You always remember the first time.
Besides being our first city stop in China, Kashgar (Xinjiang Province) was our first:
- glimpse at the co-existence of Chinese ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese majority
- lesson in the Chinese model of urban development
- observation of the Chinese style of tourism
- read of incomprehensible, but humorous Chinglish (or Ingrish, if you like)
- horror at children’s cut-away/open crotch pants (otherwise known as kaidangku)
- feel for government controlled news in English (thank you, CCTV 9)
- taste of the breadth of Chinese cuisine
- disgust at public spitting
- exhilaration at having an internet connection that worked, followed by the frustration of hitting China’s infamous “Great Firewall” of internet censorship
An Unexpected Highlight
Kashgar’s population is majority Uighur, a Turkic-Muslim group resembling more the people of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan than the rest of China. Because of this, we didn’t expect much in the way of revelation from Kashgar. We expected a repeat of the people, food, and culture that we had experienced in Central Asia.
However, Kashgar surprised us and exceeded our expectations. By itself, it was a fascinating and rich place to visit, one of the highlights from our journey across China. Moreover, it served as a case study in contrast as it showcased China’s struggle between tradition and the government’s urge to modernize.
Animal Markets and Donkey Parking Lots
Kashgar’s Sunday animal market, besides being the one of the city’s most well-known attractions, is also its strongest visible link to the past. As we made our way to the market from Kashgar’s city center, the streets were slowly taken over by herds of goats, camels, donkeys, cows, sheep, and horses. Shepherds and taxi drivers competed for space in an exodus to a football fields-wide dirt square on the outskirts of town.
From 7AM, the entrance to the market was besieged by herds and animal carts. By 9AM, the market inside exhibited a time-tested organization: camels at the entrance, donkeys in the back, sheep and goats in the middle, and a “test-drive” area for horses off to the side. Buyers and sellers mingled among the animals, examining ears, hooves and teeth for signs of health and value. Voices dropped as price negotiations began. Handshakes sealed deals and piles of cash were exchanged, again with a level of secrecy to ensure that the agreed price would remain a mystery. After all, a prized animal could change hands several times before the morning's trading finished.
These scenes are timeless; they’ve played out for centuries.
Later that day, we stopped by Kashgar’s famous central market (also called the Sunday Market), once a major trading post stop along the Silk Road. Outside, fresh vegetable and fruit vendors sold their wares on blankets laid on the ground. Behind them, a veritable parking lot of donkeys, the transport of choice for local farmers, brayed indignantly. We had never seen so many donkeys in our life; we couldn’t help but laugh.
How long will that field be full of braying donkeys rather than the hum of vehicles? Will the animal market shrink and eventually disappear, displaced by more modern means of trade?
The main square of Kashgar’s old town and the Id Kah Mosque form the central meeting point in town for young and old, Uighur and Han. Men with a timeless look, gray beards and embroidered Muslim caps pass away the hours chatting while young Han women pass by in the latest fashions. Souvenir shops and contrived traditional Uighur restaurants line the reconstructed square while a large LED screen entertains children and grandparents alike.
From here, two roads diverge.
One road takes you to Kashgar’s Uighur old town where the aesthetic is dominated by windy streets, signs in Arabic script, and tea houses framed by elegant balconies. Children peek shyly from doorways, and street vendors sell fruits, vegetables and delicious Uighur breads that look suspiciously like bagels.
In the other direction, the new, modern main street – Renmin Xilu – plays host to large shopping centers, banks and hotels. The hustle and bustle is similar to that of the old town, but the aesthetic and atmosphere couldn’t be more different. To make the point, several Uighur grape vendors sell their goods on street corners, looking quaint and increasingly out of place in the shadow of China’s new glass and steel.
The Han Chinese and the Chinese government and the Uighur people historically do not have a particularly warm and trusting relationship. To underscore the point, the government lists several Uighur groups in Xinjiang Province on its terrorist group list and considers them separatists, much like they do the Tibetans.
Despite all this, as the east maxes out in China, Han Chinese continue to move in as the west remains wide open for growth and business opportunities.
A few days later we were lost in a sea of skyscrapers in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s provincial capital. An ethnic Kyrgyz Chinese man approached us to see if we needed help. He had come to Urumqi from his village five years ago to study. We pointed to the tall new buildings that crowded our view and asked if they were here when he arrived.
“No, these are all new from the last five years. The city changes each year.”
A peek into Kashgar’s future?
Probably. Visit Kashgar before its Uighur traditions and already shrinking old town turn from today’s real life nostalgia into a living museum.
Kashgar Travel Information: Accommodation, Transport, Food, Markets
- How to get there: Cross the Torugart or Irkeshtam Pass from Kyrgyzstan. Flight or train (24 hours) from Urumqi. It’s easy to fly to Urumqi from the rest of China.
- Where to stay: We spent our first night in Kashgar at a Pakistani trading hotel across from Seman Binguan. While it was interesting for one night, we don’t recommend it if you want peace and quiet.
- Recommended: Post Hotel at 40 Renmin Xilu for an ADSL internet connection in the room and cleanliness. Negotiate. 120-150 Y for a double room, including a strange and vaguely inedible Chinese breakfast buffet that operates on Beijing time. Compare prices at other Kashgar hotels here.
- Where to eat: Night market across from Id Kah Mosque is the cheapest and best place to sample Uighur specialties like laghman (pulled noodles), nokot chickpea salad and shots of pomegranate juice. Intizar on the corner of Renmin Xilu and Yintizaer streets is another good spot for Uighur food. They serve an especially tasty suoman gush siz (fresh pulled noodles with peppers, tomatoes and spices – particularly good for the vegetarians crowd in Kashgar). The Pakistani restaurant across from Seman Binguan hotel is also tasty and features an interesting crowd.
- What to do: Sunday Animal Market on Kaghgar's outskirts – in our opinion, much more interesting than the regular Sunday Market that’s actually open every day. Take bus 16 from the main square or a taxi for a couple of dollars (15-20 Y). Get lost in the old town by entering from Youmulakexia Lu. We avoided the old town areas that required entrance fees as we didn’t want to encourage any more “Disneyfication” of the old town for the benefit of tourists and travelers like us.