Rain in the Taklamakan Desert

With five days to spare before we could cross back into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, we decided to take a road trip to three smaller towns to the southeast of Kashgar. Yarkand, Yengisar and Karghilik (Yingjisha, Shache and Yecheng in Chinese) lie on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert a few hours bus ride from Kashgar, and life is still more traditional there. The train and superhighway won't reach here until next year.

For most of this time it was raining. The Taklamakan Desert is one of the driest places on earth, ranking with the Sahara as one of the only “true” deserts. But here it was raining, a monsoonal storm coming over the mountains from Ladakh and India. Dirt streets turned to mud and dry watercourses were close to overflowing.

We visited Yengisar first. Yengisar is known for its cottage industry of making the ornamental knives that every Uighur carries. Although some are now mass-produced, a few are still made by craftsman in small teams with few tools beyond a hand drill and grinder. The master of each team adds the decorative marks.

We then visited the smaller town of Karghilik. Again, the main part of town is a modern Chinese construction, but the mosque and mud-brick old town remains intact. Mud was flowing freely in the streets after the recent rain.

Finally, we visited Yarkand. Considerably larger, Yarkand was the northern end of the historical road over the Karakoram to Leh in Ladakh. That road is now closed and with it the trade with India. Although Yarkand has been considerably expanded by Chinese immigration, its old town is still thriving, with donkey carts mixing with electric vans. The mosque and former palace sit beside the tomb of Ammanisahan, a queen and composer of the classic Uighur musical collection. A group watched a street performer. A group of men prepared to send the casket of a loved one to the next world.

It is harder to find Chinese speakers in these smaller towns. In Kashgar, we could use our basic Chinese to order food and get around, but most of the locals here spoke only Uighur.

The most surprising place, however, was the Yarkand wangba (internet cafe). There is a large and rather rundown shopping arcade in the Chinese section near the bus station. On the mostly abandoned second floor are three huge rooms with a hundred computers each, open 24 hours a day mostly for teenagers playing games.

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