The remoteness of Uyghur-dominated KASHGAR is palpable. Set astride overland routes to Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan, the city is over 4000km from Beijing, with the last thousand kilometres from Ürümqi for the most part uninhabitable desert: indeed, part of the excitement of Kashgar lies in the experience of reaching it. The distinctively Central Asian air to the old city’s mosques and markets makes it a visible bastion of old Chinese Turkestan – the muezzin’s call booms out across the city, and each evening the desert air is scented and blurred by the smoke of roasting lamb.
Increasingly, however, this is a bastion under siege. Han Chinese have relocated here in their thousands, and much of the old town has been ripped up and rebuilt – just a few small areas of the original buildings have been preserved as tourist attractions. The locals are understandably angry: Kashgar is the focal point of tensions between the Han and Uyghur peoples, as made painfully clear by the city’s ubiquitous security personnel – both in uniform and undercover.
Nonetheless, the city remains well worth a visit; its population remains 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 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. 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.