Tales from the Western Furnace
Part Two: Thoughts from Kashgar- The Western Frontier
THIS was my stop?! I was in the middle of a lively game of cards with a group of Uighurs, cards piled high like towers. A young child strove to impair me by pulling my fingers apart, and a baby was running (and subsequently biting) into my legs. This was the result of an eleven-hour train journey to my next location. Under such duress, I politely adjourned from the game, shook my hand off of the malicious child, sheepishly gave the baby back to its parents, waved goodbye to my new friend-for-life Kahar, and grabbed my things. Echoed by the child shouting “pi kai le!” I got off at Kashgar, the heartland of the Uighur, the end of China’s Frontier. A month earlier, in Shanghai, when I mentioned to somebody I was to travel to Kashgar, they exclaimed, “how can you possibly go to Kashgar? You’ll die!” I imagined the first valiant Chinese traders and emissaries approaching this ready-made oasis for the first time, millennia ago, having traversed a 1000km desert furnace and eluded its scavenging bandits from the site of modern-day Urumqi. Luckily, I overlooked the Han’s point of view and took the old Iron Rooster instead.
Kashgar, a city that looks and feels dramatically different from the rest of China, even from the rest of Xinjiang. I turned up in the city square, and gazed upon the hefty statue of Mao. How much authority could any centralised government possibly possess in a prefecture like this? It turned out to be a tenuous amount. According to the Han Shu, in the second century BCE, the Han Dynasty sent out an envoy to attempt a ceasefire with the dastardly Xiongnu who had been raiding along their borders. The emissary was captured for ten years, but in the process discovered the northern and southern routes along the Taklamakan Desert and into Central Asia and the utterly incomparable Ferghana horses. By 76 BCE, in pursuit of these “heavenly horses”, the Han had extended their borders far to the West, conquering the Xiongnu and Kashgar with it. As the Han collapsed, so did its fragile hold on the region, and it once again fell to natives of the surrounding area. In the seventh century the Tang Dynasty re-asserted Chinese imperial rule, but when the An Lushan rebellion broke out, imperial strength waned considerably, paving the way for the Uighurs.
Since the penetration of Islam in Kashgar sometime around tenth and twelfth centuries, the Uighurs cemented their place in the territory from then on. Unfortunately, the pace of invasion also picked up. In 1219 the whole of the far West fell to the Mongols, and Timur, coming from the West, sacked Kashgar again in the late fourteenth century. The area was then under Timur’s peripheral control until the Manchu army marched into Kashgar in 1755. A number of Muslim uprisings hit the roof in the 1860s and 1870s; a Kokandi officer seized Kashgar in 1865 and proclaimed an independent Turkestan. Manchu armies swept in soon after, and it was at this point that Kashgaria was incorporated into the Xinjiang province.
Contemporary Xinjiang history has more to do with revolt against Chinese communist rule, but not strictly related to Kashgar. It does have less Han Chinese in the area than other places within the province (89.3% Uighur, according to one population survey), which was certainly noticeable when I looked around. I made my way to one of the most fascinating places in Xinjiang; the Old Town of Kashgar.
It certainly didn’t feel like I was in modern China as I stepped into the old Uighur residential area – numerous small lanes and telephone wires crisscrossed the old town and reached every corner of it. Inside the town were centuries-old mud-thatched houses, most of which are two or three-storied simple architecture. As I walked around I could faintly smell figs, possibly growing in the courtyards; all of a sudden, the scent of sewage waste assaulted my nostrils. The place was fascinating to walk through, but time had taken its toll on the town and it was most certainly becoming quickly dilapidated. Buildings were being demolished, staircases were crumbling. I felt sad to be here at such a time, and thought back to when it would have been prosperous and lively, the smell of figs more prevalent than other lingering odours. The Old Town section of Kashgar shared many of the same infrastructure problems as Beijing’s Hutong neighbourhoods – poor drainage, unsound construction and susceptibility to earthquakes, say the state media, which is the reason to raze this ancient district. The demolished areas would have housed 40 per cent of the city’s residents in its labyrinth-like alleyways – for centuries, children would have played on the cobblestone streets of the Old City, mothers standing in the doorways of their mud-brick dwellings chatting with neighbours, their faces covered by scarves. Bearded men would wear embroidered skullcaps and walk daily to the many small neighbourhood mosques that peppered the area for prayers, passing by coppersmiths hammering pieces of metal into shiny pots, butchers cutting lamb in the open air and bakers slapping traditional flatbreads on to the sides of a makeshift clay oven.
