Beyond the ghost towns

January 10, 2009

3/12/08 Cherchen, Xinjiang, China

The main roads which lead into the oasis towns that lie on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert are but thirsty veins creeping to the surface of an otherwise healthy body. They run shallowly along the surfaces of the towns, offering an unsubstantive glimpse of the lives that are led there.


In most cases, when we arrived in public buses, we would be puzzled by the desertedness of the wide arterial avenues. There would be shops, restaurants, with signs in both Uighur and oversized Chinese characters, but so few people. Where is everybody? I would wonder.


And time and time again, it would only be when we would lose ourselves down the unpaved streets or behind the imposing government buildings that we would find evidence of livelihood, social and commercial hubs. The new Han towns, comprising the bus station and various retail shops, are artificial centres. The combination of their grandeur and fakeness renders them both farcical and defunct, while the real pulse of life can be felt in the old Uighur parts of town.


In Hotan, a city famed for its jade, the newly arrived visitor is tempted towards Hantown by a massive statue of Mao greeting an Uighur peasant, which can be seen from half a kilometre away approaching from three different main roads. Below the statue, a series of images tell the story of the majestic encounter: the peasant, having suffered under the harsh hands of warlords and the Guomindang, was so enthralled by the arrival of Communist forces upon their ‘liberation’ of Xinjiang and the justice that they brought to the region that he decided to travel, by donkey, to Beijing in order to thank the Chairman himself. The statue is a replica of that meeting, with the meek peasant expressing his gratitude and Mao commending him for his revolutionary steadfastness in the face of so many years of hardship.


Whether or not the story is true (I seriously doubt it) is insignificant compared to the fact that it is a massive piece of propaganda which is being used to mark the new centre of Hotan. But this new ‘downtown’, with its multi-story banks, fast-food chains and tasteless fluorescent streetlights in the shape of palm trees pales in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the Uighur bazaar, which lies about a kilometre to the south east of the Mao statue. The roads surrounding the bazaar are, literally, crammed with people. There are countless food stalls, bakeries, fruit stands, cobblers and carpet shops, and hundreds of people milling around between, either customers or merchants themselves. This is where the heart of Hotan lies, even though its head has been decapitated and moved uptown in the government’s policy of urban fragmentation.


When we arrived on a bus in Keriya, we encountered similar scenes: wide, lifeless avenues. Wandering aimlessly down the one outside the bus station, we saw a small covered bazaar off to one side, where things were definitely in fuller swing. Further on, we saw the towering facade of a mosque, and walked towards it. As we go closer, we saw that a string of stalls ran from the entrance along the sidewalk both to the right and left, creating another little beehive of life, that was really really buzzing. There were hundreds and hundreds of people, later we realised thousands. And as we got close to the mosques entrance, we realised why: floods of men were leaving the mosque, and amongst them a coffin was being carried high on the shoulders of one group. It was a funeral.


We sat outside the mosque watching the men exit. It is only men who are allowed in Uighur mosques; women have to pray at home. As they left the building, some stopped to chat to eachother, while others ventured towards the merchants who displayed their wares on the pavement or on small tables: thermal underwear for men, women and children; leather coats on sale for 50 yuan (about five quid); sticky slabs of walnuts and honey; baked sweet potatoes and steaming slices of bright orange pumpkin.


When the stream of mourners started to thin, we walked along the market, which faded into women peddling sad-looking cabbage on the street, after which we turned off on a dirt path to find a street of restaurants, now brimming with customers after the funeral, enjoying lamb kebabs or steaming meat pies. Back on the road, we passed an alley of tinkers, hammering away on metal furnaces, pipes and cooking pans, and some children playing in a coal depot. The street was still lively, but as we made our way back to the bus station, it progressively quieted down, until we once again found ourselves on the large, quiet avenues. Up ahead, we saw a statue, and decided to take a look before we caught our ongoing bus to Niya. There, in a deserted, burgundy-tiled square just off the main road out of the town, was the towering statue of Mao and the peasant.


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