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Murder, Madness and Sacrifice: An Ordinary Day in Hotan 杀戮、疯狂和牺牲:和田的普通一天

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” 
– Cesare Pavese, Italian writer. 

There are days on this long journey filled with so many unusual and confronting experiences they leave my head spinning with seismic shifts of perception. The world as I know it seems to have so very little in common with the world in which I now find myself. 

We had travelled for hours through harsh and featureless desert to reach Hotan, a small city far from everywhere on the southern edge of the cruel, vast Taklamikan Desert. Hotan looms out of a dust storm haze like a true frontier town, a tumble of mid-size half-finished buildings and a mayhem of motorbikes, donkey carts and tray-back tricycle taxis, all covered in a fine layer of pale silt. 

We had come to see the weekly market, reported to be the biggest and best in Xinjiang, rivaling all others for colour and spectacle. But the days in Hotan bring a series of unexpected and unrelated happenings, at once disarming and thought-provoking, and the events smack me around the head for days afterwards with the question of what defines normal.

As off-balance as they make me feel, I try and bend and shape the experiences in my head until they fit – very poorly and uncomfortably – into my own view of the world. Normality is, of course, simply a construct with parameters defined according to your place of birth and your cultural background. We’re always trying to find the common in the uncommon as a way of minimising the distance of our human experiences. 

And it turns out that what is extraordinary for me is just another day in Hotan.

旅途中有些日子充满了不寻常的矛盾的事情,它们会萦绕于你脑海间。我是否真的领悟到了呢?

我们在和田待了很多天,探寻不同的事物,品尝美食,目不转睛地盯着各种令人惊叹的东西。



Murder 杀戮


Seeing a severed camel head on the ground, a small pool of blood forming around it, has never in my own experience been an event of ordinary measure. And yet here people were, walking around it carrying bags of shopping, a mere severed head a matter of no note.

I had been with the camels earlier in the day at the animal market on the edge of town, fifty or sixty of the magnificent beasts in a large outdoor yard waiting to be bought and sold. 
Every Sunday in Hotan farmers come from near and far with animals to sell – goats, sheep, yaks, cattle and donkeys. The streets leading in to the market are lined with livestock in makeshift pens, tied to fence posts or the undercarriage of parked trucks. Now and again a skittery animal escapes, careering and butting its way through dense crowds of people and other animals before being captured and tied up again.  

We work our way through the noise, crowds and dust to the inner part of the market. Here, all the sheep are being weighed one by one, bundled like babies into baskets made from old truck tyres resting on sets of industrial scales. The sheep’s weight is recorded in a small notebook by a heavy man sitting on the fence, and once the weight is known, deals are struck quickly and animals are passed from farmer to butcher. The sheep are bleating and panicky. Do they know it will soon be all over for them?

在和田,牲畜市场每天都热闹不已。我们整天都穿梭在市场中心熙熙攘攘的人群和漫天灰尘中。在这里,每只羊都被像婴儿一样绑好倒着称重,户外的秤一头是卡车轮胎做 的篮子,一头是一套工业用天平。旁边一个坐在栏杆上的男人把称好的数据记录在一个小笔记本上。
市场的另一个区域是骆驼区,那里有五六十头宏伟高大的骆驼,安静得好像只有一头动物。这里没有淘气的家伙。他们的皮毛干净顺滑,眼眸明亮,弯曲的睫毛长长的。


In another section are the donkeys, braying and kicking and making it very difficult for any potential buyers to get a good look at their teeth, as potential buyers like to do. Next to them is the yak pen, the well-behaved long-haired black beasts standing around quietly, occasionally shifting their feet slightly.

The camels are in the far corner, tall, silent and imposing. There are no bad-mannered rogues here – the fur of these camels is clean and sleek, their eyes shining, covered with long, curved eyelashes. A chocolate coloured mother and her nougat coloured calf watch me with big dark eyes. I could walk straight under the mother’s chin without stooping.

But there is no room for sentimentality here – these camels are being sold for their meat, as well as for farm work. Camel meat is readily available in these parts and when I return to the Sunday Bazaar that afternoon, there is a severed camel’s head in front of the butcher’s stall, with a severed horse’s head at the horse meat stall next door.  

They look violent and bloody, macabre and unwelcome. I berate myself for being soft – meat is meat, and why is a camel or horse more majestic than a yak or a cow?

