Asia, 1989. Part IX: Kashgar

May 10 & 11: The closer we get to Kashgar, the more stops we make.  By now it seems more like just a delirious dream than an actual place.  We keep feeling like the bus will finally pull into a station and the driver will open the doors and announce “Urumqi.”  Or, worse yet, “Beijing.”  Or even, “Irkutsk.”  But on we ride.

Kashgar proves to be well worth the wait.  It’s an oasis in every sense of the word.  The population is almost entirely Uygur.  There are just enough Han Chinese there to pester you every 20 minutes or so to change money and to gouge thirsty foreigners five yuan for a Coke.  Horse-drawn carriages and donkey carts are the main transportation.  The sun shines continually, the pace of the town is leisurely, there are dozens of interesting alleyways with Uygur stands selling antique silver jewelry, carpets, pre-revolution rubles, scarves, hats, boots.

Almost as numerous as the hordes of photogenic Uygur kids shouting “Hallo!” at every turn are the scores of stands selling freshly churned vanilla ice cream.  Muslim women sit with their heads and faces covered with brown scarves and their skirts hiked up to their thighs so they can fish out the couple of yuan stuck in their gold-speckled stockings.  Men with very brown faces and long Tadzhik coats smoke strange-smelling tobacco rolled in newspaper.

We stumble upon a Western-style cafe’/tourist hangout where we run into our elderly roommate from Xi’an.  We visit with her and meet the couple she is sitting with – a Canadian guy and his mom, Tim and Carol.  Sitting in the cafe’ is relaxing, talking with people who speak English is refreshing.  Much or our time in Kashgar is spent here, at the Oasis Cafe’, and at the Seman Restaurant, another Western-style hangout where, on our first evening, we meet Caroline, Anne Marie and Derek.

We actually stop at the Seman Hotel so I can call my parents, who I neglected to call from Urumqi.  All is well at home once again, and they have reserved a flight for me from Delhi to LA on 21 June.  The connection is horrible but the news is all good.  I promise to call from Islamabad.

At the Seman Restaurant, we sit with Draga, our Xi’an roommate, who is actually Yugoslavian but living in Paris.  She is as lively and pleasant as ever, smiling and chattering on about everyone and everything.  Caroline, a British girl who we’re destined to spend a great deal of time with, she compares to a Renoir painting, a fact we refer to continually just to annoy her.

Draga’s beaming face, rambling travel stories, and random observations on human nature evoke smiles from all the groovy young tourists.  Us too.  Tim, an avid flute and frisbee player, always looks surprised and taps into a wealth of schmaltzy songs whenever conversation lags.  Carol, his mother, is American, but has lived in Canada for 28 years and just published a book on the Canadian Fishermen’s Reserve, which she says is selling well.  Anne Marie is a Dane with good fashion sense but a somewhat hostile nature.  Derek is a German who calls me Glenn and Glenn Lisa and never gets tired of it.  Caroline has quite an acerbic tongue, ridiculously blue eyes, and a violin she doesn’t know how to play, but not hepatitis.  We all sit around a table and talk and drink Chinese beer long into the night.

The next day who should appear but Lee the Nuthead.  Hardly able to believe our good fortune, we whisk him away on our bikes, but the excitement dims a little when, while riding on the back of Glenn’s bike, I get my heel caught in the spokes.  Yikes.  I hop around and whimper a bit, then hobble back to the hotel.  It’s not long, however, before I’m well enough to set out on Glenn’s & my mission for the day: buying all the pre-revolution Russian rubles we can get our hands on.  Xinjiang province in China was under Russian rule in the late 19th century, and many of the street vendors sell wads of rubles from 1907-1917 in excellent condition.  After a few hours of searching and bargaining, we come away with hundreds of rubles.  The equivalent at today’s exchange rate would put me through MIT.  No, no, not really.  But close.

Flushed with success, we return to the Seman to involve ourselves in what is to become our focal activity in Kashgar: sitting around a table and trying to find a thread of continuity among the non sequiturs and random comments that comprise the closest thing to conversation that we can achieve.  It’s a form of mental exercise, along the lines of running on a treadmill; it’s exhausting, and we rarely get anywhere.  But it’s fun.  So intent am I on relaxation that I neglect my journal whenever possible.  Luckily Caroline has a grain of responsibility left in her, and she takes over:

[Caroline’s entries, written (ostensibly) in my voice]:
Friday, 12 May, l989: Woken up by Lee at 10 a.m. so decided if I couldn’t sleep then I’d wake up the strange English girl, Caroline, that I met and disliked intensely the other night.  So spent several agonising hours wandering round Kashgar (hopelesly lost) looking for her hotel.  Several hours later I found it and rudely awoke her (much to her delight).  Next we tried to find the Oasis Cafe (where Lee, Tim & Glenn were waiting).  Under my expert navigation we made a complete tour of the city and ended up at the same hotel where I’d picked Caroline up.  In doing so I managed to lose a bet (that I knew where I was going) and it cost me three bottles of beer, which later changed into an Irish coffee (which Caroline said tasted pretty nifty).

Afterwards I put away an omelette and two coffees and then went into town to make a round of the department stores.  The strain of serious shopping meant that we had to take a tea break and buy some cookies (biscuits).  Caroline made an excellent choice of restaurant, so we sat on a balcony looking down on the street below.

After five o’clock we slowly meandered back to my hotel, stopping to sample the ice cream & bargain over roubles & silver jewellery.  Safely at the hotel – my feet saved from the vicious spokes of my bike for another day – we had some Pepsi & went to eat at the Seman Hotel with a multitude of ants.

Then Lee came along and dragged us down to the Oasis Hotel where we were forced to eat a huge meal.  Completely stuffed we played hackysack and frisbee with a girl carrying an axe.

