April 2013 -Kashgar, China

We initially did not plan to visit this somewhat remote city that is China’s gateway to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and in happier times Afghanistan (the border is closed because, as one Uigher taxi driver told us, “many, many Bin Ladens”). It was fortunate for us that we altered our plans because Kashgar quickly became one of our favorite cities, a fantastic place to sit and soak up the relaxed old central asian lifestyle that seems to have fled the in the face of the commercialism and modern pace of life that have invaded much of the region and nearly the entire globe.

Old teahouse and market, Kashgar

But Kashgar is not all dreams and fairy tales – the Chinese government is Hanifying this place too, with both a yet unmatched urgency and a new approach: The resulting new buildings are not the efficiently characterless blocky structures we’ve seen in Urumqi and Turpan, instead they are of an adobe brown patterned tile that suggests nativity to this place but which are completely different from the buildings they are replacing. The 500 year old adobe homes and shops are falling with surprising speed, so fast that in a week here you might watch part of city block fall, see the debris carted away and then the foundations of the new buildings-to-be laid. They are also replacing the mud roads with nice clean concrete and cobble, creating something that seems likely to leave luxury-seeking domestic tourists happy to have visited this place and culture without even realizing that what they’ve seen is just some Disney-like cartoon version of what used to be here.

And this is in the old town center, the government makes no such empty overture of cultural respect in places they intend to fill with imported Han. There are large billboards on the outskirts of town showing Han families in fashionable upscale western dress posed like old time European aristocrats in a luxurious study or library alongside plans for an enormous self-contained neighborhood dubbed “Shanghai City”, the obvious message to potential Han residents being something along the lines of “Move to Kashgar! Sure you have to live near these backwards people and their odd culture, but you can feel like you’re still in the high culture of Shanghai!”

The clearing of an old adobe part of town on the outskirts of Kashgar

And that is how the Han here seem to treat the Uighers – as a backwards people and culture. All of China operates on Beijing time, which is perfectly acceptable for most of the country but leaves the far west of Xianjang, which is geographically about two hours behind Beijing, running on a bit of an odd clock. Many of the Uighers continue to use the local time, now commonly referred to as Uigher time, both for convenience and as a small protest against the Chinese control of the region. We had heard that most of Kashgar still operated on Uigher time, but when we asked the incredibly nice and informative Han girl working at our hostel for clarification, she looked disgusted at the idea that she might ever do anything on Uigher time. And so she wakes up at 10:30am and might take lunch at 3pm, she might get tired and go to sleep early at midnight or go to bed a bit later on the weekends at 4am – you know she’s not as young as she used to be and can’t stay up to all hours of the night anymore. And she is never late.

All that said, staying at the Pamir Youth Hostel made the visit to Kashgar great as the hostel itself soaks up all the feeling of the town. The people running the hostel were incredibly helpful and friendly and the aforementioned girl actually was one of the best hostel managers we’ve run across. The hostel’s large top floor patio was equipped with numerous central asian sitting tables and had a great view over the central mosque and city streets. In the evening you can listen to the melodic semi-tonal Islamic prayer echoing out of the mosque while the sunset blisters red in the dusty skies. We spent much of our time just sitting outside enjoying the old towns ambiance.

Additionally, the large tables and the open setting allowed great conversation and interactions with the other guests, and this is one of those rare places where everyone who’s made the effort to get out here has a story. Many of the other guests were in situations similar to ours and others were traveling in ways that made ours look like a tea party – the kind with little girls in frilly dresses not the kind with angry white men in bow ties and/or hunting apparel. All of them had stories, tips and ears for others and it was a great few evenings with great people. The couple who had bought a camel and walked through the Taklamakan desert for a month and was about to do the same with two donkeys through the Kyrgyz mountains probably had the best story though.

The Pamir YHA patio

The sleeping arrangement was decent. We had a king sized ‘bed’, which was just a brick platform with a small pad-like mattress and blankets, but it was nice to be in the same bed rather than separated in twin beds as is frequently the case. The room had a kettle (being able to boil water is a gift as you can’t drink the tap water without it) and there was a shared kitchen where we enjoyed preparing meals from the market produce.

And now after making the case that Kashgar is a great town just based on its atmosphere and feel, we’re going to tell you about what we did and what we went to see when we weren’t wandering through the old town streets or relaxing on the rooftop patio.

The large treed courtyard of Id Kah Mosque

Id Kah Mosque
The Id Kah Mosque was originally built in 1442 and is Kashgar’s central mosque and China’s largest, a complex that includes a spacious Juma mosque fronted by a treed courtyard capable of accommodating 20,000 worshipers. The light yellow tiled building is set back from one of Kashgar’s main roads with a large cobbled courtyard leading out to the road. On either side of the large central entrance are alleyways lined by ancient trees which provide ample shade for the crowd of older skull-capped men who congregate here daily for tea and talk.

We had a great view out over the treed mosque courtyard and the small market along the mosque’s northernmost outer wall from our hostel’s rooftop patio. One day we watched a huge procession of mostly men exiting the mosque carrying two caskets, the size of the crowd suggesting the deceased to have been well-regarded, perhaps prominent local figures.

