Author's Notebook

A Day in the Life of Santa


Christmas is the season when everyone, or at least the young at heart and those magically inclined, wants the answer to the question. “Is there a Santa?” And for once, I know the answer. It all started when Susie, a local businesswoman who carries my book said, “Would you be the town’s Santa this year?” At first I was somewhat thrown back by the question. For yes, while I do have a white beard, and yes, I have white hair, and yes, I am somewhat horizontally challenged, the image that I was trying to display that morning while signing books was of Papa Hemingway. It was somewhat disconcerting to find that I overshot my mark and somehow entered the fourth stage of Santa life.


You see, I have passed through the great stages of life: (1) You believe in Santa, (2) You do not believe in Santa, (3) You are Santa, (4) and finally, You look like Santa. It’s the ‘You look like Santa’ stage that allows me to come to you now and reveal the answer to the question that all inquiring minds really want to know. I am going to report, as they say, from the front line.


Unfortunately for me, I was not alone in the store the morning Susie made the request, for at my elbow was my wife Marilyn. Before I could get to the “Gee, Susie, I would love to, but that is the day (fill in the blank with any important, and non postponable event),” Marilyn whispered, “You’d be so cute.” Now consider that after forty-five years of marriage, being cute to your life companion is no small thing. Gone are the days when she sees me as handsome or heroic, so cute is even better than OK. But, while I might in fact be available, I was not going to be easy. I gave Susie the all-purpose, postponement fallback line: “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” It was sort of an “I’ll have my people, call your people” gambit.


Needless to say, given that “my people” thought I’d make a cute Santa, the gambit failed. The day finally arrived, and there I was in full regalia. The suit the town provided fit nicely and without padding. I was somewhat put off by the fact that the belt was a tiny bit short, a matter which Marilyn readily fixed. I really must do something about the horizontally challenged issue. Perhaps a New Year’s Resolution is in order.


Regardless, I was resplendent! You just have to love a man in uniform. The mirror returned a figure, if not handsome, surely cute. After a few practiced “HO HO HOs,” I was off to city hall (no, no reindeer, I took my car). There I was met by two small girls dressed in green tights and pointy hats, who were cold, but excited to perform the elfin duties that day. Thankfully, within minutes, our conveyance arrived, a small train pulled by a John Deere lawn tractor. Did I mention that we live in a small rural town?  


During the ride down mainstreet, the sidewalks were empty. I wondered whether anyone would be out to see Santa on such a day. As Santa’s Workshop came into view,  there they were, parents, grandparents, toddlers and tweens, lined up all the way around the square, smiling, and waving, warmed by heavy coats and mittens, and the Christmas spirit. A few Ho Ho Ho’s later, and we were set.


One by one, the elves presented every child to Santa Claus. Well, almost every child - some only peeked from behind Mom’s legs. But, most hopped onto my lap with eyes wide in anticipation and aspiration in their hearts. Clearly and boldly they stated their dreams and wishes: “I want a Hanna Montana Bean Bag Chair…” “I want a pony…” “I want a doll that pees…” “I want a combine…” “I want a robot…” One young boy patiently worked his way to the head of the line, only to run screaming for the door, as if chased by demons. He and his Dad returned to the back of the line to try again later. I saw him several times that morning, or at least the back of him as he headed for the door. Finally, success. He wants a Transformer mask, preferably Optimus Prime. A few times, I saw parents wince, as they heard their child’s requests. These are hard times for small town America. But, when all things fail, hope springs eternal.


 Hour after hour they came, the large, the small, the young, and the not so young. The smallest was a five week old, her proud young mother standing by – dad, camera in hand, recording the event. A family legacy in the making, this was their first picture of many to be taken over the years with Santa. I suppose the oldest to sit on my lap were the two cheerleaders, each whispering to Santa their gift desires. The girls giggled as they posed for the picture. Perhaps they came in jest, or maybe to recapture memories of Christmas past. I shall refrain from revealing the desires of these two young women. Let me just summarize their lists in the immortal words of Jan Barrett, "Veni, vidi, Visa.” (We came, we saw, we went shopping.)


Our little farming community has a good crop of kids this year. I know this because in all of my questioning, “ Were you good or bad this year,” all confirmed their goodness. Well, there was a question about one child. He climbed onto my lap and immediately pulled my beard. He was shocked to find that it was real. No faux Santa here. As he left, I heard him say to his grandfather, “He’s the real Santa, PawPaw, he has white nose hair.”


