Kashgar was one of the places that I was looking forward to visiting the most. It sounded really different, a little bit mysterious, and the mix of cultures appeals to me. Its remoteness and history also appeals. It is the westernmost city in China, and it’s the last Silk Road city in China if you start from Xian (Terracotta Warriors).
Kashgar has approximately 3.5 million inhabitants and the city lies near the border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Its history dates back 2,000 years and the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, make up the majority population. Geographically, Kashgar is closer to Baghdad than Beijing.
The 3-hour flight from the capital Urumqi was uneventful. I got my luggage and proceeded to the taxi queue. I asked the driver to turn the meter on, but he didn’t want to. OK, apparently I’m back in haggle territory. No worries. But hang on! It’s not only haggle territory, it’s also shared taxis territory! It took me a while to understand the driver. He looks middle-eastern to me, Uighur to be exact, but speaks Mandarin with an accent. Well, like me 🙂 My fellow passenger looks like a Chinese-Uighur mix, and answers his phone with ‘Salaam’. I can tell you one thing, English is useless here.
The driver dropped me off right in the old town. Kashgar old town is supposed to be one of the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city in Central Asia. However, the old town of mud-brick homes, cobblestone streets and centuries-old mosques are being demolished by the government. The Chinese government says that the resettlement will improve residents’ quality of life (running water, electricity etc) and also because the old quarter is vulnerable to fires and earthquakes. The Uighurs, however, see their culture and heritage as under attack. As a result, inter-ethnic riots are not uncommon. In fact, there was a “terrorist attack” as recent as April 2013 where 15 people were killed. One thing is for sure, these uprisings are affecting businesses as the tourist numbers drop.
I guess any country with different ethnic groups was never going to be straightforward to manage. According to Omar, a friendly waiter at a cafe where I get my eggs and toast fix, some Uighurs are resistant to Chinese rule, and still prefer to send their kids to Uighur schools. However, the reality is, if you are willing to learn Chinese, many more opportunities are opened to you, including higher education in other more prosperous provinces and of course, job opportunities. Omar himself went to an Uighur school but did some Chinese and English studies on the side. He said he wished he had gone to a Chinese school and onto further education, but for him to catch up on his Chinese now would take a few years. He has ambition to open a cafe that comes with a tour desk. He enthusiastically described his vision to me, and I did my best to encourage him.
The cafe that Omar works in is run by a Singaporean company that focuses more on social causes than profit. They like to bridge the gap by getting the Chinese and Uighurs to work together. I met Omar’s boss, Ling, who is a passionate volunteer from Singapore. An ex-Singapore Airlines staff, she is no doubt a Christian with a purpose.
Walking around in the old town feels a tad like in the middle-east or Turkey. All signs are in Chinese and Uighur though, which looks like Arabic, but apparently it’s only similar (Uighur is part of the Turkic language family). Women with headscarves and men with hats can be seen everywhere. You see sheepskins on the back of motorcycles, kebabs on the grill, halal butcher shops, nuts and spices shops. You can smell the aroma of fresh breads and the smoke from grilled lamb. There are carpet merchants, craftsmen and artisans, and a few donkey carts. It’s busy and buzzing a lot of the times. There are quite a lot of motorcycles too, but they are almost all electric ones, so it’s much quieter and at least soot-free.
People are very friendly here and there is no touting or hassling. You see some young Chinese tourists and a few Westerners. If you are a Westerner, be prepared for photo ops with the locals (usually it’s the Chinese who will ask you). And if you have blond hair and blue eyes, well, good luck, you could be here forever!
One thing is for sure – the old town of Kashgar will not be here much longer, nor in the same way.