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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It didn’t take long before I—as one of the few foreigners then visiting Kashgar—came to the attention of Chinese authorities. At about 9 p.m. on my second night in Kashgar, there was a knock on my hotel room door. I opened it to confront two uniformed Han police officers, accompanied by the hotel manager. “Let me see your passport,” one officer said in English. He rifled through the pages.

“Your camera,” he said.

I retrieved it from my knapsack and displayed the digital photographs one by one—scenes from the Sunday animal market, where Uighurs from rural Xinjiang meet to buy and sell donkeys, sheep, camels and goats; shots taken in the alleys of the Old City. Then I came to a picture of a half-collapsed house, mud walls sagging, tile roof disintegrating—belying the image of burgeoning prosperity that China projects to the world.

“Remove the picture,” a police officer commanded.

“Excuse me?”

He tapped his finger on the screen.

“Remove it.”

Shrugging, I deleted the photo.

Mahmati, meanwhile, had been taken to the first floor of the hotel for interrogation. At midnight, he called me on his cellphone to say, in a quavering voice, that he was being taken to Kashgar’s security headquarters.

“It’s because he is a Uighur,” Ling said bitterly. “The Chinese single them out for special treatment.”

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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