Monday, July 24, 2006

China | Xinjiang Province | Khotan | Melikawat

On his way back from India to China the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang passed through Kashmir and then entered the Pamir Mountains. He would have went right by 24,388-foot Muztagh-Ata, the second highest peak in the Pamirs. In 1999 I traced his path from Muztagh-Ata to Kashgar.
24,388-foot Muztagh-Ata
Xuanzang claimed that there was a stupa on the top of Muztagh-Ata built in memory of an arhat who had lived in a trance since the time of the Buddha. This was almost certainly a legend only.
The River Gez where it debouches into the Tarim Basin
From the plateau around Muztagh-Ata he dropped down into the Tarim Basin via the canyon of the Gez River and moved on to Kashgar, where at that time, in 644 A.D., there were still hundreds of monasteries, most of them followers of the Hinayana school.
The Pamirs from the road to Kashgar

Two weeks after leaving Kashgar by camel he arrived in Khotan. Xuanzang:
This country is renowned for its music; the men love the song and dance. Few of them wear garments of skin and wool; most wear taffeta and white linen. Their external behavior is full of urbanity; their customs are properly regulated. Their written characters and their mode of forming their sentences resemble the Indian model; the forms of the letters differ somewhat; the differences, however, are slight. The spoken language also differs from that of other countries. They greatly esteem the law of the Buddha. There are about a hundred sangharamas with some 5000 followers, who all study the doctrince of the Great Vehicle.
Xuanzang mentions that about 10 li south of the city there was a monastery built in honor of Vairochana. In Xuanzang’s time the city of Khotan itself was located at a place now known as Yoktan, about ten kilometers south of the current city. This old city is now completely covered with cultivated fields and no ruins remain. About 25 kilometers south of the modern city are found the ruins of a monastery now known to Uighurs as Melikawat. Thus is it possible that Melikawat are the ruins of the monastery mentioned by Xuanzang. Although I was warned that only a few broken down walls remained of the Melikawat monastery I hired a cab and went out to take a look. The dirt road follows the Khotan, or White Jade River, as it is also known, south. The Khotan River begins in the Kun Lun Mountains on the border between Tibet and Xinjiang and flows north across the Taklamakan Desert to the Tarim River, although it often dries up completely before actually reaching the Tarim. The river supplies most of the water for the very extensive irrigation system around the Khotan oasis (some water comes from wells).

People have been searching for jade in the Khotan River for at the very least the last two thousand years and continue to do so today. Reportedly only a few kilos of top-quality jewelry-grade jade are found a year, although low grade jade, not good enough for jewelry, is sold rather cheaply. I bought two hen’s egg-sized chunks of jade, one black and one white, from jade hunters on the river bank for ten yuan a piece.
The Khotan River can just be seen on the upper left hand corner of the photo. To the right can be seen the spoil from 2000 years of digging through the river gravels in the search for jade.
Jade hunter on the Khotan River
Ruins of Melikawat Monastery
Ruins of Melikawat Monastery
Ruins of Melikawat Monastery
The monastery was probably destroyed around 980-1000 A.D. when the area was invaded by Turkish Moslems.

China | Xinjiang Province | Khotan | Carpet Factory

After my visit to the silk factory I decided to have lunch. Right near my hotel was a small restaurant which seemed to be doing a lot of business. I went in, took a seat, and when the waitress came I ordered laghman, perhaps of the most famous dish in the Uighur culinary repertoire. Laghman consists of long spaghetti-like hand-pulled noodles, usually made on the premises, covered with a thick tomato-based stew of vegetables and mutton. I always order laghman because it is like ordering a hamburger in the States. Any ordinary restaurant is bound to have it. After the waitress took my order and left for the kitchen a woman sitting at a table across the room starting talking to me in Uighur, which I did not understand, but I did recognize the word “American.” Then she asked me in Chinese if I was an American. I said I was, and she then announced this in a loud voice to the whole room. When the waitress came out of the kitchen she also told her that I was American. The waitress had a pot of tea in her hand, presumably for me, but instead of serving it just glared at me and sat the pot on another table. So I was left without tea, usually something you are served automatically in Uighur restaurants. Some people came in, sat down near me, and also ordered laghman. The waitress went into the kitchen and brought out their orders of laghman immediately. After about ten minutes I called her over and asked, “laghman?” She just glared at me and walked away. Another group came in and ordered laghman. Again the waitress went into the kitchen and immediately brought them out their orders. I sat for another twenty minutes, during which time I was studiously ignored by all the other diners, and still I got no laghman. Obviously I was not going to be served, not even tea, so I got up and left.

