Travel Guide: The Silk Road // Pakistan to China: Part 4

Updated: May 15, 2020

Part IV - Kashgar, China

A thousand years ago, the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road converged at this oasis town near the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Traders from Delhi and Samarkand, wearied by frigid treks through the world’s most daunting mountain ranges, unloaded their pack horses here and sold saffron and lutes along the city’s cramped streets. Chinese traders, their camels laden with silk and porcelain, did the same.

Source: The New York Times on Kashgar City

Stage two of the journey - an anti-clockwise loop around Xinjiang, from Kashgar through the Taklamakan Desert and the fabled Silk Road cities an back to Kashgar.

Now that we've entered China, we're starting the second stage of our journey - from Kashgar along the Southern route of the Silk Road through the trading posts and oasis towns skirting the south side of the Taklamakan desert, then passing through the heart of the Taklamakan - the word's second largest shifting sand desert - to the Northern Silk Road Route and finally to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, before completing the circuit back in Kashgar.

Source: Silk Road Toronto

Day seven | 10 September | Kashgar, China

The first thing we did this morning was to go in search of a morning coffee. My travel companion was in dire need of his caffeine fix. After scouring the area, we were gestured into a seedy basement bar/karaoke box type place. They sat us down in our own "box" with fantastically horrific decorations and played a Will Smith video clip for us. They then attempted to charge us 20 Yuan for the coffee, which we thought was outrageous. It turns out that this is quite a standard price... oops. Too long in Pakistan, paying a handful of Rupees for tea!

I'm writing this entry 2 weeks later, after having spent several extra days in Kashgar, so it's hard to recall my first impressions of the city. We spent the morning looking for a cheaper (under 100 yuan) hotel than the one we'd checked into the previous night on our arrival but were unsuccessful. We then wandered the old and new parts of Kashgar. They are as different as night and day. The new section is made up of large roads and shopping areas, the center being the people's square with a large statue of Mao.

The old part is magical and unexpectedly vibrant. Kashgar has been a trading post for 2 millennia and it is still active. The narrow winding streets are lined either side with mud-walls and coloured doors. The houses have rooms spreading over the small alleys that cover the old city, resulting in little dark tunnels. Most of the entrances are covered with curtains behind the doors; with a few well-intentioned peeks behind the curtains, I could see the houses are built around courtyards filled with pot plants. The houses are dark and narrow, but have an incredible atmosphere.

Old Kashmir's dark alleys and mud-and-straw houses are 2000 years old.

A brief history of Xinjiang Autonomous Region

  • Historically, there were 2 main groups: pastoral nomads North of the Tian Shan mountain range known as the XionGnu; and sedentary oasis dwellers, skirting the Tarim Basin, who were an Indo-European group referred to as Tocharians.

  • By the end of the 2nd century BC, the Han had established military garrisons along the trade routes with the main flow being of silk and horses from Ferghana Valley in Central Asia.

  • By 3rd century AD, Buddhism had taken root throughout the Tarim Basin and a number of powerful city states arose: Hotan, Kuqa and Turpan.

  • In the 7th century, the Tang Dynasty, which saw the unification of China after centuries of conflict between rival dynasties, re-asserted its rule over Xinjiang.

  • In the 9th century, Uighurs arrived from Mongolia, ending Tang Dynasty rule and leading to a succession of tribal kingdoms - Uighur, Kharakanid and Kharakhitay, for almost 400 years. It was during Kharakanid rule in the 11th and 12th centuries that Islam took hold in Western Xinjiang. It took another 200 years for it to penetrate to the Eastern areas of Xinjiang.

  • Yili, Hotan and Kashgar fell to the Mongols in 1219. Timur sacked Kashgar in the late 14th century. The area was under the control of Timur's descendants or various Mongol tribes until the Manchu army marched into Kashgar in 1755.

  • During the 1860s and 70s, a series of Muslim uprisings erupted across Western China, and after Russian troops were withdrawn from a 10 year occupation of the Ili region in 1881, waves of Uighurs, Dungan (Chinese Muslims) and Kazakhs fled into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

  • In 1865, a Kokanid officer named Yaqub Beg seized Kashgaria, proclaimed an independent Turkestan and made diplomatic contact with Britain and Russia. A few years later, a Manchu army returned, Beg committed suicide and Kashgaria was formally incorporated into China's newly created Xinjiang (means new frontier) province.

  • With the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Xinjiang came under the rule of a succession of warlords, over whom the Kuomintang (KMT) had very little control.

  • In the 1940s, a Kazakh named Osman led a rebellion of Uighurs, Kazakhs and Mongols and took control of Kashgaria, establishing the Eastern Turkestan Republic in January 1945. The KMT, however, convinced the Muslims to abolish their new republic in return for a pledge of real autonomy.

