Notes on the Silk Road: Kashgar

Posted: November 1, 2010 in Interpreter
Tags: ,

A new post over at the Lowy’s Interpreter, tracking my trip to China’s west. I’d highly recommend anyone go to these places if you get a chance. Fascinating and spectacular.

Notes on the Silk Road: Kashgar

By Raffaello Pantucci – 1 November 2010 10:22AM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

In contrast to Urumqi, Kashgar is a distinctly non-Han Chinese city. While Chinese is still clearly present, it is not clear that Mandarin is the main spoken language. Kashgar is primarily a Uighur city, though there is also the fascinating mix of Mongol, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Han locals making the city a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities.

A vast array of other foreigners are also present, from the surprisingly high number of foreign tourists to Pakistani or Middle Eastern traders passing through on their way along the new Silk Road. One afternoon we met a local Pakistani importer-exporter who was stuck in the city with a group of brothers and cousins while they waited out the Chinese holiday which had closed the borders and left them with truck-loads of fruit stuck rotting on the wrong side.

The city itself is quite a dusty place, with donkey and carts as ubiquitous as cheap taxis. We stayed in the former Russian consulate that has now been turned into a charming, grubby, kitschy hotel – its British counterpart has instead been transformed into what looks like a communist dormitory. The latest twist in the great game.

One of the most famous sites is the Old City, which was used a few years ago in the film The Kite Runner as a double for Kabul. The entire region in fact could double for a war-stricken Central Asian state. Aside from the old cities and villages made of brick, mud and straw, the countryside is dotted with abandoned buildings which could have been bombed out and left to nature. Towering over the entire region are the Pamir mountains.

More recently, the Old City has become famous as one of the symbols of Han Chinese attempts to assert some control over the Uighur minority. The current plan is to turn it into a holiday resort city and it has been designated a ‘special economic zone’ in the hope it will attract tourists from across Central and South Asia. From the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the city we managed to get a pretty good view of the whole city, and you can see the slow encroachment of modernity.

There are also distinctly Chinese additions to the city. Dominating the People’s Square is one of the largest statues of Mao in the country (some say there is a bigger one in Tianjin), and adjacent to one of the parts of the Old City is a giant Ferris wheel which turns lights up like Disneyland at night. But the majority of the city is Uighur and Muslim: women in hijabs are the most common sight, and some fully veiled women can be found. Mosques are very common and around the Old City small mosques echo at prayer time with the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

The separation between Han and Uighur seen in Urumqi is not as visible here, in part because the Han population is so clearly the minority and there is the addition of so many other minorities. The dominant Uighurs clearly do not appreciate the Han influence, but one local Han man who had been born in the province complained that he too was suffering from the influx of people from outside.


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