Recently I had the opportunity to do something totally out of my comfort zone. China Radio International is doing a documentary series about interesting foreigners living along the Silk Road, and they wanted to film my life here in Xinjiang as an artist. I am used to being on the other end of the camera, capturing the beautiful and interesting moments that abound in this nomadic life I live in a culture not my own. I was surprised by how much fun I ended up having with the film crew. They had come from the very modern and developed eastern part of the country, and were experiencing a culture shock all their own as they experienced the Central Asian flavor of life here, at times bewildered by their inability to communicate with their own countrymen.
The filming included many scenes from my life here in Urumqi, a day spent filming in a Kazakh farm in the mountains south of here, and a few days filming in Kashgar, one of my favorite places to find inspiration for my paintings. Kashgar is a place where it is easy to imagine what life may have looked life 1000 years ago when it was flourishing as an important stop along the ancient Silk Road. Men who look positively ancient in their traditional loose-fitting robes tied up with rope peer at you from behind creased, leathery faces. On their heads perch traditional fur hats or embroidered skullcaps. Donkey carts are still a popular mode of transportation in villages, sheep are herded along thoroughfares, and markets seem to throng with every shape, color, texture, scent, and curiosity known to man. It would be rare for me to turn down the opportunity to visit this remote and exotic city.
One of my favorite places in Kashgar has always been the Old City, a maze of mud brick alleyways in which dwell hospitable Uyghur families, who have lived in this place for generations. In past visits the alleys and homes, while ancient and crumbling in places, have been well-cared for by the families living there. They adorn their colorful doorways with sparkling curtains and potted plants, and sweep the alley outside their homes with enormous flax brooms. This visit was different, and I felt a keen disappointment. Due either to the relocation of many families to tall apartment buildings, or perhaps to the chily late November weather, the city seemed largely deserted, inhabited only by a few remaining families, still clinging to their traditional life in the cool alleyways of the Old City.
Across from the Old City lies a new "Old City", entered through a grand new archway engraved with a sign proudly proclaiming it Kashgar's Old City. I have mixed feelings about this. In one sense, it is true that it is part of the old city of Kashgar, once very similar to the Old City that now seems deserted, with mazes of mud-brick alleys. I admire the efforts the local government has made to preserve the feel of the ancient mud brick alleys with a major construction project that has been going on several years in this area. However, there is nothing old about neighborhoods that have been torn down and completely remodeled.
My most recent trip to Kashgar gives me a sense of urgency with my paintings that has been growing slowly the past year as I have watched other things change or disappear in my northern city of Urumqi. Seeing the Old City of Kashgar in a state of transition from what it once was makes me realize that I could be one of the last people to capture life as it has been in southern Xinjiang. In my next series of paintings, expect to see more mud brick alleys, donkey carts, and other signs of the traditional culture and life of this ruggedly beautiful province and the people that inhabit it.
**Check out my Inspiration page to see some new photos from my trip.