How quickly did the day pass? In a heartbeat. A blink of an eye, a wrinkle of the nose, and it was done. Such beautiful children, loving parents, and a great tradition. Each child promised to provide chocolate chip cookies (Santa’s favorite) and to be really, really good to their mothers, and to be asleep, and not peek when I arrived on Christmas Eve. Several wanted me to know that I should not try the chimney, that maybe the door was better.


It was a good day, a day of great traditions, a cold day made warm by the love of family and friends. Why did the parents bundle up and bring their kids into the cold morning? It is because Santa and the Spirit of Christmas are built on the love of children and hope for the future. Like the season, the day the day was quickly gone. I think I’ll go and hang out at Susie’s, not that I want to be asked again for next year, but just in case.

 Beijing – Capital of the People’s Republic of
China 2007

Much of the Flight of the Piasa deals with ancient China. I have been fortunate to have been able to visit the People’s Republic many times over the last two decades researching the history and culture of China in preparation for writing the book. The following blog was completed following a trip out to the Silk Road during the summer of 2007.  



This was to be an unusual adventure, twenty educators whose teaching area is Asia, off for a three week foundation funded tour of the Silk Road. We were headed to the Xingjian Autonomous Region, home to a minority people known as Uyghurs. These are Turkish people, predominately Muslim, who inhabit northwest China. In order to prepare for the experience we began our program with a week at Beijing University, known locally as “Bei Da.” This is one of the People’s Republic’s most prestigious universities and is often referred to as the “Harvard of China.” Like many great institutions of higher learning, there is a “spirit to the place. Our program was generally a cultural orientation, lectures on subjects such as calligraphy and the importance of minority people in the overall development of the People’s Republic. The minority cultures professor, an elderly gentleman, filled his lecture with rather quaint antidotal stories about a variety of minority peoples. While assuring us of how important the minority populations were to the People’s Republic, and how well thought of they (the minority people) were by the majority Han (Chinese) population, the professor wanted us to understand that he himself, of course, was Han nationality. As he spoke the phrase, “Methinks, he doth protest too much” came to mind and I was reminded of the many conversations I had in the United States circa 1960 in regard to African Americans. Of course none of us were prejudiced; we had friends who were blacks, perhaps even lived next to one.

The minority cultures professor also was attempting to carry some rather heavy political water for the State. While reviewing the minority Mongol people and their expansion into the West during the 12-1300s that gained the Mongols claim to Tibet, the Western Region, parts of Russia and Central Europe, he wanted us to understand that we needn't worry about modern Chinese expansion, as that early aggression was really Mongol minority people, not the Han. On the other hand, he used the same Mongol expansionism to assert a very strong current claim by the People’s Republic to the Uigur and Tibetan autonomous regions. Using this logic, there are large parts of Russia and Central Europe that could equally be claimed as part of the Chinese homeland.

Calligraphy was my favorite class in the program. This is a very ancient art form extending back 3,000 years to the Shang pictographs scratched onto oracle bones. For the Chinese, calligraphy serves both the function of practical communication and the individual expression of art. According to the professor, calligraphy is an art form appreciated on at least two levels. The first and most basic level deals with how the work appeals to the viewer, did you like it? The second and more subtle level was an appreciation of what the calligrapher was bringing to the characters. What was the calligrapher feeling?



Professor Yang Xin demonstrated the various styles of the art form. Early clerical with its square thick lines gives an impression of strength and vigor. Cursive script from the Tang dynasty connects the characters making it somewhat difficult to read but gives an impression of freedom, vitality, and movement. It is believed that the most famous of the Tang calligraphers would do their best work after drinking to excess. When asked how they had managed such beauty, they often could not remember. One woke up in the morning with one of his hair braids soaked with ink, but sometime during the night he had completed a masterpiece. During the Song dynasty, a semi-cursive form was developed, which when viewed provides an almost immediate sense of relaxation. Finally professor Yang demonstrated the standard script form, which follows a set of very prescriptive rules, and gives an impression of calm and balance.

When done well the art of calligraphy brings the mentality of the calligrapher onto the page. What emotions were shaping the characters? Our professor was a very sprightly eighty-year-old, who looked to be about sixty-five. One of his demonstration characters was spring. The lines were light, the curves gentle, like a young woman at dance. The positive nature of the season, and perhaps more importantly the positive nature of the professor, appeared on the page. When asked if he could show the emotion anger in his calligraphy, he smiled and said that it would be difficult, as that was not an emotion he had felt for over a decade. Professor Yang attributes his longevity and ability to postpone aging to calligraphy, which he described as practicing tai chi on a piece of paper. It was a great lesson, not only a presentation on paper but a glimpse into the soul of the man.

