26 February 2006

Foreign Impressions of Kuche, Xinjiang, China

Sunday's Japan Times ran a two-part special report from China's Xinjiang by Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo. Here's an excerpt from his impressions of the dusty outback town of Kuche.
Pulling into the dusty, smoky-as-a-BBQ-pit town of Kuche, the hotels also sport a pachinko glitter, while along the main streets the now familiar fake palm tree fronds wink away garishly through the night.

My PDA-toting, wireless-networking, text-messaging, gizmo-maxed companion put our hotel search in perspective-mandatory broadband. Coming from Japan, where thin band is the rule in the boonies, I thought "dream on."

As it turned out, our concrete Stalinesque mausoleum of a hotel served mediocre food and worse wine, did not deliver warm showers, and had a room temperature alternating between that of the Ar[c]tic and the Gobi Desert -- but it miraculously had broadband. Gizmo-journalist heaven! The operator gave me the access number for a cheap dial-up international call service while the cashier matter-of-factly accepted credit cards -- all eyebrow-raising events for one accustomed to traveling in Japan.

All this, mind you, in the outback, way closer to Central Asia than Shanghai.

Near Kuche we took a drive through China's answer to Monument Valley and Cappadoccia, a stunning surreal landscape with Uighur shepherds tending their flocks, pristine rivers, monastic ruins and rainbow-hued, oddly shaped rock formations. Stealing a page from the Japanese, the canyon we visited is ranked in the official Chinese canyon top 10, and small Han Chinese tour groups were equipped with both flags and bullhorns.

But the weekly Friday market is where Uighur Kuche comes into its own. A bustling open-air zone of frenetic haggling, shopping and snacking, nary a word of Chinese can be heard. Donkey carts, taxis and trucks snake their way thought the teeming crowds. Sesame nan are piled high and the delicious odor of lamb kebab wafts through the smoky market.

Aside from a few burkas, many women don their best, flirt with the male hawkers for bargains and revel in the festival-like atmosphere. Swarthy, handsome men sport a stunning array of furry and woolly headgear and most have beards and mustaches. Young men seamlessly shift from menacing scowls to beguiling smiles, comparing notes on the local hotties at a distance.

Although nothing here seemed Chinese, all that is set to change as the government plans to close the market and relocate it to a charmless mall where rents and taxes can be collected.

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