Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The long wait in Xinjiang

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Ever since I first heard the name back in the mid 1980s, I was mystified by it: why should Kashgar, a few thousand kilometres from the nearest ocean, have a hotel called Seamen’s? It was actually Seman (with a nasal ending) which ended up wrongly spelled in some shoddy guide book and thus passed into tourists’ usage. There are actually two of the same name, both multi-storeyed, facing each other across a wide street. Taking a room in the older one which has the old Russian Consulate in its backyard, I called Keyoum Mohammad of Kashgar Mountaineering Adventures with whom I had corresponded from Lahore.

The old quarter of Kashgar as seen from the north. Strangely, pictures dating back to the 1880s do not show a town on a high mound, but one flush with the flat ground. The Chinese government is encouraging Uighur people who live in this part of town to abandon it and move to modern apartment blocks in the newer areas of Kashgar. Sooner than later, the old town will be abandoned and razed to the ground

Completely bald, round-faced and chubby Keyoum brought along a young man with a jutting jaw and eyes that crinkled into slits when he smiled. My trekking permit, said Keyoum, was expected any day now. But I had telephoned him from Skardu three weeks earlier to tell him when I would reach Kashgar. Wasn’t that time enough for the permit to be organised? Permits normally took only a couple of days to be processed, he said, and though delays were not unknown, there was no reason to worry if mine had still not come through. Keyoum said he had brought along young Wahab, my interpreter and guide, so that we could get to know each other. Beginning the next morning, Wahab was to gainfully employ the waiting time showing me the sights of Kashgar.

Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore 

Early the next morning Wahab walked me to the old city of Kashgar along wide tarmac streets. These had obviously been laid out only a few years previously because there were no mature, spreading trees, mere saplings along their sides. If it were not for the huge Chinese signs up and down the buildings and across their façades, the architecture could have been from anywhere in the world. The large Chinese lettering across the buildings and the teeming Chinese faces gave the first impression that this was not an Uighur but a Han Chinese city. In contrast, Uighur signs using the Persian alphabet were tucked away at street level as if to underline the lower status of the city’s ethnic majority. We passed a building that would be very much at home on a science fiction set – and I had thought we Pakistanis had a talent for the grotesquely gothic in architecture.

(L to R) Wahab, Tokhti Mohammad Arsh, and the Baltis Haji Akbar Mahmud and his older brother Noor Mohammad Khan outside the ‘largest Shia mosque in all Xinjiang’

This attempt at tinkering with ethnicity was no new phenomenon, however. The Chinese had long coveted Turkistan and even as early as the first millennium of the Common Era, held it briefly. But it was not until 1760 that it fell squarely into Chinese hands during the rule of the Qing Dynasty and became the country’s Xinjiang or New Province. Since then the Chinese have tried every which way to show that this region was always Han country and not an Aryan land. One telling illustration of this rather inane effort comes from Thomas Allen’s account in the March 1996 issue of the National Geographic magazine.

In the first decade of the 20th century, long before the investigation that Allen reported on was undertaken, the archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein had shown that the ruined cities of Niya, Dandan Uilik and several others on the southern rim of the Takla Makan Desert were peopled by an Aryan race. The inscribed wooden slats discovered in the desiccated sand choking the ruined houses revealed not Chinese, but a Punjabi dialect written in Kharoshthi, a script used in northern Punjab since as early as the 8th century BCE. Stein dated the writing boards to the 3rd century BCE.

The expedition Allen wrote of had discovered, among several other starkly Indo-Aryan relics, a few mummified bodies. The auburn or blond hair, broad foreheads and straight noses of the dead showed they were of pure Caucasian stock. Carbon dating revealed one, a woman who would have been an eye-catcher in life, to have lived three thousand eight hundred years ago. Another, a man, was possibly another two thousand years older. Allen wrote: ‘The finding that the mummies significantly predate Han Chinese presence in the area is affecting modern politics and has caused cultural and political consternation in some quarters.’

In the course of exploring the ruined cities, Allen came upon a terra cotta shard bearing the potter’s fingerprint. Showing it to the Han Chinese archaeologist leading the dig, Allen requested permission to take the fragment home to the United States for forensic study. The Chinese archaeologist asked if that study would be able to establish whether the potter was Caucasian or otherwise. Allen said he was not sure. The man took the shard and Allan never saw it again. It is not hard to imagine which quarters Allan was referring to for being alarmed at the nature of the discoveries that showed this ancient land to have long been peopled by an Indo-European race.

