Friday, January 11, 2008

Modern Kashgar

Kashgar has changed. The creaky old Russian Consolata turned Seman hotel and Pakistani hole-in-the-wall are gone -- replaced by fake trees whose leaves portend an eternal autumn. Thousands of centuries old houses built over and all around winding cobbled streets have been bulldozed and replaced by highrise apartment buildings, Chinese-style highways and sidewalks, and Arabesque souvenir malls. Yet although thousands of Chinese migrants have arrived to fill those new apartment buildings and man the new supermarkets, the Uyghurs still hold sway in the center of town. Men still boil sheep heads, bake naan, and repair metal folding chairs by hand. There is still the familiar bustle and hustle of trade and barter in the market where "everything except chicken milk" is bought and sold according to one of the local business men. And although the old Uyghur longbeards seem to spend more time watching Uyghur dance routines on the jubotron outside the Id Kah mosque instead of standing around in gossiping clusters or actually bowing towards Mecca, the mosque still stands, although somewhat forlornly, as the center of Uyghurness here in China's "New Dominion."

I see a lot more women fully covered in the brown knit burka style veil, or the always interesting dark sunglasses-veil combination, then I did 5 odd years ago. Our firends, Alyas, Zulpya, and Gulpya say this is because Kashgar is "developing slowly." But they are probably a little bit invested in such a development project since as the top students in their Uyghur classes they are part of the Chinese section at the Police Academy in Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang. They will be the future leaders here in Kashgar. Other Uyghur students whose Chinese is less perfect tell us that the new developments in Kashgar have in some ways precipitated the movement toward more conservative forms of Islam here on the Chinese border of Pakistan. Something about the ruthless leveling of centuries of history combined with false promises that kitschy tourist shops for Chinese yuppies will give everyone economic salvation makes locals resent the incursion of Chineseness into their lives and turn toward other things to put their faith in.

Despite all the changes it is very interesting to observe how Uyghurs live in the modern world. I really enjoyed listening to a Uyghur grandmother learn to say "Hip-hop" (which her grandson, our friend, admires so much), a bazaar trader take a strong position against American style fast food ("who knows where that meat comes from," he said, "for all we know it could come from a donkey"), and of course the comparative aspects of Tom Cruise and Arnold Swartzenegger.


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