Mosques, Pagodas and Art – Silk Road Journeys

Mosques, Pagodas and Art – Silk Road Journeys

Far North West China

Whether or not there was ever a Marco Polo who travelled from Venice along trade routes, which over the centuries have become known as the Silk Road or Silk Route, the story has inspired a lot of journeys, including some of mine.

My first encounter with the Silk Road was in China, from Urumqi/Kashgar to Xian, in late 1992.  It wasn’t just the traders I was interested in.   I was also interested in the spies, adventurers, archaeologists and thieves who had intrigued, stolen and plundered along the routes which earlier traders had established.

The fact that the plane I travelled on from Beijing to Urumqi actually made it to Urumqi in one piece seemed like a miracle, although worse planes were to come later in the trip.  My seat back fell backwards on take off, and if I leaned back, it also went into recline position.  One passenger had a bucket if water, with fish in it. Another had a burner of some kind, on which he made tea.

A lot of passengers were Russians, who had been shopping in Beijing.  Sewing machines and typewriters and other bulky consumer items were piled up in the aisle. An Aeroflot plane was waiting for them at Urumqi – their struggles with the hand luggage made for interesting viewing.

Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in the north west of China and was a major hub on the silk road.  The Kazaks in the Tian Shan mountains near Urumqi were packing up their Yurts to move down from the mountains for the winter.   Apparently Yurts have been used as dwellings since ancient time.  I have wanted a yurt of my own ever since seeing them in Xinjiang.

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A Yurt near Urumqi

The first thing I noticed was that the majority of people were not Han Chinese.  Uygur people are a turkic ethnic group and primarily muslims.  The second thing I noticed was a huge presence of soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army, all of whom appeared to be Han Chinese.

There had been some unrest in the region earlier in 1992, but the Chinese Government was not practising the mass detention and re-education of the Uygur people that has been happening over the past few years.

It was pitch black when I was awoken by loudspeaker announcements and martial type music on the first morning in Urumqi.  I went out to investigate, following the sounds through poplar trees.  It was almost dawn. There was a slight mist and the autumnal leaves were drifting down from the trees, covering the road with a yellow and orange carpet.  The announcements and music were getting louder. Alarmingly, a platoon of PLA soldiers loomed out of the mist, armed and running in formation, towards me.

I could see the headlines – “Foreign Woman Arrested” or more alarmingly “Foreign Woman Killed”.  They ran past, without a sideways glance, and disappeared into the gloom.   No headlines were generated, and I wandered back to the hotel for breakfast to the sounds of martial music.

The bazaar in Urumqi in 1992 was not the grand bazaar it appears to be today.  The butcher’s stall was was like no other butcher’s shop I had seen.   The carcasses were hanging in the open.  A dog was asleep in front.  When a customer arrived, there was a lively exchange between the customer and the butcher, then a lump of meat was hacked off a carcass for the customer.  All the while the dog slept on.

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The Butcher shop, Urumqi Bazaar 1992

Kashgar is mentioned in “The Travels of Marco Polo”.  Polo was apparently in Kashgar in 1273, about 70 years after it was seized by Ghengis Khan and he described it as the “biggest city and the most splendid city” in the province.

Kashgar is one of the remotest places I have ever visited, and was one of the ancient Silk Road oasis towns.   It is surrounded by the Karakorum and Pamir Mountains, and the Taklamakan desert.

It was here that the spy element of my journey was introduced.  In the late 19th century Britain and Russia were engaged in a competition for power and influence in Central Asia.  Kashgar was a listening post in what was called the Great Game – the diplomats were spies.  In addition to information and influence, they were rivals in the acquisition of silk road antiquities. The British were also worried that the Russians would try to invade India, which at the time was Britain’s jewel in the crown.

I was staying at a hotel which has the former Russian consulate located in its grounds.  My room was in a dormitory type building behind the rather grand main building, and close to the old Russian embassy.  The atmosphere, in 1992, was fairly primitive.  The toilet threw its contents back at you when flushed, and otherwise leaked water all over the floor.  Hot water only available occasionally.  No water available at times, and the electricity supply was very unpredictable.

A number of the women in Kashgar wore a brown woollen shawl like garment over their heads, which fell to below their waist.  There were no eye slits – they had to peer through the weave of the covering garment.  If they wanted to chat to another woman, they both took cover under one garment.

Women chatting in Kashgar

The majority of women did not have their faces covered.  Some wore headscarves, others hats, and many were bare headed. Most of them were very well dressed and smart.  It rained while I was in Kashgar, and the dust turned to mud.  No matter how careful I was, I was still splattered with mud to my knees, and my shoes were caked in mud. The Uygar women remained pristine.

