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 was long past midnight when Mahmati returned. The police had questioned him for two hours about his relationship with Ling and me and had asked him to account for all the time we had spent together. Then they made Mahmati provide names, addresses and phone numbers for every member of his family in Kashgar, and warned him not to enter the “forbidden area” again—apparently the part of the Old City not designated a tourist zone. “They demanded to know the real reason for our journey. But I didn’t tell them anything,” he said.

On one of our last days in Kashgar, Mahmati, Ling and I took a government-licensed tour through a tiny section of the Old City—about 10 percent of it—for 30 yuan (about $4.40). Here was a glimpse of the sanitized future that the Chinese government apparently envisions: a Uighur woman clad in a green vest and long blue skirt led us past re­constructed houses adorned with clean ceramic tiles, handicraft shops and cafés offering Western-style food—a tidy, highly commercialized version of the Old City. She kept up a cheerful patter about the “warm relations” among “all of China’s peoples.”

But under Mahmati’s gentle questioning, our guide began to express less charitable feelings toward the Chinese government. It had refused to allow her to wear a head covering on the job, she said, and had denied her permission to take breaks for prayer. I asked her whether the area we were walking through would be spared the wrecking ball. She looked at me and paused before answering. “If the customer asks, we are supposed to say it will not be destroyed,” she finally answered, “but they will destroy it with everything else.” For a moment she let her anger show. Then she composed herself and said goodbye. We left her standing on the street, below a banner that declared, in English: “Ancient residence, a slice of the real Kashgar.”

Writer Joshua Hammer lives in Berlin. Michael Christopher Brown travels the world on assignment.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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