Abakh Hoja Tomb

Abakh Hoja Tomb
We hopped a local bus to the Abakh Hoja Tomb located on the eastern outskirts of Kashgar. The Tomb is a short walk from the bus stop but is completely out of view and we were thankful when the bus driver stopped and gestured in the direction we were to walk when we reached the area.

There is a short walk through a nice neighborhood of adobe and brick homes, though I’m sure it is impossible for these residents to ignore their imminent eviction and relocation – the large fenced off area next door has already been bulldozed to the ground, the mud bricks ground back into the earth from whence they came perhaps half a millennium ago and the residents no doubt moved to the blocky apartment buildings which dot the area. It is hard to imagine how these people adjust to their new lifestyle. Central asians have always built homes that appear to leave no space from the outside as the wall of one home touches its neighbor, which in turn directly abuts the next home. But these seemingly large dwellings actually have very little completely walled and sheltered space, instead circling a large gardened courtyard that is the center of every family’s home. This is the family’s air, it is not so much the land that is important but the space above that is no one’s but theirs. Its clear to see how this value system might be more than a little incompatible with life in stacked flats.

Abakh Hoja Tomb is actually a collection of buildings including a number of mosques aside from the mausoleum itself. The entrance archway is completely covered in hand-painted tiles, each one unique and colorfully decorated though time has taken a fair number off this unrestored structure. Beyond the entrance and immediately to the left is a small summer mosque with a beautifully painted ceiling. Further back in the complex is the juma mosque, the primary large mosque here, which is built much in the style of the Id Kah Mosque. The columns are supposed to be the finest example of Uigher wood carving, though we agree that they pale in comparison to the carving we saw everywhere in Uzbekistan.

The mausoleum itself is a wonderfully colorful building with a use of deep jade tiles that we had not seen anywhere else. There are four minaret-like towers, one on each corner of the building and each decorated by horizontal layers of jade, blue and white, and brown colored tiles. The dome is apparently covered in glistening jade tiles but during our visit it was instead covered by scaffolding and under restoration. The mausoleum interior was full of tomb markers, each with a cloth laid atop. In all 72 people are buried there.

The other buildings at the site were being restored so we were unable to view them.

Sunday market

Sunday Market
Despite its name the Sunday Market is open everyday. Had we not already visited many other central asian bazaars, we may have been in awe at the sight of Kashgar’s market but instead we found this market was nothing spectacular when to its peers. Its true that this market is enormous, but we found far too much of it filled with either bargain clothing and home items and tourist-geared mass produced souvenirs. The market did have some shops selling very high quality handmade carpet and musical instruments mixed in among those selling the same wares made at factories (probably in eastern China), but all of these were well outside our price range and/or pack space.

Just outside the market there is a section of old town that is still intact, and island perched up high, the last of whats left in this part of town. There are layers of adobe buildings here that make this neighborhood seem to rise above the barren cleared area around it which it may someday be part of, perhaps someday very soon.

Livestock market

Livestock Market
Unlike the Sunday market, the livestock market takes place only on Sunday. Go ahead and read that again.

We had met a young Brit named Ian and shared a taxi, our market experience and motocart ride with him. The livestock market is located on the western outskirts of town in a dusty open lot and, as you expect when a dusty open lot is packed full of thousands of goats, sheep, cows, horses, camels, donkeys, trucks, motocarts, donkey carts and humans, it was, well, really dirty,

Sheep packed together

We wandered around, weaving between the rows of animals, the moving trucks and tried not to impede the men actually trying to conduct work in this chaos. Many times, we had to squeeze between animals and people making our way around and trying to stay together was a task as well.

The goat trade

Despite all the chaos, even this place had that certain calm that central asia seems to always have. The men, as always dressed in their normal coat and skull cap, casually wander the market, somehow hauling lines of animals behind them and always avoiding a tangle. They shear, haul, tie, barter and sell and at the end of the day relax to talk and eat.

Livestock market

To make our way back to town, we hired a motocart, which is basically a motorcycle front with a cart trailing on the back. It is by no means quick and you’re not likely to find upholstered seating, but it is a pleasant ride in the open air so long as you don’t mind being passed by cars, trucks and at times a scooter or an ambitious donkey. We were informed by our hostel that it would only be a two yuan per passenger and we agreed with the driver on three, or so we thought. When the ride was over and we went to pay him, he ended up demanding much more. We ended up giving him a few extra, though Ian refused the upsell, and we walked away with him very disgruntled.

Brett and our British friend Ian on the motocart

Night Market
Despite the fact that this smallish night market was located across the street from our hostel, we only visited one night for dinner. There were various local dishes on display, including goats head soup. While Brett wanted to pay homage to the Stones and devour some rather delightful looking goaty gray matter (bovidae brains, caprinae cabeza, haedus head… I have more), Angie for some reason preferred steamed buns.

We stopped at the vendor and attempted to get just five buns but after some miscommunication our exchange ended when the lady swiped the 10 yuan note ($1.70) from Brett while handing us a full bag of ten buns. She was done trying to communicate with us, but we were happy to have ten buns for the price which we expected to pay for five. The next stop was a noodle vendor operated by a man who scooped and mixed the ingredients and sauces for each bowl like an artist. The man moved so precisely and purposefully that it felt like we were watching a performance.

Kashgar was such a relaxing place that we could have spent weeks just enjoying the days pass by from the balcony. We would definitely return if given the opportunity.

Click here to see the rest of our Kashgar photos

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