“Very few cities in China can claim such allure and mystery like the city of Kashgar”, is written in my guidebook and I totally agree.
Even though Kashgar is also located in Xinjiang province, the flight from Urumqi takes almost 2 hours, covering a distance of around 1500km. And I really enjoyed those 2 hours. No, I am not talking about the tiny cup of coffee I bought at Urumqi airport, which set me back 9 EUR!!, but I actually really enjoyed being on a plane, full of loud, laughing and smiling people – of whom quite obviously many had never been on a plane before and the flight attendants had a very difficult time communicating with people who did not speak (or did not want to speak) one word of Chinese.
From the airport I organised a taxi into the city centre. The taxi driver, thinking very economically, found 3 other people who also had – more or less – the same destination. I was quite surprised that we all had to pay the same price – from my experience, the foreigner usually pays double or triple.
With a population of around 400.000 people (the majority being Uyghur – but a growing population of Han Chinese) Kashgar is the westernmost city in China. It is located near the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – places I had until recently never thought I would ever get close to. Kashgar’s history spans over 2000 years. It served as a trading post and strategically important city on the Silk Road between China, the Middle East, and Europe and has been under the rule of the Chinese, Turkic, Mongol, Persian, and Tibetan empires.
The taxi dropped me off in the ‘new Old Town’, I will explain this later, and I immediately knew I would love Kashgar. The streets were full of people, almost all of them Uyghurs, who were selling things or were just chatting to each other. It seemed like a proper Arab town – apart from the fact that all the shops had their signs in Arab and Chinese – and some of them also in – a kind of English ;). Below a picture of one of my favourite signs :).
This time I also had more luck with the choice of my hostel. It was a nice hostel with a lovely courtyard, where you had the chance to meet some amazing people. All of them were awesome but I was especially fascinated by the ones who had cycled all the way from England, France or Germany to China – and let me tell you, there were quite a few of them. I might have to add that to my bucket list 🙂
Now let me show you around Kashgar a little.
As I mentioned before, these days there is a new ‘Old City’ and an old “Old City”. Let’s have a look at the new “Old City” first, because this is where my hostel was located and these days there is not much left of the old ‘Old City’.
In 2009 the international community first learned of China’s plans to raze a majority of Kashgar’s Old City. People were outraged, not only for the sake of history preservation but for the fact that the Uyghur people who lived within the Old City were given no say in the matter – which obviously does not come as a surprise. The official reason for the destruction given by the Chinese authorities was, that Kashgar is susceptible to earthquakes, which the original mud-brick buildings could not withstand. But whatever the truth is, one has to admit, that surprisingly the new ‘Old Town” is quite pleasant to walk through, mainly because it seems the Uyghur people have accepted their new homes – then again, what choice did they have?
The new ‘Old Town’
And here some impressions of the old ‘Old Town” and what the entire old town of Kashgar looked like until recently and what it had looked like for hundreds of years: mud-brick homes and confusing alleyways. Beautiful, but at the same time these buildings were often missing plumbing and electricity (I saw some children defecating on the street – which admittedly, is also not unheard of in cities like Beijing or Shanghai). Quite a few people were actually keen on welcoming you into their home, not necessarily because they enjoyed your company, but because they had set up little shops in their homes – some of them were actually quite cheeky.
However, the true heart of Kashgar lies in the square around the beautiful Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosques in China. It can accommodate up to 20.000 worshippers. Like many other cultural sites this mosques was severely damaged in the Cultural Revolution, but has been renovated throughout the last few decades. However, there are security cameras everywhere – apparently during important festivals large units of military are close by to remind the worshippers who is really in charge.
Another place which should be mentioned here, is the Kashgar People’s Square. Quite obviously, neither a very popular nor lively square (apart from some armed police officers). In 1969 the statue of Mao was erected, to remind people of who actually is in charge of this city. My travel mates, who were posing in front of Mao for some jumping pictures were also not warmly greeted by the local police officers. Additionally, I also saw many policemen randomly asking locals for their identity cards. Even though the military presence seemed less than in Urumqi you could still feel the tension between local Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
One of the best things about Kashgar is certainly its night market. Uyghur vendors sell anything from sheep heads, testicles, hooves to hand-pulled noodles and hot BBQ tofu – obviously I ate strictly vegetarian food- even the barbecued fish did not really appeal to me. But the best thing about the night market is surely its lively atmosphere!
The best day to be in Kashgar is definitely Sunday. This is the day when the Kashgar Grand bazaar is the busiest and the famous livestock market takes place.
Unlike the rather disappointing bazaar I visited in Urumqi the one in Kashgar was just what a bazaar should be like: a mess. If you imagine that for the last 2000 years people from different countries have come there to buy clothes, food or anything else, it makes you even more realise how vibrant and full of energy this place is. I spent around 2 hours just wandering around while holding on tight to my backpack (apparently there are quite a few pickpockets – and hardly any other Westerners), but you can easily spend a whole day there.
‘No visit to Kashgar is complete without a trip to the Livestock Market’, says the Lonely Planet, and again, I can only agree. Every Sunday Uyghur farmers from the nearby villages come to the city to sell their sheep, horses, donkeys, cows or whatever else lives on their farm. It is chaotic, smelly and just wonderful. Even though my travel mate raised some concerns over the treatment of animals, I actually think that in comparison to how we, in the Western world, treat our animals (well, apart from horses and donkeys maybe), these animals still seemed to be in a rather good place.
I feel in love with this donkey and I was tempted to buy it for 80 EUR – but the journey back home for the two of us seemed just a little too long.
Me and my new friend. A little bit too touchy for me – Uyghur men are definitely very different to Han Chinese men 😉
One thing which was a bit irritating was that there was a butcher on site, and the sheep were watching their friends… well, you know what I am talking about.
Last but not least a few more impressions of Kashgar. I just took so many fabulous photos of this fabulous town!
My next blog post will be about my little trip up the Karakoram Highway.