Nestled at the crossroads of history, culture and trade, the city of Kashgar, also known as Kashi, in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, has been a jewel on the Silk Road for over two millennia. Fortunate enough to have roamed its storied streets, I can testify how the past and present coalesce in a harmonious tapestry in this bustling oasis.
Kashgar finds its place in the westernmost reaches of the Tarim Basin. It is, in fact, the most western major city in China. Bordered by Krygyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and nourished by three rivers — Kashgar, Gezdarya and Hantereksu — the city is enveloped by the Tien Shan Mountains to the north, the Kun-Lun Mountains to the south and the Pamir Mountains to the west, while to the east lies the Taklamakan Desert.
While the climate is relatively arid, the loess and alluvial soils give Kashgar some of the most fertile lands in all of Xinjiang, yielding a diverse range of crops such as wheat, maize, barley and rice. Additionally, the oasis is renowned for its orchards, bearing fruits like melons, grapes, peaches, apricots and pomegranate.
1. Of trade and culture
Positioned at the crossroads of the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road, merchants and travelers from Asia and Europe converged in Kashgar 2100 years ago. Whether they crossed the Pamirs from the west or traversed the Taklamakan Desert to the east, Kashgar was their ideal rest stop and trade hub. This melding of influences is evident in the city’s architecture, a mesmerizing blend of Central Asian charm and traces of ancient Roman aesthetics.
This enduring legacy has earned Kashgar the title of a millennium-old city, embodying the essence of Uyghur folk customs, culture, art, architecture and traditional economy.
2. The new Old City
The Old Cityin Kashgar spans approximately 2 kilometers in both length and width and has undergone significant changes in recent years. Large-scale reconstruction started in 2009, aiming to modernize the area for tourism, improving the living conditions of locals and addressing safety concerns in the event of an earthquake. After the Wenchuan Earthquake on May 12, 2008, the Autonomous Region put the transformarion of the old town at the top of the agenda. The project involved the renovation of nearly 50,000 households with a total investment of more than 7 billion yuan (about 900 million euros).
A visit to the Kashi Old City Comprehensive Protection and Management Memorial Hall was a great way to get an insight of what the city looked like before the renovation, why the necessity for such a deep transformation arose, as well as how the project was implemented.
The ambitious project has yielded a “new” Old City, a fusion of old-world charm and contemporary convenience. A labyrinth of winding streets gave place to a blend of midrise apartments, spacious plazas, larger avenues, in a style that recreates the ancient Islamic architecture. Even so, a lot of small lanes still crisscross the Old City and the charm behind getting lost while exploring all the small alleys filled with mud-thatched buildings still lies there. Vibrant walls, graceful round arches, exquisitely crafted doors and ornate windows provide an enchanting backdrop for photography endeavors.
With the rise of tourism to the city it’s uncertain to determine how many people live here. A lot of the homeowners live outside of the city, using their homes for tourism purposes and businesses, like traditional local houses open for visitors to step in and enjoy tea, singing and dancing, and store fronts, which they operate.
Beyond its architectural allure, the Old City boasts a variety of distinctive shops lining its streets, each offering a unique theme. The bazaar culture in Kashgar is impressive and after being remodeled, the Old City is a vast example of it, serving as a testament to the vibrant folk crafts and art of the Uyghur, at, among others, the Cantuman Bazaar (Blacksmith Street), Dopa Bazaar (Flower & Hat Street), Flowerpot Bazaar, Gourmet Bazaar, Handcraft Bazaar and Pottery Bazaar.
Furthermore, vendors peddling delectable local snacks, such as succulent grapes, Nang (Uyghur bread, more widely known as naan bread) and tantalizing goat milk ice cream, provide a delightful culinary experience amid shopping adventures. One cannot visit Kashgar without sampling the local delicacies and, in particular, the beloved pomegranate.
The Uyghur people have an innate talent for music and dance, which is showcased in the city’s traditional musical instrument shops.
Strolling through the Old City streets, you’ll witness elderly individuals basking in the sun while children frolic about. It might be a rebuilt city, but the enduring authenticity of its people, cuisine, clothing and language is a testament to their commitment to preserving their rich history and they make Kashgar Old City an embodiment of tradition and heritage.
3. Id Kah Mosque
One of Kashgar’s main tourist attractions is the Id Kah Mosque, an architectural marvel that holds the distinction of being the largest mosque in all of China. It was built in 1442 by order of the then-Governor of the city, Shakessimirdzhi, and its name in Persian means “festive”.
With an area of 16,800 square meters and an impressive capacity for up to 20,000 worshippers, the mosque’s intricate design, yellow-glazed tiles and graceful minarets reflect its Central Asian influence. During holidays, the Id Kah Mosque transforms into a pilgrimage site, drawing in an astounding 100,000 devoted believers. The mosque’s aesthetic charm extends to its three minarets; two grace the corners of the entrance arch, while the third stands tall above the central dome.
Within the mosque’s interior, an elegant simplicity prevails. A central wall, serving as a metaphorical “throne”, provides a focal point for the Imam to lead the congregation in prayer.
Given its status as an active place of worship, our tour, such as others, was conducted during inter-prayer intervals. We were lucky enough to be guided through by Mamat Juma, the Iman of the mosque himself.
Kashgar, with its rich tapestry of history and culture, invites visitors to step into a living time machine. It is a city where the echoes of the Silk Road still reverberate, where the past and present coexist in harmony and where the enduring spirit of heritage continues to captivate the hearts of those who journey to this timeless corner of Xinjiang.