And now, over the past three decades, the Chinese government is slowly but inexorably changing the complexion of their Central Asiatic cities. Like the rest of them, Kashgar is fast being swamped with Han Chinese who come here for the various incentives (greater salary as compared to their compatriots in the east and free or cheaper housing) the government offers. At the same time, the city is becoming a forest of those same characterless buildings that can be found anywhere else in the rest of China.

It was along these roads alive with the spirit of China that we walked to the old city of Kashgar sitting on its ten metre-high khaki mound. The houses, some of burnt brick, others mud-plastered and the same colour as the mound, were picturesque with their balconies and first-floor terraces draped with vines and creepers. The stores and teashops still kept their old world air, but their minders and customers were singularly aloof. In an hour or so we had walked nearly every street between the houses on the mound, been mobbed by a bunch of five year-olds who wanted to be photographed and then see themselves on the camera’s LCD monitor and chatted with elderly men gossiping in three different tea and soup shops. All the men were remarkable for being withdrawn and incommunicative: after the initial pleasantries they shut themselves off to us.

As they add to the jungle of apartment buildings, Chinese authorities are systematically shifting residents to the new buildings in exchange for their traditional homes in the old quarter. Wahab said there was some resistance because people, especially the older generation, did not wish to abandon the lifestyle they had always known. Precious little that resistance was doing because by Wahab’s account the forced exodus was slowly emptying the old city. As the traditional housing emptied, municipal authorities moved in to pull them down. It will not be long before the last vestige of the ancient Uighur city gives way to Chinese Kashgar.

A description from Robert Shaw’s High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar had long haunted me. This English merchant had spent the winter of 1868-69 in Kashgar ostensibly as a guest of Khoja Wali Khan Toura, the ruler of the city, but in reality under detention. Shaw refrains from commenting on the reason of his remaining in custody for an entire winter but in those uncertain days of the Great Game, most Europeans in Central Asia were surveyors hoping to dupe native rulers to fall for their overt guise of harmless traders seeking new markets as they surreptitiously engaged in their clandestine survey work. The wily rulers on their part humoured the visitors but did everything they could to thwart their map-making work. Detentions such as Shaw’s were part of the usual stratagems.

Shaw tells us that the cruel and vindictive Wali Khan routinely ordered executions of his subjects, once even killing a mullah whose only fault was that he gave out the call to prayer as the chief passed nearby. The reason for this harsh judgement: the call was hard on the king’s ears. I suppose we could do with such a ruler in Pakistani today where mosques are cheek by jowl sometimes with no fewer than sixteen loudspeakers apiece; those with twice as many are not unusual.

Another time Shaw’s servant reported seeing a corpse lying by one of the gates of the fortress, his clothes and the ground beneath him coloured with his frozen blood. The next day the servant saw a woman weeping over it. The story was that the man, a thief, was caught in the act and jailed. From there he contrived to escape only to be caught again and brought before the king. The mad king heard out the convict’s side of the story, spread out his hands, and simply said ‘Allah o Akbar.’ The thief was led outside the fortress gate and had his throat slit.

I told the story to young Wahab and asked which fort Shaw had mentioned and if it was possible to see the gate where the execution would have taken place. But my young guide was not aware of a fort and of summary executions like the one I had read of.

Wahab was a stickler for halal food. The three days we spent together in Kashgar waiting for my trekking permit to arrive we ate in Uighur restaurants because Chinese restaurants did not use properly butchered meat. Wahab would not even eat fish in a Chinese place because, he feared, their cooking fat could also be dicey. The Uighur restaurants, however, were dirty and their crockery was clearly only cursorily rinsed between customers and you could detect remains of the last meal on your plate. Chinese restaurants, on the other hand, seemed considerably more hygienic.

The only Uighur restaurant that I found acceptable was the fancy Chahar Bagh where Keyoum feted me on the first evening and which, as the name suggests, was a garden in four quadrants where you dined under laden apple and peach trees. Dinner began in reverse order from the rest of the world. Sliced melons (two kinds) came first followed by a platter of salad of sliced tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and some unidentifiable but palatable greens. Shaw, too, had found this procedure peculiar and when he took it up with one of his hosts, he came up against undeniable logic: fruit and raw greens being easily digestible should hit the gut first and run through to make room for the heavier stuff which sat there longer. Shaw wrote that the Kashgaris in effect meant that eating the main course before the fruit and salads was like putting a slow freight train on the track ahead of an express.

