Friday, August 8, 2008

The Kashgar Case

At few years back the Byron Bay Writers Festival I was invited to speak on a travel panel called ‘Evocative Images from Around the World’. We were asked to describe how we translated exotic images into stories, and what this meant for both the writer and the reader. Did something substantial occur, or was it just armchair travelling?

By dint of that latter observation, I felt were we also being asked something much less flattering: whether travel writing was doing as much to remove us from the world as a disengaged news report, rather than bringing us closer together. And if that were true, whether it had become another form of careless western consumption. This idea depressed me.

Despite having written a book that was full of global travel stories from which I was supposed to draw anecdotes and wisdoms, whatever I started to write down for my speech felt fake and forced. By the day of the panel I still had nothing prepared. The impulse to wing it was fast disintegrating into something more despairing: a travel writer with nothing to report from the world at all.

That uneasy morning I found myself looking at a slim, small briefcase my partner and I had recently bought in the bustling town of Kashgar in Xinjiang in far western China. The briefcase was a souvenir from our travels, nothing more.

And yet the longer I looked at it the more I thought about that particular trip and what it meant for me now. How, like every other city in China, Kashgar was being refashioned in the generic style rabidly popular across the nation: with vistas of obliterating grey concrete roads and endless cheap apartment blocks shrouded in a brownish atmosphere of decay.

The old and legendary Kashgar, a place of ornately decorated wood and creaking donkey carts, medieval secrets-and-shadows and hard clay homes, seemed to be shrinking by the moment in the face of such changes. Soon, I felt, the exotic turning point of hundreds of years worth of travel diaries from Marco Polo on would no longer exist. With that loss went, of course, a people and their history: the Uighurs of Central Asia.

Aware of this imminent erasure, we ventured into the old quarter of Kashgar where Uighur architecture and customs still predominate despite the relentless Chinese fondness for ‘development’, a part of which involves a long-running program of Han population re-settlement into the area.

Our grieving felt premature, however, as we stood there watching hundreds of heavily moustached men playing pool on badly torn felt, their lopsided tables lined up like racing cars on the grid at Le Mans; starting right out front of the Id Kah mosque and surging on into the middle of the Friday night markets. I was surprised by this brazen rub of entertainment, commerce and worship, though no one else seemed to mind a bit, least of all the men, smoking and shouting and cheering around the clacking tables.

Nearby a wall of ghetto blasters roared an artless musique concrete at full ranting-and-wailing volume from an area set aside for selling electrical goods.

An ice cream stall had a small television wired to a loudhailer system that was belting out the soundtrack to an Indian action movie — attracting another solid crowd of hundred or so people, sighing and groaning to the action at hand.

The life force here was certainly intimidating in its vitality and heckling energy — I could see how it might worry an occupying power. Even in such impoverished circumstances, these were not a people to take lightly. They exuded energy like an electrical charge.

Everywhere we looked this aliveness roared through the commerce of their community. There were Uighurs selling clothes, wooden bowls, lamb on skewers, ornately decorated rocking cribs for babies, more lamb on skewers, knives so sharp they shaved the hair off your arms in one clean stroke (look! See!), all manner of shoes, proud hats, sad fruit, even more lamb on skewers, lamb stew, lamb with lamb, tasty flat bread with bits of stone from the walls of wood-fire ovens stuck to the base (easily picked off with those sharp knives or simply crunched on with a bitter jolt), and a variety of animal skins including that of a large wild wolf.

It was that faint time between twilight and night itself. At first we could barely see them as they sat, crouched over and poor looking, on the periphery of the main square while the market thronged wildly away from them: a Uighur man and his family, with a few belongings scattered in the dirt. It was the pencil-sketched faintness of their presence that actually attracted my eye, the fact that they hardly seemed to exist at all.

As I looked closer it seemed to me they had raided what little of their lives might be of value: a maroon brown briefcase covered in dust; a badly dented soup ladle; the snapped pedal from a bicycle; some other bits of metal and wire that were like things, curiosities, you might see lying by the roadside if your eyesight was good and you were traveling on foot. I was amazed they were even trying to sell these scraps.

The look of the family in the encroaching darkness, their meagre offerings, tugged at our hearts. So we asked how much for the briefcase and the soup ladle. The father looked up and held all the fingers in his hand out towards me. Five yuan was equal to one American dollar. It was like asking for nothing.

