Kashgar, the Centre of a Continent, 2009

This is the furthest place from the ocean on this or any continent, fabled mingling place at the heart of the ancient caravan routes and stopping place on quite a few Silk Road itineraries to this day. We sighted Western tourists! The historic monuments may be in desperate need of some loving restoration but widespread building work could be seen hastening the demise of the traditional style of dwelling nonetheless .

Surprisingly, there were plenty of Uyghur families at the famous Altun Orna Uyghur restaurant. I say “surprisingly” because there were also a lot of holiday-making Han Chinese and overseas visitors, including an incongruous display of sunburned North European flesh. These girls topped off their inappropriate outfits with local four-cornered embroidered hats, happily oblivious to the fact that this is a masculine item of attire. Never mind, Uyghur meals are all about hospitality and soon the bottles of Chinese whiskey were circulating around the tables without embarrassment.

Extended Uyghur families tended to split themselves into male and female tables so that the ladies could take off their headscarves to eat (in public, take note!) but plenty of joshing and circulating ensured that all the family enjoyed their evening out together. No, it doesn’t fit with what I was taught about Muslim people, either: I can only tell it as I saw it. And a wonderful memory it is to hold onto.

Indigenous people here are poor and, make no mistake, the Central Chinese Government in its relentless standardisation programs is ensuring that anyone who holds out for a traditional way of life remains that way. It is important to make this clear before I progress to my attempt to describe what I saw in the much promoted markets of Kashgar. For it was here that the rest of my party found me in a corner, pallid and slumped on a roll of carpets in the corner of a tourist shop, not sure whether to cry or be sick.


I had seen tiger skins (illegally) on sale in other parts of China and so at first they didn’t really surprise me, hanging in the market stalls, until I noticed that they were a little on the small side and seemingly a little too perfect. It was difficult not to look at the animal pelts a bit more closely and of course that attracted vendors desperate to sell what was for them an extremely valuable commodity.

Surely they must have known we could not take these home even if we wanted to but lack of tourist revenue had made them almost as voracious as the wolves that had been skinned to hang alongside the big cats. And there were so many varieties: I almost think that if I had asked for leopard someone might have replied “Snow, Clouded or Amur?” and the lynx hats seemed to be available in several different natural-looking colours. Then it dawned on me that it was only by captive breeding that this quantity or variety could be produced and presumably the tigers were youngsters, killed off quickly for reasons of safety or profit.

I tried to get away from the skins to at least experience the remainder of the market that I had heard so much about but once I got inside I saw that rugs made from whole litters of marmalade tabbies hung alongside every other variety of domestic cat. Had I really travelled so far and learned so little about the Chinese culture? Were there some things I would have preferred not to know? In Beijing and Guilin I had seen poodle parlours, in Istanbul I had seen holidaying Han Chinese petting and photographing the feral cats that hang around Hagia Sophia but here I saw what domesticated and/or wild animals actually mean to most people in this part of the world. They are a source of revenue to put food on the table at one end of the scale and illegal profiteering with its dreams of fabulous wealth at the other.

Before you give up all hope, spare a thought for Mdm Chen Yulian of Chengdu and others like her, who devoted considerable time and resources to developing the “doggy wheelchair” for injured canine victims of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake.      



Categories: Central Asia, China, Far East

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