Our fruit and salad was followed by a grand feast of vegetable squash-filled mantous (dumplings) and eggplant in a delicious gravy. Xinjiang, as I had unnecessarily feared, was not a vegetarian’s nightmare. Last of all came a huge serving of roast chicken. Not having eaten since breakfast in Tashkurgan, I was famished and shamelessly stuffed myself to the gills.

Chahar Bagh being fancy, the service at least followed practice that many of us are acquainted with. In the many other restaurants where Wahab took me over the subsequent days, our orders never arrived all together. This meant that while one of us was still waiting for his food to be served, the other was already done and picking his teeth. Wahab was perfectly used to it and thought nothing irregular in the system. But even fancy Chahar Bagh, where chopsticks are laid out as a matter of course, was unable to handle a demand for a knife and fork. Having asked for a set and waited about fifteen minutes, I had almost finished my meal when the cutlery arrived, straight from a store, I presume.

From Wahab I also learned of other strange Uighur customs. Houses in the old city have no bathrooms and folks go to public baths. These were seedy places, said Wahab, where you could easily be deprived of your money if you were not vigilant. So as not to leave their women unwashed, they had assigned a couple of days every week to women. Wahab bathed only twice a week on days he had fixed for himself – even in summer which can be blistering hot in Kashgar.

Toilets in old city houses sit on the roof, Wahab reported, and are cleaned once a week. I looked at him to see if he was joking. But he wasn’t. How, I asked, did a family of five or six – the usual size – cope with that, especially in the absence of flushing toilets connected to a disposal system? It would be a horror going in there to relieve oneself, but Wahab seemed confounded by my disgust. Wahab was offended by my revulsion and I had to keep myself from asking if they had an oxygen mask hanging outside the loo to be worn inside. The strange thing was that though his family were staunch, practicing Muslims, their mores of personal hygiene were in variance with the requirement for prayer: they used toilet paper in the loo and not water like Muslims are required to do.

In the space of just one day I was struck by the absence of birdsong in Kashgar. There was, behind Seman Hotel, a nicely shaded beer garden (always deserted) next to the old Russian embassy. I spent my free time under the trees reading or writing and found it odd that the trees were singularly devoid of birds. There wasn’t so much as a common sparrow or even a crow; the place was eerily without birdsong. Indeed, in all my time in Kashgar the only call of a bird I heard was in a bazaar from a yellow bird that I could not identify. It was in a cage hanging by a tree outside a fruit shop.

I mentioned this to Wahab and he said of course there were birds in Kashgar. So he took me to the Sunday Bazaar. Once a famous Kashgar landmark, this seems to have been split in two. We first went to the open air bazaar that deals in fruit, vegetables and livestock. Wahab said they brought caged birds to be sold in this market. But for the Asiatic faces, it was very much like visiting any livestock market in rural Pakistan. We found no birds for sale, however. Nor too any in the poplar trees around the fringes of the open fields where the bazaar is held.

Wahab had never been aware of the absence of birdsong. But then, I suppose, if you have never known anything, you just cannot miss it. He thought it peculiar that I should notice something as insignificant as this when none of the several dozen tourists he had handled before had ever given it any thought.

We were at the 17th century tomb of the adventurer Khoja Hidayatullah better known today as Khoja Afaq where I was electrified by the somnolent cooing of a dove. I grabbed Wahab by the arm and excitedly guided him to the side where the sound emanated. There, above us, in a gap between the merlons running along the parapet below the dome sat a solitary collared dove. I had seen the first bird of Kashgar and I had a man on my hands who clearly thought I was some kind of a nutter. That evening I spotted a lone pied wagtail in the beer garden and five rooks on the wing above.

Wahab also took me to the covered Sunday Bazaar, which is no longer once a week but a daily affair. So far as I could glean from him, the two bazaars were once held in the same open area. But then municipal authorities built this one huge airplane hanger of a shed and partitioned it into cubicles with walkways in between. Here one could buy anything from all sorts of herbs, condiments and mountains of ginseng to cheap time pieces and wrist watches in livid colours as well as dried snakes, worms and assorted insects. There was also a whole bunch of lizards, crisply desiccated, with the stomach cleaned out and the skin of the underbelly sliced down the middle and spread to look like membranes stretched between the fore and hind limbs. I took them for flying lizards but a closer look showed what they really were. On display were sex pills aplenty and Wahab hinted that I should buy pills made from tiger body parts to improve my routine in bed.