 If I am giving the impression that our stay in Beijing was restricted to the classroom and was work, work, work, then I am not telling the whole story. Beyond the classroom we saw Peking Opera, ate Peking Duck, walked the Great Wall, visited the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City, Confucian Temples, Lama Temples, a local hutong, and were dazzled by the performers of the Peking Acrobatics Troupe, not to mention a host of shopping and eating opportunities. If you were limited to visiting only one city in China, you should make it Beijing. All of China is amazing, but you can probably squeeze in more must see sights in Beijing than any other single city.

One funny result of our program at Beijing University was the student identification card and certificate of completion we received, along with a gift tee shirt. Apparently, in China people do not generally wear clothing from universities they haven’t attended. Throughout our tour, people seeing our shirts approached us admiringly with statements as to how they had wanted to attend Bei Da, but did not have the scores needed to get in. We received a great deal of intellectual mileage from a very short program and if questioned too closely, we had the certificates to prove it. Somehow, I suspect that all of us will soon be receiving a fund raising solicitation letter from the university alumni development department. I grow nostalgic, even now, just thinking of my time at “Old Bei Da.”
Tomorrow we are off to Urumqi, and another adventure was about to begin.


Urumqi – Capital City of the Xingjian Autonomous Region P.R.C.


Our first destination was the capital city of the Xingjian Autonomous Region. This is a dry land, about 60% mountainous, 30% desert, and 10% pasture and oasis. If you divided the land into the designation of livable and non-livable, you would quickly see how precious the small areas of pasture and oasis truly are, which partially explains why these have been fought over for thousands of years.

For the capital city, Urumqi, the old saw about “what’s in a name” has real meaning, as you have several alternatives to select from as to its derivation. Depending upon what tribal group you borrow from, the name could mean “whip makers”, “battlefield”, or if you are Mongol, “beautiful pasture.” Given that Beautiful Pasture seems the most poetic of the lot, we opted for that. The economic base for Urumqi is petroleum, agriculture (it is famous for naturally colored cotton) and business. Recently there have been a large number of joint ventures with foreign firms. At first glimpse the city gives the impression of being dusty, gray and long used, with a good deal of Soviet style architecture. As with many cities in China, Urumqi has something in the air, in this case pollution from a large cement plant, and the nearby petroleum fields, all mixed with dust from the desert. We arrived early to our hotel which was listed as being a five star establishment. Even without the designation, I would have known this immediately upon finding the Kit Kat bar and small stuffed bear at the head of my turned down bed, along with rose petals floating in the toilet, and two rubber duckies in the bathtub. Class always shows through, but don’t brush you teeth or drink the tap water.

That evening we walked across the street from the hotel to a public square. The place was filled with throngs of people dancing, playing games, and doing crafts, while others sat watching a movie being projected on a large theater-sized video screen. A good time was being had by all, lots of people enjoying a warm night with friends and family. One glance around the square would tell you that you are no longer in Han (Chinese) country. The people look more like Turks or Afghans, prominent features, beautiful brown skin. One of the women of our group was asked to dance and found herself ballroom dancing with a very gifted partner. It was interesting to note, that as he asked her to dance, he made the point of telling her he was Han nationality. Anyway, it was lovely, the night was clear, the people friendly, and the children seemed free to run and play as they pleased. The tenseness that is often felt in American parks, where parents watch over their children for fear of strangers, was absent in the square. On this night, the children were free to run and play and to be innocent children. How lucky for them, how sad and crazy for us.


The next morning I awoke and went for an early morning walk to watch Urumqi awaken. These early morning wanderings are a usual part of my travels and are rather serendipitous in nature in that they are without planned destination. On this morning I found myself in a housing area where I discovered two men concerned with pigeons. One was armed with a slingshot to discourage the flying, pooping, city rats from landing on his building, - the other I spotted a few minutes later standing alone in his back yard wistfully waving a red flag attached to a long bamboo pole, calling for his flock to return. My walk then took me into a street where the sidewalks were being used as a meat market with tanks of live fish and cages filled with chickens and ducks. The butchers stood slicing slabs of dog meat and mutton, awaiting the morning shoppers. We were scheduled to be off to the Xingjian Autonomous Region Museum at 9:00 so I began to make my way back to the hotel. Off in the distance I could hear the familiar “Happy Birthday” tune and wondered at the earliness of the party. As the music grew louder, I found that the music was coming from a large blue municipal water truck spraying the streets to keep the dust down. It wasn’t my birthday, but I felt refreshed as the truck sprayed me in passing, this is a dry land, where water is truly a gift.



