Scenes from the Silk Road

Star Tribune, 12 February 2006
© 2005 by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

AT DABAZHA, THE INTERNATIONAL GRAND BAZAAR in Urumqi, beneath the minarets of the local mosque, you can buy knives with bejeweled handles. Bargain for furs, jade jewelry and slippers with curly toes like those of "Arabian Nights." Procure enough handmade dutars, tambirs, ravaps, satars and ghijaks for an orchestra. Or pick up rifle scopes cheap--handy items, I imagined, a bit to the west, where Osama bin Laden might be hiding. 

I was haggling for binoculars when a tall young Uighur--the predominant Turkic minority here in western China--strode up and demanded: "Can the word 'reluctant' be used as a verb?" 

"No," I replied. "It is an adjective." 

"Yes," he said thoughtfully, "an adjective. 'I am reluctant.'" 

Just then, my inquisitor called to a passing man. They jabbered excitedly until I was introduced: "He is my teacher!" 

And thus I met Omar, a young and poised English teacher and parttime travel guide with a brilliant smile. He spoke not only Uighur and English, but also Chinese. 

"Will you have dinner with my wife and me?" I asked. 

For two weeks, Susan and I had been traveling in Xinjiang, China's Wild West. The faces of the people here are not what you imagine when you think of China. The Han, the dominant ethnic group in most of China, are still a minority here, despite an aggressive policy to relocate them to Xinjiang to reinforce the Chinese claim to the region. Instead, we encountered Mongolians, Kirghiz and Kazakhs. Nearly half the population are Muslim Uighurs. The men wear short beards and skullcaps; the women, head scarves and long dresses. Their eyes are Caucasian, and sometimes hazel or shockingly icy blue. 

Susan and I wanted to visit several cities along the ancient caravan routes known as the North and South Silk Roads. These were the routes that joined East Asia to India, the Middle East and Europe; the tracks by which Marco Polo reached China and revealed it to the western world; the roads by which Buddhism traveled east, and Ghengis Khan west to the doorstep of Western Europe. 

We considered our traveling companion to this point, a Han Chinese student of my professor friend in Beijing. Clearly, she wouldn't open a door to this Muslim land. Like many ethnic Han, she didn't speak Uighur, knew little of Uighur culture and didn't trust Uighurs. 

So when Susan and I dined with Omar that night, we asked what he would charge to travel with us for a week. Privately, Susan worried he would cheat us. I was more hopeful. 

At the Urumqi airport, I passed through security without a problem. Susan was wanded briefly. Omar got the full-body treatment. 

We flew over the Tian Shan, the Mountains of Heaven, to the westernmost limit of China. From the air, we saw streams gush from the mountains, flow through green valleys in the foothills, and expire in the sands of the Taklamakan Desert. Where groundwater formed an oasis, fields and villages flourished. The North Silk Road followed these oases to Kashgar, ancient center of Uighur culture. 

Our hotel, the Seman, was the former Russian consulate, dating to an era when England and Russia played the "Great Game" of political intrigue and espionage for preeminence in Central Asia. Omar bargained for a basic room for himself and the fanciest for Susan and me, with plaster arabesques in the ceiling and frilly lamps over the bed, the most decorated accommodations I have had in China. 

Walking to dinner, we passed mud-brick buildings distinguished by their carved wooden doors--some natural, others bold colors, many a weathered pastel. Near the center of town, we passed the ancient earthen city wall, many yards thick, now breached by a broad avenue. 

Omar led us down a crooked street where kebabs cooked over charcoal fires, filling the alley with savory smoke. Woven rugs hung outside stores; vendors beckoned us inside. In a few blocks we emerged onto the square fronting Idkah Mosque, built in 1442. 

Susan asked Omar if many Uighurs were devout. Did they pray to Mecca five times a day? 

Some do, Omar said, but not those who work in government or schools. "Oops," he said, "not supposed to talk about that." 

After dinner, I asked Omar what Uighurs thought about the war in Iraq. The invasion of another country, especially a Muslim country, upset them, he said. Many saw it as a war on Islam. I asked where he got his news. Well, Omar said, from "Fahrenheit 9/11," one of his favorite films. What did he think of President Bush? He admired his plain talk, he said, and practiced English by memorizing one of Bush's inauguration speeches. 

