Demolishing Kashgar’s History

A vital stop on China’s ancient Silk Road, the Uighur city of Kashgar may lose its old quarter to plans for “progress”

If destruction continues unimpeded, preservationists will run out of time to save Kashgar's Uighur quarter. (Michael Christopher Brown)
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Others believe the plan reflects a governmental bias against ethnic minorities. “The state does not really see anything of real value in indigenous culture,” says Bequelin. “[The thinking is] it’s good for tourism, but basically [indigenous people] cannot contribute to the modernity of society.” Greed may also be a factor: because most residents of the Old City lack property rights, they can be pushed aside, Bequelin adds, giving developers unbridled opportunity for self-enrichment.

The Chinese government says the demolition is needed to fortify the Old City against earthquakes, the most recent of which struck the region in February 2003, killing 263 people and destroying thousands of buildings. “The entire Kashgar area is in a special area in danger of earthquakes,” Xu Jianrong, Kashgar’s deputy mayor, said recently. “I ask you: What country’s government would not protect its citizens from the dangers of natural disaster?”

But many in Kashgar don’t buy the government’s explanation. They say officials carried out no inspection of the Old City’s houses before condemning them and that most of those that collapsed in recent earthquakes were newly constructed concrete dwellings, not traditional Uighur homes. “These buildings were designed to withstand earthquakes, and used for many centuries,” Hu Xinyu of the BCHPC said of the traditional architecture. He suspects the widespread demolition has a more sinister motive: to deprive the Uighurs of their main symbol of cultural identity. Others view the destruction as punishment for Uighur militancy. The flood of Han Chinese into Xinjiang energized a small Uighur secessionist movement; Uighur attacks against Chinese soldiers and police have occurred sporadically in recent years. The government may well see the Old City as a breeding ground for both Uighur nationalism and violent insurrection. “In their minds, these mazelike alleyways could become a hotbed for terrorist activities,” says Hu.

To halt the destruction, the BCHPC recently petitioned Unesco to add Kashgar to a list of Silk Road landmarks being considered for United Nations World Heritage status, which obliges governments to protect them. China conspicuously left Kashgar off the list of Silk Road sites the government submitted to Unesco. “If nothing is done today,” says Hu, “next year this city will be gone.”

Ling, Mahmati and I had flown southwest to Kashgar from Urumqi, an industrial city of 2.1 million now 80 percent Han Chinese. The China Southern Airways jet had ascended over a sea of cotton and wheat fields at the edge of Urumqi, crossed a rugged zone of crenelated canyons and translucent blue lakes, then soared over the Tian Shan Mountains—a vast, forbidding domain of black basalt peaks, many covered in snow and ice, rising to 20,000 feet—before setting down in Kashgar.

The three of us climbed nervously into a taxi in front of the tiny airport. A government notice posted in the taxi warned passengers to be vigilant against Uighur terrorists. “We should clear our eyes to distinguish between right and wrong,” it advised in both Chinese and the Arabic script of the Uighur language (related to Turkish).

Two months earlier, on July 5, Uighur anger had erupted lethally in Urumqi, when Uighur youths went on a rampage, reportedly stabbing and beating to death 197 people and injuring more than 1,000. (The rioting began as a protest against the killings of two Uighur laborers by fellow Han workers in a southern China toy factory.) Rioting also broke out in Kashgar but was quickly put down. The government blamed the violence on Uighur secessionists and virtually cut off western Xinjiang from the outside world: it shut down the Internet, banned text messages and blocked outgoing international telephone calls.

Just outside the airport, we hit a massive traffic jam: the police had set up a roadblock and were checking identifications and searching every car headed into Kashgar. The tension was even more pronounced as we reached the city center. Truckloads of People’s Liberation Army soldiers rumbled down wide boulevards, past an unsightly mélange of billboards, glass-and-steel banks, the high-rise headquarters of China Telecom and a concrete tower called the Barony Tarim Petroleum Hotel. More troops stood vigilant on sidewalks or ate their lunches in small clusters in People’s Square, a huge plaza dominated by a 50-foot-high statue of Chairman Mao, one of the largest still standing in China.

We pulled into the Hotel Seman, an 1890 relic. Pink-and-green molded ceilings, Ottoman-style arched wall niches and dusty Afghan carpets lining dimly lit hallways evoked a distant era. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Russian consulate was located here, lorded over by diplomat Nicholas Petrovsky, who kept 49 Cossack bodyguards. As Russia tried to extend its influence over the region, Petrovsky and his British counterpart, Consul George Macartney, spent decades spying on each other. When the Chinese revolution that put an end to imperial rule and brought Sun Yat-sen to power reached Kashgar in 1912, violence broke out in the streets. “My one thought was that the children and I must be in clean clothes if we were to be murdered,” Macartney’s wife, Lady Catherine, wrote in her diary. “We all appeared at 4:30 a.m. as though we were going to a garden party, in spotless white!” (The family returned safely to England after departing China in 1918.)

The hotel’s glory days were well behind it. In the dusty and empty lobby, a Uighur clerk in traditional brocade dress and head scarf handed us a blank hotel register—foreign visitors had nearly disappeared since the July violence in Urumqi. At a deserted Internet café, the proprietor reassured us that we were not totally incommunicado. “I have a nephew in Xian,” he said. “I can fax him your message, and then he will send it over the Internet to where you want it to go.”

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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