The museum is worth the visit and houses many artifacts from the Xingjian region but the recently discovered Caucasian mummies are the main attractions. In the slightly darkened room they were like sleepers waiting the morning light. The mummies had been buried lying on their backs, with legs slightly bent, and heads positioned on a pillow. The hot dry alkaline dessert soil had preserved them in this posture for thousands of years. The mummies come from a culture associated with the ancient city of Loulan which was located on the shores of Lop Nor, a lake that no longer exists and is now open desert. The city simply vanished in the middle of the sixth century AD and was accidentally rediscovered by the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin at the beginning of the last century. The most famous of the mummies is known as the Loulan Beauty, a woman who died at about 42 years of age, 3,800 years ago. The mummy is haunting in and of itself and made more so by the reconstructed manikin based on its features. The image is that of a red haired woman with strong facial features; she was obviously not Han nationality. As I looked at her she appeared very modern, someone who you might know. The Loulan Beauty’s face, like those of the other female mummies, bore tattoos of flowers and butterflies. The men were also tattooed but with animals. As part of the burial rituals the tattoos had been painted. The Loulan Beauty has in recent years gotten caught up in Han-Uyghur politics, as some locals have adopted her as their early mother, which they feel gives them an earlier claim to the territory than that of the Chinese. This has sparked some Uyghur separatist activities.


In another section of the museum, one display showed artifacts which our guide described as coming from an area apparently dominated by females. Most of the artifacts were commonplace, bows, arrows, pottery pieces. One however, was unusual enough for mention, a wooden phallus, but I will allow someone else to explain its historical significance.

The mummies were literally astounding with their beautifully preserved angular faces and related artifacts. In that no pictures were allowed to be taken in the museum, I thought that I might buy some postcards or perhaps a book showing pictures of the mummies from the museum gift shop. However, I was surprised to find that no postcards were available, and the only book showing pictures of the mummies was being offered at over 700 Yuan, which is a bit over $80.00 USD. This would be a very high price for such a book, even if you were in New York, and the expense clearly puts the book out of the range of most within the local Uyghur population. Is it an accident that there is limited local access to something that the government considers sensitive? Who knows? If you are interested you can find pictures of the mummies on the internet and I have posted a picture of the Loulan Beauty in my photos.
Tomorrow we are off to the oasis city of Dun Huang, but tonight it is back to the square to watch the children play, perhaps take a turn at dancing, but mostly to sit, watch and enjoy.


Dun Huang, Xingjian Autonomous Region

Two thousand years ago Dun Huang was a strategically important city and a hub of international trade and cultural diffusion. Some scholars believe that there are four influential cultural systems in the world: Chinese, Indian, Greek, and Islam. All of these played their part in shaping the city of Dun Huang. Today the city is but a small oasis located on the outer fringe of China, but in its heyday it was a junction oasis for the northern and southern routes of the Silk Road that skirted the Taklamakan desert (so desolate that it is known as the land of ghosts). There is a standard joke about archetypal things, that if you looked up a particular word in the dictionary; you would find a picture of whatever you are talking about. I never really appreciated the term oasis until I saw this area. The separation between lush oasis and desert is startling. I am sure that should you ever look up the term oasis, you will probably find a picture of Dun Huang.   

On our first morning, we visited a nearby ancient Buddhist center. According to tradition, work on the Mogao Grotto was begun by the monk Yuezun who in 366 BCE saw a halo of lights along a desert cliff face near Dun Huang. Feeling that these lights represented 1,000 Buddhist spirits, the monk began to dig a cave for meditation on the spot. This humble beginning was to become a grotto of literally hundreds of caves containing a vast collection of Buddhist art. Although earthquakes have closed many caves, five hundred are still open and contain thousands of Buddhist artifacts (statues, frescoes, stupas), treasures from a dozen dynasties. One of the caves (no. 17) contained a hidden library of documents (about 40,000), Jewish, Nestorian, Manichaean, Persian, Chinese, Roman, Arabic, and Tibetan - many of these were scooped up by turn of the last century archaeologists and found their way to the West. The word "theft" is used often in the guide’s presentation.
Museums in the U.S., France, Germany, and England all have artifacts taken from the grotto. One cave filled with brilliant frescoes had a large blank area where the American, Langdon Warner, used chemicals to remove the painting from the wall. As I stood there I was struck by the question: was I looking at science, or theft, preservation, or desecration? What was the appropriate response, anger, sorrow? A review of the history of western archeology reveals a picture of explorers from the West literally creating a Dun Huang traffic jam as archaeologists from Sweden, Russia, Britain, Germany and the United States swarmed into the area, yet Dr. Warner was singled out for the harshest criticism by the Chinese guides in the Grotto.

