Sunday, October 01, 2006


“Now, as a little punishment, you will go last in the queue”- said with a mischivieous smile the Chinese custom guard at Taxqorgan, the first Chinese city in the western province of Xinjiang. A moment before he had lifted the bag with the four apples Dr Ali Mohammed had given to me in Pakistan, dissaprobing them with a comment in Chinese that with no needs for subtitles conveyed the fact that heaven knows for what reason he was angry at the sight. When I asked for an explanation he showed a yellow paper full of boxes and ticks. I recognized the paper at once, I had filled it in and signed it myself on arrival to the country, obviously without paying any attention to it, because when it asked: “Are you carrying any fruits or vegetables with you?”, I had carelessly ticked the “no” box. When I placed myself last in the line for lugagge check, I suddenly realized that this small incident had saved me from a major hazard: against all predictions some foreigner’s lugagge was being checked meticulously. Since my folder with pictures and articles was in the backpack I was facing a considerable risk of being turned back to Pakistan, being journalist, writer and spy all synonym in the disctionary of Chinese ideology. But chaos had placed four apples in my front pack, and three Afghan merchants on their way to Kashgar’s Sunday Market ahead of me in the line. As predictable, when it was their turn, all the staff at the customs gathered around the bagagge of the now frightened Afghans, tasting no matter what substance came out of their packs, as they searchd for narcotics. I still remember that poor man trying to retain the powder milk for his tea, with no success. As the unusual picnic went on, a policewoman ordered the Afghans to take out their shoes, and ordered me to go straight ahead to the passport control. I stopped sweating.

In Taxqorgan my blue passport received its stamp number 58, red and eliptical, in the corner in the corner of the page opossite that of the visa. I had, strangely enough, officially entered China some 100 km before, after driving through the Khunjerab Pass from Pakistan. The reason for that weird border crossing may be that the first hundred kilometers develop vey near the Pakistani, Afghan and Tajik borders, an area where Chinese authorities decidely don’t want curious westners roaming free. If a matchbox would fall to the floor inside the Chinese Ministry of Economy, they would have the matches counted. In a very Confucian way, everything and everyone should be accounted for. Once and again I say China this, China that but… to what extent am I in China? A short walk around Taxqorgan, a outpost town where the broad avenues stress the feeling of abandon, is enough to realize that Xinjiang province is a foreign ethnic pocket absorbed by Chinese territorial imperialism. From the hooked noses and beards -facial hair among the Chinese is non existant- to the onion scented bread, everything indicates a cultural continuity of Muslim Central Asia. Chinese presence goes back to the days when the emperors sent their legions to keep an eye on the caravans on the Silk Road, and since then has increased slowly but surely as a cancer, to the point of annexing the region, the size of Western Europe, and its 20 millons of Uighurs, Tajiks, Kazaks and Kyrgyz to the Mother Land. To portray the vastness of the territory let me say that a bus ride between Xinjiang’s two largest cities, Kashgar and Urumuqi, takes 24 hours. Until the 19th century this land was called with the more accurate name of Chinese Turkestan, and in as fresh a date as 1947, a separatist movement proclaim the independence of the Republic of East Turkestan. Initailly recognized by Mao, the experiment came to an end when most of its leaders died in a mysterious plane crash on their way to meet the first at Beijing.

The anxiety to pass my hitch hiking baptism in Chinese roads wrested stronger than the temptaion of settling for a few days to digest the first impressions. I was soon in the road to Kashgar, trying to handle drivers who not only spoke only Chinese, but also had a criminal tendency to expect money for the rides.. My first driver was the owner of a JMC double cab pick up who took me on to Karakul Lake. On learning that I didn’t have money he grabbed me from the sleeve and starting pulling in the opposite diraction. Instead of resisting, I walked that way too, and he quickly undrstood that he could tow me around the whjole lake without hearing the cling of a coin as a result. Karakul Lake, at the foot of giant Muztag Ata (7550m), is one of the most scenic places in Western China. The landscape is typical from the Pamir, high but rounded mountains, that seem to have been fisrt risen vertically and then handpicked by the sides and stretched, to make up for some miscalculation in the design of the valleys. Kyrgys families graze their yaks, goats and camels around the lake. But if there is something China deserves a medal for, that’s its capacity to spoil idyllic landscapes with mediocre touristic devices. A wire fence separates the road from the lake, and a bunch of Kyrgyz nomads of dubious lineage hang around the ticket booth of the Karakul Lake Resort to offer (sell) a stay in their yurts, built with dental-white concrete. A circus.