These days, I found it hard to see similar signs of vitality. The Old City in Kashgar represents the very essence of Uighur civilisation for thousands of years and the Uighurs consider Kashgar the cradle of Uighur civilisation. If this is a politically-motivated move to assimilate all of Xinjiang and make all their cities and towns the same as the ones along the east coast, then I think it’s slowly working.
A small group of street urchins came running up to me and beamed broadly. Their faces were so unique, their eyes dazzling, bundled with energy. I arranged them in a group and took a photo of them, at which point they assumed cute east-Asian poses. As soon as the picture was taken, they rushed me and huddled around the camera to see their picture, and fell into hysterics. Was I really that bad at taking photos?! Having little on me, I offered them some stamps as payment for their gratitude, which they eagerly accepted. Worried about spreading British Imperialism, I fled the scene and headed for the next interesting piece of architecture in the vicinity. Indeed, I could see it towering over the small mud houses – one of the biggest Mosques in China, and a popular place for the Muslims in the province.
It was my first time in a Mosque, and I was eager to break the deadlock. The plaza in front of the Mosque was large and open, with a minaret tower in the middle. Astonishingly, there was no one selling tickets at the entrance, so I just walked right in and climbed to the top. I was one of few who were there, and the view was stunning. From the top I could look out and see the whole city, the desert and mountains beyond. I could see Kashgar city proper, marked by its tall buildings, radiating out along linear boulevards, while the much denser urban fabric of the traditional Uighur city of mud buildings, markets, mosques, lanes, and courtyards remained sandwiched in between the modern. The difference between the two cities of Kashgar was stark.
Looking down, I saw Muslim men thronging around the entrance of the Mosque. It was now or never, I told myself, as it was nearing the end of the day so I descended the minaret and followed some Muslim men around one of the ten-foot towers and through the large yellow-painted gateway – I still stuck out like a sore thumb. As I made it in to the courtyard, I was greeted by poplar trees towering high up against the blue sky. The whole yard was heavily shaded as people knelt and prayed in unison. I wasn’t in the middle of a service, but was told that every Friday the place is packed at midday for the biggest religious service of the week, with about six-thousand people attending. Fascinated, I strolled around the courtyard and peeked into some of the rooms, before becoming so aware that I wasn’t praying that I decided to make good my leave.
The following day, I set off to the most famous event in Kashgar – the Sunday Bazaar, where thousands of people descend upon the city from all around the region – even from neighbouring countries – to sell anything and everything under the sun. As soon as I started walking around, three Uighur women tugged me down an obscure pathway and sat me down at their stall, as they made me some lamian, from scratch. That’s one of the great things about Kashgar's markets – they differ from markets in other places in that most of the things on sale are made by the merchants themselves. Wandering along one of these streets is like one has travelling back in time; at the shoes and caps market, for example, the caps and boots on sale are made on the spot. You can hear the clanging of blacksmiths' hammers. If you hear the sound of an electric saw, then you can go and see carpenters making furniture and kitchen utensils. If you smell the fragrance of baked cakes, you will soon find an eating place serving nang, the staple food of the Uighurs. Everywhere, donkeys are sold (and taken for a test drive); sheep are bought and put on the back of a bicycle to take them home. Fur hats, carpets and ancient Korans are on display in small shops. Men and women shout as they haggle over prices. Knives are thrust into your face – in a friendly way, of course – to persuade you to buy them. As soon as I stopped to have a look at the blades, the trader started shaving hair off his arm to show me how sharp it was. Upon enthusiastically grabbing my arm and shaving my own arm hair, I decided that this stall was perhaps not the right one for me. I moved on.
As the day drew on, and I had finished sampling the many heady spices that were displayed at the Bazaar, I made my way out of one of the entrances, eyeing the donkey carts that were making preparations to set off. Looking out at the tall, modern buildings, I was left with a strange feeling of Kashgar’s heritage being pushed and pulled in two strong directions.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The city of Kashgar is undergoing a transformation by the government to “modernise” the frontier city, and with that brings an impression of cleanliness and prosperity, safety and strength, bringing it in line with other, more conformist cities further east. On the other hand, the old town is falling victim to the sledgehammers of modernisation, losing its cultural heritage and archaeological patrimony in the process. It’s a long-standing debate and many question the words of the government, wondering why it is not possible to simply reconstruct the ancient quarter instead of razing it all in favour of modern, faceless structures. According to Dr George Michell, Old Kashgar is “the best preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia,” and if it were to go, the unique Uighur and Central Asian character of East Turkestan will become history. I left Kashgar that evening with melancholy thoughts, wondering how much of the town would be left when next I visited.