One store stocked on medicines from dubious pharmacies in small town Pakistani Punjab. One of these was labelled Roghan Kuchla or Extract of Strychnine! The badly frayed and soiled packaging meant that much of the display had been there long. If one were to go by the labels, Xinjiang seemed plagued by two infirmities: arthritis and impotence. As regards the latter, Xinjiang was in serious competition with Pakistan. The Punjabi products were all for pain relief while everything else, the assorted desiccated wildlife included, was to make better men of the city’s male population.

At the end of the third day in Kashgar with my trekking permit still nowhere in sight, I started getting fidgety. The original plan was that on our way from Kashgar to Karghalik, we would stop in Yarkand for a day or two to look for the Baltis. Neither Keyoum nor young Wahab had ever heard of them, but Keyoum very kindly arranged for us to meet with an acquaintance of his in Yarkand. Being a journalist this man, I was told, would be able to arrange a meeting with some Baltis – if there were any, that is.

Consequently, instead of waiting for the permit in Kashgar, I suggested that in order to save a couple of days Wahab and I should head down the road to Yarkand. Keyoum’s driver could collect us from there for the drive to Raskam where the trek began. We left one afternoon with the landscape dulled by a thick pall of dust, a phenomenon mentioned by every single 19th century traveller in this region. Save the nearer ones, no natural feature was visible; above us, the sky was like a flat sea of sand. Under its blanket of haze, the landscape wore a surreal look.

Farms dotted the country and the road was busy with donkey carts ferrying whole families this way and that. Unlike Pakistan, the carts and bicycles all drove on the correct side of the road. Again, unlike us, the younger women were dressed in blouses, t-shirts, skirts, jeans and high heels, many of them tripping along on their own donkey carts. At home such attire and such activity would immediately endanger Islam, but if Sunnis, Shias and Ismailis can pray together in a single mosque in Kashgar – something unimaginable in Pakistan – without the world coming to an end, so too women showing their calves were endangering neither religion nor the world in Muslim Xinjiang. We passed villages where children played with small pug-faced dogs between the poplar-shaded irrigation channels.

Yarkand with its ever more Chinese colour was more of a disappointment than Kashgar. The Quran mentions the nation of Gog and Magog against whom the king Zulqarnain (The Two-Horned) built a wall of iron blocks steeped with molten copper. The tradition in Pakistan is that these people spend their livelong days licking the wall with their raspy tongues. About nightfall, they have licked their way almost across the wall when they break off to sleep. But the next morning the wall is miraculously restored to its original thickness and the people set to licking it anew. Near Doomsday, so it is believed, they will, by divine leave, eventually lick their way clean through and break out to wreak havoc on the world. Gog and Magog, many in Pakistan believe are the Chinese. And if one were to see the way they are changing the complexion of Xinjiang, the tradition may well be true: the Chinese are inexorably licking their way through the metaphorical wall of another culture.

We checked into Shache Hotel* where the five clocks behind the receptionist’s counter meant to tell the time in different cities of the world were all out of kilter. In Yarkand I learned that foreigners were not permitted lodging in any old hotel they wished; there were only specific hotels like the Shache where outsiders could stay. Though the linen in the room was washed, the wallpaper was peeling, the ceiling cracked and the loo grotty – and this in an establishment that could not be older than twenty years.

Installing ourselves, I got Wahab to call the man Keyoum had said would help us reach the Baltis. Corresponding with him from Lahore, I had not told Keyoum that the real purpose of my journey was to meet some of the Yarkand Baltis and to see the route their forefathers took to the Sarpo Laggo Glacier. He still believed that like all his other clients on this route, I too was driven only by the desire of a gander at the north face of K-2. The reason for this secrecy was the reservation I had concerning the Chinese reaction should they hear I was snooping about this alternate route from Pakistan into China. Over the last few days, the delay in my trekking permit had only added to this paranoia and I had all sorts of nightmare ideas about being denied the trip by the Chinese discovery of my real motive.

Since the Baltis were a minority within the Uighur minority (in the grand Chinese context), and knowing of the Chinese suspicion of their minorities in this remote region of the country, I did not wish to cause anyone undue anxiety. My spiel about the purpose of my trip to Xinjiang therefore was that I could scarcely wait to see the north face of K-2. But since I was here and, as a student of history, having read of the great diplomatic and cultural exchange between Yarkand and Baltistan, I wanted to verify if some of the Yarkand Baltis kept alive tales of those days of heroic travel.

