The Silk Road Part 1: Kashgar
I have been wanting to go to Kashgar for at least half my life. When I was a student in China, that was the Holy Grail of backpacking adventures. The very far western edge of China, well past the boundary where China stops being Chinese and becomes Central Asia.
I had planned to spend the summer of 1990 doing the Silk Road backpacker style. I got married instead. So I put the trip off. And in the intervening years, I have been to China something like 30 times, and Kashgar was always there, but I never made it further west than Xi’an. It was time.
So in September, I headed to China with a small tour group, and after a couple of days in Beijing, we headed to the airport to begin our own Journey west.
The West of China need some explaining. The area is called the Xinjiang Uygher Autonomous Region. Politically it functions like a province of China, but the majority of the people who live there are not Chinese. There are Kazakhs and Uzbekhs and Tajiks, all of who have their own countries in central Asia, but the largest population here are the Uyghers.
The Uyghers are most definitely not Han Chinese. They have their own language, which is most closely related to Turkish. They are traditionally and predominately Sunni Muslim. They have for much of their history been independent, and they have a long and bloody history of contending kingdoms, battle and conquest. They are a fiercely proud people, and I found them to be the most gracious of hosts.
Xinjiang is a very large area, larger than France, Germany and Spain combined, but it is very sparsely inhabited. Two of the world’s great deserts are here, the Takla Makan and the Gobi.
The Talka Makan is virtually impassable except by a few ancient trade routes, and the Gobi is, well, the Gobi. It is huge, hostile and strangely beautiful. And the area is fringed with massive mountains; Tibet to the South, the Pamirs to the West and the Tianshan to the North.
Most of the population in this area is confined to the oasis towns.
There are spots in this desert where the snow melt from the surrounding mountains waters surprisingly fertile fields of grain, melons and grapes. These have been inhabited for centuries, but for 1500 years, they were the center of some of the world’s most profitable trade as silk and other treasures from China traveled by camel caravan across the wastelands to the great cities of Samarkand, Tashkent and Bukhara on their way to the markets of Europe.
Marco Polo passed this way (maybe), as did Genghis Khan So we started our journey with a night in Urumqi, the capital, and spent a night in the Pamirs.
More about those in a later post. But after two nights, we finally got to spend a day in Kashgar OK, so as a place for famous tourists sites, Kashgar honestly does not have much. We visited the mausoleum of a famous king. It was nice. We went to the main bazaar. Cool. I have been to a few markets and bazaars. This is a good one. Try the raisins.
But there were two special highlights. If you are going to Kashgar, remember to go on Sunday when they hold the livestock market. There are a few tourists wondering around, but this is a real step into the world of the Uygher. Goats and sheep and cows and donkeys all for sale, with noise and smells and chaos. And camels and yaks.
We were only able to spend about an hour here, I could have hung our all day.
And then we went to the middle of town where we wandered around the narrow streets sampling the fruit (figs were in season) and just enjoying the atmosphere.
We then went to tour the Mosque, actually the largest Mosque in China, which was beautiful and peaceful. But the best part of this was sitting in the square in front of the Mosque waiting for services to end.
A very polite but curious crowd gathered around us, and after a few hesitant moments, the cameras came out (both ours and theirs) and we spent 20 minutes taking pictures together.
Not many travelers get here, and we were a novelty, but a very welcome one. It was a good day.
One somewhat more somber note. The Uyghers, like many of the 50 plus ethnic minorities in China, are not universally happy with being part of the People’s Republic. There has been tension and violence; a riot in 2009 in Urumqi left several hundred dead, most of them Han Chinese. There are extremists here.
The Iman of the Grand Mosque in Kashgar was assassinated last year. The vast majority of the people are mostly just living their lives, but the area has been flooded with Han Chinese and the cultures do clash.
Security is tight, there are check points on the roads and armed police at the airport. No expressions of dissent are tolerated; a Uygher scholar was handed a very heavy prison sentence when we were there for writings that could have been (and were) interpreted as challenging China’s control of the area. The overall mood of the Uyghers seems to be a slightly sad resignation.
As we left Kashgar for the airport, we passed a convoy of armed police heading into town. I asked our guide if there was something going on and he just said, “No, that is just life in Kashgar.”