A hundred yards down the road was another small restaurant. I went in and sat down and a big, beefy Uighur guy with a shaved head and skullcap came over and sat down a pot of tea. Again I ordered laghman. He gave me a hard stare and asked in Chinese where I was from. I said America. He shouted, “America? Bush! Pakistan! Bush! Pakistan! Bush! Pakistan!” Every time he said the word “Bush” he made a cutting gesture across his throat. Finally he shouted something and pointed to the door. He was clearly ordered me out of his restaurant.

Here I must backtrack a little. When I had arrived at the airport I went outside and got a taxi driven by a local Uighur man. It was clear he did not speak any English, but I indicated by sign language—the universal rubbing of fingers together to indicate “how much?” that I wanted to know the fare and he answered in what I thought was the Chinese sign language for ten. That seemed reasonable, as it was only about four or five kilometers to town. As soon was we pulled away from the curb he started talking in Uighur but when I did not answer switched to Chinese. He named a couple of European countries, and then America, clearing asking where I was from. I said America. He started shouting “Bush! Pakistan! Bush! Pakistan” over and over again. Each time he said the word “Bush” he also made a cutting gesture across his throat. He got more and more irate and for a moment I thought he was going to dump me off by the side of the road. Finally we got to my hotel. I handed him a ten yuan note. He shouted something at me and tried to grab a hundred yuan note out of my wallet. He clearly wanted a hundred yuan for the 10 minute trip into town. This was an outrage. I handed him a twenty yuan note and started to walk away. He jumped in front of me and started shouting again. I handed him another ten, for a total of thirty yuan, and brushed by, leaving him ranting and hopping mad in front of the hotel. I later found out that the correct fare for a trip from the airport to my hotel was in fact ten or at most fifteen yuan .

So now I was in this restaurant and again a guy was yelling ”Bush! Pakistan!” over and over again. Since he was clearly showing me the door I left. Nearby was a small stand selling hot Uighur flat bread—nan—for half a yuan a piece. I bought two of these and went back to my hotel and had a lunch of nan and Dragon Well green tea which I had had the foresight to bring from Beijing.

So what, I wondered, was the deal with Pakistan? I could understand the local Uighurs, who are after all Moslems, ranting about Bush, but why where they singling out Pakistan and not the more obvious targets of Iraq and Afghanistan? I put this mystery out of my mind for the moment and headed for the carpet factory.

Here, it was clear, I was just a potential paying customer, my nationality not an issue. A friendly Uighur woman who spoke a little bit of English explained to me what was going on. Although they made the silk carpets here for which Khotan is so famous, at the moment they were making only wool carpets. They use both Chinese and Uighur designs. A 1.2 x 1.8 meter wool carpet takes two people two months to make. A 3.3 x 4 meter carpet takes five people two months to make. A mammoth 15 by 20 meter (50 by 65 feet) carpet, one of the largest ever made here, and now on the wall of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, took fifteen people four months to make. In the sales room (where, curiously, photography was not allowed) I was shown a 4.3 by 6.8 meter (14 by 22 feet) carpet selling for 20,000 yuan ($2400). This was wool of course. Silk carpets are much, much more expensive. A four-by-six-foot silk carpet could easily sell for $6000-$8000 even here in the factory. Back in Urumqi, in the carpet store at the Provincial Museum, I was shown a 14 by 22 inch rug (that’s inches, mind you) that was selling for a whopping 48,000 yuan $5800). This was a 1200 knots per inch—the highest quality—with a very special design. Obviously this small piece was intended as a wall hanging, a work of art, and not a carpet to be trod on; it was barely big enough to serve as a door mat.
Women working in the carpet factory
Women working in the carpet factory
Woman working in the carpet factory
Woman working in the carpet factory
Even back in Beijing I had been informed by knowledgeable people that the women in Khotan are renowned all over Xinjiang for their beauty. My friend, a Uighur from Ili, in northern Xinjiang, could not keep a note of envy, even jealousy, out of her voice when talking about the women of Khotan. Such eyes! Like amber and obsidian! Such hair! Like Khotanese silk (of course)! Such eyebrows! Like young willow leaves! Such straight noses! Like carved from jade! Such lips! Like ripe pomegranates! Such breasts! Like Hami melons! she kept raving. All Xinjiang men want a woman from Khotan, she claimed. Xuanzang, the Chinese monk who visited here in 644, was noticeably silent on this issue, however. Marco Polo also visited Khotan, in the thirteenth century, and although he had much to say about the women of Hami—another town in Xinjiang—who were renowned for their unbridled sensuality, if not necessarily for their beauty, apparently none in Khotan caught his fancy, or at least none that he cared to write about. Hami is now more famous for its legendarily sweet, succulent, breast-like melons.
Khotanese beauty working in the carpet factory. Note the young-willow-leaf-like eyebrows and carved-from-jade-like nose.
Another Khotanese beauty working in the carpet factory. Note the amber-and-obsidian-like eyes.