As I stepped off the city bus that had taken me from the airport into the heart of town, the memory of my previous trip to Kashgar back in 2008 rushed back. The dry heat, the smell of dust and the incessant sounds of scooter horns came to greet me like an old friend.
Kashgar, a beautiful Silk Road oasis on the western edge of the Xinjiang region, has always been one of my favorite places to visit in China. Often considered the heart of Uyghur culture, it has been a joy for travelers for more than a century to wander the narrow alleys of Kashgar’s Old City. It is a rare glimpse of history showing its face in the present, where tradition is preserved through centuries of change.
Or perhaps it was.
I walked from the bus stop toward a high mud-brick wall. Despite all that was familiar, I could already see that a lot had changed in the six years since I’d last visited Kashgar. Within a hundred meters I met up with the culprit of much of this change, a bulldozer taking a rest in front of all the work it had already accomplished.
I admit I’m not much for nostalgia. The sight of rubble brought more feelings of curiosity than sadness for me.
I remember back in 2009 when the international community first learned of China’s plans to raze a majority of Kashgar’s Old City. Grief was quickly followed by outrage, not merely for the sake of history preservation but for the fact that the Uyghur people who lived within the Old City were given no say in the matter.
China was unfazed. The government had promised better living conditions for residents and a new, updated “Old Town” for the tourists. Over the course of a few years bulldozers systematically levelled entire sections of the city and slowly rebuilt from scratch.
After passing the bulldozer in the rubble, I followed a dirt path that led me through the back of the Old City into what I expected to be a series of narrow alleyways. At least that’s what I remember it being. What I found instead was a bit of a surprise.
Gone were the narrow alleys, dirt roads and mud brick homes stacked in odd formation. The re-imagined Old City greeted me with a wide, paved street – wide enough for cars to pass – and lined with trees and shrubs that had never been a part of Old City scenery.
The new buildings still retained a hint of Islamic architecture and were built no higher than two or three stories in height. Uyghur vendors occupied most, if not all of the shops that now had signs in Uyghur, Mandarin and English. Scooters and three-wheeled taxis zipped past met in a hurry to get who-knows-where.
In a weird way, this rebuilt Old City had a charm that I found inviting. It was alive with people, animals, and the smell of delicious Uyghur cuisine. Even though my mind kept telling me that this was “fake”, I couldn’t help but enjoy the new experience.
I met many travelers who despised the new construction as well as others who were apathetic. The consensus among most was that the beauty would soon fade, like most modern Chinese construction tends to do. A closer look at the fine details of the renovation was easy due to the fact that much of it wasn’t yet complete.
Not surprisingly, concrete had become the material of choice for most everything, although it had been cleverly disguised. Every building was now made of concrete and dressed up on the outside to feel like “ancient Kashgar”, much like a set in a movie. Concrete roads had been stamped with a pattern and painted to look like cobblestone in many places.
The use of wood trim around doors and windows, a nod to ancient Uyghur handicraft, was a refreshing design choice amid all the concrete. In some places, a mud-hay mixture had been used to cover a concrete brick wall, giving it the feeling of the city walls now torn down.
In the midst of all this construction, which is still far from complete, a small section of Kashgar’s ancient Old City remains untouched. The local Chinese government is quick to point out that they have preserved this part of its history for travelers who can’t bear the thought of a rebuilt Old City.
I trekked across town to take a look for myself. I distinctly remember this part of town, built on a small hill and separated like an island on the east side of the city. As I expected, it hadn’t changed much. Children still played in the narrow alleys and within minutes I lost myself in the endless labyrinth that would be a mapmaker’s nightmare.
Aside from children, there wasn’t much activity in the streets. The homes, which had been romanticized in the memory of my last visit, now seemed a bit run down and unused, especially when compared to the new construction I had just seen across town.
I poked my head inside one of the homes that had a sign welcoming visitors inside and was quickly greeted by an elderly Uyghur lady. She gestured for me to look around, which I was happy to do. The place was cozy but definitely old. A rickety wooden ladder, an insurance liability in any other country, led to the roof terrace where I got a bird’s-eye-view of the city. It was beautiful.
As I returned down the ladder she brought me to her crafts room where she was selling trinkets, mostly things I either already had or really didn’t want. This was her livelihood, though, and judging by the lack of tourists I had run across in this part of town, business probably wasn’t booming.
I left her home with mixed emotions. Change is inevitable and people like this Uyghur lady were being left behind. It was hard to get a feel for how she or any other Uyghur felt about it – most weren’t willing to talk about it. At the same time Kashgar’s new Old Town left me feeling like I had walked through a movie set. It was charming, yes, but…well, it didn’t feel like the Kashgar travelers had fallen in love with.
Remnants of the past still remain but the city has undergone a controversial facelift. I now have two different memories of Kashgar but one thing remains the same – I still love Kashgar.
As I exited the ancient Old City I passed by another bulldozer busy tearing down a wall of mud brick. Regardless of how I felt – or anybody else for that matter – Kashgar was changing.
Josh Summers has lived with his wife in Xinjiang, China since 2006. Although he writes extensively about traveling in China on sites like TravelChinaCheaper, his passion for the Xinjiang region and the Uyghur people is most evident in his writing on his site FarWestChina.com. Read more about him on Google+.