Kashgar, Xinjiang, China قەشقەر

Kashgar — the name itself already evokes the Silk Road. (The Chinese name, Kashi 喀什, not so much.) At the furthest western end of China, it’s closer to Iran and even eastern Turkey geographically than it is to Beijing and feels nothing like China. Well, at least when you’re in the areas of interest: there’s a new downtown that’s Han-dominated and looks just like every other major city in China. But the rest of the city? The ethnic mix is nothing like I’ve ever seen before, and a big dose of culture shock.

Xinjiang is China’s largest province (Tibet is number two), its bland name (literally “new frontier”) masking its heavy diversity. While officially a Uyghur autonomous region, the Uyghurs (Chinese: Weiwu’er 维吾爾) also constitute the largest ethnic group in the province… at less than 50%. Other significant groups, some with their own autonomous prefectures inside the province, include Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Russians, Tajiks, and Mongols.

And on Sundays, the busiest day at Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar, that’s basically who you’re seeing. No one’s speaking Mandarin, unless they see me or another tourist and they want our business. Despite the large variance in physical features within the Uyghur population, it’s very clear that there are other ethnic groups present, buying and selling at one of Central Asia’s largest markets. Sure, there’s the Uyghurs: men with their traditional caps — circular-fitting, square-topped, and pyramid-like if viewed from the front — and their thick eyebrows and thick moustaches that Chinese men can never possibly grow; women with colourful silk scarves tied around their hair, thick white makeup with exaggerated eyes, fashionable unibrows (real or drawn-on), and even moustaches! But there’s also people with blonde hair (Russian?), people with very dark complexions (Pakistani?), and men and women wearing distinctly different headgear than the traditional Uyghur ones, like tall white hats for men (Kyrgyz for sure) or ornately decorated red ones for women (Tajik?). While Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz are similar, mutually-intelligible Turkic languages, the others are not, and hearing them within the crowds does make it all the more overwhelmingly not Chinese.

Unfortunately, there is a bit of a darker history here in Xinjiang, and the ethnic mix contributes to it.

Like Tibet, there’s a separatist movement for the Uyghurs. But without a strong figure like the Dalai Lama advocating for their cause around the world, their plight has been left obscure. Nomadic Turkic kingdoms that existed in the past were not particularly strong, leaving the area frequently subservient to Mongol, Hui, Tibetan, and Han rule. With so many ethnicities in the mix, including some that just aren’t there anymore, I’ve had a lot of trouble trying to learn about the history, but in the end, they voluntarily submitted themselves to the Qing dynasty in request for help from other warlords. When the Qing was overthrown, it left Xinjiang in a control vacuum, with two separate independent republics calling themselves “East Turkestan” declared. (These were neither concurrent or even in the same geographical area.) One was never recognised, and the other a few years later was recognised and supported by the Soviet Union. The PRC (current regime of China) was able to secure control — and they also established the “Uyghurs” into one ethnic group, lumping together all the previous nomadic Turkic groups together.

At the establishment of the PRC in the 1950s, Uyghurs formed 75% of the province’s population. With that figure below 50% now, there is a segment of the population that feels pushed out. How much? It’s really hard to say, with the media clampdown here. There’s an undercurrent of feeling that with China’s economic expansion into Xinjiang, most of the economic opportunity is being given to Han people, many of whom are migrating out here. There’s also complaints of China’s regulation of Islamic practices against Uyghurs, notably with a strong encouragement against fasting during Ramadan, and a ban on certain names for children. Like Tibet, there’s clearly a part of the population that does support the government though, but there’s no way of knowing how widespread dissent actually is. All we know is that it does exist.

While the police presence here isn’t nearly as visible as in Tibet, nor is there the same ridiculous amount of Chinese flags everywhere like Tibet, an atmosphere of repression is definitely there under the surface. The streets seem safe and relaxed enough. Han people live on one side and Uyghurs on the other, with little to no integration. But people both Han and Uyghur openly talk about (or at least, loud enough for me to hear) the troubles they face here: hotels and guesthouses encounter scrutiny of harbouring terrorists, and they take down far more personal information upon check-in than in other places. Uyghurs find themselves assumed to be terrorists. They seem paranoid of government monitoring of WeChat, despite using it anyway, and paranoid of police. This is a consequence of the lingering separatist movement. Terrorist attacks have happened in recent years, most notably an attack on policemen and a bus bombing in 2008 and a train station mass stabbing attack in Yunnan province in 2014, both of which led to heavy clampdowns in Xinjiang. Worse, murky independent accounts of some described incidents have led to accusations that the government is either covering up, exacerbating, or simply creating incidents and linking them to Uyghur terrorists when convenient. While it’s absolutely true that there are extremists, terrorists, and tragedies resulting from terrorism, the state reaction isn’t helping when it comes to knowing the truth.

On the other hand, the Chinese view — at least from Chinese backpackers in my hostel — is that these separatists have no right to complain. Unlike Tibet, which has historically lived in its own land, Uyghurs are just “Turkish migrants”. Hmm. Well, what about the neighbouring “stan” countries then? Or the Han residents in Xinjiang? I certainly hope there are better arguments; I’ve heard far more nuanced takes from other Chinese nationals for other sensitive issues.

Anyway, back to the market.

The market is a crush of people and curios: hats, furs, silk, instruments, carpets, spices, even live scorpions. That’s the interesting “exotic” stuff. In the back, there’s clothes, appliances, household supplies, and everything you need for life. Sunday’s just basically the “mall” day for the locals.