Over the phone, Keyoum’s man confirmed that there were indeed Balti people still living in Yarkand, but said that he was very busy and that we would have to call him later in the day to set up a meeting. My paranoia broke into panic: the Chinese had caught on and our man was stalling in order to organise the necessary posse to arrest me in the act of fanning secession. We had to call the man twice more for him to finally say that he would be unable to meet us. But, he said, he had a writer friend who could put us in touch with the Baltis. This friend, we were told, was a member of the Communist Party and therefore would be better placed to organise things.

The Communist Party! I was now certain the Chinese suspected I was up to no good in their country. The journalist had withdrawn and government machinery had come into play. Tokhti Mohammad Arsh seemed to be waiting for Wahab’s call because he answered the phone immediately. But it was now past sunset and so we arranged to meet him at eight in the morning in his office barely a few steps down the road from our hotel.

Arsh, clean-shaven with forty-seven years of paunch had a good-looking face with hooded eyes and a straight Caucasian nose with wide nostrils. He kept office on the second floor of an utterly soulless grey building where he sat behind a large desk. At his level of the Communist Party there seemed to be little business because his desk was empty but for a pen stand which held no pens and a red phone, perhaps to underline the colour of his ideology. The walls were bare except one poster in Uighur of which I could make no sense at all. He said he was the author of three novels and even though I could not read Uighur, I received a signed copy of each. Quite suddenly, Arsh segued from his own work to a verbose description of the life and times of Aman Nisa Khan, the 16th century musicologist of Yarkand.

There I was itching to be led to the Baltis, but Arsh wanted me to write about Aman Nisa Khan who did not feature in the histories I had read. By a coincidence, they were celebrating her death anniversary over the next three days and he wanted me to attend some of the functions where her music would be played. I tried to guide him away from Ms Khan to the Baltis, but it does not work well when you have an interpreter in between. Arsh soldiered on telling me how she ‘invented’ the system of twelve parental modes in music. The system, so Wahab translated, was very popular in all China and sometime in the 1950s had been ‘introduced’ to the UN where it ‘was valued as traditional music.’ Being singularly illiterate in the subject, I was impressed. Much later in Lahore, I learned that this system was already extant in Persia before Aman Nisa’s time.

It was with considerable difficulty that we brought Arsh to the subject of the Baltis. He cocked his head to one side as he gravely heard Wahab deliver my spiel in Uighur. After Wahab finished, Arsh studied his hands for some time considering, so I thought, whether or not an agent provocateur could be permitted to mingle with uncertain subjects of Beijing. At length he said it was known that there was since the 16th century a great back and forth traffic between his city and Baltistan. However, he was unable to expand on that any further. Then he said that damning word about permission being required to meet the Baltis. I nearly broke into a sweat fearing we could be stuck in Yarkand for days seeking it. I dared not ask who the permission was to be sought from but looked expectantly at Arsh willing him to say it would actually be no problem at all. But he did not. He tried the phone instead and then, putting it down, abruptly left the room.

Ten minutes later Arsh returned and said this being work time; we should meet him outside the building at two thirty in the afternoon. As we left his office, neither of us knew if that meant he had sanction to take us to the Baltis or if he was going to start running around after it then. The intervening five hours were pretty hard on me and it was not without a sense of foreboding that I accompanied Wahab to Arsh’s office at the appointed time. He immediately got up from work, of which there appeared to be little, and walked us out of the office and down the road a short distance. A turn into a dusty back street brought us to a private clinic.

Besides a couple of young women employees at the reception, there were two men in their early twenties clad in white smocks. Telling the men that I was from Pakistan, Arsh explained what I was about. It turned out that the lot were Baltis and one of them spoke broken Urdu. Though his vocabulary could not have been more than fifty words, the young man was very excited at this chance to practice his language and struggled to keep a conversation going with me. Meanwhile, a call was made by the non Urdu-speaking man who talked into the phone for a while and then handed the receiver to me. The voice on the other side spoke very clear Urdu, slowly and with a Persian-speaker’s accent. He said we should get one of the boys to guide us to his home.

Thinking this was as far as Arsh was coming with us, I turned to thank him. But it turned out that he was seeing this cloak and dagger business through to the end. We rode a taxi along one of the boulevards and then into a side street lined with dust-coloured houses. Another turn into an unpaved street that got progressively narrower until the taxi could go no further and we walked the last hundred or so metres to Masjid Ahle Bait.

