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Kashgar, Crossroads of the Silk Road, Xinjiang, China

Pictorial essay and record of a historic City slated for destruction..........Ramdas Iyer

sunny 34 °F

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The joy of a traveler looking for historic sites is the reward of seeing wonderful monuments and learning interesting stories of a bygone history. With an internal revolt on hand the Chinese Government has kept a tight rein on Kashgar, the spiritual home of the Islamic Turkic-Mongol Uighur people who populate Xinjiang Province of Northwestern China. In 2006 when I made this trip it was clear that the Chinese were intent on destroying the ancient city and slowly moving its population to concrete communist style dwellings. The problems for Kashgar were further excercebated when the Chinese refused to give it a UNESCO World heritage status. They believed that the dismantling of Kashgar would break the spirit of the Uyghur. So I went to see and photograph Kashgar. Here I wish to offer the reader a comprehensive history and visual record of a place condemned to the abyss of Silk Road history.
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The Silk Road has always held an allure in my heart. The more I read about its history the more I felt the desire to travel it. You may have read from my previous blogs about sections of my travels through this fabled route in Central Asia and China. Kashgar however is very special. For two millenniums or more, Kashgar was the greatest market city on one of the major trade routes of ancient times. Caravans of a thousand camels each traveled along it, transporting silk, spices, gold and gemstones between Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and the central Chinese city of Xian, then the capital. Kashgar—where the bone-dry Taklimakan Desert meets the Tian Shan Mountains was a key city along the Silk Road, the 7,000-mile trade route that connected cultures of the China’s Yellow River Valley with India and the Mediterranean. In the ninth century, Uighur forebears, traders traveling from Mongolia in camel caravans, settled in oasis towns around the desert. Originally Buddhists, they began converting to Islam about 300 years later. For the past 1,000 years, Kashgar has thrived, languished—and been ruthlessly suppressed by occupiers. The Italian adventurer Marco Polo reported passing through around 1273, about 70 years after it was seized by Genghis Khan. He called it “the largest and most important” city in “a province of many towns and castles.” Tamerlane the Great, the despot from what is now Uzbekistan, sacked the city in 1390. Three imperial Chinese dynasties conquered and reconquered Kashgar and its environs.Still, its mosques and madrassahs drew scholars from all over Central Asia. Its caravansaries, or inns, provided refuge to traders bearing glass, gold, silver, spices and gems from the West along with silks and porcelain from the East. Its labyrinthine alleys teemed with blacksmiths, cotton-spinners, book-binders and other craftsmen.

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In the mid-19th century, Kashgar again became prominent when Britain and Russia struggled for influence over Central Asia in the intrigues and espionage known as the "Great Game”. (A book written in the same name by Peter Hopkirk has been my inspiration for these travels). Peter Hopkirk in a related book “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road” writes at length about the visitors to the Russian consulate in Kashgar which then regularly hosted British adversaries as fellow European diplomats in a both climatically and politically hostile area of Central Asia, then know as the Sinkiang Province of China. At that time the Peking based Qing Dynasty had a very loose grip on this area allowing Britain and Russia to meddle in the affairs of this area.
This once famous Russian consulate now became my home during my three days stay in the area. Today it is a hotel, considered the best, yet somewhere between a two star and three star rated hotel. I was perhaps the only guest at the hotel in December, 2006 when very few travelers reach Xinjiang Province. During my first night there prostitutes drummed on my door almost every 10 minutes seeking patronage. It was scary, given the location of my room in a remote corner of this dark hotel which turns off all lights in the absence of guests and I had no way of communicating with the Chinese speaking desk clerk of my travails, while trapped inside my room. Upon the intervention of my guide the following day everything settled down.

