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Kashgar: Oasis on the Silk Road

Kashgar: Oasis on the Silk Road
by Jeremy Tredinnick


Kashgar: the very name resonates within the Western world's collective conscience  it is one of those places that everyone has heard of, many dream of visiting, but only relatively few actually reach. Yet those that do invariably go home with wonderful memories and tales to tell of this fabled city.

Kashgar's history spans more than 2,000 years; its importance derives from its strategic position at the foot of the Pamir Mountains, commanding access to the high glacial passes of the Silk Road routes into Central Asia, India and Persia. The weary trade caravans plodding westwards on the northern and southern routes around the great Taklamakan Desert met up at Kashgar, the desert hazards finally behind them. Merchants bound for China from the west thawed out after descending to Kashgar from the peaks of the Pamirs or the Karakorams, and exchanged their stolid yaks and exhausted packhorses for camels to convey their merchandise into the Kingdom of Cathay.

For merchants through the centuries Kashgar was a welcome sight after the hardships of the wilderness, but today its charms are appreciated by a different sort of long-distance traveller: tourists. Some fly in via Kashgar's international airport, but for those who come overland the surrounding landscape looks much the same as it has since the days of Genghis Khan. The Kashgar oasis is one of the main agricultural areas of China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomos Region, producing cotton, rice, wheat, corn, beans and fruit, and fertile fields are all around you as you drive along roads lined by colourful poplar trees.

Kashgar city itself has grown in recent decades, much of it along the rather uninspiring architectural lines of today's grey concrete Chinese cities. Modern Kashgar is typified by the huge statue of Chairman Mao that looks down on People's Square  at 18 metres high it is said to be China's largest Mao statue. On the main streets modern shopping malls and fast-food joints offer a taste of “American-style” living; you can shop for international-brand computers and clothes and grab a burger for lunch if you so wish. However, only a few minutes' walk north and west from People's Square, the Old City retains its romantic mystique, the traditional rhythms of the traders, worshippers and bakers seeming unchanged amidst the mud-brick walls, horse carts and bazaars.

Kashgar is the heart of Uygur Islam in China, and the heart of the Old City is the Idkah Mosque, Xinjiang's most important Islamic building. The largest mosque in China, it was built in 1442, and can see as many as 10,000 worshippers at prayers on Friday afternoon. Muslims come from towns many hours away, the men dressed in traditional chapans (three-quarter-length coats of striped cotton), embroidered dopas (embroidered Uygur caps) and knee-length leather boots. At any time of day the Idkah Mosque and the labyrinth of narrow streets around and behind it are worth exploring; stall-owners call out their wares, from glittering knives to intricately worked wooden chests and blankets, while the enticing scent of delicious spiced bread fills the air.
But a trip to Kashgar offers much more than its Old City charms: on the east bank of the Tuman River, a few kilometres from the city centre is the renowned Kashgar Sunday Bazaar. Numerous entry gates demarcate the many sections within the market: silk and cotton in aidelaixi patterns, knives, hats, pots and pans, fresh vegetables, mountains of stacked Hami and Xiang (fragrant) melons, baskets of peaches and apricots. The overflow of people spills into the streets where horse and donkey carts jostle with each other, carrying people to and from the market. Uncured sheepskins, Karakul lambskins, boiled and dyed eggs, red twig baskets, glazed jars and water ewers, felt carpets, coloured cut-glass jewellery and fresh meat, all can be found within the crush of stalls and vibrant humanity.

An equally raucous and exciting spectacle can be seen at the Livestock Market six kilometres southeast of town. Here, in a walled-in area the size of a small football stadium, dozens of horses and camels, scores of cattle and hundreds of sheep and goats are paraded in the swirling dust, while an equal number of Uygurs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and other interested locals mill about looking for a bargain  and bargaining hard to get it!

There are plenty of historical sites within a day trip's distance of the city: the closest is the Apakh Hoja Mazar (tomb) on the eastern outskirts of town, an architectural treasure built in 1640 and reminiscent of the Central Asian artistic style of Samarkand or Isfahan. A handsome blue-and-white tiled gate leads into the compound, which includes a small religious school and the Apakh Hoja family tomb, which is domed and faced with multicoloured tiles. Farther east into the oasis's countryside lies the Ancient City of Hanoi, a Tang Dynasty town containing the ruins of two dagobas and the city walls dating from the mid-seventh century.

Forty-five kilometres west of Kashgar is the tomb of the 11th-century Uygur philologist, Mohammed Kashgeri, attractively situated in the rich agricultural oasis of Opal. Kashgeri, a renowned scholar of Turkish culture in western Xinjiang and other parts of Central Asia, compiled a widely acclaimed Turkic dictionary in Arabic. The present mausoleum of Opal's native son was rebuilt in 1983, and several rooms are devoted to an exhibition of his works and local archaeological finds.
Of course one mustn't forget the natural wonders surrounding Kashgar. A difficult but rewarding day trip can be made to the amazing Shipton's Arch, the largest naturally formed arch in the world, estimated to be around 500 metres in height, with the “hole” of the arch measuring 400 metres into a chasm below. A five-hour drive south along the Karakoram Highway towards the border with Pakistan is one of the most exciting mountain road trips in the world, as you pass from the flat desert plain straight up into the High Pamirs and Karakoram Mountains, crossing 4,000-metre passes and high-altitude plateaus to reach glittering Karakul Lake in the shadow of 7,546-metre Muztagata, the “Father of the Ice Mountains”, and finally the Tajik town of Tashkurgan with its romantic Stone Fort and beautiful mountain backdrop. A side canyon off the Karakoram Highway leads to Oytagh, hidden within a gorgeous valley that boasts a glacier and forest more representative of the nearby countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

But perhaps the quintessential trip to take from Kashgar is an overnight desert adventure southeast along the old Southern Silk Road and into the Taklamakan Desert. First you pass through the town of Yengisar, famous for centuries throughout Central Asia and Tibet for its high-quality knives  still made today by local craftsmen. Then it's on to the oasis town of Yarkand (Shache), once the centre of the realm of the Altun kings, and still home to their atmospheric tombs. Yarkand's location next to classic Taklamakan Desert territory allows you to trek out from here into the sand dunes, with camels carrying your luggage, and camp under the desert sky, just as the ancient merchant caravans of old did. It is an unforgettable experience  and a highlight of any trip to this land filled with rich culture, natural splendour and fascinating history.

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This text was compiled using occasional material extracted from Odyssey Books & Guide's The Silk Road: Xi'an to Kashgar (www.odysseypublications.com), and with assistance from Xinjiang Caravan International Travel Service (www.caravantravel.cn, www.caravan-adventure.com).

Discovery Central Asia #23

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