The sweet smoky odor of grilled mutton and cumin saturated the surprisingly cool summer breeze as I walked along Aizirete Lu near the famous Yengi Bazaar in the ancient city of Kashgar. The crowded streets were lined as far as my eyes could see with brightly colored umbrellas shading large bags of spices, carts filled with fresh fruit, and butchered meat hanging precariously above crude scales on fragile makeshift tables. Bicycles, motorcycles, taxis, buses and donkey carts weaved through the mass of pedestrians. Veiled women mingled among scores of men adorned with intricately embroidered skullcaps, traditional to the Uyghur of Chinese Turkistan.
Every Sunday, the streets of Kashgar swell by 50,000 people as the entire community gathers at one of Asia’s liveliest markets. Tribes of Tajiks, Kazakhs and Uzbeks from nearby mountain villages blend into the human mosaic with Pakistani traders and tourists from around the world. The wide boulevards are lined with vendors selling kabobs, dumplings and nang bread baked in earthen ovens. Nearby the famous Sunday market goes under-roof into a warehouse with endless fluorescent-lit stalls bulging with clothing, hats, footwear, electronics, knives, silks, pashmina and assorted tourist trinkets.
The products have changed over time, but the scene is not new to this fabled city. Two thousand years ago, the three ancient caravan routes of the Silk Road converged at Kashgar. Multi-ethnic traders and herdsmen dressed in the unique costumes of their homelands bartered over the vendibles of antiquity. Travellers to the region told stories of remote oases, exotic bazaars, and camel caravans crossing the vast unforgiving Taklamakan Desert. But what stirs the imagination and ignites romantic interest in the Silk Road are not the historic accounts of trade and commerce along its great length, but the symbolic and metaphorical impact of centuries of cultural exchange.
Near the borders with Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, Kashgar holds a strategic position between the Pamir Mountains to the west and Taklamakan Desert to the east. During its two millennia of existence, this oasis town on the edge of modern China has been ruled by countless tribes and influenced by European, Islamic, Persian, Mongolian and Chinese cultures. Kashgar was at the crossroads of the world’s great religions, foods, music and dance, and each left something of itself behind.
By the 15th century, Islam had become the dominant religion throughout the entire Taklamakan region. As the overland trade routes of the past gave way to the sea, desert towns and villages became increasingly shut off from the outside world. Under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the Silk Road was abandoned by China, further isolating the once-flourishing communities. Only the largest and best-watered oases survived the advance of invading sands. Today, the Turkic-speaking Central Asian people known as Uyghur (pronounced Wee-gurr) claim this harsh and barren land as their ancestral home.
Recently China has shown an increasing interest in the immense territory around the Tarim Basin, called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Huge amounts of money have been poured into the “Develop the West” initiative launched out of Beijing more than 10 years ago. In the past decade, Kashgar and the regional capital of Urumqi have been inundated with modernization projects and waves of Han Chinese businessmen creating construction and manufacturing jobs, as well as exploiting the natural resources of the New Silk Road. Some ethnic Uyghurs have also prospered, but the majority of Uyghur in Kashgar and the remote oasis towns of the Silk Road remain untouched by the economic opportunities of the modern age.
A few months ago, the Chinese government released plans to turn Kashgar into the region’s only special Economic Development Zone centered around the Kashgar Central and Southern Asia Industrial Park. Comparisons are already being made to the development of Shenzhen near Hong Kong, which was converted from a small fishing village to a major import-export hub. But in the rush to transform China’s westernmost city into a prosperous modern trading post, Old Kashgar and the traditional Uyghur culture are being sacrificed.
The New Old Kashgar
By 11am, the bazaar had reached its peak. I squeezed my way through the growing crowd and hailed one of the dozens of lime green taxis for a short ride to the livestock market located to the southeast of the city. Unlike the Sunday bazaar, the livestock market feels old, like you are being transported to a different time and different place, untouched by the wave of modernity breaking over Kashgar. Tough and weathered men tended to their cattle, sheep, goats and lambs in the strong mid-day sun. Here, the buying and selling of animals is an ancient art form where spirited negotiations can consume an entire day.
My stay at the livestock market was brief, and finding a taxi back to town often requires a bit of luck. Locals come and go on foot or by donkey cart, and large groups of tourists transport in buses that park on the outside of the fenced animal pens. When another tourist showed up in a taxi, I didn’t hesitate to leave the dusty market and make my way back to the centre of town.
The centre of Kashgar is the Id Kah Mosque. Built in 1442, the yellow-tiled mosque has been renovated many times over the years and was originally constructed on the outskirts of the walled city. Through the main gate is a tree-lined courtyard leading to the Great Prayer Hall, 100 meters from the entrance. Outside the mosque, the steps and large open square are a favorite gathering place and, during times of prayer, fill with thousands of pious Muslim men. This architectural icon of the past is also increasingly becoming an isolated remnant of historic Kashgar.
For years, modern buildings and shopping centers have encroached upon the old neighborhoods of Kashgar near the Id Kah Mosque. What is referred to as Old Kashgar is a maze of winding cobblestone streets leading past dozens of small mosques and shops. Ornate hand-carved poplar doors dot the adobe walls and open to centuries-old two and-three-storey courtyard homes. Donkey carts carry firewood, and around every corner, children greet foreigners with a playful curiosity.
