Old Kashgar: The Historic Silk Road City Being Demolished By Beijing

Statue of Mao in the oasis city of KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
A statue of Chairman Mao looms over Kashgar.

The city of Kashgar lies in the Taklaman Desert, and “Taklamakan” is said to translate as “go in and you won’t come out,” or the “desert of death.” Situated in the Xinjiang region of China, close to the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan borders in the extreme west of the country, Kashgar is surrounded by dust, sand and mountains. Yet despite its remote location, the city, a desert oasis along the Silk Road, has been drawing travelers for centuries. These days, visitors come to experience the historical architecture and ancient way of life still enjoyed by the city – but not for much longer.

Mountains around KashgarPhoto: Lightsauce
Mountains outside the city

Today, there’s disquiet in Kashgar between the ethnic Uyghur population and the Beijing-based Chinese government. Uluc Kecik, who most of these photos are by, says the pictures were taken shortly after a period of civil unrest in July 2009. It was a time when journalists weren’t welcome in the city, and according to Kecik, the photographs “are far from depicting the pressures and discriminations that Uyghur people are facing – given the hide and seek I had to play during my stay.”

Baby cradle and gunPhoto: Uluc Kecik
A gun lies worryingly within a baby’s cradle in this house.

The Uyghur people that Kecik speaks of are the Turkic-speaking Muslims. Since the city is located so far from Beijing and is very close to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Uyghur way of life is very different to that of the Han Chinese (China’s majority population). Many fear that the Uyghur are in danger of losing their culture under the weight of China’s efforts to modernize and integrate this part of the country.

Busy road in oasis city KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
A busy Kashgar road

In the 13th century, Marco Polo described the then Mongol-ruled Kashgar people thus: “The people are for the most part idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and Saracens… the inhabitants live by trade and industry. They have fine orchards and vineyards and flourishing estates.”

Grilling meatPhoto: Uluc Kecik
Grilling meat

“Cotton grows here in plenty, besides flax and hemp,” wrote Polo, again referring to the city of Kashgar. “The soil is fertile and productive of all the means of life. The country is the starting point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world.”

Cattle pen in KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
A livestock market in Kashgar

Some aspects of life for Kashgar’s Uyghur population are not so different today than they were when Polo visited more than 700 years ago. Sheep and cattle are still sold at the city’s livestock market, carpets are traded, and food stalls sell meat grilled over open flames.

Cattle in KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
All tied up

Trade is still popular in Kashgar, although of course the nature of some of the goods on sale has changed since Polo’s visit. Today, refrigerators, televisions and imported cosmetics are available at the bazaar.

Mud buildings in KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
The old mud brick buildings of Kashgar

The older part of the city still maintains the medieval atmosphere that has made Kashgar a popular tourist attraction. Mud brick buildings and historical mosques line narrow streets that were designed for camels and donkeys rather than cars. Wandering these cobbled pathways, it must be easy to imagine that you have somehow crossed over into a tale from the Arabian Nights.

Column detail in KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
An intricately carved decoration

Kashgar’s Old World charm may not last much longer, however. The government is determined to turn the dusty desert oasis into a modern Chinese city. It is thought that 85 percent of the old mud brick buildings are scheduled for demolition. Understandably, these plans have been met with local and international opposition.

Kashgar buildingsPhoto: Lightsauce
Kashgar’s doomed heritage buildings

One of the government’s justifications for razing the ancient buildings is safety. Officials argue that the old architecture is not capable of withstanding earthquakes and other disasters. However, since the mud brick constructions have lasted this long, some are skeptical that this is the true reason the Uyghur people’s houses are being bulldozed. They believe the demolitions are part of China’s attempt to suppress Uyghur culture and wield tighter control over the area.

Outdoor barbers in KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
Barbers working outdoors

On August 4, 2008, two men are alleged to have driven a truck into a large group of Chinese police officers. According to government sources, the pair attacked the officers with grenades and machetes, killing 16 of them. While Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists, foreign witnesses say that the attackers were themselves uniformed officers. Some believe that the incident was manipulated in order to further crack down on dissenting Uyghur people.

Children in KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
Uyghur children

Then in 2009, the Xinjiang capital city of Urumqi witnessed a Uyghur riot that resulted in the death of some 197 people. Although the Chinese government says that the violence was perpetrated against Han Chinese, Uyghur activists claim it was the result of frustration at official discrimination that has denied them of their livelihoods and threatened their language and religion.

Child and barber in KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
A barber works while a child eats in the foreground

Following the riots in Urumqi, it’s claimed that the demolition process has only sped up in Kashgar. The residents of these razed buildings, up to 220,000 people, are being moved to new housing projects five miles away from their ancestral homes. Suggestions made by Chinese city planners that the buildings be renovated and reinforced rather than knocked down have so far fallen on deaf ears.

New construction in oasis city of KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
New construction visible beyond a broken mud brick wall

In 2008, in his book Kashgar: Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road, architect and historian George Mitchell described Kashgar as the “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.” However, the old city was noticeably not included on China’s list of suggested Silk Road sites for UNESCO World Heritage Status. An international coalition is trying to appeal to UNESCO directly, but it’s unlikely that they will be able to help.

Decorative doors in KashgarPhoto: Uluc Kecik
Decorative wooden doors in Kashgar

Kashgar is a city that has endured centuries of invasions, but few are hopeful that the buildings and culture of the Uyghur people will be able to withstand the current development policies imposed by Beijing.

While the Chinese government says that the changes are necessary to improve the quality of life for Kashgar’s residents, the disappearance of the old mud brick structures will be a tragic loss.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10