But I see the eyelashes on the dead, cold eyes, and the butcher sits by, uncaring.

我看着死去的骆驼冰冷的眼睛上的睫毛,屠夫则心不在焉地坐在一旁。

骆驼出售后供食用,也供干农活使用。当我们当天下午回到周末集市时,有家屠宰摊前放着一只沉默的血淋淋的骆驼头,恐怖而又阴森。




Madness 疯狂

Outside Hotan in the midst of desert lies a small mosque, all but swallowed by the dunes, and the thousand year old tomb of Islamic missionary Imam Asism, covered with flags. 

The mosque openly welcomes the poor, the weak, and the estranged without reservation, and is well known as a place of charity amongst local people. Although it is clearly not wealthy, those needing help are taken in – a situation no longer the case in many other holy places around the world.

Several homeless people are resting under bushes outside the mosque, their belongings tucked about them, waiting for lunch. I notice a young bearded man dressed in a winter coat, far too heavy for the desert heat, carrying prayer beads and speaking loudly to himself as he walks up and down beside one of the tombs.
Earlier someone had asked for a small donation for visiting, and invoked the wrath of the mosque’s Imam who made him return the tiny amount on the grounds that the mosque and tombs should be open and free for all, Muslim or not. 
The young coated man had watched it all happen and now walked back and forth repeating to himself over and over “The Imam said he shouldn’t do it, but he did, he did ask those people for money and the Imam said it wasn’t right. And you’re good Muslims, you’re bringing your daughters here to be good Muslims.” Over and over, with great emotion. Back and forth, in the hot sun, in his heavy coat.
Mental illness is hidden in China. Not spoken of, except obliquely, and not seen. Not acknowledged, not accepted. Yet here in this out of the way mosque were a small legion of men whose madness took the form of religious fervour, and who were accepted and cared for by the local Islamic community without question. 
在和田郊外的沙丘中心有一座小小的清真寺,清真寺四周环绕着沙丘,还有伊斯兰教传教士伊玛目历经千年的墓穴。清真寺犹如一个圣地。迎接着平穷、弱小、远方的人们。清真寺外边的草丛里住着几个流浪的人,他们身边放着卷好的行李,他们在等着发午饭。清真寺是当地有名的慈善之地,虽然不富裕,但却实实在在地帮着受困的人们。有个年轻人,身着与炎热沙漠不相符的冬衣,拿着祈祷面包,沿着一座墓穴来回走动,不停地念着:伊玛目说他不应该这么做,但他做了,他确实做了,伊玛目说不要这样做。你是一个虔诚的穆斯林,你将你的女儿带到这里成为一个虔诚的穆斯林。

Sacrifice 牺牲


Later in the day I’m seated at a busy restaurant stall in the shaded part of the bazaar when I see the most extraordinary sight – a small boy, perhaps two or three years old, completely naked except for his shoes, his back and buttocks smeared with fresh blood. He’s quite happy, and not apparently injured – teasing his older brother and behaving like any normal three year old boy.

I wonder if they are playing a joke with the blood from a nearby fish stall, when I see what’s happening. His older brother, maybe ten, is being told by his mother to take off his shirt. He doesn’t want to do it, but she’s making him. His grandfather is sitting nearby on a low stool in the open area outside the restaurant, a long, shining narrow knife in his hand. Besides his mother and grandfather there is an aunt and a small girl baby.

The boy is told to lie face down on the mat – he doesn’t want to do it, but his mother is pushing him down by his shoulders. His grandfather and the others are crowded around him, the glint of the knife visible between their bodies. I feel a rising sense of panic, but our guide tells us it’s alright. Don’t worry. Sit back down.

But I rise from my seat because I can’t push away the feeling of alarm – the knife, the blood, the unwillingness of the boy – even though we are in the middle of a busy bazaar in broad daylight on the busiest day of the week, and no one else but me seems to have noticed anything amiss. There are at least fifty people in the immediate vicinity, most of them eating, apparently oblivious.

I walk quickly over to the small group just in time to see a grey pigeon taken out of a cage on the ground and passed to the grandfather. He holds it over the boy’s back and quickly slits the bird’s throat,  the sticky dripping blood smeared over the skin of the boy’s back by the hands of his mother and aunt.

He stands now, his back dripping with blood, and comes to sit sullenly in a corner, back hunched over, elbows resting on knees, glaring at me as if to say “I didn’t want to take part in this stupid thing”.