I was somewhat disturbed by this as he was one of my boyhood heroes, and some believe that Warner is the inspiration for the character “Indiana Jones.” So is he villain or boy scout? As with many questions, the answer depends on the reference point. For the citizens of Japan he is a national hero whose efforts in large measure protected the two shrine capital cities of Nara and Kyoto from bombing during WWII. To honor his services, Japan has posthumously awarded him the Order of Sacred Treasures, and citizens of Kyoto built a memorial shrine in his honor and the people of Nara placed a table in the Buddhist Horyuji Temple. It is clear that if the people of Japan had a book of scientist saints, Langdon Warner would be among them. But what of Mogao Grotto in China, here he would be listed only if the Chinese had a book that dealt with demonology. Which is the true picture? A few of his journal entries speak to his 1923-24 expedition and his time at the Grotto.


In one citation he writes of White Russian deserters who had fled across the mountains only to be interned in the caves for six months. In their boredom and ignorance they had scratched their names on the walls and built fires in the caves. “It was with shock that I traced, on the oval faces and calm mouths, the foul scratches of Slavic obscenity and the regimental numbers which Ivan and his folk had left there.” Warner concluded that “Obviously some specimens of these paintings must be secured for study at home and more important still, for safe-keeping against further vandalism.

So at one level Warner is the protector of the artworks. Yet, before we give him full credit, we should note that he had brought the chemicals for removing the frescoes with him on the expedition, prior to any knowledge of the vandalism. But, the argument can still be made that at the turn of the last century China had neither the ability nor disposition to protect the ancient treasures stored in the Mogao Grotto and their loss would be a loss to all humanity. But, and maybe this is a whole new question, today the Chinese have both the ability and disposition to preserve and protect their ancient treasures, and they want them back. Now the question really does not involve Langdon Warner at all but rather institutions such as Harvard’s Fogg Museum and citizens like you and I.


That afternoon we did a complete change of pace and toured a dune area known as Singing Sand Mountain. According to legend, when the wind blows, the mountain sends out the sound of thunder. That afternoon, the wind was not blowing (thank all that is holy) so we unfortunately missed the sound of thunder demonstration, but also (and this is the good part) we missed the accompanying sand storm. Our destination was an oasis area about half way up the dune mountain known as Crescent Lake. Our transport was either by foot or by camel. I must admit that given my sympathy for poor dumb animals, and my current bulk, I thought about climbing up the dune for several moments, before deciding to select my camel. Her name was Betty, and she is a beaut. Should you ever get to Dun Huang and need transportation up Singing Sand Mountain, ask for Betty and give her my name. I fear that she will remember me. Once we arrived at Crescent Lake there were shaded picnic tables and drink stands to relax. If you were hardy and wanted to see the sun set on the dunes, there were climbing latters up the side of the dunes so that one could reach the top. Once on top one could rent a sled or inflated tire and come tearing back down the dunes toward Crescent Lake. Gravity is a wonderful thing. Not to add any fire to the global warming argument, Crescent Lake will soon need to be renamed Crescent Pond, and if its recent shrinkage continues, it will not need a name at all.   

 That evening we went to the night market in Dun Huang. We walked among tables of dried fruits, local crafts, and food stalls. The air was warm, the people friendly and the companionship convivial. Somewhere during the night sitting at a picnic table watching the crowds go by, each of us were able to put our Chinese language skills to use. "Pijou, xie, xie, bing da." If my memory serves that can be very loosely translated into “cold beer please.” In the desert, one must always avoid dehydration.



The next morning we are off again, this time to the far western remains of the Great Wall of China. The wall at this section is from the Han dynasty which makes it about 2000 years old. Most often when you see pictures of the wall, the sections shown are from the Ming dynasty, which makes them only about 600 hundred years old. The wall was about two hours into the Gobi desert from Dun Huang. It was an amazing landscape, much like an uneven parking lot. In all of my life I have never seen such a desolate sun blasted place. There were no trees, bushes, shrubs, grasses, there was in fact, nothing. Staring out the window I could not see any observable life forms. The guide told us that the area was home to scorpions, beetles, and poisonous snakes, but I think he was being optimistic.