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Today, Kashgar -- now officially called Kashi -- has less the texture of Chinese cities like Shanghai than of old Central Asian cities like Samarkand, Uzbekistan, or even of Arab cities like Fez, Morocco. Almost 80 percent of Kashgar's population of 300,000 is non-Chinese, the overwhelming majority constituted by Islamic Turkic Uighar. Its closest borders are with the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and it also has close links with nearby Pakistan. But for its entire Arabian Nights atmosphere, Kashgar also contains such 20th-century Chinese Communist emblems as gray socialist concrete buildings and a 55-foot-high statue of Chairman Mao.
Surrounded by the Tian Shan Mountains, the Pamir range and the vast Taklimakan Desert, Kashgar has never been easy to get to. Kashgar was the northerly route for traders headed to Xian from Kabul while skirting the Taklimakan. Other daring merchants took the shorter but dangerous southern route through Hotan to Urumqi further east of Kashgar where the two routes converge to form another fabled city. From Beijing, I flew to Urumqi (6hrs), the capital of Xinjiang, the "autonomous region" and another 1.5 hours to Kashgar.

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Expressions like "Silk Road" suggest luxury and comfort, so it's important to remember that the route could just as well have been called the Pothole Road. Kashgar today has few luxuries to offer visitors, for taxis are mostly donkey carts, restaurants are longer on grime than service, and none of the hotels comes close to meeting international standards. Hot water occasionally emerges from the taps, but so do cockroaches, and the interesting pattern on the wallpaper turns out, on closer examination, to be the result of accumulated stains.
Yet what a magical place it is! The city is an oasis, and water gushes through canals that run along the main streets and nourish the trees that provide a pleasant canopy. Even in the broiling summer heat, the lakes and canals keep Kashgar relatively green and cool. Delightful alleys wind between mud-walled houses, little boys fish in tree-lined lakes, and traffic on main boulevards is slowed by herdsmen driving flocks of fat-tailed sheep in the canals as the donkey carts rolled by.
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The population of Kashgar consists 80% of Turkic-Mongolian Uyghur. They are being diluted by a huge influx of Han Chinese similar to that of Tibet to quell frequent bursts of violence while demanding independence from China.The Uyghur’s have experienced tastes of independence. In 1933, they declared the East Turkestan Republic, from the Tian Shan Mountains south to the Kunlun Mountains, which lasted until a Chinese warlord came to power the next year. Then, in 1944, as the nationalist Chinese government neared collapse during World War II, the Uyghur established the Second East Turkestan Republic, which ended in 1949, after Mao Zedong took over China. Six years after Mao’s victory, China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, similar to a province but with greater local control; the Uighur Muslims are its largest ethnic group.
It was early morning and I was exploring the back streets of Kashgar, with my guide who was a young Muslim from the neighboring province of Qinghai which lies east of the Tibetan plateau.
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The two of us followed narrow passageways bathed in sunlight or obscured by shadows. We encountered faces that testified to Kashgar’s role as a crossroads of Central Asia on the route linking China, India and the Mediterranean. Narrow-eyed, white-bearded elders wearing embroidered skullcaps chatted in front of a 500-year-old mosque. We passed pale-complexioned men in black felt hats; broad-faced, olive-skinned men who could have passed for Bengalis; green-eyed women draped in head scarves and chadors; and the occasional burqa-clad figure who might have come straight from Afghanistan. It was a scene witnessed in the early 1900s by Catherine Theodora Macartney, wife of the British consul in Kashgar when it was a listening post in the Great Game, the strategic Russia-Britain conflict for control of Central Asia. “One could hardly say what the real Kashgar type was,” she wrote in a 1931 memoir, An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan, “for it has become so mixed by the invasion of other people in the past.”
We walked deep into the alleys of this historical mud built city, now repaired in places. Many wealthy families have bigger homes in town but yet keep their tradition by coming back to the smaller ancestral homes on weekends. The alleys were bustling with economic activity similar to that seen in small villages. Vendors manufacturing and hawking small tools, roadside butcheries, vegetable sellers, hat makers to name a few. I took particular joy in eating the oven baked “samosa” filled with lamb meat and melon. Sumptuous meat dumplings available for less than a dollar more than sufficed for lunch. The locals were very pleasant and welcoming. The kids were playing in the streets inside the old quarter without worrying about safety or traffic. The hamam method of communal bathing was very much evident inside the old town.

