China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city.With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi.In our China City Watch series we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>>
Three roads lead out through the desert to Hotan and none of them are easy. The first road is the oldest: looping down along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, with the grim white peaks of the Himalayas off to the left, passing through the lost kingdom of Lop Nur and along a highway that sees much less traffic than it once held. The other slices right through the center of the Taklamakan, heading down from the oil town of Korla and through a field of flame-topped derricks to where the mountains meet the sand. The last road is the easiest: straight east from Kashgar for somewhere between five and seven hours, along a road that is constantly being fixed.
Choose your poison, or take the easy route and hop on a Beijing or Urumqi. I took the road from Kashgar heading east, hiring a driver named Saran Shopur from a cafe run by Indians right outside of the Seman Uyghur knife we took a look at on the way from Kashgar to Hotan. Dude was fonz-esque.
Hotan is a fascinating place with a fascinating history. The trade routes that flowed from the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent flowed through the passes just to the southwest of Hotan and brought with them all manner of religion, technology, custom and lore. No one truly knows who the "first people" were to come into the Tarim Basin (the other major geological feature of Xinjiang Province after the Taklamakan Desert), but we do have evidence that the Greeks under Alexander reached Afghanistan and called it Bactria (ever heard of Bactrian camels?). Their influence can be seen in that glorious repository of the history, art and culture of the far west region Dunhuang, the Desert Beacon, in Gansu Province: paintings with clear Greek influences exist at Dunhuang and some of them are of curly-haired Greek heads on Indian Buddhist bodies!
The Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan was, eventually, overrun by the jihad out of the deserts of Arabia (via Persian Turks) and the region became a staunch fortress of Islam for centuries, relenting only slightly today, with the arrival of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Some of Hotan's best sites are related to these religious and cultural wars. The Imam Asim's Tomb, 23 km outside of Hotan, is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for the Islamic faith. The Imam was the first Muslim missionary in Hotan and his tomb sees thousands of visitors each May, the appointed month for visits to his tomb.
Unity Square (Tuánjié Guǎngchǎng, 团结广场) is a must see if in Hotan. The square is the major plaza of the city and every afternoon patriotic songs float melodiously out from the megaphones attached to posts and smiling police officers lead cute little children in songs praising the last 50 years of economic development and progress toward the goal of total harmonious equality.
There are Buddhist ruins in the desert: the 11th century Hasa and Hasha Castles (180 km from Hotan), the last redoubt of the Buddhist Khotan Kingdom before they were stormed by the Karakhanid Empire. For these castles and the Imam's mosque, you will need to rent a driver. Drivers can be had at most of the hotels in the area and if you hover around the bus station and speak with people, you can find someone willing to drive you around for money. With a driver (or your own car) you will be able to access other beautiful sites, such as the Old Man's Tear Spring (200 km from Hotan) or the village of Keriya along the Yorungkash River (Báiyù Hé, 白玉河).
A river of jade
Speaking of rivers, the Yorungkash River means "river of white jade" and for centuries the Hotan region was the source for Imperial jade. The best and most beautiful jade pieces you have seen most likely were hewn from the raw materials gathered here. After centuries of combing the river, however, the source has dried up a bit, due to insane prospecting by every Wang, Li and Harry with the cash for a train ticket out west.
But Hotan hasn't really dried up, it's just that the massive, perfect pieces that used to tumble down from the Kunlun Mountains (Kūnlún Shān, jade market in Hotan and perhaps your luck will hold and you'll find a beautiful piece. Even without visiting the actual market (which is more of a running market along the river, heading north out of town), you can't walk more than 20 feet in Hotan without running into some jade, so be patient and wait for the beautiful piece to hit you.
Another must-see is the Hotan Bazaar (Hétiánshì Jímào Zhōngxīn, 和田市集贸中心 or simply dà bāzā, 大巴扎). The main bazaar radiates off in the area northeast of the intersection of Gujiang Bei Lu (Gǔjiāng Běi Lù, 古江北路) and Taibei Dong Lu (Táiběi Dōng Lù, 台北东路). The big market day here is Sunday, when the market spills out into the surrounding streets as the population from the city and countryside pours in. There are carpets and bangles and food and silks and, of course, all manner of jade pieces.
The bazaar can draw you in all day, so don't expend all of your energy at once. Relax, head out and drink some tea. Walk down the lanes off of the market and see the woodcarvers and carpet weavers do their thing. The cool thing about the desert is that many, many artifacts remain intact for a long period of time. And the Silk Road trade and war and zeal that dominated this area for 3000 years left behind a lot of lore... in some of these back alleys by the jade market (all along the river) or the bazaar you'll run into shady characters with satchels full of scrolls. Many of them look quite authentic to the fool, so be careful what you spend your money on.
The old Silk Road aura of mystery and wealth still permeates this region, despite the religious and cultural overtones. There are dozens of villages just a short bike ride down the river from Hotan that are reclaiming the desert, one spruce tree at a time. These villages are at times achingly picturesque, with grape vines twisting over a wooden roof and spilling down onto the dry brown path; green-eyed Uyghur prinsilkcesses slipping away or staring at you defiantly; and there is something familiar about the Uyghur face down here, something that will probably make communication easy for the average Westerner.
And once you have passed through this magical Buddhist-Muslim-Jade-Carpet town, you can continue along three other roads out: along the desert's southern flank up to Dunhuang, straight up into the mountains toward Tibet or back toward Kashgar, where passes leading to Pakistan and Afghanistan (although currently very dangerous) may one day open up again to the adventurous traveler.