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Bento de Góis, search of the Cathay Kingdom (11)

admin / January 1, 2016

Great Figures of the Missionary Work

Joaquim Magalhães Castro

In Yarkand, I ventured out into the streets lined with beautiful houses of adobe, partition and mud washed in white, protected by thick doors with iron stops and wooden balconies carefully crafted. It was like exploring the intimacy of a tale of One Thousand and One Nights. Unlike the modern part – occupied by public buildings and with its aspect completely changed – the old town, entirely inhabited by Uighurs, kept the magic of an enchanting metropolis. During the restoration work of their homes, the Uighurs – aware of the baton they should pass on to future generations – almost religiously respected the essence of traditional architecture. Some remains of the city wall from 500 years back, towering more than ten meters, were still there. But, unfortunately, there seemed no official intention of keeping them for any longer.

A few days after his arrival in the city Bento de Góis was invited by the queen’s son – understandably, his friend and ally – to visit for a month the kingdom of Kotan. The Jesuit readily agreed because there he could choose the best jet, or “black marble”, which gave prodigious earnings and it “would be very helpful to offer to the King of Cathay,” in the event of such occasion.

The Azorean was already tired of waiting for a caravan in which he could incorporate in order to reach his final destination. He was, in fact, preparing a full embassy for the Cathay kingdom. We are in August 1604 and he informed his brothers in India that finally they could integrate a caravan that had a total of 70 people. It was not easy to get into such an embassy. He had to pay a large sum of money, a circumstance in which, once again, he had the support of the local king. The departure from the capital of Kachgaria – which today is Chinese land and Xinjiang province – only happened on the 14th of November. He was ready to cross a vast arid zone.

The Xinjiang is a region rich in oil and natural gas, and is in the desert of Taklamakan, in the vicinity of Lake Lop Nur, where the Chinese makes all its nuclear tests. It is, therefore, considered an area of great geostrategic importance. The animosity between Chinese and Uighurs is more obvious here than that in Tibet between Chinese and Tibetans. Even more glaring are the differences that separate communities “forced” to live together. Religion emerges as main dividing factor. Before the migratory waves of Han Chinese settlers, a process started in the 50s of the last century. Minorities constituted 80 percent of the population of Xinjiang, the “new frontier,” as dubbed by the Manchus. Today, the percentage has dropped to 40 percent and the Uighurs are now a minority in a territory which is one third of the total area of China, with the Han population dominating the local economy. As for the power structure, in an attempt to balance the scales, communist leaders of Uighur ethnicity (and Tibetan) have been promoted to positions in the central government in recent years. More radical Han elements do not hesitate in stating that “the Uighurs have no culture” and have “bad habits,” accusing them of dishonesty, being troublemakers and ungrateful, by “ignoring the development” which China has brought them.

In the fertile and reputed oasis of Xinjiang grows an abundance of wheat, corn, cotton, legumes and fruits, including one that is perhaps among the best melons in the world, the famous hamigua. Not far behind in sweetness and quality come the grapes, peaches, apricots, apples, pomegranates, watermelons and figs. Uighurs have an immense pride in fruit farming. In fact, they take pride in everything that belongs to them.

In the local markets sellers of eggs (the color red or yellow differentiates cooked from raw) and two varieties of wheat bread (nan and bolka) lighted their stalls with candles and lamps, and  occasionally provided small baskets full of delicious white corn pone, the nan konak. These were the same women who every morning brought to the square fresh yogurt in bowls of ceramic. Some of them sold them at the entrance of the hotels where foreigners were staying. The more sophisticated sellers of nuts had adapted carts on top of which were displayed in watertight compartments sunflower seeds (this seed was consumed in large quantities all over China), pumpkin seeds, peanuts, fried beans, white raisins, nuts and sesame cakes; and they positioned themselves above all in front of cinemas and theaters, being the first to set up the stall and the last to disassemble it.

When evening fell, cooks with their street kitchens came and in an instant the square was transformed into a noisy night market. Of the food on offer, there was nothing missing: pulau rice, fried river fish, chicken and boiled eggs, meat pastries and the ever ordered shish kebab. Next to a pile of melons, stiff as stakes, men and adolescents provided appetizing melon with the juice still dripping from the edge of sharp knives.