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In some corners of the town young men were playing billiards under trees while a washing machine repair stall doubled as a game parlor. Taxis inside the town were nonexistent but the roads outside the old town were bustling with buses, cars, motorcycles and motorbike drawn taxis. Horse carts were not uncommon which until the 80s were the main source of local transportation.
The Aidkah Mosque dominates the central square. Originally built in 1442 but renovated many times since then, the mosque is as much a public garden as a place to pray. A yellow-tiled building with square lines that give way to a dome, the mosque contains an area the size of a large city block -- filled with trees, ponds and walking paths. I was told that the entire area outside the mosque was a large city park with beautiful poplar trees which the Chinese cleared for “security reasons” leaving behind a cobblestoned plaza which can still accommodate 20000 worshipers. I saw a similar clearing of space in front of the great Jhokang Temple (617-650 CE) in Lhasa complete with police in riot gear. Since my visit to Kashgar a lot of major uprisings have happened in Urumqi and Kashgar. I recommend reading “ Resentment and Rebellion Fester on the Silk Road, by Terry MacCarthy for Time Inc.(http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2054438,00.html)

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There were plenty of handcrafted souvenirs surrounding the mosque. Of particular interest to me were the finely handcrafted Yingsar daggers with bejeweled handles. This purchase would have been in jeopardy had I not known about the serious security checks one encounters in Xinjiang Railway stations since I intended to back track the 4000 km distance from Kashgar to Beijing by rail. Intending to stop in several Silk Road towns along the way, a pair of daggers in my possession was a serious concern. The merchant put my concern at ease by shutting down his shop and giving me a ride in his motorbike to the Post office. It was a very efficient operation; there was a packaging counter that would wrap items for a small fee and international mailing facilities which for under $10 shipped my daggers to the USA. It arrived still neatly packed after 60 days complete with beautiful postage stamps.
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Another famous site, the Mausoleum of Abak Hoja, 5 km from Kashgar is perhaps the finest example of Islamic architecture in Xinjiang. A large dome of 56 ft is at the center surrounded by four corner minarets with stripes and arabesque floral patterns. The tomb contains the remains of Abak Hoja, a 17th-century ruler of Kashgar and a Naksbandhi Sufi saint. 72 relatives of Abak Hoja are interred in the burial ground adjacent to the mosque. The locals visit these tombs on a regular basis which is typical of Sufi saint worship. The Chinese have been threatening to move the cemetery to a different part of town claiming eminent domain, to build a road.
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There are more than 20 large scale bazaars in Kashgar, of which the one located at the East Gate of Kashgar City is the largest. This bazaar also named 'International Trade Market of Central and Western Asia' is the largest international trade market in Northwest China, It is the largest garden aggregate market of Kashgar City and in Xinjiang Province, taking up an area of 41 acres composed of 21 specialized markets including over 4,000 fixed booths and a food street. It was noted as 'the Largest Fair in Asia' in ancient times. As early as in 128 BC, when Zhang Qian ( Huang tseng , as we learnt in school,before the 1949 PIinyin transliteration methodology)was dispatched to the Western Regions by Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), he was surprised to see the prosperous market here, full of dazzling goods and merchants coming from different countries. Unfortunately due to my winter travel schedule, I could only see it in a much reduced size.