But in recent years, the Chinese have begun a systematic destruction of the Old City, claiming the ancient structures are too dangerous to let stand in the aftermath of the earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 Chinese in Sichuan Province in 2008. Less than one year later, the Chinese government initiated an urban development project worth 3 billion yuan (USD 440 million) to avoid a similar disaster in Kashgar. According to some accounts, nearly half of the narrow alleys and earthen homes of the city’s earliest residential areas have been bulldozed to the ground to be replaced with open plazas, modern apartments and wide roads.
During my first visit to Kashgar in 2006, I was honored to join a large multi-generational Uyghur family for a holiday meal during the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice in a part of the city that no longer exists. Young children ran and played in the trellised courtyard of their unpretentious home, as men attended to the freshly slaughtered lamb and women prepared the main dining area. I was led into a sizeable rectangular room flanked by blankets around a generous spread of fruits, nuts, yogurt and nang bread laid out on the floor. Soon the men of the family joined me on the blankets, and the lamb was served on large plates to be eaten with our hands. Despite having a local translator, our language barriers prevented a lot of conversation. Smiles and nods hopefully expressed my appreciation and humility at being invited by strangers to share in their bounty on a holy day.
My hosts on that visit were not a wealthy family. Their home was modest, but it was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Paint was chipped around the edges of the second floor balcony. From what I could tell they did not have electricity, running water or many conveniences of a modern house. The large dining area also served as a sleeping room for the generations of children growing up together under one roof. I have learned that they, along with thousands of others, have been relocated as a part of the Chinese “resettlement project” to the new, optimistically named, “Happy Garden” apartment complex on the edge of town—complete with running water and electricity.
Tourists may see the destruction of the Old City through a romantic lens of Silk Road history, or as “cultural vandalism” as it has been called by some, but the modern reality is much more complex. For decades, Chinese officials have been unsympathetic towards attempts to preserve vernacular architecture, often viewing historic old neighborhoods as embarrassing symbols of poverty. The destruction persists even though cultural anthropologists have said that the large complex of raw earth buildings in Kashgar is extremely rare and has an architectural significance. Even in Beijing, very few of the ancient hutongs have survived the new prosperity of the capital city.
In the Blink of an Eye
While small pockets of Old Kashgar are scattered around the city, in many areas the original city wall has largely been torn down, and behind the outward facing façade, entire neighborhoods have just simply vanished. But it is too simplistic to suggest that the Uyghur culture is built of mud and grass, too fragile to survive a new chapter in its long history. The warm and welcoming Uyghur people have a resiliency formed over thousands of years. Their culture is part of a larger social identity that lives in their music, foods, textiles, crafts and spirituality.
On my last visit to Kashgar, the bulldozers had yet to reach the Koziqiyabixi neighborhood built on a 30-metre-high hilltop in the southeast part of the Old City. The name of the neighborhood means “pottery on the edge of a cliff,” and is home to a community of craftsmen. Most of the residences in the district have been passed down from generation to generation. Sprinkled throughout the maze of alleyways are pottery workshops, some dating back 500 years. The studio walls are blackened with the accumulated soot of centuries. As I wandered through the quite streets, possibly for the last time, I met children playing and women continuing to apply their craft in the open doorways of their condemned homes. The uncertainty of their future was displayed through an uncharacteristically reserved smile.
Clearly something special is being lost with the demolition of Old Kashgar, but from my perspective, it is not simply the architectural significance of the old homes and mosques. It is the loss of a community of neighbours and way of life that nurtured a cultural identity that will truly be missed. Future generations of Uyghur children will not be able to run through the cobblestone streets protected by earthen walls shaped and crafted by the passage of time. And future generations of visitors to Kashgar will not be exposed to a simple and elegant way of life that has endured since Marco Polo visited in the 13th century.
Rarely except in time of war has the destruction of a city been so quick and so complete. The modernization of Kashgar will soon be finished and a new normality will take hold in the city. Many will welcome a better standard of living with clean apartments and proper sanitation, but all are resigned to the inevitable. Tourists and traders and herdsmen in the years to come will only have snapshots of what was once a community where kids played innocently in the streets of their ancestors and met foreigners from far away lands. Tour guides will tell stories of an Old Kashgar with narrow alleys and unpretentious mud-brick homes that once welcomed strangers for holiday meals.
Despite the heavy hand of change that is sweeping through one of the great destinations in central Asia, Kashgar will remain a fascinating and authentically unique place. Curious travellers from around the world will continue to meet the colorful and welcoming Uyghur people in a modern version of cultural exchange. Hopefully the promised economic development will ease unemployment and create the much-needed infrastructure that will return Kashgar to its former prominence. The shame, of course, is that a vibrant living city with a culture dating back thousands of years will be reduced to an open-air museum, irrevocably changed in the blink of an eye.
© David Noyes, 2013. All rights reserved. Please contact David at email@example.com if you would like to use or reprint this article.