我们坐在集市一家卖家常菜的摊上,看到了一幕很奇特的场景——一个两三岁大的小男孩,光着身子,只穿了一双鞋,他的身上有血污,他是那么的开心,一点都没有受伤的迹象——他和哥哥嬉戏着,就像一个正常的三岁男孩。

我猜想是不是他们在杀鱼(附近就有一个鱼摊),然后用鱼血在开玩笑。然后我看到正在发生的事情。那个看起来有十岁大的哥哥被要求脱下衣服。他不想脱,他的祖母坐在一块黑毯子旁边的小凳子上,拿着一把锋利的刀,他的母亲或是阿姨站在旁边。她的旁边有一个笼子,她们要男孩趴在毯子上——男孩不想这样做,她们拉着他趴下。接着母亲从笼子中拿出一只鸽子,交给祖母,祖母把鸽子放在男孩的背上,划开了鸽子的喉咙。滴下的鲜血迅速弄脏了男孩的皮肤。

他站起身来,背后的血滴下来,他闷闷不乐地坐在角落的凳子上,弓着背,手肘驾在膝盖上盯着我,好像在说我不想参与这件愚蠢的事情的。


With exquisite timing unique to small boys, his little brother walks over and stands with his legs slightly apart and urinates on the ground near his big brother’s feet, daring him to do something about it. He doesn’t.

I have absolutely no idea of the meaning behind what’s going on but I can see now that although the pigeons are in danger, the children are not. I can’t take my eyes away – the baby girl is next, undressed and held face down while the pigeon sacrifice is repeated, the blood smeared again. The dead pigeon joins a pile of its fellows on the mat.

他的小兄弟走过去,靠着哥哥向地上撒尿,好像要激怒他似的。回到毯子处,一个没穿衣服小女婴接着趴在那里,鸽子继续被牺牲掉。残余的鸽血弄脏了母亲的围巾,浪费了很多。然后她捡起死去的鸽子走进了饭店。

The blood of the last pigeon is smeared on the legs of the mother and aunt, not a drop wasted. Then the mother picks up the four dead pigeons by the legs and takes them into the restaurant to be plucked.
Our guide Waheed says the blood adds heat to the body, and for children is especially protective against illness. He tells us some Uyghurs believe the blood is very warming but only when applied to the skin – the meat is ‘warming’ to the body internally when eaten. I find myself wondering if the same principle applies in traditional Chinese medicine, with the emphasis it places on warming and cooling foods.
Now the young boy is sitting on the ground next to our table playing with a toy car, and his older brother has begun peeling a sack of white onions for his grandmother, who stands cooking next to him on the outdoor wok. Ritual over, routine has returned and there is a restaurant to be run.

Except for me, of course – how can I be the same again after seeing an extraordinary sight like that? I struggle to make some sense of it all against my own feelings of revulsion, fascination, and intrigue. Is there something in my memory with which I can normalise what I’ve just seen?

I think of my great-grandmother, dosing us all with a toxic brown ‘tonic’ in the firm belief it would keep us healthy. Was this really so very different? 

Now the three year old is scratching at the itch made by the tightening of the drying blood, crescents of dark dried blood under his little fingernails. He gives me a long, searching look – as though noticing me for the very first time and realizing I’m not a normal part of his daily landscape. Perhaps he’ll later tell his father about the very strange-looking woman he saw at lunchtime, with her strangely dressed husband and children, and the odd way they sounded when they spoke. Normality is all relative.

我们的导游瓦希德(音译)说,鸽子血能为身体增加热量,尤其能保护孩子的健康。维吾尔人相信血只有滴在皮肤上时才会非常温暖。肉在食用时提供热量。我想知道传统中药中是否使用鸽子血。
现在那个小男孩就坐在我们桌子旁边的地上玩着一辆玩具车,他的哥哥开始给祖母剥一麻袋白洋葱,他的祖母就在他旁边,围着户外的锅转。仪式结束了,一切又恢复正常。
除了我以外,当然——在目睹了如此奇特的一幕之后,我怎么能还若无其事?后来,我总结了一下我的感受——反感、魔幻、吸引人。
现在那个三岁大的小男孩,由于血迹干后带来的瘙痒在不停地挠身体,他的指甲盖里嵌着暗红的血渍。他若有所思地看了我一下——不知道他察觉到什么来自于我的兴趣和异常了没有?




“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” – Proust