Uyghur men in Kashgar souk
Uyghur men in Kashgar souk

By Alison Bate

When I visited Kashgar just over three years ago, I was disappointed at first.

The road in from the airport passed concrete roundabouts and boring buildings typical of the modern Han Chinese city. There was even a giant Mao statue close to the bus station.

Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque in winter
Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque in winter

While Kashgar – or Kashi as the Han Chinese call it – is inside China, people don’t visit the city to see its Chinese culture. 

Like me, they come to see the ancient Silk Road city famous for its Uyghur market, rabbit-warren streets, donkey carts and the largest mosque in China.

The Uyghurs are Muslims speaking a language similar to Turkish, and their way of living is totally different from the Han Chinese. They eat nan bread rather than rice, don’t drink (or aren’t supposed to) and in their traditional homes, sleep and entertain on raised areas covered in carpets. And the city, close to the border with Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan, is surrounded by barren mountains that have more in common with central Asia and Mongolia than anywhere else.

Three years ago, even though some of Kashgar’s charm was already being whittled away, there was still a solid core of traditional streets, mosques and artisan shops.

But now the whole ancient core is being bulldozed, according to a New York Times report last week. Authorities say that demolition is needed because an earthquake could strike at any time, collapsing centuries-old buildings and killing thousands.

The irony of destroying a historic city to make it safer is not lost on the New York Times, which headlines the story: “To Protect an Ancient City, China Moves to Raze It”.

Having travelled around a lot of western China as well as Tibet, it’s easy to see that the Chinese authorities have a standard blueprint of what to do with a old city. They clear out any traditional ethnic buildings in the city centre, and replace them with a People’s Square, police station and boring apartment buildings.

What’s happening in Kashgar follows a well-established Chinese pattern, and to be fair, the Chinese authorities apply it to cities with a Han Chinese majority as well.

Whether the decision to raze Kashgar is political or simply the Chinese passion for replacing the old with the new, the end result is nothing less than tragic.

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