Kashgar, the jewel of the Silk Road

ethnic china

Kashgar, the jewel of the Silk Road

Those who prepare a trip to the Chinese Silk Road suddenly discover that among the recommended places, there is one at a considerable distance from all the others. It is the city of Kashgar and anyone who takes a trip following the famous trade route, leaving China for the West, would find that Kashgar is the last big city before leaving the border.

And given the distance that separates it from other points of interest, you may be in doubt as to whether you should visit it or not. Yes. Kashgar must be visited. A trip to the Silk Road without visiting Kashgar is like half a trip, and if by some of the many circumstances that sometimes force us to shorten the duration of the trips, someone does not visit it, let them know that they have half of the Silk Road left. Well, Kashgar is the most interesting city of the tour and one of the myths of every traveler. 

Those who travel short of time, which is normal in journeys along this immense Silk Road, usually go by plane from Urumqi, and return by plane as well. My proposal for travelers and groups who have more time is to cross the mythical Taklamakan desert, and visit Hotan, Yarkhand and end up in Kashgar, which will allow to know the great desert and the complex system of desert and oasis on its southern edge, with some brief views of the life of local people.

The city

The city of Kashgar is in the middle of a great oasis, surrounded by fertile lands that the Uyghurs, its traditional inhabitants, cultivate intensely, especially wheat and fruit trees, but separated from the rest of the world by long stretches of desert and scary mountains. This has turned the city into two apparently contradictory human projects.

On the one hand in a closed and self-contained universe, that of the local peasants who have lived in the surrounding countryside since time immemorial, and on the other hand in a cosmopolitan stopover on the trade routes that cross Central Asia. For Kashgar is not only an important stop on the Silk Road, but also on the roads that communicate with Pakistan, and communicated through this country, with that India from whose culture Chinese Buddhism was nourished.

As a result, although we have said that the traditional inhabitants of Kashgar are the Uighurs, representatives of Xinjiang’s major minorities and citizens of neighboring countries are to be found in its streets, squares and mosques, especially recognizable are the Pakistani merchants in their traditional dress. It is clear that Kashgar is a Uyghur city and is at the same time a border city (well, a few hundred kilometers from Pakistan and Tajikistan), where Uyghurs, Chinese, Kyrgyz and Tajiks live together, with traders coming from Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Despite all these human and historical ups and downs, the city has managed to preserve its historical legacy with greater zeal, and it is a city where traditions that have already disappeared in the rest of the world are kept alive. And I speak of ups and downs because Kashgar has always been in a somewhat unstable situation, reflecting the tensions between the central state and minorities, and between China and its powerful neighbors. Kashgar was a nest of spies at the time of the «Great Game» when England and Russia were competing for dominance in Central Asia.

kashgar

The streets of Kashgar

That explains why the city stands out, besides for the two great monuments that we will mention later, for its old neighborhoods, those labyrinths of yellow and dusty streets, its mosques, its cafes, its stores of traditional products. By a series of human entities that give it a unique air, which transmits to the traveler that pleasant sensation of having reached, at last, one of the really original points of our planet.

As I wrote in the little book I wrote for the magazine Viajar sobre la Ruta de la Seda: «In contrast to those lost cities and capitals invaded by the desert, Kashgar is life, the cashba, the great oasis, the fruit trees, the narrow streets, the present. Kashgar symbolizes the other aspect of the Silk Road, the frontier, the movement of people and goods, the caravans that come and go, the big markets and the continuous bustle; in its streets we find people coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajidistan, and who knows how many other places, as formerly could be discovered travelers coming from India, Persia, Syria, Constantinople and the distant Rome».

In its cafes and markets you can also hear languages that testify to the commercial and human flourishing of this oasis located in the extreme west of China.

Idkah Mosque

The Idkah Mosque, located in the center of the city, is the most famous monument, and the first one that travelers usually visit. It is the oldest monument in the city, as it was originally built in the 15th century, in 1442. It is the largest one, as it is 140 meters long and 120 meters wide, and has a surface area of 16,800 m2, and is the most culturally important one.

The mosque has a large garden of centennial trees, and on its western side is the prayer room.  This hall, supported by 140 large green pillars, is one of the largest Muslim prayer rooms, being 140 meters long and 19 meters wide.

But at the same time the mosque is the natural center of the old city. In front of it there is a big square, behind the square streets with a little modern constructions, always animated with a unique flavor. Behind the Mosque is the maze of streets common to other Muslim communities, but unique in China.  This is not the only traditional neighborhood in the city, but it is undoubtedly the most charismatic and the one that best seduces the traveler with its magic.

The Tomb of Apark Khoja

The Apark KhojaTomb is the most beautiful single building that can be seen on the Chinese Silk Road and one of the most beautiful in all of China.  Its magnificent floor plan, its facade in which the white of the walls combines with the green of its tiles, its curved portico framed in tiles, this time blue, its four multicolored minarets beautifully decorated in their corners, and the dome completing the construction, with the almost permanent sunshine in the city, make us understand that we are moving away from one cultural sphere and approaching another. That we are on the border of civilizations, that these lands are already another world, since the style of the construction connects with common traditions much more to the west, evoking the monuments of Samarkanda and Bukhara.

The tomb is located 5 kilometers from the city, and is more modern than the mosque, because it was built in the seventeenth century (1640). It was built for one of the most important religious leaders of the city.  Later up to 72 other religious leaders of the same family were buried there, although today not all their graves are inside. In addition, the famous Uyghur princess Xiangfei, who was a concubine of the emperor Qianlong, is also buried in this mausoleum.

The quiet visit to this mausoleum should be complemented by the magnificent garden at its door and the large Muslim cemetery behind it.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Kashgar, the jewel of the Silk Road," in Ethnic China, 1 enero 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/kashgar-the-jewel-of-the-silk-road/.

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