Strategically positioned at the foot of the Pamir Mountains, the ancient city of Kashgar has been an important trading center since the early days of the Silk Road. This oasis offers travelers a respite from the glacial passes of the Pamir and Karakoram Mountains to the west and the brutal Chinese desert to the east.
The man looked up from his newspaper, frowning. He’d been told to expect the government official at 1:00. His watch now read 2:32, with no official in sight. “They warned me about the locals having a different sense of punctuality,” he said loudly, “but this is ridiculous.”
For the street café’s other patrons, his outburst was no more strange than his presence. His pale skin and blond hair were unusual enough for their remote area; add to that the unfamiliar language and a wallet stuffed with more money than most of them make in a year, and they wouldn’t have been shocked to discover he’d come from the moon instead of America.
In frustration, the man flipped his laptop open. No connection detected. Not for the first time, he cursed his bosses for sending him here. “Think of it as an adventure, Drew,” they’d said. “How many people will ever get the chance to bring civilization to one of the most isolated areas on earth?” And naturally, they’d also pointed out how much money the company (and he) could make by bringing high speed Internet to China’s Xinjiang Province.
So far, neither the adventure nor the profit had materialized. His view of the city had been restricted to the hotel and its café; his time to a succession of interminable meetings conducted through translators.
“Xie, xie,” he said to the young waitress who brought him another water bottle. Her answering smile was uncomfortable, and too late, he realized his mistake. While most of the town’s officials were ethnic Chinese sent from Beijing to govern the “outlaw” Province, the native townspeople wanted freedom from China’s rule. He’d just insulted the girl by thanking her in Mandarin.
Almost all of Kashgar’s 300,000 citizens are Uyghur, a Muslim people who have lived in the Tarim Basin for thousands of years. Their influence has shaped Kashgar into a vibrant Islamic center within Chinese territory.
“Yes, everything’s fine. We’ve worked out a fair deal...I’ll be on the plane tonight.” Drew put the satellite phone down and opened the window of his tiny hotel room.
“Allll-aaah Akbar...” began the dawn call to prayer. Drew was struck by how out of place the exotic, haunting melody seemed amidst the clutter of his phone, laptop and English-Chinese dictionary.
Making a sudden decision, he walked out of the hotel room and down to the street.
Kashgar’s Old Town, with its multi-story mud-thatched buildings built one on top of the other, has a history of over 2000 years. Its narrow criss-cross of streets and alleys can become a maze of confusion for the traveler. Caution is advised.
Women in brightly colored dresses surrounded him, laughing. When they took his arms, Drew tried to pull away. The women held on tighter, patting his shoulder reassuringly.
Drew lost all sense of direction as the group wound its way through the worn rock streets. The sun, now high overhead, beat into his skin. The women chattered at him in cheerful gutteral syllables and he found himself smiling back at them. They led him to a barber chair that sat in the middle of the street, gently pushing him into it.
The dark, wrinkled man who approached him held the sharpest-looking straight razor he’d ever seen. He studied Drew grimly. The women, still chattering happily, backed away as he spread a thick cream over Drew’s face. He could hear the barber’s breathing—deep, pushing itself out of him as if through gravel. The sun glinting off the razor blinded him and he tried to focus on staying as still as possible. He was aware of a faint scraping sound as the razor passed over his skin.
When the shave was over, the women gathered around him again, touching his face curiously. “Rakhmat,” they said to the barber. “Tank you,” to Drew, gesturing toward the man. He reached for his wallet, but as a group, the women and the old man waved it away, shaking their heads. “Tank you,” insisted the most wrinkled woman.
“Rakhmat,” he tried tentatively. Smiles all around. “Rakhmat.” For the first time since he’d arrived in China, Drew laughed.
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