The next day, my husband, Craig, and I arrived in Kashgar, the most Uighur town in Xinjiang. At the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert and near the foot of the Pamirs and the Tien Shan mountain ranges, the city had been a trading post for Central Asians and Chinese for two millennia. The British and Russians had set up consulates in the town in the late nineteenth century as part of their Great Game tussle over the region. Though the British influence had faded, Russians, along with Central Asians, still frequented the city to make deals on carpets, food, and bric-a-brac. But even here the government was doing its best to Han-ify the city. They were shutting down bazaars and tearing down old neighborhoods. In their place, modern shopping arcades and towers rose. But still, the remaining parts of the old quarter retained their character. The dusty narrow alleys and the clay exteriors of homes were so similar to a typical Afghan neighborhood that Hollywood producers filmed The Kite Runner there.
As I would see in other places along the Silk Road, it was the food that made the neighborhood come alive. And visiting during Ramadan, rather than being a stroke of bad planning, actually highlighted the importance of food, making clear the contrast between life with and without sustenance. In the mornings, the Kashgar neighborhood where we stayed was languid. The baker sat listlessly in front of his hearth, slowly baking nang, the ubiquitious round loaves of bread. Wafting from the oven was a scent that reminded me of freshly baked pizza, making me realize it was the dough, not the sauce or the toppings, that provided pizza’s essential fragrance. The scent went to waste in the alleys as the sun rose; the nang the baker stacked on his table remained untouched. The butcher stared into space next to a lamb carcass hanging from a hook, the price per kilogram written on a changeable placard. At an open-air general store, tea leaves and spices sat in crates undisturbed as the day grew hotter. In one supermarket near the bazaar, most of the aisles were empty of customers except for the drink aisle, where fasters sometimes parked themselves and gazed at cans of Coca-Cola and pomegranate juice as a test of will.
In the late afternoon, the neighborhood began to stir. Vendors appeared on the streets, setting out wicker baskets neatly stacked with flat yellow figs, unloading melons from the backs of trucks, and opening large vats filled with homemade yogurt. They heated up griddles and ovens, preparing to make the Russian-style crepes called blini, and savory breads. After a long, hungry day, shoppers began to arrive, the slow trickle of customers quickly growing to a torrent that swept along motorbikes, dogs, and children. By dusk, the chaos reached fever pitch, the vendors shouting prices and flaunting their wares as shoppers, getting more famished by the second, jostled in messy queues.
Craig and I were drawn to one stand with a very long line of people holding out money and waiting in hungry anticipation. They had gathered in front of a tonur, a beehive-shaped oven, that was producing something that looked like cinnamon raisin bagels. When I got a little closer, I saw that the bread was indeed shaped like a puffy bagel, but without a hole, and it was not raisins that flecked the surface but little brown bits of lamb. People were buying the fresh buns, but as it was not yet sundown, they abstained from eating them.
Anticipation was building. Scattered around the neighborhood were little stands set up by the community that offered free slices of watermelon and bread at sundown. We turned a corner and ran into the biggest wok I’d ever seen. It was larger than a kiddie pool and filled with bubbling rice pilaf. Every so often, the chef circled the perimeter of the wok, pouring in broth from a kettle. The pilaf glistened with carrots and lamb, and the scent of cumin and onions wafted in the air. The chef said he’d been cooking since two in the afternoon and, now, just as the sun dropped below the horizon, he doled out large ladlefuls of the pilaf. Everyone had brought their own cups and plates for the food, which anonymous donors sponsored every night during the month. Someone offered us a plastic bag and into it went a ladle of rice pilaf, a dish I was growing more familiar with by the day.
“Allah says that if you do good deeds during Ramadan, you will be rewarded seven hundred times in your afterlife,” the chef said.