Having got my first ride even faster than I wished, I headed for the road again in order to feel it, always walking northwards with Kashgar as my eventual destination. It sooned started to snow, the first snwfall since last January in the Turkish Kurdistan. 45’ later, when my classification of the snow had already changed from picturesque to bloody freezing, my second driver stopped, a Kyrgyz at the wheel of a roadworks truck distributing meals among the teams of workers. He curiously weared a baseball cap with the phrase “I love Jesus”, and he didn’t expect any money in return, so that one became my first ride without misunderstandings in China. He dropped me off near Bulungkol, a Kyrgyz settlment of confusing aspect, with two tiled compounds (school and police station) unhappily nailed in a mudbrick village, and to enourmous wind turbines to which no Quixote would ever dare. As it wasn’t long to sundown and I had no rush to reach Kashgar, I decided to attempt a landing. Something equals hitch hikers with the pilots of the old biplanes. Before airports and control towers would form an extensive network, these pioneers of days gone-by used to simply, with the last rays of light, look for a flat field or untransited crossroad, land, and sleep under the wing of their airplane with the only shelter of a sleeping bag. Likewise, when darknessw inches closer, the hitch hiker starts to look for a place to…land.

But there were other plans for me that afternoon, because even if the friendly locals were quick to let me know I could stay in their houses, the local police was even quicker to order me to head on to Kashgar. That didn’t surprise me at all: it’s a common policy of predator states to avoid the contact between opressed communities and foreign visitors. What it did surprised me was how naively had the kyrgyz happily suggested I should register with the police, to be only afterwards surprised at the results. In identic circumstances, the Kurdish of Northern Syria had almost abducted me and erased my footprints. I could have camped elsewhere around, and I was kind of thinking about it, whe a Mitsubishi Pajero driven by rich Chinese pulled by. One of the even spoke broken English, quite a luxury. Flying, they took me to Kashgar (or Kashi, as they called it), more exactly to the doorstep of the Seman Hotel. If something actually astonishes me about Kashgar is that its hotels are elastic enough to accommodate broken backpackers and parfumed agency tourists. Some rooms coast about U$S2, some about $80, but everybody meets in the corridors and patios of the unmeasurable complex that used to be the Russian Consulate, more often than not in near by John’s Cafe. It was a certainty that I was to meet again Rich, the Slovakian cyclist, Sdfanek, Chris the Swiss and all the others who were coming the same direction, plus a new bunch of travelers coming from inland China or Kyrgstan. Every evening tha cafe became an improvised forum where the mandatory topic was how to get, legaly or ilegally, to Tibet.

In Kashgar, row after rows of glass and tile towers, that delicacy of Chinese contemporary architecture, makes one effectively forget that there is a desert around. It’s a lifelless videogame tidiness that masks the more traditional areas of the city, where the majority of the Uighur population lives. It seems as if Chinese architects had carefully studied a Lego toy model before setting pens to plans. This sudden in-stage of modernity is specially irritating if you are coming from Pakistan. Even if I travel eastwards this is the closest to the West I have seen since leaving Europe. Considering we are 3700 km from Beijing, the contundency and the inexistant degree of hibridity with which central politics apply in the furthermost appendix of the empire is astonishing.. In China, ideology drives a bulldozer, and the Uighurs daily see their traditional dwellings mayhemed to give way to new squares, shopping centers and, of course, glass and tile buildings. Far from witholding the warmth of the life lived close shared by the Old Town mud brick alleys, these will stay empty for years, since it’s no secret among the specialists that China is trtaversing the worst real state bubble of its history. It is still almost possible to abstract from this bathroom-style futurism. In the narrow streets that spawn from the Id Kah Mosque, the Uighurs continue with their pace of life as a band that has decided to carry on playing until the ship sinks. The bakers bake, the smiths produce large golden pans, and the smoke of sizzling kebabs simulates the smoke a battle that has never taken place.. If you look carefully to the sky, if not Allah, you will se how perspective equals in holyness the crescent moons topping the minarets of a nearby mosque and more remote communication towers and chimneys. It’s a matter of time. While the government decided to gradually close schools in Uighur language, these caotically crowd outside the local branch of “China Mobile” to get hand of a telephone. Maybe the ringtones have a taming effect… While Tibet has a charismatic and cosmopolitan leader that draws the efforts of th international community for his cause, the Uighurs seem to have been abandoned by the world, and by themselves, since not a single spark of rebellion glows in this darkness.

