Some 1200m above sea level and almost as far west as you can possibly go in China, Uyghur-dominated KASHGAR (喀什, kèshí) has long been one of the most fascinating parts of the country. Its remoteness is palpable, as is a distinctively Central Asian air that makes it a visible bastion of old Chinese Turkestan – minarets pierce the horizon in their hundreds, and each evening the desert air is scented and blurred by the smoke of barbecued lamb. Set astride overland routes to Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan, the city is more than 4000km from Beijing, of which the thousand-plus kilometres from Ürümqi are for the most part sheer desert. Indeed, a large part of the excitement lies in the experience of reaching it – even the plane journey in is nothing short of spectacular. Yet Kashgar is a remarkably prosperous and pleasant place, despite being, in part, an essentially medieval city.
Part of this prosperity has come at a price. Han Chinese have relocated here in the thousands, and almost all of the old town has been ripped up, traditional housing and all, with residents moved to modern high-rises on the city limits; even more galling, some of the old areas are being preserved as tourist attractions, meaning that the Muslim population may soon have to pay to see their own culture. The locals are understandably angry: Kashgar is the focal point of the tense standoff between the Han and Uyghur peoples, as made painfully clear by the security personnel – both in uniform and undercover – ubiquitous around the city.
Combined with the enforced dilution of its distinctive culture, this inter-ethnic strife means that Kashgar, long a popular stop on the backpacker trail, is now on the wane as a tourist destination. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the locals, whose generous hospitality lingers in the heart of many a traveller. Nonetheless, their city remains well worth a visit; despite Han migration, its population is still overwhelmingly Muslim, a fact you can hardly fail to notice with the great Id Kah Mosque dominating the central square, the Uyghur bazaars and teashops, the smell of grilled lamb and, above all, the faces of the Turkic people around you. If you can choose a time to be here, aim for the Uyghur Corban festival at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan, which involves activities such as dancing and goat-tussling; something similar occurs exactly two months later. Whatever time of year you visit, don’t miss Kashgar’s Sunday market, for which half of Central Asia seems to converge on the city.
Kashgar’s strategic position has determined its history. There was already a Chinese military governor here when Xuanzang passed through on his way back from India in 644. The city was Buddhist at the time, with hundreds of monasteries; Islam made inroads around 1000 and eventually became the state religion. More recently, the late nineteenth century saw Kashgar at the meeting point of three empires – Chinese, Soviet and British. Both Britain and the Soviet Union maintained consulates in Kashgar until 1949: the British with an eye to their interests across the frontier in India, the Soviets (so everyone assumed) with the long-term intention of absorbing Xinjiang into their Central Asian orbit. The conspiracies of this period are brilliantly evoked in Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary ( for review) and Ella Maillart’s Forbidden Journey. At the time of Fleming’s visit in 1935, the city was in effect run by the Soviets, who had brought their rail line to within two days’ worth of travel to Kashgar. During World War II, however, Kashgar swung back under Chinese control, and with the break in Sino-Soviet relations in the early 1960s, the Soviet border (and influence) firmly closed. In the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, it seemed that Kashgar would resume its status as one of the great travel crossroads of Asia, but this recovery sadly stalled after the conflict in Afghanistan, then went into decline during the troubles of 2008 and 2009. The town is still experiencing something of a downturn, with neither traders nor tourists as plentiful as they once were.