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Saturday, April 28, 2007


Magazine 07 May 2007

Kashgar Diary by Tarun Vijay

Good Karma Is All

To be on a six-week fellowship with Sichuan University's Centre on South Asian Studies must have been a result of a previous birth's good karma. The stay re-educated, even reintroduced, me to Buddha and a strong sense of friendship formed with a people so different from the global power we are accustomed to (note: in a '62 hue). The truth is, if we have a 'Made in China' in every Indian home, every Buddhist home in China also has an India in its heart.
To ask for the moon in China would have been easier than to request the authorities for a pass to Kashgar—the eternal city of Xinjiang and presently a dreaded Islamic terror hub (it used to be better known for its promise in the ancient Silk Route). A dream came true when I boarded the metre-gauge train for the 76-hour journey. Trains are comfortable, attendants smartly uniformed in semi-military fashion—they open doors when the station arrives, check tickets, lock doors when the train moves and swiftly take the broom to sweep the floor, collect garbage and again get on to the ticket-checking business. It's all so natural that it bewilders a caste-conscious Indian. We passed through the ravines of the snow-clad Gobi desert, negotiating 3,100 km from Chengdu, with hundreds of bridges and tunnels as if the barren brown mountains were made of wax. I stopped counting after 173.
Pakistani? Moslem? These were the two questions I faced everywhere, from curious taxi drivers, shopkeepers and other passengers. And with a broad smile I would reply—no, no, Hindostani, Hindu. We met an Uyghur girl, Aike Dan, with her Han teacher, Xu Kun'e, and spent hours discussing their land and our culture, finally singing our respective national songs to the amusement of fellow passengers.
Rants and Raves (feedback to this story)
Selling The Forbidden
Uyghurs are known to be ferocious Eastern Turks and many still nurse a longing for independence. Worried, Beijing tries hard to extinguish the fires of secession through a gentle but firm move to assimilate the Uyghurs into the Han mainstream and putting dissenters into the shooting range. They have not allowed them to disturb the calm and life goes on with huge Mao statues, upcoming malls, wide roads and red flags monitoring progress. Kashgar is literally Kashi to the official Chinese, though they pronounce it 'Kassh.' Indian monks took this route crossing Kashmir to spread Buddhism to mainland China. A city with a silken touch, it sells everything forbidden—tiger skins, lion's big tooth, cheetah cap et al. The square adjacent to the sublime Idkah mosque has unending shows of jugglers and ropewalkers. The city itself has a magic amidst mountains—the ancient pathways connecting Nalanda, Taxila, Kashmir, Rome, Persia, Mongolia and China meet here. The rude warhorses mingle with the spartan 'sama' dance, musical chanting of the ancient Buddhist scriptures overlooking the fabulous Tuenhang grottos. Uyghurs and Hans both love Hindostan and my Indian face received an extra smile everywhere. Xinjiang is closer to Delhi than Beijing and may be fraternally warmer to Peshawar, Kabul and Baku but Hindi songs—often mixed with Uyghur lines—and films have kept Hindostan closer to their heart.
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What's Your Beef?
The taxis are swift and reasonable and we had enough Hindi music in the car decks while visiting the tombs of great warriors and Kashgari poets, the Han Chinese general Ban Qiao who campaigned in the region for 31 years in the first century and the tomb of Xiang Fei, an Uyghur concubine among the 41 wives of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) who exuded an enchanting fragrance without using any perfume. The Kashi villages on the way to the ancient and protected Mor stupa give a real picture, an insight into the harsh realities here. Mud-plastered houses and the idle youth show up the poverty and unemployment while donkey carts carrying fresh meat passing through miles of snowed out vineyards and the bubbly schoolgirls present another facade. It was beef everywhere, hung and laid out on the tables. I had to frantically search for freshly baked naans and, trust me, nothing on earth will match their sweet crispy taste.
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Sun On The Gobi
The official site describes Mor as the last Buddhist place of reverence after the introduction of Islam in the 10th century. The great Indian monk Kumara Jiva travelled through this point. We started early, at 6, with my friend Liu to reach Mor before sunrise. The seamless expanse of the Gobi combined with chilling -18 degree temperatures made the sunrise (at 9.30!) an extra-terrestrial experience.
Rants and Raves (feedback to this story)
Wail And A Veil
The unusually large number of women in burqas begging at every cross-section makes for a pathetic sight here. Who were these women? Perhaps their husbands deserted them, was the reply I got.
Rants and Raves (feedback to this story)

More Diaries by Tarun Vijay • Balochistan (20-Mar-2006) • China (08-Nov-2004) • Lhasa (08-Sep-2003) • Tezu (24-Feb-2003)

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