 Once we arrived at that section of the Great Wall the trip across the desert was quickly forgotten, it was wonderful. The wall itself has shrunken down to ruins about five foot high and two to three foot across extending out into the desert. The outer facade of the wall had been worn off and you can see the mud wall still bound together by reeds taken from a nearby river. Off in the distance was a large structure known as the Jade Gate. Two thousand years ago this served as a customs entry point at the very edge of China. Prior to the Silk Road there was the Jade Road along which technology, goods and culture moved back and forth across the frontier. Looking at the remains of the Great Wall and the Jade Gate it occurred to me that in order to protect the frontier the early Chinese would have had to maintain a large garrison force in the area. Yet, today that appears to be impossible. Perhaps the climate has changed, for today the land is barren, the nearby river valley small, and looking out over the desert; you had to be impressed by the vast aloneness that is the Gobi desert.

 Dun Huang was perhaps my favorite stop in northwest China. A must see oasis on the edge of nothing. Our next stop is Turpan.

Turpan - Xingjian Autonomous Region – People’s Republic of China 2007


 This morning we are off by bus to the small oasis town of Turpan. On our way we passed a truck filled with pigs, which surprised me. In fact, a new saying had began to form in my mind, “safe as a pig in Muslim country,” but while this is Muslim country, it is not totally so, and the porkers were probably destined for Han tables, so perhaps I shall forget my new saying. Anyway, Turpan is an ancient oasis city; on the edge of the vast deserts of the Xingjian Uighur Autonomous Region. It was once an important way-station on the northern Silk Road. Nineteen centuries ago it lay exposed to the attack of the Hsiun-nu people (known in the West as Huns). At the same time, given its vital position on the Silk Road, it absorbed cultural influences from India, Persia, and China. In this early period it was a center for Hinayana Buddhism and a haven for communities of Manicheans and Nestorian Christians. By the ninth century, the city came under Uighur domination and adopted Islam.


 The current city of Turpan has a population of about 560,000, and is 156 meters below sea level. This puts it climate wise someplace between Death Valley California, and the Dead Sea. Precipitation at Turpan is minimal, about .63 inches per year. The city is about 90% Uyghur, 8% Han, and 2% other. This is a very multicultural society where the people use over 23 written languages. According to our guide, Turpan has the “sweetest grapes in the world.” Unfortunately, for anyone thinking of marketing the grapes, they are known locally as “horse nipple grapes.” In fact, again, according to our guide, Turpan is known for “four most things.”

  • Lowest place
  • Sweetest place – think of the horse nipple grapes
  • Hottest place – up to 50 degrees centigrade – ground temperature can cook eggs
  • Driest place


 The harsh climate has created a culture where the people arise at about 4:00am, work until 10:00 go home for a midday break, and then return to work after 3:00pm and work into the night. It is common for the homes to contain underground rooms. The city itself is made possible by a wonderful but ancient underground water system known as the Karez. Locals tell me that China had three great ancient construction projects, The Great Wall, The Grand Canal, and the Karez of Turpan. These underground tunnels using gravity flow bring glacial and snow melt water from the nearby mountains into the city and allows for the cultivation of their main crop, grapes. At the mountain end the tunnels are very deep but as they approach the city they appear as lines of raised earth, something that a giant mole might make, Currently the Karez system is supplemented by wells and dams, however the population and amount of agriculture is limited by the scarcity of water and conservation is a necessary component of the system.


 The area is known for its raisins, which are picked and dried in beautiful brick buildings, where bricks are alternately left out of the walls to allow for airflow during drying. The raisins are sold as two grades, those dried for fifteen days in the buildings, and those soaked in chemicals to speed up the process. Given our recent adventures with the Chinese Food and Drug Administration, if given the choice go for the natural process.
This is Uyghur country (Muslim) so you would not anticipate wine making, but it is also the People’s Republic. China is not known for its wine making, in fact some of its wines are truly terrible, but Turpan has a new and rather good small wine industry and the sweetness of the grapes make for an enjoyable wine tasting experience. Who knows, perhaps a bottle of Turpan wine will soon enhance your dining experience? Do you suppose the Smucker jam people will allow them to borrow their marketing line? “With a name like Horse Nipple, it has to be good.”


 Our lunch made it very obvious that we were not in Han country. The sign above the restaurant gave its name in Uyghur, Chinese, and English. Some establishments actually had an additional line in Cyrillic. The dishes were mostly mutton, and very spicy, while the entertainment seemed almost Middle Eastern. It was at lunch that I had an interesting conversation about whether Muslims and non Muslims could marry. Our Uyghur guide assured me that of course they can. Well he did note that there were a few details that needed to be concluded before the marriage could be consummated, such as having the non Muslim partner go to the hospital to have his or her stomach pumped (cleansed) and then becoming a Muslim. Outside of that, the process is easy. OK, our Muslim guide tells me that these marriages really never work out, but it is allowable, just not recommended.


