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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To tour the back streets of the Old City, Mahmati, Ling and I took a taxi to the Kashgar River, the murky waterway that divides Kashgar, and climbed to a hive of mud-brick buildings hugging a hillside. As the din of the modern city dropped away, we turned a corner and entered a world of monochromatic browns and beiges, gloom and dust, mosques on nearly every corner (162 at last count) and the occasional motor scooter putt-putting though the alleys. A team of Chinese officials carrying briefcases and notepads squeezed past us in one lane. “Are you going out on a tourist excursion?” one of them, a middle-aged woman, asked, and Mahmati and Ling nodded nervously; both surmised the officials were taking a door-to-door survey of the neighborhood’s families in anticipation of evicting them.

In an alley bathed in the perpetual shadow of vaulted archways, we fell into conversation with a man whom I’ll call Abdullah. A handsome figure with an embroidered cap, gray mustache and piercing green eyes, he was standing outside the bright green door to his home, chatting with two neighbors. Abdullah sells mattresses and clothing near the Id -Kah Mosque, the city’s grandest. During the past few years, he told us, he had watched the Chinese government chip away at the Old City—knocking down the ancient 35-foot-high earthen berm that surrounded it, creating wide boulevards through dense warrens of homes, putting up an asphalt plaza in place of a colorful bazaar in front of the mosque. Abdullah’s neighborhood was next. Two months before, officials told residents that they would be relocated in March or April. “The government says the walls are weak, it will not survive an earthquake, but it is absolutely strong enough,” Abdullah told us. “We don’t want to leave, it is history—ancient tradition. But we can’t stop it.”

He led us through the courtyard of his home, filled with drying laundry and potted roses, and up a rickety flight of stairs to a balustraded second-floor landing. I could reach out and practically touch the mottled tan house across the alley. I stood on the wooden balcony and took in the scene: head-scarfed women in a lushly carpeted salon on the ground floor; a group of men huddled behind a half-closed curtain just across the balcony. The men were Abdullah’s neighbors who had gathered to discuss the eviction. “We don’t know where we’re going to be moved to, we have no idea,” one of them told me. “Nobody here wants to move.”

Another man weighed in: “They say they are going to rebuild the place better. Who designs it? Nothing is clear.”

Abdullah said he was told that homeowners would be able to redesign their own dwellings and the government would pay 40 percent. But one of his neighbors shook his head. “It has never happened before in China,” he said.

One evening, Mahmati took me to a popular Uighur restaurant in Kashgar. Behind closed doors in a private room, he introduced me to several of his friends—Uighur men in their mid-20s. As a group they were angry about tight surveillance by Chinese security forces and inequalities in education, jobs and land distribution. “We have no power. We have no rights,” a man I’ll call Obul told me over a dinner of lamb kebabs and cabbage dumplings.

In 1997, Chinese troops in the Xinjiang town of Ghulja fired on protesting Uighur students waving the flags of East Turkestan, killing an unknown number. Then, following the 9/11 attacks, the Chinese persuaded the United States to list a secessionist group calling itself the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization, claiming it had ties to Al Qaeda.

During the American-led offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistani bounty hunters captured 22 Uighurs on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The prisoners were turned over to the U.S. military, which incarcerated them at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Bush administration eventually released five to Albania and four to Bermuda. Six were granted asylum on the South Pacific island of Palau this past October. Seven Uighurs remain at Guantanamo, with ongoing litigation about whether they can be released in this country. (The federal government has determined that they pose no threat to the United States.) The Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case.

Just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government claims, two Uighurs driving a truck deliberately slammed into a column of Chinese paramilitary police jogging through the streets of Kashgar, killing 16 of them. (Eyewitness accounts from foreign tourists cast doubt on whether this was intentional.) In the following days, a few explosives went off 460 miles south of Urumqi, in the city of Kuqa, presumably the work of Uighur nationalists. But, says Bequelin of Human Rights Watch, “these are small groups with no coordination, no international support. They have no access to weapons, no training.” The Chinese cracked down on all Uighurs, shuttering Islamic schools and tightening security.

One of the men at dinner that night told me that after he went to Mecca for the hajj, the annual holy pilgrimage, in 2006, he was interrogated by Chinese intelligence agents and ordered to surrender his passport. “If you are a Uighur and you need a passport for business purposes, you must pay 50,000 yuan (about $7,500),” another dinner guest told me. Ling suggested that the Uighurs were partly to blame for their problems, saying they didn’t value education and their children had suffered for it. Obul acknowledged the point, but said it was too late for reconciliation with the Han majority and the Chinese government. “For us,” he said, “the most important word is ‘independence.’”

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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