2000s Archive

True West

Originally Published April 2007
The vast, sparsely populated desert region that is Xinjiang is a China unlike any you’ve ever seen.
Woman in Xinjiang, China

At seven o’clock on Sunday morning, the first batches of crisp, golden nan are being hooked out of tandoors. Snack sellers are lighting fires under their stoves, setting up cauldrons of soup to boil, and chopping piles of colorful vegetables and hunks of fatty mutton. The rising sun spills through poplar trees, marking out long fingers of light on the ground. Other vendors arrive, steering donkey carts laden with produce or driving flocks of bleating sheep into the great market enclosure. Hungry after an early start, I buy some nan from one of the bakers. The hot, onion-speckled crust yields to fluffy white dough: It is magnificently tasty.

By noon, the field is hot and dusty and seething with people and livestock. Buyers squeeze the flesh of sheep, haggle over cows, donkeys, and goats. Alongside, the snack stalls are doing a roaring trade. Young men in embroidered caps pull noodle dough into lengths that they swing and loop in the air, stretching it into strands as fine and even as spaghetti. A baker with an ear-splitting yell invites customers to taste his piping hot samsa, small mutton and onion pastries that he plucks off the curved walls of his tandoor. The crowds mill around, talking and shouting in a guttural yet melodic tongue that sounds something like Turkish. The air is filled with the punchy scent of cumin from sizzling kebabs.

This is China, but it doesn’t feel like China. Kashgar, the legendary Silk Road town whose Sunday market draws trade from the surrounding countryside, lies in the desert region of Xinjiang, at the westernmost tip of the country. This vast area, occupying a sixth of China’s territory, is home to a myriad of ethnic groups, including the Turkic Uyghur people, the largest minority, as well as Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Russians, and, increasingly, Han Chinese. The bleached wastes of the Takla Makan Desert dominate the landscape of Xinjiang, but here in Kashgar the sands give way to the lush green of an oasis.

More than 2,000 years ago, trade began along the perilous overland routes between China and Eurasia that later became known as the Silk Road. Kashgar was just one of a string of thriving oasis towns on the road to the glittering Tang dynasty capital Chang’an (where modern Xi’an now sits). After the decline of the Mongol Empire and the opening of the sea routes in the late 15th century, the region lost its vitality, and many of the towns were abandoned.

The modern center of Kashgar resembles any other Chinese city, with wide avenues, karaoke bars, and bland tiled buildings. (The Chinese have laid claim to this region for centuries, and in recent years have stamped its urban centers with their distinctive brand of modernization.) But if you escape into the narrow streets and bazaars of the old Muslim town, you’ll find yourself in another world altogether. Here, coppersmiths beat their gleaming metal into various cooking pots and kettles. Knife merchants watch over rows of bejeweled daggers, while shopkeepers sit cross-legged in the doors of dim Aladdin’s caves hung with carpets or antique porcelain and trinkets. Dark alleys shimmer with multicolored silks, shot through with gold thread or spangled with sequins.

Somewhere in the winding alleys behind the Id Kah Mosque, in the heart of Kashgar, Abdel Sopel, a Uyghur shopkeeper, invites me into his home. The wooden door opens into an airy courtyard, where fruit trees and flowers grow in terra-cotta pots and a grapevine curls overhead. Sopel’s children are playing on the carpeted platform that runs along two sides of the yard, while his sister, Alipasha, and his wife, Merpel, are preparing noodles for lunch.

Hand-pulled noodles, or läghmän, are a Uyghur staple. “We eat them every single day,” says Alipasha, as she tosses freshly cut vegetables into a wok on the coal-fired stove in the yard, where a little mutton is already sizzling in oil. There are brilliant red peppers and tomatoes, green chiles and beans, purple-speckled radishes and ivory potatoes, simmered together into a colorful sauce.

Male professional noodlemakers may dazzle the crowds in the markets with their dancing hands and extravagant artistry, but Uyghur women make läghmän much more simply at home. Merpel rolls her dough of flour and water into long sausages on an oiled board, and then coils them around the circular base of an oiled tin, where they are covered and left to rest. Later, she stretches each length of oiled noodle paste into loops on the board, and leaves them to rest once again. When her potful of water is boiling, she takes the end of one long, looped strand of dough from the board and winds it gently into a skein around her hands. She then slaps the skein firmly against the board several times to stretch the noodles, and tosses them into the pot to cook, a portion at a time.

Soon we are sitting on the carpets and drinking cardamom-scented tea that Alipasha has poured into bowls from an engraved copper teapot. And then Merpel brings each of us, in turn, a bowl of springy fresh noodles covered in vegetable-and-mutton sauce. She and Alipasha are dressed in typical Uyghur style, with long skirts and long-sleeved tops in flamboyant colors, floaty headscarves and golden jewelry, while Abdel Sopel and his father wear Muslim caps. They all have Caucasian features. And as we sit there together on the carpets, Central Asian–style, and my hosts talk softly in the Turkic Uyghur language, it is only the chopsticks we use to eat that remind me we are still in China.

The Uyghurs, like the Italians, are pasta specialists, and their geographical location on the ancient bridge between China and Europe is strikingly apparent in their pasta cookery. Their hand-pulled noodles connect them with the Muslims who live scattered across northern China, and their boiled dumplings are essentially the same as those made in every northern Chinese home, except that they are stuffed with mutton rather than pork. Yet their westward leanings are just as compelling. The steamed manta dumplings, filled with mutton and onion and sold at clamorous street stalls, resemble those made by the Uzbeks and the Afghans (similar words are used for dumplings as far west as Turkey). And if you look closely at the little chuchurä dumplings, served in broth and stuffed with alfalfa greens or mutton, you’ll see that they are wrapped just like Italian tortellini.

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