Uighur Knives and Ramadan

The next morning we woke up, boarded the van, and made the drive to the museum… oh wait no, the airport. We had been planning on visiting the museum in the morning to see the famous Caucasian mummies found in the Gobi desert, but our guide told us that we (randomly) would not have enough time to get to the airport unless we went… now. She also warned us that we could have a maximum 5lb carry on, no umbrellas, no liquids whatsoever, and no batteries- so we were all forced to rearrange everything- pulling the batteries out of our phones and cameras. Apparently, because of the past terrorist attacks the airport security in Xinjiang is ridiculously strict. We complied with her orders and got to the airport five hours before our flight. Yes, five hours. We went through a preliminary check point entering through the doors, and, what do you know?! We weren’t allowed to check in until an hour before the flight. Really?! Our tour guide then left us, bright eyed and bushy tailed- probably glad to be skipping out on her job four hours early so she could go hang out with her college friends.

What were we to do for the next five hours? Hang out at Best Food of course. What is Best Food? Only the BEST fast food place ever… at the Urumqi airport… because it was the only fast food place at the Urumqi airport. It was extremely sub-par, and Margo and I spent multiple hours playing two-person card games. Why would you want to spend the morning seeing Caucasian mummies found in a Chinese desert when you could play two-person card games?! Eventually, after wasting an entire day at the airport, we were allowed to check in. We were all nervous about the weight of our bags, as we stood in the security line. But you know what was different about Urumqi airport security compared to American airport security?? Nothing.

After an infuriating day at the airport, we boarded our plane to Kashgar. While Urumqi is in Xinjiang, it’s primarily a Han Chinese city. The government has been encouraging Han Chinese people to move to Xinjiang and Tibet to “develop Western China”- aka move so many Han Chinese people into both these provinces so that it would be impossible for them to secede. Case in point: my roommate. Her family, originally from Shenzhen, moved to Urumqi for real estate development jobs. But while Urumqi is majority Han Chinese, Kashgar is definitely not. Urumqi is in somewhat central Xinjiang, while Kashgar is right near the boarder with Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Joe warned Margo and I that we should dress conservatively in Kashgar- meaning long pants or skirts and a shirt with some sort of sleeve. Margo and I changed into our long pants at the airport- you know, the ones that were stinky, sweaty and sandy from camel riding- and we wandered outside into the desert sun. We met our tour guide, Mamajan, who was a vast improvement over our last two tour guides. Apparently he mainly manages and trains tour guides now, but he makes a special exception for Alliance three times a year. Of course came the obligatory “Why are there so many Africans here?!” when we walked out of the airport- and Mamajan almost died laughing when we told him what our last tour guide had said about Uighurs.

We drove to our hotel, checked in, and got comfy. The room in Kashgar was a nice improvement over our room in the mountains, however, there was one very interesting feature: There was a window that looked into the bathroom. Now it wasn’t just any window- I’m talking about a full-size window the entire length of the shower wall. This window had a curtain that was controlled by- you guessed it- the outside of the shower. So, if for some reason Margo had some strange impulse to watch me take a shower, all she had to do was pull up the curtain.

We had an hour or so in our rooms before we had to leave for dinner. The only problem with the whole dinner thing? Apparently we arrived in Xinjiang just in time for Ramadan. Ramadan is a holiday in which Muslims fast from sun up to sundown. Because almost every resident of Kashgar is a Uighur or Hui minority (Hui are historically Muslim Han Chinese people) almost no one besides children or menstruating women were eating. We did find a restaurant that was ready to serve around 9:00 pm (in the summer it doesn’t get dark till around 10:30pm). Mamajan ordered us an extremely delicious meal of lamb chuar, noodles and the Xinjiang version of a lamb pita pocket. It was all extremely good, especially the noodles. All of the waitresses at the restaurant were wearing a traditional clothing with a colorful, somewhat tye-die-esque diamond pattern which is seen all over Xinjiang. It’s a really cool pattern and now that I’m home I see it everywhere on blouses, pillows and other decorative objects.

After an amazing meal, we headed back to the hotel for a good nights sleep. We had to be up early for the ride to Yarkent, a small Uighur village, in the morning. In case you were wondering, no we have not spent more than one night in each hotel since we left.