Haji Akbar Mahmud, in his early forties and his older brother Noor Mohammad Khan stood waiting outside, the one wearing a black robe and the other brown in the same style as the Iranian ayatollahs. Mohalla Five or Dar ul Khazar and its neighbouring Balti Mohalla were the precincts where the entire lot of the two thousand five hundred Baltis of Yarkand lived. To their spiritual needs Noor Mohammad administered as the government-approved imam of the mosque. In keeping with his position, he was appropriately attired in the robe and turban favoured by the Ayatollahs of Iran. Mahmud, on the other hand, was the family’s man of the world. He had been to Syria, Iran and Pakistan ‘for business’ whose nature he did not deign to disclose.

We were given a quick tour of the mosque which was either under construction or being extensively repaired. According to Mahmud this was the largest Shia mosque in all Xinjiang and it had been built with generous funding from the government. He went on to tell me that the Chinese government was very supportive of Muslims, particularly Shias. With nobody translating for the benefit of the others, I found myself wondering if Arsh could also understand Urdu so as to report on what the nosy Pakistani was being told.

‘You have graced us with your presence and Noor Mohammad sahib says that you must now come home for tea,’ Akbar said almost tentatively quite unlike us Pakistanis who irritatingly force tea or whatever else it is upon visitors.

‘You are very kind and we appreciate your hospitality,’ I returned the platitude speaking for the rest of us.

We were guided around the mosque to a nearby home where tea and the round donut-shaped loaves of Xinjiang white bread that I heartily loathed were already being laid out together with boiled eggs and a platter of sliced melon. Over tea Mahmud said that his great-grandfather, Mahmud Akhund, a native of Shigar and much learned in theology (hence the surname), set out at an indeterminate time on the first of his many trading journeys to Yarkand. The route, said Akbar Mahmud, was by a ‘mountain road of great difficulty.’ The journey from Shigar was long and the first city in Xinjiang that one made was Karghalik. That much he had heard from his father and grandfather. He said he had himself never been south of Karghalik, yet he knew that to this day there remain in the great mountain wasteland south of that city some vestiges of the old road.

Like the better off Yarkand Baltis that Godwin-Austen had encountered at Shingchakpi camp ground on the Chiring Glacier, Mahmud Akhund evidently did well because by and by he moved his entire family to Yarkand. Akbar Mahmud said the elders had never mentioned the year that happened. For a moment, I wondered if this grandsire was one of the four Baltis to emerge from the storm clouds that August evening in the year 1861 to confront Godwin-Austen, the explorer from distant Albion. Going by the ages of the brothers however, that did not seem likely. The grandsire would have lived at least half a century later at a time when the Muztagh Pass route was used with ever decreasing frequency. Indeed, Akhund may have been among the last of the Baltis to immigrate.

I asked if they had ever heard of an ancestor Wali who led Francis Younghusband over the glaciers. Mahmud conferred with his brother, an uncle who had just walked in, and Arsh. The word ‘Inglis’ went back and forth and Wali was mentioned a couple of times. But in the past hundred and nineteen years that heroic ancestor was forgotten. Forgotten, too, was the mother tongue. Mahmud had never heard Balti spoken in Xinjiang, not even by his father or others of that generation. One thing that had not changed was the profession most of them followed. In 1869 Robert Shaw found most of the Baltis of Yarkand holding small plots of agricultural land where they were ‘the chief growers of tobacco and melons.’ A good number of them still are.

From no other source do we get any information regarding the vocations the Yarkand Baltis followed. Godwin-Austen tells us that the four men returning from Yarkand whom he met at the Shingchakpi camp ground appeared from their dress and equipment to have done rather better than their brothers at home. Surely the prosperity of the Baltis in Yarkand did not depend only on tobacco and melons. Experienced as they had always been in animal husbandry, I believe dairy production was their other, perhaps, major concern.

For the fifty years that the Tibetans controlled Skardu and Shigar, the émigrés would not have dared returning home. Then, early in 748 CE, as the ten thousand-strong Chinese cavalry under its Korean general Kao Hsin-Chih marched west from Chang’an (modern Xian), word of its progress must have filtered south to Yarkand. The army’s objective, to dislodge the Tibetans from Wakhan and chase them out of the districts of Yasin and Gilgit, would have been music to the immigrants’ ears.

