On the Knife's Edge
Departing from urban Urumqi, we spent a blissful day hiking around nearby Tian Chi, or Heaven Lake, and a night up in a Kazakh yurt up in the mountains, sipping salty nai cha under the (novelly-visible) stars - after Shanghai's smog, it was a literal breath of fresh air.
Although we were reluctant to leave, we had a decidedly exciting destination in mind - Kashgar, the storied seat of the Silk Road in China. Kashgar. Even the name exuded exoticism, heavy with the gold and textiles and scented with the spices of the old trading town.
After an...interesting 24-hour bus ride (more on that later), we arrived in what was at first step from the station another generic Chinified city. But as we turned in to the Old Town towards our conveniently-named Old Town Hostel, our exotic fantasy unfolded - copper gleamed, hawkers cried, and men fanned their smoking grills before buildings so intricate that every doorway dripped with ornament.
And yet as we explored over the next few days, we came to learn that Kashgar is a town indeed as beautiful but also as double-edged as the knives for which it's famous.
On one side, the place is hot. And I mean damn hot. Like so hot it becomes uncomfortable to be exposed to the beam of Sauron's eye - I mean the sun - at the height of midday. It does make sense, considering that the city technically sits in China's largest desert (and seems to be borrowing all of its sand for dust).
On the other side, the sun's overzealous energy extends each day - there is a 2 hour discrepency between the unofficial "local time" and "Beijing time" (a charming if confusing system), and yet daylight lasts for more than these allotted hours combined. This means that there's more than enough time to ramble around town, even including a necessary shioshi in the heat of midday up on another hostel's shaded terrace overlooking the main mosque.
On the first side, all of this exploring was at times disconcerting. Although undoubtedly (and ironically) done in earnest to preserve the "authenticity" of the town (while inevitably also fuelling tourism), there is a certain 2D Disney film set quality to some of the "improvements" being foisted upon the Old Town. This imposition of "improvements" is certainly one thing that China does best, and one often wonders if there is anything behind a facade beyond rubble.
One for my ad kids.
Oh this second side, despite or alongside these "improvements" (I'm nit-picking), the majority of the Old Town is more than alive and well - it seems still saturated with the traditional way of life. Street stalls and shops seemed to fulfill every obligation, and yes, stereotype, of the region, and yet none have that static museum quality of a tourist town. It all comes down to the city's people - crinkle-faced men with scraggly beards and green pointed hats sat grouped on stoops and clusters of women in colorful headscarves chatted in the streets, all just going about the busy business of living their lives.
So on the first side (do keep up), this traditional way of life leads to a traditional way of food. Meaning repetitive and limited. As in, yes, more mutton. This could be due to the city's primarily Uyghur population, vs Urumqi's 10+ minorities, or the climate, or some combination thereof. Regardless, if I never eat nan again it will be too soon.
BUT, on the other side (last one!), the authenticity of the food made it all the more incredible. We did eat our fair share of (admittedly delicious) noodles and flatbreads served with a side of bagels, but we also enjoyed the fresh fruit, dried fruits and nuts (especially the still-shelled almonds for snacking), and even a cheeky yogurt ice cream or two.
And, when we were finally desperate for vegetable matter (I never thought I'd see the day), we found a riff on Shanghai's own sheng jian baozi, the steamed-fried dumplings, stuffed with either green onions or a roasted red pepper mix and also the best suoman, or hand-pulled noodles (laghman) served with tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, celery, and garlic in a stall behind the Sunday Bazaar. Sublime.
So although Kashgar teeters on the knife's edge between its rich history and succumbing to its potential future as a tourist town, at the moment there is still enough spice to keep it authentically exotic.
If you can take the heat.
Old Town Youth Hostel
NB: we loved the Old Town Hostel especially for its characterful courtyard, and as we left, undortunately it was in the process of moving out of its current digs into a newer build. Pamir Youth Hostel is another option with a great terrace and a super-central location next to the main mosque.
233 Wusitang Boyi Lu
Pamir Youth Hostel
3F, Nuo'er Beixi Lu, near the Id Kah Mosque
Square opposite the Id Kah Mosque
Xefa Ice Cream
Nuo'er Beixi Lu, near and under the Pamir Youth Hostel
NB: actually occurs every day of the week, but is at its busiest and arguably best on Sundays. Look out for a single suoman stand out the back!
Skip the admission-entrance Old Town as well as Sunday's Animal Market (in a new location, about 20 minutes out of town) unless you're particularly keen on livestock.