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A Feast for the Senses
Xinjiang in a foreigner’s eye
By Pamela Tobey | NO. 50 DECEMBER 13, 2018

A seller sits among his pottery just inside the main gate of the old city of Kashgar, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (PAMELA TOBEY)

Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is a study in contrasts. It is everything you expect and yet nothing like what you expect. Spices perfume the air in markets, redolent of chili, cardamom and cumin, with a hint of rose. Colorful rugs are rolled up and stacked upright like boxes of crayons. Brightly colored fabrics hang as they wait to be sewn into garments or curtains. Stacks of beautifully embroidered traditional Uygur caps are balanced on shelves. Carts full of freshly picked grapes and pomegranates dot the streets. The delicious aroma of lamb chunks roasting over open grills is all-consuming. Everywhere there is a whirl of color, from women's outfits to vividly painted and intricately carved doors and trim.

Although I live in Beijing, I often travel around China to see historical sites and museums and love trying local dishes. In Xinjiang, I experienced a bit of China's Silk Road north of the Taklamakan Desert, from Korla to Kashgar.

Our first stop in Korla was at the old Uygur market painted in a bright blue. The shops offered a variety of products including spices, teas, fruit, fabrics, curtains and gold jewelry. Although the older men were dressed in conservative colors, the women were like birds of paradise, clad in brightly colored clothes topped with sparkling head scarves or intricately embroidered caps.

Our appearance at a large restaurant caused a stir when a group of children at a birthday party spotted us, practicing their English phrases on us. Since most of us in the group were foreigners working in Beijing or Shanghai, we were pretty familiar with Uygur food. But the dishes we ate in Xinjiang all seemed to taste better, spicier, fresher and more flavorful. We also got to try the area specialty, the fragrant pear, which I didn't think was more fragrant than the plain Asian pears I find in Beijing, but it was much sweeter and more delicious.

Kuqa was next on the itinerary, where, in addition to the colorful old town area and its large covered market, we saw the Grand Mosque and the King of Kuqa's palace and grounds. This time our dinner presented us with something new. What we thought was dapanji (big plate chicken) turned out to be lamb chunks and sweet turnips on a bed of wide noodles with a spicy sauce instead of the usual chicken and potatoes. I also had some of the best tomatoes and eggs I've ever had in China.

Leaving Kuqa, we saw the ancient Buddhist city of Subashi followed by more of the region's Buddhist history the next day at the Kizil Thousand-Buddha Caves, where over 1,700 years ago, 236 caves were carved along a 2-km cliff area. Some 135 of them remain relatively intact, with murals that have maintained much of their bright coloration and fanciful Buddhist figures covering the walls and ceilings.

Our journey ended at the oasis city of Kashgar, one of the westernmost cities in China, with close proximity to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Very little of the original old city remains after much of it was razed, but it has been rebuilt to modern fire and earthquake codes, retaining its distinctive ancient Islamic architecture. Wandering through the rebuilt area, I was struck by the intricate woodwork and ceramic on many of the buildings. Both Chinese and foreign tourists wandered the narrow streets as the locals went about running their businesses or shopping the outdoor stands, while children played all over.

We saw the old Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, which was built in 1442. No day in Kashgar is complete, without a visit to the Grand Bazaar, with rows and rows of stalls featuring rugs, scarves, musical instruments, fabric, gold jewelry, spices and teas, as well as mundane household goods. We managed to bargain, with modest success, for two soft silk rugs in traditional patterns for our apartment back in Beijing.

Our last day in Kashgar was spent at the local livestock market, where residents came to sell and buy sheep, cashmere goats, yaks, milk cows, camels and one little donkey. A large outdoor area where each owner tied their livestock for display was full of sheep, regular brown goats and pretty little white cashmere goats with curling horns. Outside of this area were rows of vendors selling lamb chunks on small naan bread, lamb kebabs, fragrant steamed rice pilaf and other local street food. Butchered sheep hung on nearby hooks where cooks would carve off slices of meat for their dishes. One vendor at the end was skinning and trimming several slaughtered sheep to wrap in plastic and hang for sale, ready for buyers to cart off to their restaurants or sidewalk kebab stands.

Xinjiang felt like a different world, with its many mosques, distinctive cuisine, intricate and colorful architecture and teeming old markets. Its colors and fragrances will remain with me and my two Kashgar silk rugs and the naan pattern pricker will always remind me of my colorful trip out west.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

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