The next morning Margo and I woke up and took the elevator to breakfast. Breakfast was definitely interesting: a combination between a Chinese breakfast with noodles and soggy egg/tomato dishes and what I would consider a Xinjiang breakfast: bread and fruit. I helped myself to bread, fruit and hardboiled eggs as well as some spicy noodles (what can I say, I’m Chinese now) while we waited for the rest of the crew. The six of us with Mamajan in tow, hopped into our van to make the four hour drive to Yarkent. While the ride started out well, there was one issue, and that was the fact that our little van didn’t have shocks and the highways were not super smooth. While I was fine at first, after bouncing up and down for an hour I began to feel sicker and sicker- to the point where I’m pretty sure my face was green. Daniele offered to switch with me because he was cold from the air conditioning blowing on him in the second row, so I agreed to wait about a half an hour to switch until we reached our halfway point: the Uighur knife stores.

The rout to the knife stores was very interesting: parts of the highway were completely flooded from the earlier rains, and we were forced to either drive through the water at 5 mph or detour off the road into the Gobi desert. Let’s just say my stomach wasn’t too happy about that. Eventually we pulled off the highway onto a road with many small knife stores. Mamajan lead us into one, where he had a personal relationship with the owner. Uighur knives are famous and beautiful. My favorite ones were elegantly curved and had Uighur script inscribed along the blades. For some reason China has banned checking Uighur knives on planes so they must be shipped from the store to your location in China. I decided it wasn’t really worth the cost and the possibility of it getting lost in the mail (which has happened to a Xi’an student before), but everyone else bought a few to take home as souvenirs and gifts. The Uighur knives are cool because they aren’t just for show, they are extremely sharp and can be used in real-life. Because we bought so many knives (aka Clayton bought out the store), the owner brought out some apricots from the tree in his backyard for us to nibble on. They were the BEST apricots I had ever eaten in my life and we devoured all of them. They also gave us some tea which is famous in Xinjiang.

One thing I found interesting about the knife shop was that the wife’s owner had a scarf wrapped around her head covering everything but her eyes. While I have seen pictures of women in Burkahs before, I had never seen a woman wearing a colorful scarf tightly wrapped around her head and face. This woman was wearing a tunic with genie pants and had her eyes rimmed with dark kohl. This woman was the first of a few that I saw covering their faces in Xinjiang, and for some reason I found her to be beautiful in a mysterious way. I wanted to talk to her about her life in rural Xinjiang, but unfortunately she only spoke Uighur.

Because we bought so many knives (aka everyone else bought so many knives), a friend of the storeowner offered to walk us to his knife factory. We happily agreed and followed him along the side of an irrigation canal to a small house. This house reminded me a lot of the house we visited in Shaxi, the rural village in Yunnan. The house was square with the center being a large, dirt courtyard. There we saw a few men turning chunks of metal into shiny, beautiful knives via a dirt oven in the ground. It was very interesting to see the process, and we were shown objects at each step along the way. This was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m sure we’re some of the only foreigners (if not only) who had ever been there to see this process. Sometimes I’m still amazed at all of the things I’ve been able to do and see while in China.

More interesting than the knives was a little girl that lived in the compound. She was probably one to two years old and had a kohl unibrow drawn on her forehead. I asked Mamajan about it and he told me that a unibrow is a symbol of beauty in Uighur culture. After that point I saw women, children and babies of all ages with drawn on unibrows. It was so fascinating to compare the Uighur ideal beauty with the Western and Chinese beauty ideals I’m so familiar with!

Baby with a drawn on unibrow

Eventually, after a nice long drive, we made it to Yarkent just in time for a late lunch. We were able to find one Hui restaurant that was open (thank GOD) and scarfed down noodles, chuar and bread in a small, dirty, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. However, it was very good food! After lunch we ran to our hotel and lugged our bags up to our rooms, complete with another shower window! We weren’t in our rooms long though, because we had to hop back in the van to see the animal market! Stay tuned for my next post all about donkey haggling, fresh honey and exploring ancient tombs!

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About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I currently live in China where I'm studying for my master's degree!
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One Response to Uighur Knives and Ramadan

  1. Pingback: Xinjiang | Richelle Gamlam Photography

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