And with a mall always comes the food court. In this case, streets surrounding the bazaar are crowded with vendors selling dogh (a sour but refreshingly cold yogurt drink), morozhenoe (ice cream churned in an iced barrel in front of you), cold noodles, hot noodles, lamb skewers, naan, samsas (the local take on samosas, stuffed to the max with wonderfully spiced lamb and only 2 yuan/$0.30 each), and fruit.

10 km away, the frenzy continues at the livestock market, also held on Sundays. Located next to a local village within Kashgar, the crowd there is all Uyghur, and all friendly to me and the other tourists squeezing our way through the hordes of people, cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, and camels, with vendors selling cheap date juice-water (1 yuan) for the very hot day, and others selling the largest watermelons I’ve ever seen in my life for a mere 5 yuan. I laughed when I saw how they “tesselate” the goats, but then felt immediately sorry after seeing a group of them hanging out in front of a bunch of their hanging, slaughtered brethren…

Back in Kashgar, I spent a couple days wandering the old town — a bit of a misnomer, since most of it has been torn down and rebuilt in the last 30 years, the pace having ramped up further since 2008 in the wake of devastating earthquakes in other regions of China that led the government to crack down on code-uncompliant structures. While the streets have been widened and the buildings look a little too new and clean, it’s retained its maze-like structure. The main streets are very touristy, with plenty of souvenir shops, but still shows the neighbourhood being very-much lived in. Restaurants cater to both tourists and locals, but grocery stores, clothing bazaars, blacksmiths, clinics, corner stores, trade agencies, and practically any other mundane business you can think of populate the area, moving right into the recently-refurbished digs.

Once you wander into the residential areas though, despite also being heavily refurbished, it’s almost like a step back in time. Beautiful golden buildings with distinct architecture and hanging plants line the alleys, where children play around (and don’t understand Mandarin or English), people duck in and out of their houses and nearby mosques, and a distinct sense of quiet prevails. It’s easy to get lost.

And I did, until a woman sweeping the front of her home recognised me and invited me in for lunch! When I arrived in town and was taking the bus, she asked if I was Japanese, then got a bit flustered when she found out I wasn’t. I happened to run into her again when I wandered directly in front of her house. Turns out her husband is Japanese, and they had met in university while he learnt to speak fluent Uyghur! (Japanese and Turkic languages do share a lot of grammatical similarities, so this isn’t as unlikely as it seems.) Because of that, Mahrbirat likes to invite any Japanese visitor she sees into her home. We had a pleasant lunch of noodle squares and watermelon with her son Muhammad (my age). Her house is beautiful, but she complains that the construction quality — again, due to the government refurbishment of the old town — is shoddy, a Han construction in a Uyghur style rather than traditional Uyghur means. Beyond the cracks in the still-very-new wall, she admits the old town has lost its original flavour and a bit of its charm.

I headed to the undemolished section of the old town to take a look what that meant. Unfortunately, much of it seems abandoned. But inside, several families still live and ply their trades, selling silk clothes, pottery, antiques, and sweets inside their homes. With their view now dominated by a rather ugly modern skyline and many of their neighbours now gone, leaving rubbled homes in their wake, it’s a sad but inevitable future downwards.

Kashgar is also home to the two holiest sites for Uyghur people. First, there’s the Id Kah Mosque, which stands in the center of the (modern) old town. While somewhat uninteresting inside, it dominates the pace of life among locals. Visiting was difficult, since it closes five times a day for prayer.

Then there’s the Apak Hoja Mausoleum on the edge of town. Looking like Kashgar’s own miniature Taj Mahal, it’s a grand construction covered in striped and floral tiles and surrounded by minarets, and host to two mosques next door that feature traditional Uyghur wood carving styles. Oddly enough, I learned little to nothing about Apak Hoja and his family — rather, the story promoted on the grounds was that of the Fragrant Concubine 香妃, Iparhan, a Uyghur who became one of Emperor Qianlong’s (Qing dynasty) most favoured consorts, buried here upon her death as a descendant of Apak Hoja. The Chinese narrative goes that she was integral in promoting Han-Uyghur relations in her homesickness. The Uyghur narrative is that she was taken off against her will (either captured or “married off” by her ruler), frequently tried to strike back, and was eventually poisoned to death. Hmm. Either way, there’s a definite falsehood that’s been corrected: the Fragrant Concubine was actually buried in Beijing, not Kashgar. So who’s the person buried in Kashgar then, with the coffin labelled with Iparhan’s name? Oops!

Where I spent the most time in Kashgar though was definitely the food streets and the night market. Squeezing myself onto benches in small booths with Uyghur locals and domestic and foreign tourists alike, the variety is exhausting — although I drew the line at quite a lot of the foods! (Thanks, but no thanks to goat’s head soup.) Fried fish (I wonder where they get the fish from, there’s no sea or river…), more skewers, polo (the local pilaf, with lamb, yellow peppers, and raisins), fried pastry desserts, fruit slices, fresh pomegranate juice… it’s impossible not to get sucked in. And with the walk back to my hostel through more streets selling similar things, fanning the smoke of the roasting lamb skewers into my face (and onto my clothes, where the lovely aromas still linger), the long walk only gets a little longer, and a little longer, and a little longer.

I gotta say though, this is really a weird place to end my travels in China! While there’s plenty more with traditional Han Chinese culture I have yet to see in the east that I hope to return to the country for, I hope to come back someday and better explore Xinjiang too, which I zoomed across without many stops. But as non-Chinese as Xinjiang and Kashgar are, it’s a great gateway for the rest of my Silk Road trip to come!

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