Omar arranged for a cabbie, the brother of a friend, to drive the Karakoram Highway to Muztagata, "Father of Ice Mountain." The highway devolved into a path of broken pavement and boulders as we ventured into the Kunluns, among the highest mountains in the world. 

The lords of these highlands are the Kirghiz. Today these once fierce warriors queued up along the highway selling trinkets, including plastic necklaces ("Camel bone!"Ox bone!") and steel Jew's harps ("Music! You try?"). 

Karakul Lake reflected the glory of 24,757-foot Muztagata. After climbing hills around the lake, Omar, Susan and I ventured into a yurt. A Kirghiz woman invited us to sit on felt and woven rugs and soon laid out tea and yak milk, flat bread and creamy yak yogurt. A car battery ran the only appliances--a transistor radio and cassette player and compact fluorescent lights. In and out ran three kids, all horribly burned from alpine sun. Our host told us that, come fall, her family and animals would return over the pass to the village where she had spent her entire life. 

Outside, we met two guys in trekking duds. Diego, from Argentina, had taught and traveled in Thailand, Korea, the Philippines and China for four years. Will, from Holland, had wandered more than seven months through Brazil, Colombia, Fiji, Australia and China, with Pakistan next. Between them, they had been to places I'm sure our Kirghiz host could barely imagine. 

Another day we hired, unknowingly, a pathologically belligerent driver who flew down roads filled with bicycles, donkey carts, motorcycles and cars. He blared his horn and glared at other drivers. Despite his best efforts, we arrived in Hotan safely. 

Hotan is known for its white jade, carpets and silk. Rock-pickers scrounged the riverbed, selling their treasures in the bustling market. In a carpet factory, women seated elbow-to-elbow hand-knotted room-sized rugs. At the silk factory, a woman plucked strands of silk from a bubbling cauldron of cocoons as yellow jackets swarmed the parboiled silkworms. 

We met a young friend of Omar's for dinner and then returned to our hotel across the dark city. We gabbed in the lobby until 2 a.m. I kidded Omar that he had an international face: He could be Turk, Arab, Spaniard, or Latin. Then he surprised us by speaking a smattering of Japanese. 

We boarded the sleeper bus to the burgeoning oil city of Korla. "Many villages along the Taklamakan Desert don't know the modern life," Omar said. "They're living as they were 1,000 years ago." But oil was transforming the region. It fed a prosperous China, grew cities and built the highway we would take through the deadly heart of the desert. 

We were still near the foothills when the police stopped us. An officer in dark glasses and indigo uniform boarded and ordered everyone off. 

In travels through rural China, I had never noticed such a show of force as I did in Xinjiang. Soldiers with automatic weapons marched through Urumqi's market. Armed police patrolled central Kashgar. Four times our bus was stopped. Periodically Uighur separatists have revolted against Chinese rule. Since Sept. 11, authorities have cracked down on the pretext of fighting terrorism. 

As one officer cradled a submachine gun, another checked identification, and others searched the bus. Soon they waved us back on board. As darkness descended, we drove through sand dunes in the moonlight. Lights and flares of oil and gas rigs glowed in the night. 

As we traveled, Han friends sent text messages: Where were we? How were we? Please call! 

Conflict and mistrust among the people of this land go back centuries. As Han settle Korla, it is they who land the technology jobs, while Uighurs take what low-tech work they can. That's not the official line, of course. On state-run television, Xinjiang minorities dance in colorful get-ups and happily eat Hami melons. 

So I wasn't surprised my friends worried. We had wandered beyond the Chinese orbit. But they had little need for concern. With Omar, we had lucked out. Once again, taking a risk had paid off -- in friendship and a window to a vibrant world. 

Our last night in Urumqi, the three of us walked to the starlight market, where Han and Uighur cooks competed for customers with displays of seafood and whole barbecued lambs. At a sidewalk restaurant, we ate mutton and pigeon kebabs, smoked Xinjiang cigarettes and drank the local beer--even our Muslim friend. 

After dinner we walked to the corner, burdened with the anticipation we would soon say goodbye for what would almost surely be the final time. "You guys were great!" Omar said. In neon light, his eyes sparkled as Susan's filled with tears. As we walked away, I looked back once to see him vanish into the crowd.