Maybe you can’t tell from the photos of China that I show here, but I did see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the other tourist highlights. I’m glad I saw them. I’d have felt cheated if I hadn’t. But there is no mystique for me at these places partly because when I went to China, I had read very little of its history and also because the cultural revolution destroyed so much that would have made the history come alive had we been able to see it.
Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and even Urumqi are breathtakingly modern looking. The old cantonment type of homes that we have seen in pictures is almost gone. They are being razed to build modern offices and hotels. Skyscrapers spike into the murky gray sky for miles and miles. Some towers have a doughnut shaped gap seemingly big enough for a small plane to fly through. The hole is there because a Feng Shui expert has pronounced it necessary to allow the spirits to pass through. Futuristic shopping centers are filled with floor after floor of fashion must haves. At night the buildings drip with colorful neon lighting up the streets like so many carnival Ferris wheels.
Yet I much prefer being on my own in a small village like Fengdu, where I could wander where I liked, taking my time to interact with people on the street. I found stick-stick men (we would call them coolies) carrying anything from pumpkins and carrots from their farms to live chickens and ducks hanging from the stick in a bouquet of feathers. Elderly men sat in doorways smoking long pipes, old women chatted or played with babies and everywhere people were selling food, cooking food or eating food. I spent about 2 hours in Fengdu. It’s big enough so that I had pay attention to each turn I made because to ask the way back would have been impossible. I’d have loved to spend every day in a village like Fengdu because I was looking for ‘old China’ and it was here that I felt I found it.
Fengdu probably doesn’t get many tourists and I was something of an object of curiosity especially when I stopped for a bowl of won-ton soup at a street side noodle shop. I was given chopsticks to fork the wonton into my mouth and it wasn’t long before a small crowd gathered to watch me perform this feat. I’m not good at it. Between clumsily conveying the boiling hot dumplings to my mouth and being the center of attention for a growing audience, I soon became an object of pity. One of the women in the crowd told the noodle stall owner to give me a spoon. Luckily. Because at that moment, I dropped one of my chopsticks into the gutter. Not to worry. The shop owner picked up my chopstick, swished it into the boiling cauldron of wonton soup and handed it back to me. But by then I had my spoon which I gratefully used from then on.
Kashgar in Xinjiang Province is another place where old traditions live on. This westernmost province bordering on Afghanistan and Pakistan was an important stop on the northern Silk Road and is the homeland of the Uyghur people who speak a language similar to Turkish. Their faces are a cross between Turkic and Mongol. High cheekbones, eyes slightly slanted, tanned ruddy skin and shaved heads on the men.
These are a Muslim people but unlike so many Muslim cultures, they did not mind having their picture taken. Men often came to me and gestured for me to take their picture and women would face me openly when I held up my camera.
The Sunday market is the main reason tourists travel to Kashgar. The livestock market held in a large field bordered by poplar trees begins around 7 a.m. Already the smell of spicy mutton stew and baking bread is in the air. Farmers with their families, dressed in their Sunday best, can be seen herding their sheep and goats on the road leading to the market. The horses arrive one by one ridden or ponied behind a cart. These are the small Mongolian horses that Genghis Khan and his battalions rode across the steppes to conquer Europe. They are about 12 hands high with thick necks and long full manes and tails. Prospective buyers jumped on them bareback and as soon as the owner released the bridle, the horse would dash for open space. The riders were unperturbed at the fact that they had jumped on a horse that had never been ridden. Their legs gripped the horse tightly as they sat straight and tall doing their best to try to guide the panicked animal with the reins. By the time they returned the horse had learned a thing or two.
The livestock market is serious business. Men who have brought stock to sell are hoping for a good price and men who are buying are hoping for what they consider a good price. The ‘go-between’ negotiates the deal, entreating both sides to agree so that he too can go home with money in his pocket. He gets a commission for each sale he concludes. The expressions on the faces of the men involved make it easy to tell how the deal is going.
Though many of the men wear baggy western suits, they also wear a version of a Mao cap that gives them a 1930’s look. The older men wear a traditional quilted wrap-around coat tied at the waist with a sash, high leather boots and either tall fur hats or the 4 cornered embroidered cap. With long wispy gray beards they easily met my quest for ‘old China’ or in this case, old Kashgar.
The rest of the market is held in the city of Kashgar or Kashi as some call it. Piles of silky fabric in eye-catching reds, golds and purples glow under sunlight filtered by red canopies. The smell of saffron, cinnamon, and pepper mingles with that of freshly sawn wood. The babel of hundreds of voices, the clanging of hammers against metal, crowds pushing to get past while old friends stop to greet each other, women surveying the market in coveys, their heads and faces covered by a brown knitted chador that they flip up when they want to look closely at something; the Sunday market is truly an oriental bazaar.