China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city.With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi.In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>
Kashgar is no stranger to this blog. Multiple posts of this unusual cultural hotspot have graced the pages of this site, bringing you readers pictures of jaw-dropping landscapes and envy-inducing backpacker stories. And all posts are encouraging the same thing: You should go there immediately, right now, at this very moment (or whenever it's most convenient for you... no pressure).
So with this post, I'm pretty much doing the same thing. (What? Why are you not Kashgar's historic buildings in the Old Town, buildings that partake in defining this city, and put up new modern buildings possessing an "Islamic twist," this little oasis won't exactly be the same as it was before. Read on for more....
Not to say that the Kashgar that's thrived for thousands of years is dead and gone. Many of the houses in which generations of Uyghur people lived are definitely rubble now, just waiting to be rebuilt into safer, up-to-date homes. Yet, despite losing these cultural antiquities, what makes Kashgar "Kashgar" is still alive and well: the people. Kashgar and the Uyghur culture thrive through the people, not the buildings. The city may not look as it originally did, but no matter how modernized the rough becomes, the diamond within is still a diamond.
Toto, I don't think we're in China anymore...
I know what you're all thinking: "Kashgar? That don't sound like it's in China!" Well, it's certainly misleading. Kashgar, or Kāshí in Mandarin, is located in the most Western corner of China in Xinjiang province, close to the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. From its earliest records, this city was a trading post on the Silk Road, acting as a connection between the Far West and the Far East. Traders, missionaries and armies have all passed through this city, bringing their different cultures and religions to China and the outside world.
Because of its strategic location, control for Kashgar and the surrounding area was repeatedly fought over. China has long held the city, but there were multiple contenders who tried to wrest control, including the Zunghars, the Kushans, the Mongols and the Arabs. Even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Kashgar had Russian and British forces trying to gain control over it. In the end, China remained the victor and a statue of Chairman Mao stands in Kashgar's People's Square as a reminder of that fact.
Although the city is located in China, the majority of the local population is actually Uyghur, a Turkic, Islamic people whose looks and culture are not at all the same as the Han Chinese (the "Chinese" people that everyone usually thinks of, who make up 92% of the population). Going from a heavily populated majority Han Chinese city like cosmopolitan Shanghai to the Uyghur-occupied oasis of Kashgar can be a bit dumbfounding, especially when coping with the fact that both cities are within the same country, but the contradictions make a visit to Kashgar even more fascinating.
The city's gems and natural wonders
While in Kashgar, it's worth exploring the city itself but also the untamed environment beyond.
Years ago, people would recommend exploring the Old Town of Kashgar; weaving through the alleyways and tracing your hands along the mud houses to simply soak up the history of the city. However, with much of Kashgar still under construction at present, it's probably best to go straight to the major tourist draws around the city and then explore what's left of the Old Town. Since the Uyghur culture is so rich, the mosques should not be missed. The Id Ka Mosque, which is the biggest mosque in China, stands magnificently near the center of the city. Visits must be well-planned, since the mosque is still a very active religious site with specific prayer times.
Another attraction to see are the tombs. When you're finished at the Id Kah Mosque, stroll on over to the Tomb of Yusup Hazi Hajup. In contrast to the yellow tiles of the Id Kah Mosque, this monument dedicated to the Uyghur philosopher and poet features white and blue tiles. Visiting here shouldn't be as busy or restricted as the mosque, so go ahead and enjoy a few moments in this (poetically) peaceful area. Now, the other tomb to take a look-see is the Tomb of Abakh Hoja. Located a bit further out of town, this beautiful tomb specifically houses the remains of Abakh Hoja, a famous religious and political leader for Muslims in Xinjiang, and his descendants, notably the Uyghur concubine of Emperor Qianlong, Xiangfei. Along with being aesthetically pleasing, it's also interesting to know in the back of your mind how it's rumored that Xiangfei actually committed suicide because Qianlong's mother didn't approve of her.
Seeing the man-made structures within Kashgar is one thing. Seeing the natural features around Kashgar is another. Described in another post as "postcard-perfect," the landscape gives nothing less. Starting off with Lake Karakul (Kālā Hú, 喀拉湖) southwest of Kashgar, it's as if Mother Nature decided not to have it affected by the sands of the desert. A serene lake with picturesque moutain ranges grazing the shores, just looking at the pictures is already breath-taking (imagine what it's like to actually BE there). To counterbalance this scene, the Taklamakan Desert is northeast of Kashgar. With sand dunes that seem to stretch so far beyond what the eye can perceive, they make the desert seem as tranquil as Lake Karakul.
The grand-daddy of Asian markets
I'm forgetting something, aren't I? Just kidding, I'm just saving the best for last.
The Sunday Market is a highlight for all trips to Kashgar. Living up to its reputation as a trading hub, Kashgar becomes a frenzy of veiled women and cap-wearing men, fresh and unique goods and restless animals on Sundays. Although there is always a market open every day, it's the Sunday Market that can't be beat, when thousands of people from all over come to sell, buy and trade. Seeing farmers with fresh, exotic produce bringing in baskets of goods, walking past women piling a colorful mess of silk veils onto their individual stands while young children whiz by to go assist with their family booth or find other children to play, is like something out of a boo, but it's real. Not only is the sheer amount of people overwhelming, but the bright colors from cloths and the smells of dried food and seasonings vary and abound, tingling your senses until you almost feel numb. Make sure you don't get too awe-struck: there are things to see! Everything you could ever expect and more, is on offer at this market. From Hotan silks to ground spices, pepper and cinnamon to polished Iranian tools. As a tourist you may not need any of these things, but it's intriguing to look at and watch the locals barter for supplies.
A little ways further out of town is the Livestock Market (Shēngchù Shìchǎng, 牲畜市場), which was originally located with the main Sunday Market, until it turned out that the herd of animals was infringing upon the space of the growing number of people (or maybe it's the other way around... ). When you get to this market, be prepared. It's a lot of animals. You'll see rows and rows of goats, sheep and cows lined up with Uyghur men surveying them all, eyeing each animal to figure out which one is good enough to buy. In addition to all the livestock, stands are open to cook and make anything onsite after a buyer figures out which animal he wants. Obviously, this market is definitely not for the faint-of-heart, so proceed with caution.
Nevertheless, out of all the events that go on in the world that can make a culture feel so alive, real, and unified, the Sunday Market in Kashgar is definitely up there with the best of them.