By September that year, the rout of the Tibetans from that region and eventual retreat from Baltistan as well was common knowledge. The more spirited among the Balti émigrés of Yarkand would now have ventured the first trip home in a long time. The guides among them, then in hoary middle age, would have been but boys when their families fled north across the Muztagh Pass. For my hosts for whom history went back only three generations, this would have been high-falutin rubbish. I therefore chose to keep my peace on this.

Instead, I told Mahmud of the Yerkenpa apricot that grows in Shigar and of my failed attempt to bring a sapling for a garden such as his. I also told him of the dried apricot I had in my bag for him and his family. And then it hit me that my backpack with the fruit was still in Kashgar. It was decided that on our way back from our trek, we would stop to leave the fruit with his nephew at the clinic. Mahmud translated for the benefit of the rest and they raised a murmured chorus of approval.

However, in the event, the delivery did not take place. Back in Raskam after the trek, as the gear was being loaded into the jeep for the return journey, I scoured my backpack for the packet. But failing to turn it up, I thought I had dropped it somewhere en route. We did not pause in Yarkand to say there were no apricots to deliver (which was very rude on our part), but drove straight through to Kashgar with the haste of travellers nearing the end of their journey. In Lahore the fruit strangely materialised from some cranny of the backpack. Though I had failed, I had nonetheless taken the apricots full circle.

Item: At 2.00 PM, the hour Tokhti Mohammad Arsh had said we should call him to confirm our date, Wahab made the phone call. When he was finished, he made a wry face and shrugged as if in resignation. My heart sank thinking that meant permission to see the Baltis had been denied. But either these gestures have different meaning in Xinjiang or young Wahab, having picked them up from the Westerners he deals with, did not understand the significance and just used them because he liked them.

This was a day well spent. It rounded off even better with good news from Keyoum: he would see us in Karghalik the following evening with my permit and all our gear for the trek into the mountains.

We took a taxi for the hour-long drive to Karghalik. The road crossed the silty grey waters of the Yarkand Darya and, some time later, Toquz Darya or Nine Rivers. It was wide open country sprinkled with villages and neatly parcelled out in squares of cultivation. Besides the poplar that must be the most prevalent tree in Xinjiang, there was the other kind that reminded me of the kundi (genus Prosopis) that thrives in the desert regions of Pakistan. Once again I missed the birds; the pug-faced dogs, the children who played with them and the atmospheric dust remained persistent.

Our taxi drove clear across town to the south side and deposited us outside the swank K-2 Hotel or, as it was also known, Chogor Mehman Khane. Recently completed, this hotel, sitting by the side of the road that leads to Tibet, hopes to cater to the tourist traffic heading either into the mountains like us or kicking off for the Tibetan marathon. It was in an idle moment after checking in that I noticed the sign again. The names K-2 and Chogor side by side suddenly caught my eye.

‘Wahab, what does Chogor mean?’ 

'It’s the name of K-2.’

‘No, the meaning? What does Chogor mean?

‘Nothing. It has no meaning. It’s only a name in Uighur and Kirghiz.’

Chogor had no meaning in either of the languages and it is so undeniably close to the Balti name Chhogho Ri that it could only derive from it. The premise stirring in my mind since the time I began dabbling in the meanings of the various names on the Pakistan side was that the Baltis of Shigar Valley were the greatest, most adventurous, travellers in this part of the world was now confirmed. They traversed the glaciers spreading outward from their villages long before the first European explorers ventured into their ice world. The Baltis travelled and though they never made maps that either lasted for any length of time or reached the outside world, they left a record of their epic journeys in the names they gave the peaks, rivers, glaciers and passes. Their maps were preserved in their minds and passed from generation to generation with so much precision that every first-time traveller knew where to expect what.

When they first ventured down from the Muztagh Pass and across that vast desolation that spreads between its frozen crest and Karghalik, they quickly identified their Chhogho Ri from the north side. In the first villages of Turkistan they would have enthralled their awestruck Kirghiz and Uighur audience with tales of their struggles across the wasteland of peaks, glaciers and river valleys. And when the earliest Turkistani travellers braved the hazards of the same journey in reverse, they would have known Chhogho Ri when they saw it. They pronounced the name as they remembered it: Chogor.


