2000 years gone missing
Kashgar: the mere sound of this name incites allusions of the exotic Central Asia, imagining adobe built market towns with magnificient mosques, colorful bazaars and dusty roads, crowded with people, camels and donkey carriages.
Kashgar (Kāshí in Mandarin), the capital of Kashgaria region, is the heartland of the Uighur people and culture and had been the capital of the short-lived independent Uighur state of the East Turkistan Republic – said to be a Soviet-backed puppet Communist state – proclaimed in 1944 and lasting merely until 1949, when Mao declared the People’s Republic of China on October 1st and integrated Xīnjiāng as an autonomous region.
The Old Town of Kashgar, with its more than 65,000, Casbah-like adobe houses built into a labyrinth of narrow streets and roof terraces, looks back on roughly 2000 years of history – since it has first been mentioned in written form during the Chinese Han dynasty. It earned the reputation of being “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia” and has been a symbol of Uighur resistance and underground separatist movements from the People’s Republic.
In 2006, Kashgar became present in Western minds for starring as scenery for the Kite Runner, a movie adapting the prizewinning novel by Khaled Hosseini, to represent the ancient Afghan town of Peshawar.
Bearing this background in mind, it is beyond comprehension to what extent the images of the ancient town of Kashgar recorded then gained importance and value today: following the violent clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi in 2009, which left more than 100 people dead, the Chinese government decided upon a profound restructuring program affecting the old town of Kashgar – which basically meant tearing down the entire area and replacing the traditional houses by new ones.
Officially, the program is justified as crucial to increasing life quality of the residents, by improving sanitation facilities and safety standards in case of seismic activity, frequently experienced in the region. Under the surface, one main target of the restructuring plan was to destroy both physical operation cells and symbolic strength of the Uighur underground, replacing a labyrinth of hundreds of narrow alleys by one completely mapped and thus transparently organized housing district. (For further reading, a New York times article, published shortly after the Kunming knife attack in March, sums up the situation quite sensitively.)
The side effect of destroying more than 2000 years of history seems to have been readily accepted by officials, but when we arrived to the center of Kashgar we faced a city that appeared to have had its heart ripped out.
It had been our last train journey in China, 24 hours from Turpan to Kashgar. Turpan train station was built during Russian occupation and is unhandily 50 km outside the city, obliging you to shared taxi ride through the picturesque surrounding of traditional villages, green grapevines and red rock formations. It would also be our longest train journey during the entire China trip, as due to a sandstorm our train was 4 hours late and additionally took 4 further hours travel time, which made us spend 30 hours on the entire journey.
At the beginning we were not that bothered, as the journey led us through a breathtaking, sunny mountain scenery inside the Tian Shan range. On the following morning, however, Kashgar welcame us with thick dust in the air, which totally obstructed the landscape on the way and also somehow emphasize the sadness of the arquitectural picture we were going to encounter in the old city.
Although many aspects of the city we expected turned out to be differently in reality, one expectation was completely satisfied: by entering Kashgar’s old town, we felt we had left China.
The street picture in front of our eyes was completely different, starting from the peoples’ clothing – obviously inspired by the the Islam influenced culture – the things sold on the markets, the smells in the air, the chants of the central Id Kah Mosque – the largest mosque in China and it was just in front of our hostel – and most particularly: the food. Streets were crowded and chaotic, lined with bazaars and stalls selling the small and large sized mutton empanadas, numerous types of bread, mutton kebab or fruit – both in dried of natural version.
As we had arrived on a Thursday, we had the chance to experience how on Friday at 1 pm, for two hours men left their stalls and shops to the surveillance of women and children to line up inside and in front the the mosques, each one carrying a small prayer carpet – and the whole city seemed to stand still during the prayers.
The liveliness could however not belie that something was going on, profoundly changing – and not for the better. The streets were filled with the sounds of drilling and chiseling, the smell of new paint and crumbled adobe walls. Parts of the old districts were already fully reconstructed, with the new house fronts and standardized labeling of the shopfronts in Uighur, Mandarin and English proudly shining in the sunlight, while walking through the narrow alleyways, around the newly teared down houses, one had the feeling of visiting a city after a war battle. The air was filled with a melancholic atmosphere, as if behind the shiny new house fronts the soul of the city had lost its home.
Only one stand-alone piece of the old city was left, converted in something like a Uighur culture showroom for tourists, with Mandarin and English signs explaining the style of the houses, the building material and the traditional handicrafts people would engage in. Few people were still living there, with most house entries padlocked but some firm souls remained and did their best to maintain the mystique of the narrow alleys – and how could this be done better as with a jam session of Uighur folk music!
We experienced most Uighur people to be quite friendly with us, their community however appeared to be a quite closed one, with foreigners being allowed to look around, but are preferred not to come too close. When compared to other parts of China, the atmosphere was less welcoming and a little tense, with many people’s look at us giving the impression they felt each outsider was a potential threat – which, given their history of decades as a minority culture under Chinese rule, is actually more than understandable.
To get a glimpse at the surroundings we spent the Saturday afternoon in a small village about 25 km outside Kashgar, where they were having kind of a mini version of the famous Sunday livestock market in Kashgar (that we were going to visit the following day).
The market was both a dusty and quite masculine business, where everyone eager to participate in the trading brings his sheep, cattle or goat to the crowded market place, lined with food stalls selling mutton soup and empanadas, where they are tied up, weighted, shorn to highlight the constitution of the main meat parts and shown around to the interested costumers.
The big Livestock market outside Kashgar follows more or less the same principle, just that it is, obviously, much bigger in size and sellers offers a larger variety of animals.
Visiting the livestock market isn’t a pleasure for sensitive souls or animal friends, as the treatment of the animals is everything else than careful, with muttons being pushed and pulled around or tied up in front of the barbecue for hours, waiting for their turn to be eaten, a totally tied-up donkey getting its hooves cut so excessively that blood was spreading out of them and the poor animal’s eyes were wide open and filled with pain, stubborn cattle beaten up until they are willing to follow the lead of their new owner, a camel not willing to jump on the platform of a pick-up truck left with huge bloody wounds on its legs, horses left with blooding mouth corners from their unable riders pulling the reins so excessively.
I doubt that inside a German slaughterhouse the treatment would be any softer, but it was painful to watch it and a moment where I realized that given my emotional attitude towards any kind of animal, it would be most honest to finally discipline myself an stop eating meat.