Uyghurs do it in the Oven
Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
195Trip End Feb 28, 2013
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Where I stayed
Old Town Youth Hostel
What I did
9:50AM - 12:00PM (26HRS) 1588km
October 27 to 29; Kashgar Old Town
After sun up, we were up and on our way to the train station. It took us just 20 minutes on the BRT # 1 bus to arrive in the train station. Security at Urumqi station was tighter than at any other train station in China. Our luggage was x-rayed and we were patted down thoroughly. Security checked the ID cards of each Uyghur as they went through the gate. All we had to show was our train ticket. Our bunks were not originally in the same compartment but on the train we were able to swap tickets with a single passenger so Dave and I were in the same compartment. We both were on bottom beds which is our preferred slot. A Uyghur couple had the top bunks and despite our many offers for them to sit with us on our lower bunks, they sat on the flip down seat in the aisle.
The scenery was of mostly barren hilly terrain for the first few hours as the train went toward Turpan.
I cut up papaya and bananas, which with yogurt, made a great breakfast. I treated myself to a facial mask. I know Dave didn't know the difference, but the herbal extracts made me feel relaxed and rejuvenated.
At 2:30PM the train turned to the south by southwest and started climbing some serious mountains and went through countless tunnels. Craggy ridges and snow covered peaks surrounded us. Fast flowing rivers through narrow gorges and wide valleys. We were just in time to witness the bright autumn colors from golden stands of Poplars and a few stands of red from other trees. Areas had few signs of life visible from the train. We passed nomadic areas with tipi like tents without the open holes in top that we had witnessed with the reindeer people in northern Mongolia. We also saw several traditional yurts like the gers we had seen so many of in Mongolia.
At 8AM we woke just as the sun rose. The landscape was more barren now but with spectacular mountain ranges on our left. The layers of colored rocks varied from copper, green, salmon and beige.
The endless plain of the steppe on our left laid in marked contrast to rugged mountains on our right. Small dusty flat roofed adobe homes appeared in several farming villages as we arrived in Kashgar. Corn, cotton, raisin, grapes, and fruit and nut trees.
We arrived in Kashgar and easily found city bus 28 which would take us to the center of town. As we waited, a man with a stack of used train tickets in one hand and a pack of 5RMB bills in the other prowled outside the bus. He wanted to buy our used train tickets for 5RMB. Dave didn’t hand in his ticket as he went out of the station so he happily sold his used ticket to the man. Later we learned about the scam. Government workers travel a cheap way then buy higher priced used tickets and turn the higher priced tickets in with their expense reports for full reimbursement of inflated travel expenses.
Most of Kashgar resembles many modern Chinese cities minus the huge skyscrapers. It has its share of Chinese department stores and shopping districts. The bus emptied out while we were still in a newer part of Kashgar. We wanted 'old town’. We mentioned ‘Id Kah’ mosque just in time and were let off at the next stop and pointed in the right direction. We followed our map toward a spider web of alleys and small streets of the old town. We turned into a narrow alley of old town and suddenly found ourselves in a different world of copper smiths, tin smiths, and wood workers applying their crafts on the sidewalks in front of their shops. The alleys were lined carts of fruit and food sellers. We could tell we were gonna love this place. We continued like rats in the maze and suddenly found ourselves in front of the Old Town Hostel. We received a pleasant welcome, and with clean sheets in hand, we were shown to our private room on the second floor. The dorm rooms are set around an open courtyard. Most guests socialize while sitting on the veranda on thick quilts at the courtyard. We were pleased to find the wifi reached to our room!
One comes to Kashgar for three reasons; 1) to soak up the Uyghur atmosphere in Old Town, 2) to attend the Sunday Livestock market, 3) to have access to the famous Karakoram Highway (KKH) that makes its way over one the highest mountain passes in the world and the Xinjiang-Qinhai Highway that goes along the southern Silk Road and 4) visit the massive Sunday bazaar.
Id Kah is the landmark yellow gated mosque built first in 1442. The Zapar Special Foods restaurant is located across the square from the mosque. The Zapar 2nd floor was packed for lunch and we were invited to share a table. Before we could sit, another table opened up and we took our seats at our own table. A plethora of wonderful Uyghur dishes were coming out of the kitchen. We picked a few by pointing to those going by and some others from the pictures on the menu. The dumplings stuffed with pumpkin, a local specialty, quickly became our favorite. Every one of the dishes we had were absolutely superior. The bill was tallied with some overcharges. We complained. They adjusted the bill. In the end the great food was soured by what seemed like a deliberate attempt to cheat us.
