The second-story rooms of the centuries-old mud-brick houses were cantilevered atop log beams and nearly touched each other across an alleyway paved with hexagonal stones. Women wearing dark veils leaned out of tiny windows. Poplar doors, painted bright blue or green and adorned with brass floral petals, stood half open—a subtle signal that the master of the house was inside. The aromas of freshly baked bread and ripe peaches wafted up from vendors’ wooden carts.
From This Story
It was early morning and I was exploring the back streets of Kashgar, a fabled city on the western edge of China, with a Chinese journalist from Beijing, whom I’ll identify only as Ling, and a young handicraft salesman from Kashgar, whom I’ll call Mahmati. Mahmati is a Uighur (WEE-goor), a member of the ethnic minority that makes up 77 percent of the Kashgar population. He had traveled to Beijing before the 2008 Olympics to take advantage of the tourist influx and had stayed on. I’d invited him to accompany me to Kashgar to act as my guide to one of the best-preserved—and most endangered—Islamic cities in Central Asia.
The three of us followed narrow passageways bathed in sunlight or obscured by shadows. We encountered faces that testified to Kashgar’s role as a crossroads of Central Asia on the route linking China, India and the Mediterranean. Narrow-eyed, white-bearded elders wearing embroidered skullcaps chatted in front of a 500-year-old mosque. We passed pale-complexioned men in black felt hats; broad-faced, olive-skinned men who could have passed for Bengalis; green-eyed women draped in head scarfs and chadors; and the occasional burqa-clad figure who might have come straight from Afghanistan. It was a scene witnessed in the early 1900s by Catherine Theodora Macartney, wife of the British consul in Kashgar when it was a listening post in the Great Game, the strategic Russia-Britain conflict for control of Central Asia. “One could hardly say what the real Kashgar type was,” she wrote in a 1931 memoir, An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan, “for it has become so mixed by the invasion of other people in the past.”
We rounded a corner and stared into a void: a vacant lot the size of four football fields. Mounds of earth, piles of mud bricks and a few jagged foundations were all that remained of a once-lively neighborhood. “My God, they are moving so fast,” Mahmati said. A passerby pointed to a row of houses at the lot’s edge. “This is going next,” he told us. Nearby, a construction team had already laid out the steel and concrete foundations of a high-rise and was dismantling the surrounding buildings with mallets and chisels. The men stood on ladders, filling the air with dust. A red banner announced the quarter would be rebuilt with “true care from the [Communist] Party and the government.”
For more than a thousand years, Kashgar—where the bone-dry Taklamakan Desert meets the Tian Shan Mountains—was a key city along the Silk Road, the 7,000-mile trade route that connected China’s Yellow River Valley with India and the Mediterranean. In the ninth century, Uighur forebears, traders traveling from Mongolia in camel caravans, settled in oasis towns around the desert. Originally Buddhists, they began converting to Islam about 300 years later. For the past 1,000 years, Kashgar has thrived, languished—and been ruthlessly suppressed by occupiers. The Italian adventurer Marco Polo reported passing through around 1273, about 70 years after it was seized by Genghis Khan. He called it “the largest and most important” city in “a province of many towns and castles.” Tamerlane the Great, the despot from what is now Uzbekistan, sacked the city in 1390. Three imperial Chinese dynasties conquered and reconquered Kashgar and its environs.
Still, its mosques and madrassahs drew scholars from all over Central Asia. Its caravansaries, or inns, provided refuge to traders bearing glass, gold, silver, spices and gems from the West and silks and porcelain from the East. Its labyrinthine alleys teemed with blacksmiths, cotton-spinners, book-binders and other craftsmen. Clarmont Skrine, a British envoy writing in 1926, described looking out on “the vast horizon of oasis and desert, of plains and snowy ranges....How remote and isolated was the ancient land to which we had come!” In 2007, Hollywood director Marc Forster used the city as the stand-in for 1970s Kabul in his film of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner.
The Uighurs have experienced tastes of independence. In 1933, they declared the East Turkestan Republic, from the Tian Shan Mountains south to the Kunlun Mountains, which lasted until a Chinese warlord came to power the next year. Then, in 1944, as the nationalist Chinese government neared collapse during World War II, the Uighurs established the Second East Turkestan Republic, which ended in 1949, after Mao Zedong took over China. Six years after Mao’s victory, China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, similar to a province but with greater local control; the Uighur Muslims are its largest ethnic group.
In the 1990s, the Chinese government built a railway to Kashgar and made cheap land available to Han Chinese, the nation’s majority. Between one million and two million Han settled in Xinjiang during the past two decades, though Kashgar and other towns on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert are still predominately Uighur. “Xinjiang has always been a source of anxiety for the central power in Beijing, as is Tibet and Taiwan,” Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based Uighur expert at Human Rights Watch told me. “Historically the response to that is to assimilate the territory, particularly through the immigration of Han Chinese.” The Han influx stirs resentment. “All construction and factory jobs around Kashgar have been taken by Han Chinese,” says British journalist Christian Tyler, author of Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang. “The people in charge are Han, and they recruit Han. Natural resources—oil and gas, precious metals—are being siphoned off for benefit of the Han.”
Now the Chinese government is doing to Kashgar’s Old City what a succession of conquerors failed to accomplish: leveling it. Early in 2009 the Chinese government announced a $500 million “Kashgar Dangerous House Reform” program: over the next several years, China plans to knock down mosques, markets and centuries-old houses—85 percent of the Old City. Residents will be compensated, then moved—some temporarily, others permanently—to new cookie-cutter, concrete-block buildings now rising elsewhere in the city. In place of the ancient mud-brick houses will come modern apartment blocks and office complexes, some adorned with Islamic-style domes, arches and other flourishes meant to conjure up Kashgar’s glory days. The government plans to keep a small section of the Old City intact, to preserve “a museumized version of a living culture,” says Dru Gladney, director of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College and one of the world’s foremost scholars of Xinjiang and the Uighurs.
The destruction, some say, is business-as-usual for a government that values development over preservation of traditional architecture and culture. In 2005, new construction in Beijing equaled the total in all of Europe, according to the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (BCHPC), a privately funded advocacy group. In the Chinese capital, one hutong (traditional alley) after another has been demolished in the name of progress. “The destruction of [Kashgar’s] Old City is a bureaucratic reflex, a philistine approach,” says Tyler. “It’s devastating for the history and the culture.”