© Copyright 2019 by Helene Munson
Photo taken in West China in 2001 while comparing my Turkmenistan dress and Kirghiz pants outfit to a local woman’s traditional Uighur dress. My dusty attire shows that this was truly an overland trip, taking local transport all the way. This area is now off limits to tourists due to the Chinese crackdown on the local Uighurs' protests against destroying their cultural heritage sites and replacing them with Han Chinese architecture.
My journey had already been hundreds of miles overland. I was excitingly close to completing this once-in-a-lifetime trip. But here in front of the train station in Urumqi it all seemed to unravel. I felt that I was treated like a rabid dog.
My thoughts wandered back to earlier parts of my travels. In Samarkand, I had been invited to a bridal shower. While passing the open gates of one of the traditional, walled courtyards, I had peeked inside. Food was being served on rows of tables. A small band played traditional music as a dancing girl in a rhinestones-embroidered, lime green dress twirled her long, wide skirt. Seeing the delight on my face, a man had motioned for me to come in. I joined in the dancing, but felt ridiculous in my Western attire of cargo pants and a long sleeved t-shirt.
The next morning, my first project had been to go to the market and buy a traditionally striped, silk dress usually worn with a pair of full-length bloomers. As the dress was three quarters long, I felt sufficiently covered and decided to forgo the hideously wide pants. It was a decision I was to regret later.
My last stop on the Uzbek side had been the sleepy town of Margilan, with a decrepit Russian hotel. There was not a drop of water in any bathroom pipe, including the toilet. The next day, unwashed and uncomfortable, I headed to the market to get a shared taxi ride to Kirghizstan .
A woman wanting to be helpful, dressed in jeans and a fashionable top approached and asked in English: “Are you lost?”
I responded: “I’m hoping to get a taxi to Osh, so I can then make it over the Irkesthame Pass into China. I’m on my way to Kashgar.”
The woman smiled. “That’s not as easy as you think. It’s the most direct route, but the Kirgiz Osh truck drivers cross the border in convoys…they’re afraid of getting robbed. But my sister, here, can help you.”
With that she introduced Safranesia, a woman dressed in traditional attire with her hair covered by a full veil, not just a loose headscarf. The sisters grew up together. But while Amina, the English speaker had moved into the capital, Tashkent, Uzbekistan Safranesia had married a devout Muslim and moved to Osh in Kirghizstan. Once a month the two women would meet in Margilan to chat and shop.
I shared a taxi and put on a headscarf to blend in. When we reached Osh, Safranesia took me to her house, where three children and her husband greeted us excitedly. She shooed the two boys and her husband out into the street, and boiled a bucket of hot water on the wood stove for me to wash.
I undressed in the yard, soaped myself, and washed my hair in the half-emptied bucket, keeping some water to wash my underwear. Never in my life had so little water felt so good.
The following two days Safranesia took me to the house of the truck drivers’ head honcho, but there was no convoy that I could join. The rest of the time was spent visiting women neighbors and, as rumors of a westerner staying with Safranesia had made the rounds, they all wanted to meet this strange being. I was served food and tea. One girl insisted on beautifying me Kirgiz style by drawing a uni-brow on me with her kohl pencil.
Safranesia and I communicated in gestures and signs and drew little pictures on pieces of paper. I had already learned to pretend to be still married, when talking to curious taxi drivers to avoid obnoxious offers to become a second wife.
But while staying with Safranesia I became aware of the irony of how safe it was for a single woman to travel alone in the Muslim world. I was kept safe in people’s homes, playing with the children or helping the women cook. Had I been male, no self-respecting local man would have allowed a stranger to see his wife and daughters unveiled in his home.
On the third day in Osh I realized that I had to find another way to get to Kashgar in time for the famous, ancient Saturday market. The night before I left, Safranesia brought a pair of her own bloomers. As I dressed the next morning, she appeared glad to be sending me on my way looking more decent with my lower calves and ankles covered. With my modesty restored, we went to the market square, where Safranesia negotiated a ride in a shared taxi to Bishkek. The goodbye was an emotional embrace and she gave me her own Muslim prayer beads, a well-worn strand made from white glass, which I cherish as talisman to this day.
Arriving in the Kirghiz capital, Bishkek, I realized that I no longer had the time to make an overland crossing via the army-guarded safe Torugart Pass. I took a flight to Urumqi in western China.
At the train station, I found that I had missed the day’s last and only train by half an hour. It meant that now the only way to get to Kashgar in time was to take a 24 hours bus ride. It also meant that I had to get a taxi to the bus station in a hurry.
“Tenty dolla, tenty dolla” the taxi drivers shouted as they encircled me, grimacing mockingly. All were a head shorter than me. I felt like a tired, old lioness surrounded by a pack of hyenas. By my calculation, the ride should be only the equivalent of two dollars in local Yuan, not their outrageous cost. Feeling trapped I was ready to accede
From behind the drivers, I noticed that a young Uighur man was watching. I saw a sincere concern in his face. He came closer, motioning me to stay put. After a brief study of passing traffic, he stepped to the curb and signaled for a private car driven by an Uighur to stop. They spoke briefly, and then he motioned me to get in the car.
Trusting in the kindness of strangers I got in.
The driver had me at the bus station in just minutes, but shook his head when I offered him some Chinese Yuan. I extended my arms, palms up, and shrugged in a gesture meant to convey: “Why don’t you want money?” He smiled and pointed at my dress. It dawned on me that Uighurs, Uzbeks and other central Asian tribes were Turkic people who shared a national costume. Wearing an Uzbek striped, silk dress with Safranesia’s bloomers was like a flag making a political statement, advertising my sympathies for the repressed, underprivileged Turkic minorities on both sides of the border who were dominated by policies of communist regimes in distant capitals. Dressed like an underdog, I had emboldened those taxi drivers to treat me like an inferior, but it also got two Uighur men, strangers to each other, to protect me in a small act of kindness and defiance.
More than a decade has passed since my travels in that silk dress. The world has changed. The news reports about muslim terrorism in the region dominate the news. But all I can think of is the kindness that was once extended to a lone western traveler