April 23, 2009

Hotan, Uyghur Autonomous Region within China

Crossing the length of the Taklamaken Desert was like traveling through a long and sandy border, which divided a multi-ethnic region to that of Uyghur-ville. Stepping out of the bus in Hotan was like stepping into another country altogether.
It might be easier to just rip open your chest upon arrival and have someone sandblast your lungs and then sandpaper your pupils so that you get it over with all at once, rather than suffer the slow sand erosion that eventually takes over your body…breath by breath, blink by blink. Walking the streets feels a bit like your inside a vacuum trying to suck up a shoreline, but once you get used to the tearing and the wheezing, there is definitely some fun to be had in Hotan.

Catch a Glimpse of the Stone Age
On the bus ride in, we passed an incredibly white, mostly dried up river which had foggy looking humans lurking about its’ rocky bed. Inquiring about this to the only person I briefly met who spoke a tiny shred of English, I found out that this is where the locals pick natural Jade to buy and sell in the markets. Salivating at the photo-op, I found my way back to this river and to the market that sat along its’ dusty bank. It was filled almost entirely with men; men washing stones, men rubbing stones, men talking to stones, men trading stones, men transporting stones...in other words, men playing with stones. The only women that were there were the ones providing food to all the stoneheads, and since I knew more about dumplings than I did stones, I decided to take a seat with the ladies, front and center, and watch all the men getting stoned.
After leaving the market, and over the next day that I was in town, I saw many stone gatherings on the streets. The same ritual seemed to occur every time: men hanging out, men hanging out with stones, men using stones as a way to hang out, men are stuck in the stone ages.

Become a Bus Driving Assistant
It’s not what you see, it’s how you get there. Or don't get there for that matter. On my first day in Hotan I had secured local lodging, made it to the white jade river, the city park, the outdoor market and the town square. For my second day, I had written down that I wanted to see the silk factory and the winery. The silk factory made sense since I was following the ancient silk road, but an Uyghur winery located in remote western China was a far, and probably very wrong, stretch of the imagination.
Traveling without a guidebook or any useful foreign language skills in places like this, I had managed to get the same guy who spoke a shred of English to write down the very simple description of silk house and wine house in Mandarin. Written characters gets you everywhere in China, but not so much in Uyghur-ville, where they read according to a modified Arabic alphabet. Mandarin is the minority language in Hotan and English is non-existent. But I had my translated piece of paper, so I started waving it about town, until I stumbled upon a bus driver who wanted to make me Second in Command. That’s right, Co-captain of local Uyghur Bus #4.
How should I describe this experience? Well, it was kind of like being a child and getting invited into the cockpit to sit with the captain and steer the plane for a minute. While I didn’t quite steer the bus while sitting on the driver’s lap, I did get to sit up front on the consul next to him and press the button that opens and closes the doors. And while we never did figure out the location of the silk factory or the winery (not that I would have understood anything there anyway), I was having so much fun on the bus that I took two entire city loops as Second in Command.

Lost in the Double Translation
As I mentioned, Mandarin is the minority language in Hotan and English is non-existent. It’s really fun if you can find a Chinese person, like I did, who can translate something from English into Chinese characters. Then you take that to an Uyghur person who then takes that back to a Chinese person for translation and then reports to you in a language you don’t understand anyway. It’s like a good game of telephone.

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