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The bazaar I visited in 1992 appears to have been demolished, as part of the destruction of the Old City.  Recent images I have seen show a very different Old City to the one I saw.  It was the first bazaar I had ever visited, and I was a little apprehensive.  There were no other tourists around.  No one spoke English, and the items for sale in the market appeared, in the main, to be items that local people would acquire.  The only things which may have been for tourists were a large array of very fancy knives and supposedly “genuine” Uygur musical instruments.  Old men stood around chatting, women were shopping and young men were sitting around, keeping the various vendors company.

That afternoon I visited the Old City, which has apparently mostly been demolished, and is now the new Old City.  The mud brick houses crowded along narrow laneways.  Children played in the muddy water.

People worked in their homes.  One dwelling contained a kiln downstairs where the potters who lived in the house fired their pottery.  They sold the pottery in the bazaar. Crops were drying on rooftops.

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Once inside a traditional courtyard house, the squalor of the laneway receded.  The home was very pleasant.  Roses and geraniums in pots in the courtyard beautified and softened the area.  Shy children peeped at us through the  the plants.  Whilst this house was a “show” home, which we paid to enter, occasionally a door would be open, showing an attractive interior courtyard full of plants.

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I also visited a house where a daughter was about to be married.  Her dowry contained items of the most beautiful silks I have seen.  I wondered what her life would be like once married.  When would she have the opportunity to wear these beautiful silk garments?

The most common forms of transport were donkey carts and bicycles.  This was the place where I learned that donkeys did not “hee haw” as such.  The noise that these donkeys were emitting was akin to bellowing.  Very very loud.  I had met a few donkeys in my life, but I hadn’t heard them make any sound, not even a hee haw.  I thought perhaps the braying of Kashgar donkeys was particular to them.  I have since learned that that noise was indeed a hee haw.  They hee when inhaling and haw when exhaling, but they don’t just do it once.  They bray for around 20 seconds, so lots of hees and lots of haws.  I have listened to donkeys braying since, and even with this information, I cannot discern a hee or a haw.


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The Idkah Mosque in Kashgar was my introduction to Islamic architecture.  The mosque was built in 1442, but it is thought to be on the site of an older structure dating back to 996.  It has been renovated and enlarged since my visit in 1992.

The external facade of the mosque is covered in yellow ceramic tiles, and the minarets are decorated with coloured bands.   It was like a drop of sunshine on an otherwise grey day.

Idkah Mosque, Kashgar.

I was less than impressed with the inside. The prayer hall was filled with prayer rugs and carpets, and there was little else to see. An extremely unpleasant man followed us around and made it quite clear that we were not welcome, even though we had paid an entry fee.

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My entry ticket to visit Idkah Mosque in 1992

Visiting Tombs and a Pagoda near Kashgar completed my North Western China experience.

The Abakh Khoja Tomb is situated 5km north east of Kashgar, and is approached through long straight poplar lined roads. The tomb, originally built in 1640, is covered with green glazed tiles and the minarets are decorated with stripes. Five generations of a family are buried in the tomb, which is surrounded by an above ground cemetery.

As we arrived at the Tomb of Mohammed Kashgeri, I could hear the most beautiful haunting singing.  A goatherd was singing to his goats.  The goats were oblivious, but I was entranced.

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Mohammed Kashgeri was a well known Uygur philologist who wrote a Turkish dictionary in the 11th-12th century.  There was a white poplar in a pond, supposedly planted by him. The tomb smelt like cats piss, and the poplar had seen better days.

The Mor Pagoda is only about 35km north east of Kashgar but it took over an hour to get there.  Initially the road was lined with poplars, behind which were high mud brick walls.  Occasional open doors in the walls provided glimpses of lovely grape covered courtyards, and little children came out to wave.  We passed a herd of sheep, and numerous big carts loaded with cotton and sweet corn.  There were dozens of donkey carts being driven by men who were coming home from Friday prayers.

The poplars and the crops dwindled and disappeared, and we were in the desert.

The Mor Pagoda was built around the 7th century and destroyed in the 12th century. Other than the Stupa, little remains.   It was raining softly when we visited – we were wandering around the site, and in the desert with umbrellas.  The landscape was grand and bleak at the same time.

The Stupa of the Mor Pagoda.

It was then time to catch our flight to Urumqi, and begin the next stage of the Silk Road journey.  This stage introduced the archaeologists and thieves – maybe that should be rephrased – the archaeologists who stole antiquities and smuggled them out of the country.