Situated on the westernmost part of China, Kashgar is unlike any other Chinese city in language, culture and ethnic makeup. Historically a major Silk Road trading post and the gateway between China and the West, I was intrigued by how little I knew of modern day Kashgar and the Xinjiang region beside the occasional headlines of protest and unrest.
We planned our trip around getting to Kashgar in time for the famous Sunday Market so cut our time short in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Like other Chinese capital cities, Urumqi is lined with high risers and shiny malls. The population is largely han, brought in by the government’s investments to push economic development, and not at all reflective of the main ethinic group of Xinjiang, the Uyghurs.
The train ride from Urumqi to Kashgar is roughly a twenty hour ride with some incredible scenery (when not obstructed by walls, tunnels or construction). The track runs through the Taklamakan desert and provides stunning views of the Tian Shan mountain ranges.
We boarded at 2pm, well-stocked with instant noodles and general Chinese snacks (as per train riding protocol), and arrived around 10am the next day. Confusingly it was actually only 8am local time as the whole country is required to use Beijing Local Time irregardless of what time the sun rose and set. Streets were empty and shops were still shut.
After checking in to our hostel, we took a taxi out to the Sunday (Livestock) Market. About 10 minutes ride west of the city, the market occupies a huge dirt section just beside the Karakoram Highway.
I have probably used the term “bustling” loosely before but there could not be a more bustling scene than this. Trucks, trailers, motor rickshaws and little carts unloaded their animals and herded/dragged every sheep, cow, goat to their spot. Tour groups arrived and trailed the camel herds for photography opportunities. Men examined the lined-up animals and made negotiations as they huddled in groups. Butchered meat hung ready to be served up in the food stalls on one end. All around us there was so much happening and so much dust. And a high possibility of being trampled or pooped on.
We spent the next couple of days wandering through Kashgar’s Old City, much of which has now been demolished and replaced with new buildings in the style of the old. The demolition of the Old City began in 2009 as an initiative by the government to improve the safety of residents in the case of an earthquake or natural disaster. Their intentions have been questioned by many who argue that it’s really to increase security and surveillance measures. Residents have been moved out from disorganised maze-like allleys into apartment blocks to give the government greater control and break up supposed terrorist groups.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese Government tells a very one sided story that portrays residents as grateful and much happier with their new lives.
Though saddened by this, I was still enchanted by the replica buildings and the life and trade that carried on. It seemed a complex mix of traditional Uyghur culture and artificial tourist front. The neat and orderly streets were lined with various antique and handicraft shops where the owner sat outside hammering a piece of copperware or carving a musical instrument.
Naan is a staple for the Uyghur people and quickly became a staple for us during our time in Xinjiang. This interesting piece of flat bread generally came in two sizes and either a plain or garlic flavour.
The Uyghur men often gather in teahouses to socialise over tea and bread. We visited the famous Ostangboyi Tea House on our last day unaware it was solely an activity for men. Fortunately for me, foreigners seem to get an exception as it’s become a popular tourist spot. (There is also a dinstinctively tourist menu with much higher prices but it seemed fair enough).
It was an interesting people-watching experience and we got into conversation with a man who simultaneously translated for the imam next to him. They told us much about Kashgar, the Ugyhur culture and the local products, though were hesitant to comment when I asked how they felt about the demolition and rebuild. The man explained that they have to be very cautious with what they say in public, over the phone and even over email.
In the evenings, the night market near Id Kah Mosque buzzes with excitement and fills the air with the delicious smell of mutton, charcoal and spices.