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The Sandy Truth
October 6, 1999
Web posted at: 11:41 a.m. EDT (1541 GMT)
By Dan Buettner
Kashgar is a crossroads of Central Asia. As Dan notes in his report, much of the city has eluded the 20th century
We dipped our big toe into the Taklamakan today and decided not to jump in.
Late this afternoon, as the rest of the team edited video or wrote their reports, Tom Adair and I assembled our Voodoo mountain bikes and pedaled out of town. We wanted a sneak peek of the Taklamakan, the desert were about to cross.
We rolled out of downtown leaving behind the deafening clatter of honking horns and shouting fruit vendors for the quiet outskirts. Here, sunshine angled through poplar trees and fell into milky pools of mud on the pavement. We pedaled hard and bolted down the road, sweating toxins from our pores. Wed spent over a week sitting on airplanes, buses, and cars to get here and it felt good to be on the bike again. My spirits soared.
Kashgar looks nothing like China. It's a town flanked by the snow-tipped Kunlun mountains to the south, the Pamirs to the west and the desert to the east. Uighurs dark-hair, tan-skinned, Central Asian Muslims dominate Kashgar. Older men wear fur-trimmed hats and three-quarter length coats just as they have for centuries. Children wear dark trousers, heavy shoes, and the type of brimmed, puffy hats popular around the turn of the century. Older women, observing Muslim law, drape their heads in wool shawls that reach down to their shoulders and, as my guide book states, It makes them look like pieces of furniture put into storage."
Much of Kashgar has eluded the 20th century, and parts of the city look as if the past millennium didn't happen either. In old town, a labyrinth of over 1000 streets cuts through low, mud-walled hovels. There, blacksmiths shoe horses, little boys hand lathe branches into ornamental rods and get this bakers make the most awesome bagels in domed, earthen ovens. Bagels, according to one local, are a Uighur invention! Sorry New York City.
Noodles are also big in Kashgar. In restaurant kitchens, you see men whip and twirl long tubes of dough then stretch it into thin noodles. Boil them up, add some oil, a hand full of mouth-searing spices, chunks of sheep meat and voila! Fettuccine a la Uighur.
Legend falsely has it that Marco Polo brought noodles to the west. Durum wheat, from which noodle dough is made, was brought to Italy in the ninth century by Arabs who invaded Sicily. So, the main ingredient for noodles arrived in Italy three centuries before Marco even left Venice! Nor did the Chinese coin the word "noodles." Chinese words for noodles probably derive from an early form of the Turkic language, the language of, among others, the Uighurs. Could spaghetti have gotten its start in Kashgar?
Bartering for grapes at the Kashgar market
As we rolled out of Kashgar the buildings gave way to a dry and ancient world of sand. Entering the desert, I felt an emotion halfway between terror and excitement. On one hand anticipation has been mounting: I've spent six months preparing and reading about this fabled place of mummies and lost cities. On the other hand, I've seen this 1000-mile long wasteland from the air. It looks like the surface of Venus with its seas of sand, jagged ridges, and angry cracks in the sun- baked earth. The Taklamakan makes the Sahara look like a shopping mall parking lot. Just looking at it makes your mouth dry.
Tom and I made a U-turn and headed back to Kashgar. I figure if we stock up on noodles, bagels, and about 200 gallons of water well be ready tackle the Taklamakan. Tomorrow.
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