There were merchants selling live snakes as health remedies complete with a booklet on how to utilize different parts, house cat skins stitched together to make shawls, apothecaries stuffed with dried snakes, lizards, turtles and a variety of herbs along with an attending physician. Uyghur medicine was alive and well! There was a plethora of dried fruits and nuts vendors, mountains of sweet pomegranates, carpet shops, and jewelers. One can also buy various things including general merchandise, handicrafts, livestock, local specialties, vegetables, coat, and second hand items as well as many other kinds of things from cattle and horses to needle and thread. Street barbers were busy attending to clients a scene that has not changed much since the invention of the chair. It had all the elements and characters befitting the experience of travelers on the ancient Silk road; not too dissimilar to travels on the the Grand Trunk Road from Dacca to Peshawar, both during the Raj and until the 1970s in India
The Karakoram highway, built by the Chinese from Xinjiang to Islamabad, Pakistan in the 1970s passes outside Kashgar. This road was built as a possible route for an Indian invasion by the People Liberation Army. I rode this beautiful highway cutting through the Karakoram ranges reaching the Khunjerab pass at 15000 ft altitude in the Pakistan border. Since the Khunjerab Pass was opened, a large number of foreign merchants have come with a great deal of goods. Thus, arts and crafts of Pakistan, scarves of Turkey, dry fruits of Saudi Arabia all can be bought at a reasonable price here. The Kashgar markets are loaded with Pakistani goods often with the faces of Bollywood actresses. I saw a 5 liter can of vegetable oil with the Indian starlet Aishwarya Rai adorned in Islamic outfit straight from the Arabian Nights. The prevalence of prostitution that I had mentioned earlier is primarily because of the international truck drivers and the Chinese officials who come to visit the area who are attracted to the Eurasian features of this Turkic people. Brothels advertise their trade as “Foot washing Stations”.
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In the 1990s, the Chinese government built a railway to Kashgar and made cheap land available to Han Chinese, the nation’s majority. Between one million and two million Han settled in Xinjiang during the past two decades, though Kashgar and other towns on the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert are still predominately Uighur. “Xinjiang has always been a source of anxiety for the central power in Beijing, as is Tibet and Taiwan,” Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based Uighur expert at Human Rights Watch told me. “Historically the response to that is to assimilate the territory, particularly through the immigration of Han Chinese.” The Han influx stirs resentment. “All construction and factory jobs around Kashgar have been taken by Han Chinese,” says British journalist Christian Tyler, author of “Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang.” “The people in charge are Han, and they recruit Han. Natural resources—oil and gases, precious metals—are being siphoned off for benefit of the Han.”
Now the Chinese government is doing to Kashgar’s Old City what a succession of conquerors failed to accomplish: leveling it. Early in 2009 the Chinese government announced a $500 million “Kashgar Dangerous House Reform” program: over the next several years, China plans to knock down mosques, markets and centuries-old houses—85 percent of the Old City. The 2007 movie “Kite Runner” based on a story in Kabul was actually shot in Kashgar, drawing parallels to two legendary Silk Road Towns.
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Residents will be compensated, then moved—some temporarily, others permanently—to new cookie-cutter, concrete-block buildings now rising elsewhere in the city. In place of the ancient mud-brick houses will come modern apartment blocks and office complexes, some adorned with Islamic-style domes, arches and other flourishes meant to conjure up Kashgar’s glory days. The government plans to keep a small section of the Old City intact, to preserve “a museumized version of a living culture.
The destruction, some say, is business-as-usual for a government that values development over preservation of traditional architecture and culture.
In writing this piece, I have utilized several lines from an excellent early article, “Kashgar, on the Silk Road” written by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times (1994) and by a detailed article” Demolishing Kashgar’s History” in the Smithsonian Magazine by Joshua Hammer in 2010. Their observations in 1994 and 2010 , laced with my comments from 2006 offers the reader a timeline of the destructive path that the city is undergoing.
The End

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:25 Archived in China Tagged china highway road silk xinjiang uighur karakoram uyghur sinkiang

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Comments

Interesting reading about your hotel experience with the local "feet washers" and I loved the way you camouflaged your self into the blue background.
Another fascinating blog by a fascinating person.

by Mark Riesenberg

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