 In the evening we went to a small local musical theater near the hotel. It was fun and colorful with traditional music and dancing. The troupe seemed almost like a family, perhaps something you might find at Branson, MO. Somewhere after the intermission it occurred to me (based on my Branson MO experience) that we were about to get to the part of the program where members of the audience are brought on stage to dance with the performers. Given that this is not a part of the program I enjoy, and being a man with white hair, and full white beard, who always seems to stick out in an audience, and is a natural for selection, I decided to leave early. So it was back to the hotel for a cool shower, and a long night sleep. I had barely gotten into bed when there was a knock on the door. Cracking the door, I found a beautiful young Chinese woman offering a massage. The phrase, “old enough to know better,” comes to mind, and in actual fact given my white hair and beard, my Father Christmas physique, and wedding ring which was at least twice as old as the young woman at the door, it was not a difficult decision. I thanked her for the offer, declined, and was off to bed.


 The next morning, breakfasting with the group, I found that after last night’s show they had gone together to a local massage parlor for a foot massage. Funny how the services offered to the men and women were so different. According to the breakfast buzz around the table, the women were taken to another room and received a foot massage, while the men were offered a service known as “f..kee” which if unfamiliar was repeated several times and accompanied by the explanatory sign language of the fingers of one hand forming a circle, while a finger of the other was pushed through the circle. Again, and all of this is hearsay only, the men refused the services explaining that they really did want a foot massage. One of the guys said that he explained his refusal with the phrase, “Big toe, not big Joe.” Now that is a neat phrase, in fact it sounds like one that I might have thought up, but generally long after the actual event had occurred, as something I said, I said, but really hadn’t. If he really did say that, I wonder how it was translated. Remember that the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan of “Finger Licking Good,” somehow translates to “You’ll eat your fingers off,” in Chinese. Anyway, listening to the conversation that morning, I wondered if there was a group of young women gathered at another breakfast table in town, discussing what service the da bie zhi (big nose) had requested last night. I could only imagine their horror, and disgust, as they speculated about what he wanted, something with a guy named Joe, that involved using his toes. But, I am letting my imagination get away from me, the situation made for memorable breakfast conversation, and many colorful jokes during the day. Travel does broaden one.


Kasgar and the Great Central Asia Market

We arrived in the late afternoon, a bit grubby and tired. The hotel was modern and comfortable and offered that treasure of oriental courtesy, a hot, damp towel upon your arrival to clean your face and hands. For myself, I wanted nothing more exciting than a bath, fresh clothes, an early dinner and a long sleep. By five the next morning, I was out of the hotel refreshed and eager to walk streets that had once been traversed by Marco Polo. This was Kasgar, a crown jewel of the Silk Road. It sets at the western end of the old trade routes, where the southern and northern Silk Roads meet. The city is famous for being a crossroads for ideas and goods and an entry point into China. During the late eighteen hundreds it had served as the foremost oasis for the “Great Game” where British and Russian diplomats set up listening posts, and plotted control of Central Asia.

 However, as I walked that morning it became clear that the glories of the past were in the past. The “Great Game” has been played, and now the city is but a backwater site on the outer fringes of China. In Kasgar, you are so far to the north and west in China that just across the mountains are the nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia. The area is populated by ethic Moslem, Turkish people, whose vibrant culture is distinctive and separate from the rest of China. If someone were to drop you into Kasgar and ask you to guess where you were, looking at the faces of the people, you would never guess the P.R.C.


One thing became very clear as I walked in the Old Town section where the winding dirt streets and mud brick housing are almost biblical, Kasgar has not taken part in the wealth distribution that is reshaping Beijing and Shanghai. In the People’s Republic all areas are equal, but some areas are obviously more equal than others. Once again, under this new form of Chinese socialism, all will become wealthy, but some will arrive first. Beijing and Shanghai are arriving, Kasgar is yet to begin. As I walked that morning I saw many elderly men with the traditional Uyghur hats and long beards standing or sitting along the sidewalks. I think that perhaps my white hair and full beard threw them off and made them unsure of my status. They would regard me as I approached and when I placed my hands together and greeted them with “nomaste” they would rise and give a small bow. Who knows what they thought, perhaps a new Imam was in town. It somehow pleases me to think that that is what they were thinking, but more likely it was; who is that crazy bearded American? What is he saying? If he is crazy, is he as harmless as he looks? While not as romantic as being mistaken for a new Imam, these latter ideas are perhaps more likely.  

