“Just another Chinese city” is what we were expecting. Yes, the name is exotic; yes, it is in the furthest reaches of western China; yes, it is populated largely by Uyghurs and not Han Chinese. But we knew that we were arriving many years too late. We had heard that the Sunday market is nothing like it used to be, now housed in purpose-built buildings. We heard that the Chinese economic miracle had reached this far, and along with it settlement (colonization?) by Han Chinese. Our expectations were low–not that we have a low opinion of Chinese cities, but we’ve seen many before, and didn’t expect to see much that was new or exciting in Kashgar.

While Kashgar is definitely part of 21st century China, the city proved a much more colorful and interesting destination than we imagined.

Perhaps obviously, the greatest factor in making Kashgar so unique, so different from the rest of China, is its Uyghur population. The most obvious difference is simply visual–the Uyghurs don’t look Chinese. In fact, even though I knew that the Uyghurs were a Central Asian Turkic people, I was surprised at how un-Chinese, un-east Asian they look, especially compared to their western neighbors the Kyrgyz, who look for the most part Chinese/Mongol. Moving east from Kyrgyzstan to Xinjiang, it is jarring to see how un-Chinese, how “white” if you will, Uyghurs are in appearance. It is a constant reminder that you’re not in the China with which you are familiar. [Additional portraits to come in a post on faces of Muslim China.]

Of course, the distinctive Uyghur identity is not merely facial features, but culture and lifestyle. What is visible everywhere in the Uyghur parts of Kashgar is a vibrant Central Asian culture, similar to what you see in the most traditional parts of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, and somewhat more traditional than what you see in the other Central Asian republics.

Men hang out in teahouses, drinking tea and chatting with friends.

Like in other parts of Central Asia, melons are everywhere. In Kashgar, they are conveniently sold by the slice.

Religious observance was suprisingly visible as well, here in Communist China. We saw women on the street in levels of cover greater than in the Stans, and numerous mosques and shrines.

Id Kah Mosque

Abakh Hoja Tomb

Tourism has supported crafts such that the art of Uyghur instrument production is clearly thriving, possibly to a greater extent than ever before.

Uyghur cuisine is essentially identical to that of the rest of Central Asia, although infinitely better prepared and tastier. (See post of 7.5.) The prints that appear on the local fabrics are identical to that seen in other parts of Central Asia. When we showed a local man pictures on our iPod, he clucked his tongue in appreciation just like the hosts of our Bukhara bed and breakfast. It almost makes you wonder–how did these people end up becoming Chinese?

Admittedly, much of Kashgar has been destroyed and rebuilt in recent years. The area immediately surrounding the Id Kah Mosque, for example, is a distastefully and sadly Disneyfied vision of Uyghur architecture. However, just a few blocks away lie genuinely old neighborhoods–if not ancient at least still in their traditional layout and form.

The center of the commercial part of the old town

The best preserved portions of the old city, now admission-charging tourist sites, but still real neighborhoods nonetheless

One thing that preserves the foreignness of Kashgar, I think, is the segregation between the Han and the Uyghurs. In the old town, there is often not a single Han Chinese in sight, while in the newer parts of town one sees few Uyghurs. The newer, Han areas of Kashgar do indeed look like “any other city in China.”

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