No description of Kashgar is complete without mentioning the site that, if not in aspect, at least in spirit, conserves the inaprehensible epicenter of Old Kashgar: th Sunday Market. Kashgar factually owes its existence to its position of post in the Silk Road. For two millenia, Uighurs have trainned themselves in only one art: trading. As I get close to the market, the sideways get filled up with vendors offering knives whose blades displayed Arabic inscriptions. Not advisable if you are boarding a United Airlines flight to go home. Once inside the largest market place in Central Asia, one cannot less than imagine that the word ‘eclectic’ was coined in Kashgar to describe its market. Clothing, shoewear, food, dry snakes, mushrooms, horns of mythical creatures to heal sexual disorders, carpets, seahorses, 80s style doble cassete players, silk, plummery, knives, knives, knives… Several kilometers away, the livestock market and the motorcycle one have their own grounds. At noon, to recover from the arduous job of bargaining: the vendors go across the street to rejoice in a plate of ‘laghman’, the local speciality whose free interpretation by Marco Polo led to the re-invention of spaghetti in Italy. With all its shouting and noisy crowd, the Sunday Market confirms Kashgar a true alien in modern China, a victim of standardazing Maoist communism.
But how communist is nowadays China? For Richard, my Slovakian friend, some elements in the landscapes are something of a deja vu. Each time he wakes up in the morning with the anthems and announcements yielled by highspeakers he can’t avoid recalling when as a school boy he would parade in front the Party authorities during the “1st of May”, shouting “The Soviet Union is our brother!”. Of course, things have changed, and a Ricky Martin toone has somehow made its way to Chinese highspeakers. Ale, Ale, Ale… An old man peers at the small print of a newspaper glued along a board on the street. Another survivor of the times when indoctrinating was a priority over selling newspapers. But beyond this folclore there’s not such a thing as a Communist system anymore. We are in front of the phenomena of a political totalitarism issuing liberal economic reforms, without giving up its outer skin of hammer and sickle, censorship, political prisioners and other divices of the kind. The postcard of a giant statue of Mao showing the way with his right hand, just in front of a glass mall decorated with plastic palm trees is, at least, ambiguous, but as Den Xiaopeng used to say: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. There is one thing certain among this confusion: walking down any of red flagged China’s broad avenues, you will find MP3 players or Cadillacs for sell much before you will see an empty shelf.

Meanwhile, the filmcrew of “The Kite Runner”, a new film based on the book of the same name, had arrived to our hotel. Being impossible to film in Kabul, where the origianl story goes on, the technicians decided to film in Kashgar and add a few mountains with the Photoshop later on. It was equally impossible to anticipate Irish travelers in discovering that free drinks were being poured somewhere in town. They didn’t fail to inform that the filmcrew was having a party in “The Orange Pub” and that all the bar was paid for. The beers and the Baccardi bottles were a shocking sight coming form dry law ruled Pakistan. There was even a table football, where I confirmed that the residual skills of so many summers in front of the wooden players with my cousins in Mar del Plata’s beaches were enough to send a duo of Chinese home with a 6-1. The The favourite chinese strategy? Spinning the sticks ad infinitum. A few other travelers had been tipped off the Hollywood cocktail. Among them was Jan, a recently graduated Northamerican who just found his first job in… Buenos Aires. Jan says: “ I think Latin America is not going to slide so easily in the materialistic rat race going on in Asia. You guys are more idealistic”- and he points me the botttle of Chinese made “Guevara Vodka” over the table. A “Che” in a dwelling of galls and barcodes looks at us ashamed of himself. “It is partly true –I conceed- When the fridge gets empty still there is the tango or the mate. Always somebody has mate. The worship of success can hardly summege a country that from the beginning has trainned itself in transforming defeat into something sweet. That’s the subtle destilation of tango.” Jan, who was inspired that night, added: “ What is going to happen when all the world becomes Kashgar?” He is now complaining about globalization. “There will be no world to explore. Mankind will have entered solipsism”

Mankind was entering solipsism, and I was falling sick for the first time in this trip, with severe headaches, fever, and mood of Russian Embassy staff. Told to rest by the doctor I had no option but to kick back in John’s Cafe, comparing plans with collegues also aiming to go to Tibet. There is so much talking about the checkpoint at Aba in the cafe that we all know perfectly the colour of the police hut, not to mention the black dog that, even if he hasn’t barked to us yet, he is already frightening us. The cyclist seem specially concerned about the dog, and they plan to pedal through after midnight. Others will try their luck by being smuggled into the cargo compartment of trucks, in exchange for a U$S50 tip to the trucker, who faces a serious risk of imprisionment if spot. In any case I experiment a malicious pleasure to see travelers otherwise faithful to buses and trains totry to become die hard hitch hikers from the night to the morning, because of shortage of options. The curious thing is, since nobody has come back from Aba to tell us the facts, all our knowledge, when not browsed from the internet, flourishes mainly from our very own expectations and fears. Some people have even dreamt of being caught at Aba and turned back to Kashgar in a police vehicle. Personally, I must wait for my health to improve before attempting infiltrating in the most remote, and monitored, province of this world: the Tibetan Plateau.