It’s normal in markets like these to bargain hard, but we gave them the five yuan without argument and left, while other traders in the square laughed at me, pointing at the absurdity of a westerner walking around with an old soup ladle in his hand.

We had hoped the man and his family might ask for ten or even twenty yuan. We didn’t need the soup ladle, and the briefcase didn’t look like it was fit for any document I would value. We just wanted to give them something, and this was a way to do it with dignity left intact: the age-old process of barter-and-exchange at a market on the Old Silk Road. Much as I wanted to hand over more money once the deal was done, I knew it was not the right thing to do. That our soup ladle and briefcase and the five yuan now in his hand were the best things that could happen for everyone that strangely pulsing evening.

The condition of this family summed up, for me, everything happening in Xinjiang while I was there: how poor and oppressed Uighur people are under Chinese rule; the ragged, brutalised flavor to their lives.

Famous for their fighting spirit and their flamboyant, emerald-studded knives, the Uighurs are surrounded by wild, stunning mountains along their west and south-west borders with the former Soviet republics of Kazakstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet; while the Taklimakan Desert (which translates roughly as “you go in but you won’t come out”) to the east further serves to isolate the region from the rest of China. Despite these natural barriers and their own unruly spirit, the Uighurs have seen their beautiful countryside invaded and reinvaded for centuries.

At first it was the Arabs, Mongols and Chinese who flooded back and forth on missions of conquest and trade. Then the region became part of the push and pull of Russian and British influences in that imperial chess match of nineteenth century geo-politics known as ‘The Great Game’. Chinese and Soviet forces continued to vie for dominance in the area, the latter triumphing in support of a brief Islamic regime called the Eastern Turkestan Republic that began in 1944 and fell in 1950. Since then the Chinese have ruled with an increasing iron fist, renaming the territory the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Beyond concerns for regional security and the long-running imperial claims that it has always been a part of greater China, the fact that Xinjiang is fabulously rich in oil and tin makes it an even more desirable asset for the Chinese.

Given its physical extremities and extreme isolation, Xinjiang remains a volatile zone, prone to internal instability and disruptive external influences. The Uighurs have looked on enviously at the breakaway Soviet states across the border, and Islamic extremism continues to filter through as an influence despite the essentially moderate faith of most Uighurs. Small bomb explosions from Kashgar to Beijing have gone off in the name of various terrorist/independence groups, while most Chinese associate displaced Uighurs across the country with a culture of crime that ranges from black market money exchanges to drug smuggling — a not entirely unreasonable stereotype.

Since September 11, 2001 the Uighurs in Xinjiang have been more shat upon than ever before by the communist government. The west’s panic to maintain the ‘war on terror’ has given the Chinese licence to do as they please in remote regions like Xinjiang — and to make sure that the independence dreams of Islamic Uighurs stay ground into the dirt. As the Chinese propaganda against ‘Uighur splittists’ so neatly puts it, “they shall be beaten down as a rat crosses a road”.

Once I got back to Sydney I cleaned up the briefcase and polished it and found it wasn’t in such bad condition after all. I imagined it might have served as their child’s school satchel. Along with everything else about my memories of that day, this lone speculation made me feel intensely sad for this thing now in my hands, for all the miles it had travelled and who might have carried it before me, dreaming of better days.

And yet when I first came to the Byron Bay Writers Festival, I had bought the case along for no grand reason other than the fact that I thought it made me look good. I liked the fit of it under my arm as a fashion item. It was cool.

Only when I began to think about what I would say for this literary panel that had so troubled me, how I would deal with the phrase ‘Evocative Images from Around the World’ and the moral dilemmas it provoked, did I really look at the case again and decide that it was worth dusting off, opening up.

The theme ‘evocative images from around the world’ invited the idea that travel writers really are just walking, talking postcards, delivering the world, pleasantly, to our readers’ doors. There is nothing wrong with that, I guess. But I’d like to think it is possible to do more and I said so on the day in much the same way as I am saying so now. I said that it’s possible to bring back images and feelings that contain some humane and deeper relationship to a place or a people, no matter how fleeting the connections might seem. As one might unclip an old, beaten briefcase to reach inside and see, suddenly, despite its emptiness, another kind of story, travelling silently in your company, waiting to be opened and finally heard.

- Mark Mordue

* This story was first published in Spinach7 (Australia) and Bad Idea (UK)

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