That morning we were off to visit several mosques and the family tomb of the Moslem saint Abakh Hoja. We visited several Moslem sites, some small and precious, some large and magnificent. The architecture of Islam ranks among the most beautiful in the world. One large mosque was empty and barren. During the Cultural Revolution the mosque had been visited by the Red Guard and trashed beyond use. It still stands and is part of the tour, I suppose it is providing a constant reminder to the Uyghurs that the government of the People’s Republic of China, is not at all interested in separatist ideas nor will it tolerate political Islam. The Abakh Hoja mausoleum with its dome, four minarets and beautiful bright tiled surfaces remind you of the Alhambra, or the best of the Mughal architecture of India. This spot has always held a rather romantic fascination for the Chinese through the story of a young woman so fragrant that she conquered the heart of the emperor Qianlong. She is said to have been the grand daughter of Abakh Hoja. Captured in 1758 the wonderfully smelling young woman was taken to Beijing where she became a favorite of the emperor. In order to appease the “Fragrant Concubine” the emperor built a tower from which she could gaze over the walls of the Winter Palace into the nearby Mohammedan quarter and provided her with a Turkish bath. However, nothing could satiate her homesickness and she pined to return to the desert. The concubine is said to have repudiated the advances of the emperor, and enforced her decision by carrying a knife to bed. Whatever the cause, either homesickness, sexually frustrated emperor, or an angry mother-in-law, the Fragrant Concubine died, perhaps suicide, perhaps murder. Kasgar legend maintains that the body was returned to Kasgar and now lies buried in the Abakh Hoja’s family tomb. Chinese legend tells the story somewhat differently with the woman dying of natural causes at the age of 52 and being interred in the Ming burial grounds near Beijing. As for me I like the Kaskarian story best and the tome site is beautiful. Almost as lovely as the building was the courtyard rose gardens. For Muslims their vision of paradise is similar to a beautiful garden. While wondering about smelling the roses and thinking of the “Fragrant Concubine” a child came up to me and attached a small metallic butterfly pin to my shirt. OK, so I’m a sucker for cute kids, and the metallic butterfly was purchasable at the incredibly reasonable price of only one Yuan.

The last building we visited that morning was beautiful but in dire need of upkeep. At the end of the visit the guide told us that the site was not really considered a holy Moslem site because the scholar for whom it had been built was from the Sufi sect. Given that the majority Muslim population in
China, and Kasgar is Sunni Moslem, I asked if there were still Sufi in the area. He told me that he did not think so, “because if there were, they could not live.” I did not follow up on the conversation to clarify that idea, and perhaps the translation was poor, or perhaps, the Moslem population in Kasgar is really not as moderate as I had previously supposed.

We passed the afternoon visiting historical sites, and as the day ended we were allowed to join a family in their courtyard, which was very nice on their part and interesting to me. Although plain and somewhat humble by outside standards, the courtyard was comfortable, the kids bright, and the family friendly. These are a beautiful proud people, and our guide Iman was like a Uyghur prince among them.


The next morning we were scheduled to see the Great Central Asia Market. I awoke early and took a cab to the site as I wanted to see the place set up. As the sun came up herds of goats, sheep, cattle, people on donkey carts piled high with just about every imaginable goods you could think of began to arrive. You want a whip, second row, third vender. How about a side of sheep, the meat markets are on the first row, you can’t miss them. Stones used for healing, there is a guy carrying those about and is eager to sell you some. Tibetan Saffron, I do remember seeing that somewhere and very inexpensive. In the early morning light as the animals are being tied to lines, it periodically felt like I was about to participate in an Asian version of running with the bulls, but it finally settled down and there you were, The Great Central Asian Market. This is an absolute must see, almost beyond words. I am sure that Marco Polo himself would be dazzled by the assortment of goods and people who come to this place every Sunday morning. There are actually two parts to the market, the one I visited in the morning which as wildly wonderful, and the second later in the day with large areas of venders selling everything from Head and Shoulder Shampoo, to you name it. In the spaces between the regular stores are hundreds of hawkers who carry about all sorts of neat things. After haggling with one for a healing stone, he told me incredible news. “You are my brother.” As my good brother, he was going to give me a special price. If you can’t trust relatives, who can you trust?


This is to be our last day along the Silk Road. In the afternoon light as I look out at the vastness of this area, I know that I will return, it is magnificent. Tomorrow I will wake up in Nanking, the ancient capital of China far to the southeast. The weather will be hot, the air humid, and in the morning, a vast fog will cover and dampen everything.