freely.”
I leave Abdul much the same way we meet. We shake hands.
I tell him it was a pleasure spending a few days with him. I try to tip him a substantial sum, but he refuses profusely, and I give up.
“Abdul,” I say, “take it easy.”
“You, too, man.”