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Kashgar: still a bit exotic, but for how long?

View from hotel in Kashgar, China

View from my hotel over the Kashgar suburbs

During the past couple of days Gary and I made a trip through Xinjiang, I plan to write a few posts over the next days about the journey. We originally got the idea when climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro back in 2008, when we heard of plans to modernize Kashgar, meaning that most of its famous Old City would eventually disappear. It took a bit longer than planned to make this trip, but over a nice bottle of wine in my garden the idea came up again a few weeks ago and we decided to go before it would be too late.

Gary flew in from Beijing and I took a flight from Shanghai to Kashgar – or Kashi, as most Chinese call it. I had never been to Xinjiang province, and during a stop over at the airport in Urumqi I immediately noticed that this was not the same China that I have been living in for the past 12+ years. Suddenly a lot of text was in Arabic Uyghur script and all boarding announcements were made in Chinese, Uyghur and English. That together with the view of many hours of desert from my window seat on the plane made me feel like being in a different world, even though it was still the same country.

Upon arrival in Kashgar I took a taxi to the hotel. That was a bit harder than usual, because the Uyghur taxi driver hardly spoke a word of Chinese. He also refused to use his meter and insisted on getting RMB 80 for the ride. I wasn’t willing to pay that and when he told me that he did not know where the hotel was I told him to drive back to the terminal. He did so but pretended to be very angry. Fine with me, I don’t let myself be intimidated by a taxi driver and had been smart enough to put my backpack on the back seat, so I could get out at any moment if needed.

At the airport the other drivers also wanted RMB 80, but then I saw a Han Chinese driver and when I talked to him in Chinese he accepted to drive me to the hotel for RMB 40. During the ride I enjoyed the views of the city, but the driver kept on talking. The first question he asked about my religion. Always a dangerous subject in muslim territory, so I decided not to go with the atheist story but pretended to be a good Christian. He was happy with that and told me he was glad I was not a Jew… I wisely did not comment on that, but tried to steer away the conversation from religion after that. Or better, I completely stopped talking to him, pretending to make a phone call.

The hotel we stayed at was the only 5-star hotel in Kashgar and was located in the suburbs of the city (the city is quite small, so even suburb means just a 5 minute ride to downtown). When I walked into the lobby of the hotel the staff knew already who I was (I guess I was the only non-Chinese guest) and they told me Gary had arrived already. Gary and I were both upgraded to suites, which was a nice gesture. After putting my stuff in my room I called Gary and we met in the lobby to go out into the city. We asked a taxi to bring us to the Old City and he drove us to the bazaar for RMB 5. I realized that even the RMB 40 that I had paid for my taxi ride was probably still way too much!

Kashgar, China

Kashgar Bazaar

We crossed a small bridge and walked up a hill into the Old City. We later learned this was actually not the Old City, but a part of the Old City that had been built outside the former city wall, which had been destroyed decades ago already. We later also learned that we should have paid an entrance fee, but we had entered from the back side so got in for free. It was nice to enter into a different world. But it also felt a bit strange because there were hardly any people around and some of the buildings had been partly destroyed. Later we learned that this part of the city will be gone in 1-2 years, so we were just in time it seems.

Old City, Kashgar, China

Part of the Kashgar Old City, this area will be destroyed over the next 2 years

Using Google Maps we navigated through the backstreets of Kashgar to another part of the Old City, but this had been mainly destroyed already. Very sad to see this. The official reason is to make sure that the new buildings would be able to withstand an earthquake (strange enough they never collapsed over the past hundreds of years, there must have been several earthquakes as well!). But in reality the city is trying to ‘Chinesify’ at a very high speed, and the government is succeeding in doing that. It’s a pity, in 2-3 years the city probably won’t be worth a visit anymore, at least not if you’re interested in old architecture or buildings.

Kashgar, China

The Old City is disappearing fast

But for now you can still see parts of the Old City and at times you still feel like you’re in the Arab world. I guess that will not change completely, but my first impression was definitively very different from what I had expected. Kashgar has for a large part turned into a normal Chinese city with broad streets and typical Chinese office and residential blocks. Most of the inhabitants are still Uyghur, but even that seems to be changing slowly.