In Yarkand, Akbar Mahmud had said there were Baltis living in Karghalik and Khotan as well. En route we had quizzed our taxi driver and he confirmed the presence of the Baltis in Karghalik, but he did not know which quarter of town they lived in. Determined to meet some of them, we rode a taxi into town while Wahab asked the driver about the Baltis. He had never heard of them. Not far from the town’s main mosque we found the footpaths thronging with virtually hundreds of men of all ages. This, Wahab said, was as good a place as any to find some oldies to interview.

Strung out along the footpath were dozens of four-man teams playing some card game. Each team was under the intent scrutiny of as many as a dozen other men. There were other teams, again four men, playing something like checkers with pebbles for pieces on a board scratched out in the concrete of the footpath. Yet others sat languidly on the steps of nearby buildings not doing anything at all – not even talking amongst themselves. Their only activity was the occasional scratching inside their shirts. Wahab spoke with several men, but we only turned up blanks: nobody had ever heard of the Baltis. As we were walking away wondering how the taxi driver was so certain, Wahab said the men were perhaps afraid to talk about the Baltis. So, we left it at that.

The euphoria of the day before when we received the call from Keyoum telling us to expect him in the evening in Karghalik began to ebb when he did not turn up. It died when Wahab’s repeated phone calls remained unanswered. The silence dragged into the following day pulling me under a dark pall of gloom. Wahab, having avoided me the whole day because of my dark mood, came around in the afternoon to say that Keyoum had called from Khotan where he was waiting to get my permit stamped from the army headquarters. I had now been in Xinjiang for a full week. My permit had been applied for three weeks before that. That it was taking the authorities a month to allow me to go walking in their mountains seemed to imply that they found me suspicious. I began to fear that I might not be able to fulfil my dream of following the Central Asiatic side of the Baltis’ itinerary.

With me going ‘Bah!’ every few minutes, Wahab thought it wise to make himself scarce. What was happening was none of his fault, but the poor man was so apologetic that I felt sorry for him and ashamed of my endless griping. Meanwhile, our driver arrived from Kashgar with all our gear, but to me this seemed like the diversion one presents to a child to take his mind of something else.

That night I lay awake in bed, sleeping only in short snatches. Unable to read, I watched a c-grade Hollywood flick poorly dubbed into Chinese. To suit the audience it was replete with dragons and assorted monsters. At breakfast I told Wahab I was going back to bed and that he should please rouse me in time for the 12.00 noon check out so that we head back to Kashgar.

Thirty minutes before noon a breathless Wahab burst into my room: Keyoum had the necessary sanction from Khotan and was on his way to Poskam (we had passed it on our way from Yarkand) for the last endorsement. It turned out that all trekking permits, made out in quintuplicate, have to be sanctioned by military authorities in Kashgar, Urumchi, Khotan, and Poskam. And I had thought the Pakistan Army had a finger in every pie! At home such permissions lie in the realm of the Ministry of Tourism and take a couple of days at most.

Keyoum eventually made Karghalik at 3.30 in the afternoon. He had one set of papers for Wahab to hand over to the army at Ilica and another thick wad which was ‘just in case.’ Keyoum said he had a severe headache and he did look like death: unshaven, unwashed and with spittle caking the corners of his mouth. He had not eaten since the night before, he said. Expecting to get my documents signed after wining and dining the military officer, Keyoum had taken the papers along but had failed to bring the man around to it. In order to accost the man first thing in the morning as he came in to work, Keyoum spent the night in his car parked outside the Khotan military headquarters. Only then was he able to get them signed by mid-morning. After this, there remained the somewhat lesser ordeal in Poskam.

I wanted to hear everything, but Keyoum said the tale was far too long and we needed to be getting away immediately. Raskam where we were to get our camels was a long way, he said. The suggestion was that we overnight either in Kuday or in Mazar on the way, leave before dawn to make Raskam in good time for onward departure by camel that same day.

* Shache, the Chinese name for Yarkand. It is common practice for Xinjiang cities to have a Uighur or Kirghiz as well as a Chinese name.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 30 April 2014 at 07:09, Blogger Unknown said...

"The large Chinese lettering across the buildings and the teeming Chinese faces gave the first impression that this was not an Uighur but a Han Chinese city."....I had the same impression about Lhasa. It seemed to be a Han Chinese city and not Tibetan.

At 30 April 2014 at 07:11, Blogger Unknown said...

Since you mentioned Sir Aurel Stein, you may read this one from my blog about a Punjabi "Rai Bahadur Lal Singh" who accompanied him as his trusted man and the Cartographer for the expedition.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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