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Photograph © Preston Rhea 2010

Kashgar new and old

Kashgar is situated in the far west of China in the Autonomous Xinjiang Uighur Region. Its geographical position has made it an important political and trading centre for centuries. To the south is Pakistan, reached via the Karakoram highway, and to the west are Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, states that once marked the southern edges of the Soviet Union.

January 4, 2013

Kashgar - a footnote in history

The first feeling I get on arriving in Kashgar is of not really being in China anymore. This ancient Silk Road trading post has more in common with its Central Asian neighbours to the west than Beijing, some 3,500 kilometres east.

The historic inhabitants of the area are Uighur Muslims, the descendants of whom still live here, which is evident in the food eaten and customs practiced.

The province the city is part of theoretically has some autonomy from China but in reality most decisions are made based on the wishes of central government. Many of the main industries, including tourism, are run by Han Chinese moved there by the government over the years and the original Uighur inhabitants, descendants of the empire that once stretched from there to the Pacific, seem to do the most menial jobs.

The number of Chinese inhabitants in the province rose from 6.7 per cent of the population in 1949 to 40 per cent in 2008 and the resentment this has fostered among Uighurs has occasionally boiled over, most recently in demonstrations and attacks in the provincial capital Urumqi in 2009 which targeted Chinese settlers.

The Uighur Khaganate, as the short-lived empire that contained Kashgar was called, had in the eight century taken in much of present day northern China, Mongolia and southern Russia until its decline and eventual collapse in the ninth century.

Realising the importance of commerce, they taxed traders who used the Silk Road to access China and in their short golden age were recognised as having a highly developed system of government. However the ebb and flow of Central Asian tribes ended their reign and the remaining Uighurs were dispersed to various parts of Asia.

Kashgar over the centuries remained an important trading post and exploration revealed the ancient history the city has to offer. It was possible to lose hours wandering the bazaars that still dotted the alleyways of the old town.

The central square was dominated by the Id Khar Mosque which contrasts oddly with the huge statue of Chairman Mao near the edge of the adobe buildings that made up this area. My hotel was close to the main square and I rarely left this atmospheric part of the city, somehow sensing that the newer, brighter Chinese town might not have the same character.

I happened to arrive during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when fasting takes place during the hours of daylight. Twilight however produced a new city from the quiet industrious day when street-side cafes and stalls started up their barbeques and the heavily smoked aroma of cooked lamb infused the old town.

A walk through here now involved mouth-watering smells that dragged you towards the nearest seller who, for the equivalent of a couple of dollars, provided meat skewers cooked to perfection, a nan-like circle of bread and a cup of green tea to wash it all down.

Crowds filled the streets and the square outside the mosque was like a busy park with blankets spread out for gatherings of family and friends. Winter was approaching but the low evening temperatures didn’t seem to be deterring anyone. The atmosphere wasn’t party-like but more subdued, having the same energy with less of the noise.

Nightly over the time I spent there I went to the square just to people-watch and absorb a smidgeon of the liveliness that hangs in the air almost as much as the acrid smell of barbequed lamb.

Uighurs are naturally friendly, with a tradition of welcoming guests that goes back centuries. However my visit was in 2005, not long after the Iraq War had started, and as I had experienced in other predominantly Muslim countries in the region there was some initial suspicion when first speaking to people.

Thankfully our mixed Australian-Brazilian-Japanese-Irish group didn’t seem to offend anyone for long and our nightly attendance at street cafes and a local snooker hall was always accepted with a smile.

Sadly, the old town has been gradually demolished over the past few years, leaving only a token area to serve as a display for the few tourists who make it there.

It has been replaced with a less atmospheric range of brightly-coloured apartment blocks which, although I haven’t returned, I suspect may lack the culture and presence the area once had.

The explanation for this razing was that the mud-brick houses didn’t meet earthquake standards and there may be some truth in this. However, they’ve withstood a lot over the years and there are suspicions that this is a means to separate the Uighur community and stifle dissent.

Whatever the reason, a wonderfully charismatic place has been lost.

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© Oran Burke 2014. All rights reserved.

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