  • With the consolidation of communist power in 1949, a Muslim league opposed to Chinese rule formed in Xinjiang. A number of its most prominent leaders subsequently dies in a mysterious plane crash on their way to hold talks in Beijing, and organised opposition to Chinese rule collapsed.

  • Since 1949, China's main goal has been to keep a lid on ethnic separatism while flooding the region with Han settlers - the same policy applied to Tibet. The Uighurs now comprise less than 50% of the population.

Source: Lonely Planet

The separation between Uighur and Han Chinese can be felt. In the Old Town, few Chinese are present; in the new parts of the city - which I later came to realise resembled every other city I visited in Xinjiang or Tibet - Uighurs were vastly outnumbered by Chinese. One student I met told us that in her University class of 62 people, she had only 6 Uighur classmates. Our driver, A Uighur names Zunun (see below), could not read or write Chinese and only spoke it haltingly. His young children, however, are learning Chinese at school.

In the afternoon, Luc and I were a little lost as to how to spend the rest of our time in Xinjiang - we didn't seem to have enough time to go too far, but had too much time to stay only in Kashgar.

As we were sitting in John's Cafe (an institution for travellers passing through the city) discussing our options, a Uighur man - Zunun - approached us. He was a tour guide on his way back to his home in Turpan and would drive us up to 10 days for 3000 Yuan and for food and accommodation. It sounded perfect, and not too expensive. It would allow us to go where we wanted and stop where we liked, so we agreed to his suggestion to take the Southern Silk Route, over the Cross-Desert Highway up to Turfan, and then make our own way to Urumqi and back to Kashgar. We arranged to leave the next morning at 9:00 Beijing time (7:00 Xinjiang time - all of China is officially on Beijing time, but practically areas as far off as Xinjiang run according to their own timing, except for government officials who have to work according to Beijing time!).

Kashgar: Visit Before It's Too Late!

An article from the New York Times in 2009 regarding Chinese plans to demolish much of what is left of Old Kashgar and replace it with what will undoubtedly be a Disneyland-esque version of an ancient Silk Road trading town. Heartbreaking.

KASHGAR, China — A thousand years ago, the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road converged at this oasis town near the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Traders from Delhi and Samarkand, wearied by frigid treks through the world’s most daunting mountain ranges, unloaded their pack horses here and sold saffron and lutes along the city’s cramped streets. Chinese traders, their camels laden with silk and porcelain, did the same.

The traders are now joined by tourists exploring the donkey-cart alleys and mud-and-straw buildings once window-shopped, then sacked, by Tamerlane and Genghis Khan.

Now, Kashgar is about to be sacked again.

Nine hundred families already have been moved from Kashgar’s Old City, “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia,” as the architect and historian George Michell wrote in the 2008 book “Kashgar: Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road.

Over the next few years, city officials say, they will demolish at least 85 percent of this warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops. Many of its 13,000 families, Muslims from a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), will be moved.

In its place will rise a new Old City, a mix of midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues and reproductions of ancient Islamic architecture “to preserve the Uighur culture,” Kashgar’s vice mayor, Xu Jianrong, said in a phone interview.

Demolition is deemed an urgent necessity because an earthquake could strike at any time, collapsing centuries-old buildings and killing thousands. “The entire Kashgar area is in a special area in danger of earthquakes,” Mr. Xu said. “I ask you: What country’s government would not protect its citizens from the dangers of natural disaster?”

Critics fret about a different disaster.

“From a cultural and historical perspective, this plan of theirs is stupid,” said Wu Lili, the managing director of the Beijing Cultural Protection Center, a nongovernmental group devoted to historic preservation. “From the perspective of the locals, it’s cruel.”

Urban reconstruction during China’s long boom has razed many old city centers, including most of the ancient alleyways and courtyard homes of the capital, Beijing.

Kashgar, though, is not a typical Chinese city. Chinese security officials consider it a breeding ground for a small but resilient movement of Uighur separatists who Beijing claims have ties to international jihadis. So redevelopment of this ancient center of Islamic culture comes with a tinge of forced conformity.

Chinese officials have offered somewhat befuddling explanations for their plans. Mr. Xu calls Kashgar “a prime example of rich cultural history and at the same time a major tourism city in China.” Yet the demolition plan would reduce to rubble Kashgar’s principal tourist attraction, a magnet for many of the million-plus people who visit each year.

China supports an international plan to designate major Silk Road landmarks as United Nations World Heritage sites — a powerful draw for tourists, and a powerful incentive for governments to preserve historical areas.

But Kashgar is missing from China’s list of proposed sites. One foreign official who refused to be identified for fear of damaging relations with Beijing said the Old City project had unusually strong backing high in the government.