Met Afghanistani man who possibly mistook me for a man and then invited me to Pakistan (where he now lived) to give me a Russian pistol as a gift and then sell me a tank.

–and all this in one day?–

Sunday market 14/5– Persuaded Caroline (Ren) that staying in Kashgar was the best idea on earth, but we’re still leaving soon. Sunday market – failed to see best bit (horse fair).  Instead ate a lot of ice cream and pies (healthy living), bought some boots – then took completely the wrong way home and had to jump off cart. Walked through bazaar and ate along way at each place possible (including Caroline’s best ice-cream place)-the girl knows her ice-cream alright.  Can’t remember rest.  Ate in neighbouring restaurant to Caroline –

[Typical of our inattention to any sort of logical progressions in Kashgar, Caroline leaves out Saturday and fails even to leave room for it.  But the fact is that this particular Saturday did indeed exist, and we made good use of it.  We took a long donkey- cart ride to the Abakh Hoja tomb east of Kashgar, a large, decorative Muslim burial place.  We played frisbee, marvelled at the architecture, and played more frisbee.  Frisbee has, at this point, vaulted itself into place as the secondary focal activity of Kashgar.  Third is, of course, haggling over prices when and wherever possible, and no one is more adamant than Lee, who takes everything personally.]

Monday 15/5– Oasis Cafe – usual confusion over hot chocolate, bagels and coffee – who are these people?  charged extra for day before (note–U.S. guy is spilling food all over page – it’s okay, he’s been to Pakistan, so could still prove useful).

Changed from Oasis Hotel to Seman for one night (=pleasure of Caroline’s company).  Fairly uninteresting activities – the usual – sleeping, playing frisbee, buying boots. [end of Caroline’s contribution to journal]

Clearly the thrill of writing in my journal waned a bit for Caroline toward the end.  And the thrill of our company wore very thin for Lee, who withdrew further into himself as the days went by.  But the charm of Kashgar kept both Glenn and me in good spirits, even though our digestion was in somewhat poorer condition.  It was a great place to relax, and a great place to spend our last few days in China.  We were able to throw frugality to the wind for a while, as RMB isn’t convertible back into foreign currency.  The sun was pleasant, the company was good.  Caroline we hope to see in the US – she is going to Connecticut in June.  Tim and his mom we might see in Islamabad.  They left for Pakistan today.  Lee is going back to Taiwan to write ad campaigns, a more serious individual, but a better frisbee player.

May l6: We leave Kashgar on a small tourbus from the “Chinibah” hotel, haven for Pakistani traders.  Caroline comes to see us off, left behind for want of a Pakistani visa.  We are a bit concerned for her safety, as on our last day strolling through the bazaar area by the mosque, a Uygur trader with an eye for art offered to buy her.  We couldn’t get a satisfactory price out of him, however, so she is safe at least until the Caroline Close-out Sale.  We were amused, Caroline was embarrassed, but the Uygur was clearly enthralled with her Renoir-esque features, some more than others.

The bus is filled with foreign tourists and a few Uygurs just going as far as the next town.  No Pakistanis or Han Chinese.  We travel to ever-increasing altitudes, alternately reading whatever books we could get our hands on in Kashgar (Agatha Christie for me) and speculating on what might have taken place in the world in the past two weeks, as we’ve had virtually no news. Mikhail Gorbachev is presently in Beijing, and we wonder what sort of agreements are being reached and how the Beijing student population is reacting.

The bus ride is not at all unpleasant – no breakdowns, plenty of room inside.  We eat our last meal in China – rice and stewed vegetables – then go a couple more hours until we reach a hotel near Tashkurgan.  Mark and Lucia, an American couple, are travelling with a short-wave radio, on which we tune in to a Soviet English-language news broadcast.  It’s pretty much the standard propaganda with creative grammar until a part about a U.S. plane that crashed near Japan in 1981 carrying a nuclear warhead.  Oh my.  The U.S. and Japanese governments apparently agreed to hush it up, but an environmental group has now broken the story.  Troubling.  We are anxious to get to Islamabad to find magazines and newspapers.

We sleep in a huge dorm room with Pakistanis who speak loudly in Urdu long into the night, and an overhead light that flips unpredictably on and off.

5 responses to “Asia, 1989. Part IX: Kashgar”

  1. Ivy says:

    Why have you no comments? Caroline alone should have provoked some. I love her. She rocks. Did you keep in contact with her? Is she Ren as in Stimpy?

    Nice work anyway (as usual), and speaking of which I hope the other work proceeds apace.

  2. J-Man says:

    Ahhh, my Tuesday webanovela. Yeah, Caroline’s a hoot! Where is she now, I wonder….

  3. I find it amusing that Caroline thinks she can write in your style. She’s got far more paretheses than you.

    Why do we like Caroline so? Is it just because she wrote in your journal for awhile and likes restaurants?

  4. Ivy says:

    I like her because she is clearly barking mad. Who else but a nutbar would presume to take over someone else’s diary?

  5. LP says:

    Caroline was really great. We stayed in touch for a bit, but as it was pre-email and she lived in England, it just faded away gradually. I think we may have seen each other once in the US, but can’t remember! She was Ren as in Renoir-esque.

    That was one of the most fun things about traveling – meeting the other travelers and seeing them repeatedly over the weeks. Just about everyone was using the Lonely Planet guides, so we’d see people we’d met in Beijing two months later in Delhi. It was pretty wild.

    I did keep up with Carol and Tim, who we spent a lot of time with in Pakistan. One of my favorite photos is of Tim doing one-armed pushups while wearing a traditional Pakistani robe, with the fog-draped mountains of the Karakoram in the distance. Sadly, Tim committed suicide a few years after returning to Canada. Carol was so glad she’d done the big Asia trip with him, and I sent her my photos of us all there.