Norlan, my volunteer Uighur guide in Hotan, has read carefully every piece of tourist information about the Xinjiang. He has underlined, circled, and annotated passages on nearly every page of his numerous pamphlets and guides. He even has an old, well-worn copy of a book illegal in China—The Lonely Planet.
At the bus station in Hotan, he reads to me from his LP, “It’s fairly certain that the Tang dynasty never had absolute control” and then he skips to “In 1911, Xinjiang came under the rule of a succession of warlords over whom the Nationalist Party had very little control.”
Earlier in the day, he had told me that in school he never learned any Uighur history, just the history of the Communist Party like everyone else in China. Norlan had only vague ideas of Uighurs fighting in the “1930s or 40s” for independence which he learned from relatives old enough to have fought against the Chinese. It was only after he learned English and read the Lonely Planet that he discovered a longer account of Uighur history—nearly two pages.
Besides being naturally curious and exceptionally bright, Norlan got lucky. China’s imposes a sanitized history of long-standing control to justify its rule of Xinjiang. I don’t think most Uighurs buy into this narrative, but with China’s regime of information censorship, no competing accounts of history can readily emerge—leaving Norlan to accidentally uncover it in an illicit tourist guide. Without the ability to form any sort of civil society and without a believable history, it’s no wonder many Uighurs feel dispossessed.
Right before I got on the bus, he looked right at me, tapped his finger to his Lonely Planet, and said, “This is real history.”
China has inserted a ring of jade inlay in the 2008 Olympic medals. It makes perfect sense—for thousands of years, jade has represented all that is desirable in a person and a ruler in China. The value of jade transcends mere money—there’s a Chinese saying that “Gold is valuable, but jade is invaluable.” It’s so invaluable, in fact, that Hotan jade sells for a whopping $120 a gram. Confucius wrote that the stone has eleven virtues which people should emulate to ensure a harmonious society. Today, it also represents a twelfth idea: to get rich is glorious.
The jade from the Yorungkash, the river that flows through Hotan, was given directly to the Imperial Palace. Emperors often sought out Hotan’s “mutton-fat” jade as symbols of the wisdom of their rule. In the Book of Rites from about 300 BC, Li Ji wrote, “If a ruler perfectly observes the rites of the state, white jade will appear in the valley.” Not wanting to take chances, the Ming Court paid exorbitant amounts for Hotan jade to ensure the appearance of receiving tributes of white jade—proof that the Imperial Court had followed the proper rites. People have been overpaying for jade ever since.
Today, next to the Yorungkash River is a used-car lot. Norlan, my Uighur guide in Hotan, told me that people have discovered large pieces of jade and then walked out of the river bed and immediately exchanged it for a car. Thousands of people for thousands of years have walked in and along the river turning over rocks looking for the precious stone.
The day I searched for jade, the sky was grey; the ground was grey; even the river was an opaque grey. There was no foilage on the banks of the river—the entire scene was just grey. But as I found out, when you immediately pull a rock from the water, its colors look brilliant—every white rock looks like “mutton-fat.” Jade comes in shades of brown, green, red, and black—which means every rock that had even a hint of color appeared to have real jade hues. Norlan, my volunteer guide, and I slowly built up a pile of rocks that might possibly be jade, but as soon as the rock dried, the color disappeared, and we were left with a pile of grey rocks. We didn’t find anything—let alone something we could exchange for a car. I guess after thousands of years the jade is pretty picked over.
Fatty lamb spiced with cumin, chili peppers, and an herb called zir brought me to Xinjiang. While there, I happily put myself on a spiced lamb and starch diet.
For hundreds of years, cooking practices and spices flowed along the Silk Road from Central Asia to China and back again. At the center of this trade was what is now Xinjiang. Not surprisingly, Uighurs developed a cuisine that reflects the region’s history as a bridge between cultures. This delicious hybrid cuisine differentiates itself from neighboring cuisines with its masterful use of spices. Cumin and saffron arrived from the west and star anise and Sichuan pepper flakes came from the east. Uighur cooks will carefully mix these spices from around the globe and put them on big, fatty pieces of lamb.
You can eat this lamb most famously with hand-pulled noodles and peppers (laghman), in a rice pilaf (polo), or on skewers. In each of these the lamb is prepared differently, and each of these is delicious. Typically the lamb skewers have one piece of meat that is just a hunk of spiced fat—somehow though, it’s tender and not chewy.
In Hotan—a city along a southern Silk Road route—I ate polo, a Uighur rice pilaf. The lamb had been steamed with the rice, making the rice oily with fat. Two softball-sized chunks of lamb were then plopped on the bed of rice. The cooks mixed in some shredded carrots, a small amount of yogurt, and spices. It’s a simple dish, but in its mix of spices one can taste the history of Silk Road.
And it’s delicious.
In Yarkand, a city southeast of Kashgar, about a dozen members of the People’s Liberation Army were loitering outside my hotel with wooden clubs.
By this point in my trip, I was fed up with the Chinese military. Max and I were supposed to spend the night in the Taklamakan Desert instead of a dodgy hotel filled with middle-aged prostitutes (it was the only hotel allowed to take-in foreigners), but the government changed the rule the day we arrived, prohibiting foreigners from overnight treks in the desert. We’d been told that the military was taking up the entirety of a desert larger than the state of Oregon looking for terrorists sneaking in to spoil the Olympics. I’d lucked out at Karakul—two days after I’d went to the lake, the military started turning people away who didn’t have some special stamp.
From the taxis of Urumqi to the donkey carts of Kashgar to the camels of Tashkurgan, one travels in all sorts of ways, but one thing remains constant—no matter the mode of transportation: military checkpoints. From Urumqi to Kashgar, the bus stopped at least six times at police or military checkpoints; from Kashgar to Tashkurgan I went through two more military checkpoints, and from Kashgar to Yarkand, I went through three more. Generally, an army or police officer would simply glare at the Uighur passengers, leaving me in peace—though I was hassled on a couple of occasions.
Frustrating tourists and trying to intimidate its Uighur population will not win China any friends nor will it deter terrorism. Encouraging tourism in Xinjiang would better increase China’s national security by bringing revenue to struggling Uighur cities. Poverty and resentment breed terrorism—not Americans taking photos of camels in a desert.
In Ugandan English, there are three terms for going to the bathroom: short call, long call, and fast call. Short call and long call mean exactly what you think they do, and fast call means that you need to find a toilet—immediately.
One night in Kashgar was dominated by fast calls. Max, a fellow PiAer who I’d met up with in Tashkurgan, and I were planning to ride camels in the Taklamakan Desert the next day—that is, until he told me his idea for an Imodium commercial:
Two strapping young lads are riding camels in the middle of the desert, laughing and chatting while bobbing up and down on their respective dromedaries. Suddenly, the camera zooms in on the man with brown hair. His eyes grow wide. The frame freezes, and the Imodium slogan appears on-screen: Where Will You Be?
We decided to stay in Kashgar one more day. I watched Die Hard 4 in my hotel room.