The project, said to cost $440 million, began abruptly this year, soon after China’s central government said it would spend $584 billion on public works to combat the global financial crisis.

It would complete a piecemeal dismantling of old Kashgar that began decades ago. The city wall, a 25-foot-thick earthen berm nearly 35 feet high, has largely been torn down. In the 1980s, the city paved the surrounding moat to create a ring highway. Then it opened a main street through the old town center.

Still, much of the Old City remains as it was and has always been. From atop 40 vest-pocket mosques, muezzins still cast calls to prayer down the narrow lanes: no loudspeakers here. Hundreds of artisans still hammer copper pots, carve wood, hone scimitars and hawk everything from fresh-baked flatbread to dried toads to Islamic prayer hats.

And tens of thousands of Uighurs still live here behind hand-carved poplar doors, many in tumbledown rentals, others in two-story homes that vault over the alleys and open on courtyards filled with roses and cloth banners.

The city says the Uighur residents have been consulted at every step of planning. Residents mostly say they are summoned to meetings at which eviction timetables and compensation sums are announced.

Mahire, 19, left, eating lunch at the 500-year-old home of her in-laws in Kashgar, China. The building is scheduled to be demolished as part of a government plan to guard against earthquake damage.

Although the city offers the displaced residents the opportunity to build new homes on the sites of their old ones, some also complain that the proposed compensation does not pay for the cost of rebuilding.

“My family built this house 500 years ago,” said a beefy 56-year-old man with a white crew cut, who called himself Hajji, as his wife served tea inside their two-story Old City house. “It was made of mud. It’s been improved over the years, but there has been no change to the rooms.”

In Uighur style, the home has few furnishings. Tapestries hang from the walls, and carpets cover the floors and raised areas used for sleeping and entertaining. The winter room has a pot-bellied coal stove; the garage has been converted into a shop from which the family sells sweets and trinkets. Nine rooms downstairs, and seven up, the home has sprawled over the centuries into a mansion by Kashgar standards.

But Hajji and his wife lost their life’s savings caring for a sick child, and the city’s payment to demolish their home will not cover rebuilding it. Their option is to move to a distant apartment, which will force them to close their shop, their only source of income.

“The house belongs to us,” said Hajji’s wife, who refused to give her name. “In this kind of house, many, many generations can live, one by one. But if we move to an apartment, every 50 or 70 years, that apartment is torn down again. “This is the biggest problem in our lives. How can our children inherit an apartment?

Building inspectors have deemed most of the oldest homes unsafe, including all mud-and-straw structures, the earliest form of construction. They will be leveled and, in many cases, rebuilt in an earthquake-resistant Uighur style, the city promises.

But three of the Old City’s seven sectors are judged unfit for Uighur architecture and will be rebuilt with decidedly generic apartment buildings. Two thousand other homes will be razed to build public plazas and schools. Poor residents, who live in the smallest homes, already are being permanently moved to boxy, concrete public housing on Kashgar’s outskirts.

What will remain of old Kashgar is unclear. Mr. Xu said that “important buildings and areas of the Old City have already been included in the country’s special preservation list” and would not be disturbed. No archaeologists monitor the razings, he said, because the government already knows everything about old Kashgar.

Kashgar officials do have good reason to worry about earthquakes. Last October, a 6.8 magnitude quake struck barely 100 miles away. In 1902, an 8.0-magnitude quake, one of the 20th century’s biggest, killed 667 residents.

Some residents say they also prefer a more modern environment. The thousand-year-old design that gives the Old City its charm often precludes basics like garbage pickup, sewers and fire hydrants.

In Mr. Xu’s view, demolition will give the Uighurs a better life and spare them from disaster in one fell swoop.

All that said, there is a certain aura of forcible eviction about the demolition, an urgency that fear of earthquakes does not completely explain. The city is offering cash bonuses to residents who move out early — about $30 for those who vacate within 20 days; $15 if they move in a month. Homes are razed as soon as they become empty, giving some alleys a gap-tooth look.

On Kashgar television, a nightly 15-minute infomercial hawks the project like ginsu knives, mixing dire statistics on seismic activity with scenes of happy Uighurs dancing in front of their new concrete apartments.

“Never has such a great event, such a major event happened to Kashgar,” the announcer intones. He boasts that the new buildings “will be difficult to match in the world” and that citizens will “completely experience the care and warmth of the party” toward the Uighur ethnic minority.

The infomercial also notes that Communist Party officials from Kashgar to Beijing are so edgy over the prospect of an earthquake “that it is disturbing their rest.”

Read Part 3 here. Read Part 5 here.

#SilkRoad #CentralAsia #China #travel #wanderlust #KarakoramHighway #Kashgar #Pakistan

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