We often enjoyed strolls through the town with wonderful aromas from grilling kebabs and baking nang bread. We stopped to watch culinary magic performed as they, mostly men, interestingly enough, prepared and loaded the clay ovens with breads in the shape of large bagels to large Frisbee size discs of dough for the nang. They bake the meat and vegetable filled samsas using the same method. Huge woks steaming over open fire are filled with 'polo’ rice mixed with vegetables and mutton. Other stands put honey, walnuts, dates and raisins through a grinder and sell jars of the sweet walnut-honey concoction. And then they have chicken roasting on spits often served over drippings dipped nang breads.
Dozens of barbershops have long lines of customers getting shaves and haircuts. Dave was in need of both. After watching men getting pampered with face massages, straight razor shaves and haircuts though the window of a particularly busy one, we ventured in. The men scooted over to make room for us to sit in the waiting chairs. As the next chair opened up, Dave was called up, ahead of the others who had been waiting. Dave tried to decline the preferential treatment but everyone in line motioned for him to go first. I guess they thought it was going to be interesting to watch a foreigner getting a straight razor shave. Again, the barbers are all men, no women. Soon Dave was relaxing while receiving a nice facial massage. The young Uyghur guy then got out the straight razor, doused it with alcohol and put a flame to it. A nearly invisible blue flame flashed up so close to Dave’s head that he was in danger of not needing a haircut. The shave was close but not as luxurious at the hot towel and massage treatment and shave he remembers getting in India (years ago).
Back at the Old Town Hostel we relaxed with hot water bottles tucked under our jackets as we sat on the open air courtyard veranda. Janie, a traveler we had first met in Urumqi, returned from his overnight trip to Tashkurgan. He had taken the public bus without a border permit and without any problems. We planned to do the same but wanted to wait until after the livestock market on Sunday. In the meantime, we had a few days to explore Kashgar. Day time temps ran from 9 to 14C which was okay when were in the sun but too cold when not. The nights got close to freezing. Our room is not heated and they don’t plan to put heat in the dorm rooms until October 15. We tended to get into bed a bit early and stay under the covers to keep warm. We’d linger under the covers until late in the morning for the same reason.
As we were socializing in the courtyard, Sisi, another friend we met in Urumqi, walked in. She wasted little time and went to get a bus ticket to Tashkurgan for the next morning. In the evening eight of us went to dinner together at the night food market about 20 minutes walk from the hostel. Janie pointed out his recommended walnut-almond-honey-butter shop as he guided us to the market. This is one of the beauties of staying backpacker places. The people who have been in town quickly assume the 'guide’ role for the new arrivals and pass along tips for local delicacies and, of course, restaurants or businesses to avoid as well. Aromas of the market greeted us. Dave joined Janie at a Polo (pilaf) place and Sisi stayed with me as we explored other stands. The others went their own way. Sisi and I settled on the Laghman; handcrafted noodles covered with a delicious rich tomato based sauce some red and green peppers (mellow) and a few small hunks of mutton. We took our fantastic bowls and joined Janie and Dave at the polo stand’s tables. The proprietor of the polo stand welcomed us to sit with our food bought from another stand and he kindly welcomed us to enjoy his tea. Tea is always served free with meals in Uyghur restaurants.
The next day we rose late as usual. We are quickly getting on Uyghur time, 2 hours behind Beijing time. Sisi was long gone and on the bus along the KKH to Tashkurgan. I went to the corner for fresh out of the oven nang (bread). Dave made coffee. We had left over peanut butter we bought while in Mongolia which made for a great breakfast. But our goal for the day was to get some the walnut-almond-honey-butter Janie recommended. Thought of that on the steamy hot nang made our mouths water. We talked a long time with Janie from Belgium. He is a carpenter by trade. He is his own boss so has always been able to set off often to travel and see the world. Midori, a pretty girl from Japan joined us too. She is into hats and has found a perfect city here to get her share of unique and beautiful hats. She is young and beautiful and the hats look great on her.
For lunch, we stopped at what became our ‘regular’ place for pumpkin dumplings and laghman. The guy makes two types of dumplings, one mixed mutton and veggie and one just mutton; both delicious. Inside he has six tables with a kitchen in the rear where miracles are performed. Handmade noodles are formed as thin and regular as if they were coming off a conveyor belt. It is easy to forget how labor intensive the process is. But they have a system.
After exploring a bit we were back at the hostel when Sisi walked in! She was back from an aborted trip to Tashkurgan. She was not allowed though the checkpoint a few hours out of town. They said she needed a permit, unlike a half a dozen others who had passed through the hostel while we were there. There was a group of Japanese tourist going though who offered to let her go with them on their permit to no avail. The checkpoint guards wouldn’t go for it. They made her turn back. She had a smile on her face by the time she got back to the hostel, a sign of a seasoned traveler who has learned to go with the flow..... It was a shame though because following the KKH was her main reason for coming to Kashgar and she didn’t have enough time on her visa to make another try.