In the months leading up to my travels in China the far western province of Xinjiang had been rocked by a number of attacks. From bombs to stabbings and more recently the killing of the iman outside his mosque in Kashgar it was disturbing and concerning news. I was understandably nervous about travelling in the province and especially about visiting Kashgar
Xinjiang, which literally means “New Frontier,” is the largest region in China, bordering Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The largest ethnic group in Xinjiang are the Muslim, Turkic speaking Uighers and tensions between the Uighers and the Han Chinese have been strained for years. A large increase in Han Chinese migrants has only added to the tensions and the recent attacks have been blamed on Uigher separatists. If you’re interested to know more on Xinjiang I recommend visiting BBC’s Xinjiang profile.
In the far western corner of Xinjiang lies Kashgar, an important trade centre for hundreds of years and another key stop on the Silk Road. It was at Kashgar that the Northern and Southern Silk Roads, which separated at Dunhuang to bypass the great Taklamakan desert, rejoined and linked up with mountain passes heading to Samarkand, Bukhara and Kashmir.
Kashgar is a very long way from everywhere and my train from Turpan took 26 hours to reach the historic trade centre. Evidence of the recent troubles was clear as soon as I arrived with a number of armoured personnel carriers lined up on the main square. Somewhat symbolically a large statue of Mao watched on.
My hostel was tucked away in the old town of Kashgar, a maze of streets and alleys home to the Uigher people. Sadly, very little of the original buildings remain. Rebuilding and restoration is being carried out with great enthusiasm, some say as a way to suppress the Uigher and their culture. While wandering through the back streets I felt I was walking through a huge construction site.
Despite this the old town was still full of colour and vibrant life. The Uigher women were gorgeously and elaborately dressed with lots of colour, sequins, sparkles and general bling! The market had a huge section dedicated to fabrics and I’ve never seen such a riot of colours, designs and sparkles.
The markets also spilt onto the streets with grapes, peaches and melons piled everywhere. Down the street from my hostel I saw sheep waiting to be slaughtered, and occasionally saw the slaughtering taking place right on the street!! Deft butchers also worked on the streets and nearby men sat threading skewer after skewer with fresh meat. Hot, smoking braziers were everywhere and voila your shashlyk (kebab) is ready. The whole food process before your eyes on the street!!
Kashgar is also famous for another market, the Sunday Livestock Bazaar. Every Sunday animals are stuffed into trucks of all shapes and sizes and carted to the market held on the outskirts of town. Its a big dusty affair with sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, horses, yaks and camels all being noisily haggled over by the local men while the animals are often being dragged along by their sellers or purchasers. Absolutely fascinating.
Back in the centre of the old town the night market was THE place to find dinner. Everything from sheep head soup, to noodles and of course shashlyk.
As I prepared to leave Kashgar my thoughts flashed back to my first afternoon in the city. As I wandered down the streets of the old town with a fellow traveller we saw a large group of men walking towards us waving sticks in the air. Protesters? Trouble? Not wanting to risk it we ducked into a side street to hide and wait it out. After waiting a little while without hearing the protesters we nervously left our hiding place. The protesters were exactly where we had last seen them but police had them all lined up in a row. Definitely trouble, but we weren’t keen to find out what exactly what was happening so we turned around and went back the way came. Full of questions of what it was all about and what would happen to the protesters I also wondered what the future held for the fascinating city of Kashgar and for the province as a whole.
I stayed at Kasghar Old Town Youth Hostel. It has a great location in the middle of the old town and is a good place to meet other travellers.
Train from Turpan to Kashgar cost RMB484.50 for a soft sleeper.