Kashgar, China

Workers making a big hot pot on the streets of Kashgar

At night we went out for dinner and drinks, which was not as easy as we had hoped. A taxi driver took us to the best restaurant in town, but the place turned out to be closed. We finally found another restaurant where we could sit outside, but there we could only get tea with our food (the tea was great by the way). Only later that night we realized that we were visiting in the middle of the Ramadan, meaning that most people fast during the day and are even more strict than usual with regards to alcohol consumption. We tried to find a bar in the city, but did not really succeesd. Eventually we managed to find a place that served us cold beer, but we were the only guests when we arrived (later 3 more guests came in as well), and we decided to just have one beer and call it a night.

Abakh Khoja tomb, Kashgar, China

Abakh Khoja tomb in Kashgar

The next morning we had a car with driver and a guide to show us the city. The guide was from the Uyghur minority and he seemed a bit afraid to speak his mind when we asked him specific questions about the destruction of the city. He opened up a bit during the day, but it still felt awkward. We visited the standard sites in the city, among others the impressive Abakh Khoja tomb just outside Kashgar. A nice and quiet place, with a huge muslim cemetery next to it.

Friday prayer at the Id Gha / Id Khar mosque

Id Ghar Mosque in Kashgar, the biggest mosque in China

After that we walked around the streets in the city center and visited the huge mosque in the middle of town. The Id Ghar mosque is the largest mosque in China and even though it has 3000 places to pray it would be too small when we visited again during Friday prayer. Should you ever visit the city, make sure to go in (you have to pay a small entrance fee) and visit the courtyard and the main part of the mosque.

Kashgar, China

Selling naan bread on the street in Kashgar

What I noticed is that there are hardly any Western tourists, I could literally count all the ones I encountered on one hand. Kashgar being part of the Silk Route, I had expected a lot more of them. I think it can partly be explained by the fact that the city has undergone a complete transformation over the past couple of years, and that it’s less interesting to visit. But likely another reason is that it’s harder for backpackers to get longer term visa for China, meaning that they will stick to the main (=shorter) tourist routes and not the long ones in the far West of China. And lastly, because of unrest in Pakistan the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar to Islamabad is more dangerous now for travelers than before.

Old City, Kashgar, China

The Old City in Kashgar has been largely destroyed already

But instead of Western tourists there are quite a lot of Chinese tourists now, but it’s certainly not a major tourist destination yet. Also Han Chinese tourists seem to be afraid of potential violence. I did not have that feeling at all, and was surprised when a security person joined Gary and me while walking through another part of the Old City. Our guide said that it would make it easier for us to visit local houses, but a few days later another guide told me that it was standard so tourists would not feel scared. I found it very awkward.

Kashgar, China

Butcher in Kashgar

What feels even more awkward, is that most people seem to be unhappy in Kashgar. Hardly anybody smiles. I guess I can understand why, but it’s not something I had imagined. At first you don’t recognize it, but you feel something is not right. And finally you notice that people just look indifferent. Maybe the Ramadan had to do with it as well? Not eating and drinking from 5 AM to 10 PM in the middle of summer in an oasis city in the desert is not recommended.

There were a lot of police and military police on the streets as well, certainly a lot more than in Beijing or Shanghai. And when you see them they don’t just manage the traffic, but are often actively checking on people. It didn’t feel good to me, it actually felt intimidating. Later during the trip I realized that it’s the same all over Xinjiang, and that this is certainly not the worst place in terms of military presence.

Kashgar, China

Kashgar Bazaar

Looking back I am happy that I have seen Kashgar. But I don’t think I would go back again for the sights. Not only are they disappearing very fast, but there is just not a lot to see. It’s a nice experience to walk around the bazaar and through the older streets, but you can get that experience in a day and that’s actually enough for the city. If you have been to other Arab countries a lot of the things that you’ll see are very similar, it’s just that they all have a Chinese touch here. The good thing about Kashgar, however, is that you can take the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan, and that is what we decided to do next.

I will write more posts over the next days, so stay tuned if you’re interested in this trip. I uploaded quite some pictures already, you can see them on this set on Flickr:

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  1. What a shame. I visited Kashgar a few times about 10 years ago and back then it was about as exotic as it gets (ignoring the omnipresent bathroom-tiled Chinese buildings of course).

  2. Fascinating. Almost felt like being there myself. May I suggest that you also label or give a short introductions to your photos? Make it even more interesting for armchair travellers like me.

  3. @Tseng Kin-Wah: Thanks for your suggestion, I now added short captions below each picture.

  4. I was in Kashgar this week and went to the same places, enjoy very much but regretful it is not the scene I expect. Too Chinese, before I dream to come to Alladin’s world at the edge of China.

  5. it is so pity that it is all had to go under the slogan of building destructible house against the earth quick.