Kashgar or Kashi – this famed city of the Silk Route. It’s history is beguiling, but the city isn’t. It’s a city that is closer to Baghdad than Beijing. It’s a city where you can see snow-capped mountains in the morning, and then the vastness of the Taklamakan Desert in the afternoon. It’s a city that borders Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Using the Sichuan earthquake as an excuse, Beijing has attempted to raze down large parts of old Kashgar. The Kashgar I see now is a modern, almost typical Chinese city. Yet, the Uighur influence here is noticeably more marked. The bus reaches here well ahead of time. We try our luck with Youth Hostel. Beds here are Yuan 40, but they are full. A couple of other hotels offer the “foreigners not allowed” excuse. Eventually, we find the Qini Bagh hotel, a creaking hotel with character, housing as it once did the former British Consulate. Construction for a new 5-star hotel is in full swing. The Qini Bagh too will change – as is Kashgar.
Hunger seems to be a perpetual constant here in Xinjiang. After a quick shower, we head down in search of lunch. Except of course, we can’t. It’s just 9:30AM Xinjiang time, and the Pakistani restaurant we choose is still serving breakfast. We shrug, and just order parathas while Birdy has an omelette and Jorg a mutton kheema. This restaurant is run by a Pakistani in his late 40s. The decor is almost Xinjiang-style, and can seat maybe 15 on a really busy day. At another table are two other men. They glance at us, and immediately recognize that Birdy and I are Indians. One of the men is fairly garrulous. In his 20s, he speaks a heavily accented English, and what he speaks is heavily accented with his ego. A businessman apparently, he is now trying to learn Chinese on his own. He has his own method of learning a language, he claims. When we learns that Birdy and I work in the content writing field, he nods knowingly. Or so he does. “Design eh?” Birdy tries to say we do nothing with design. “We write for websites,” she adds. “Yes yes, I know. I also write. I have written a book, you know,” he says. I roll my eyes and wink at Jorg who is amused. I forget his name now – the fallacies of memory – and I didn’t enter this episode in my diary. Probably because I didn’t think he was worth remembering. I ignore him after a while, but Birdy continues to talk to him, sometimes in Hindi or in English. The food took a while to come, but it was worth it. Our man continues to offer his opinions on various issues unasked – he loves Vajyapee, believes he was the best thing that ever happened to India. He believes that the Pakistan cricket team deliberately lost the semi-final of the cricket World Cup to India. “We just wanted you guys to win, you know,” he says, all serious intent, dark brown eyes flashing. He throws a Chinese idiom at us, and when we fail to comprehend says that we have a long way to go in Chinese. That’s when I lose it. I know we have a long way to go in Chinese, but someone who says that he doesn’t even know the basic tones of the language, is not the one who should comment on our level of Chinese. I get up ready to leave, and then tell him that we will definitely send him an email, we also have his phone number, and we will keep in touch. Will he send us an email too? I ask, all in Chinese. He doesn’t obviously understand, and he just nods. Point made, I sail out. 😉 And Jorg can’t stop laughing.
A little while later, we go to John’s Cafe. And this time we meet the John after who the cafe is named! He turns out to be an affable man – knowledgeable, and well-traveled. The Cafe shuts down in winter, he says. Hardly any tourists, so he moves to his summer home in Qingdao by the beach. Speaking in excellent English, he says that he bought the house in Qingdao many years ago when real esate there was still cheap. I have been to Qingdao, and I know that the city is one of China’s best places to live – it has a marked German influence and a certain charm that the sea breeze brings to it. We book an overnight camping trip in the Taklamakan desert for 600Yuan, inclusive of all food, drink and the tents and sleeping bags. It should be fun, we think, and tomorrow we will go to the Karakoram Highway. Come evening, hunt for more food. More surly stares. More ignoring. We go to a restaurant, and ask for a no-meat version of noodles. Of course, they won’t make it. Then we tell Jorg that it isn’t fair he waits till we find someone willing to give us something that didn’t die and had legs. It takes a while to persuade him, but eventually, he agrees as we tell him that at least he must try the Kashgar food. He tells the waitress who barely gives him a look. And we sit at a very grimy table and wait. And wait. And wait. Other people who have come after us finish eating and leave. The waitress refuses to look at us. And the atmosphere is hostile. Eventually, we have had enough and get up leave. A man near the kitchen, who we assume is the boss, doesn’t need language to tell us what he thinks of us. Swatting us away as if we were flies. Another city I am starting to hate in Xinjiang.