The old town of Kashgar is soon to be razed. Tania Branigan visits before this Silk Road attraction is lost.
Every morning, Mohammed Gurdan rises early and climbs the rickety ladder to the fourth floor of his home in Kashgar's old city. There, as dawn breaks, he feeds and waters his 70 pigeons and waves them off to flutter across the sand-coloured buildings that sprawl into the distance.
Like scores of men here, he spends hours in this rooftop retreat with his crooning companions. "There is always something interesting about birds," Gurdan explains. "I have cared for them for 23 years. My father, my grandfather, both kept pigeons here – it's the custom of our family."
Kashgar is full of such customs, such stories and such homes. This 2000-year-old oasis city stands at the westernmost part of China, where the north and south Silk Roads met and a frenzy of trade resulted.
These days, travellers along the route come by bus or plane rather than by camel or horse, laden with cameras rather than goods. The Silk Road running westwards through China is studded with attractions: from Xi'an, home to the Terracotta Army, to the precious Buddhist artworks in the caves at Dunhuang and the oasis of Turfan, close to the ruined ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang. But even by these standards, Kashgar – to the west of the vast Taklamakan Desert – has a lot going for it.
The old section is "the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia", architect and historian George Michell wrote last year. Filmgoers might recognise it from The Kite Runner, where it was used as a double for Kabul.
To walk through the narrow lanes of the old city is to walk into living history. There's the blacksmith, Tohti Hajim, who has hammered out horseshoes for 30 years in a tiny workshop inherited from his father. Eighty-year-old Davut has, from the age of 15, risen at three or four each morning to load his bicycle with bowls of fresh yoghurt and wheel it from door to door. Mohammed Yusuf has raised 10 children in his family's 120-year-old home. He beckons us in to admire the elaborate painting, carvings and lavish wool carpets in their reception room. While some residents offer access in return for money, he refuses payment.
About 220,000 people live in this labyrinth of mud, brick, straw and wood, some homes dating back four or five centuries. A few of the streets have been cleaned and neatly paved for tourists but for the most part, when you explore the tiny alleys, you are walking straight into people's lives. Craftswomen stitch doppas, the traditional four-cornered hats, which take 20 days to make. Girls in bright frocks and mismatching plastic sandals giggle and shove as they see strangers, then sing and dance for their new audience. The real pleasure here is simply to wander and watch.
These streets are being ripped apart under the Government's $581 million project to transform Kashgar. This will involve up to 85 per cent of the old city being razed and many residents being relocated. Demolition crews have already moved in and construction sites scar the streetscape.
This is the last chance to experience this world. Without courtyard homes, many women will no longer have outside space to go unveiled. Artisans will make way for modern shops. The danger, said one exiled group recently, is that the area will become "an open-air museum of Uighur culture".
Muslim Uighurs comprise almost half of the Xinjiang region's 22 million inhabitants. They have their own Turkic language, music and foods; even their own (strictly unofficial) time zone, two hours behind Beijing's. Yet many complain their culture is being eroded rapidly by Han Chinese immigration, controls on their religion and aggressive economic development.
That explains why demolition is a highly sensitive topic. Most residents are reluctant to speak about the changes, despite the fact we had left our guide behind. Several say they had never heard of the plans.
"No one wants to go," a young Uighur boy says bluntly. "I have been here since I was a little boy; it's our whole life. But there's no alternative. They say it's not safe. This part will be knocked down next year. They have already started opposite."
The Government argues it has no choice: it fears the old buildings are a fire risk and would collapse in an earthquake like the one that hit Sichuan last year, killing an estimated 90,000. It says many are shoddily built, lack amenities and are relatively recent.
There is little enthusiasm for suggestions the city should reinforce and update buildings ideally suited to the local climate. These, in many cases, have been owned by the same family for years. Such wholesale demolition and reconstruction is common across China.
Some historic buildings will remain and tourism will be more convenient in the new "old city". You can expect better toilets and more English-language signs. But the vision laid out by officials – apartments, modern plazas and "Uighur-style" architecture – lacks the authentic magic that has lured travellers to Kashgar.
You get a taste of the sanitised future at the Grand Bazaar, revamped a few years ago. It is worth a visit. It still teems with locals buying blankets, headscarves and spices, as well as tourists browsing the selection of lutes, sheepskin hats and replica daggers. But its wide concrete aisles capture little of the excitement that made the market famed along the Silk Road.
The livestock section has been hived off and shunted a few miles south of town but it's here, at the packed Ivan Bazaar, that the mercantile spirit of Kashgar comes alive each Sunday. A boy, no more than eight years old, is shearing a sheep, while the asthmatic bray of donkeys rakes the air. Men step aside nimbly as a bull, pulled down from a truck, shakes its owner loose.
There are other spots worth visiting outside the town, notably the 17th-century Abakh Khoja Mausoleum, also known as the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine, in honour of a beloved consort of Emperor Qianlong. Its exterior is glazed exquisitely with tiles in 20 shades and 70 patterns and the grounds include several small mosques still in use today.
No society is static, least of all one based on trade and poised at a crossroads. Demand for Tohti Hajim's horseshoes has fallen, though ponies and carts are still common. Many farmers putter past on motorised tricycles. On the street I pass an old Uighur man in his doppa, bellowing into a mobile. Women are resplendent in leopard print and sequins as well as vivid Atlas silks.
But the abruptness of the modernisation is of another order. And though Kashgar will remain on the itineraries of tour groups, much of its charm will be erased within months.
Since our visit, Xinjiang has been racked by violent inter-ethnic riots in its capital, Urumqi, killing almost 200 people. Although Kashgar is more than 1000 kilometres away, there have been several smaller-scale incidents in the city last year, notably an attack in which 16 police officers were killed. The Australian Foreign Affairs Department advises travellers to "exercise a high degree of caution" in Xinjiang Province "due to its volatile security situation and heightened ethnic tensions" after the violent protests on July 5.
Despite the region's troubles, Kashgar remains a beautiful, hospitable city. And for a few months more it will be at its best – filled with bird lovers, blacksmiths and children with henna-stained fingers playing in the alleys.
Malaysia Airlines flies to Beijing via Kuala Lumpur for about $1000. Several Chinese carriers fly from Beijing to Kashgar, via Urumqi. China Southern Airlines flies to Kashgar for about $1247 with an overnight stay in Guangzhou and via Urumqi. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) It is a three-day train trip from Beijing to Urumqi and then an overnight trip to Kashgar. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
Heritage in China
In Beijing, about 2000 old hutongs (alleys formed by rows of traditional courtyard houses) have been bulldozed, many for the Olympics. But some have survived, even in areas such the highly commercialised Houhai Town.
In Shanghai, Xintiandi's redevelopment has been criticised as Disney-fied heritage, with only the original walls of the shikumen (tenement houses) remaining. Shikumen can still be seen in places like Nanjing Road West.
Pingyao, in Shanxi, is one of only four walled cities left in China, with original Ming and Qing buildings generating a healthy tourist trade. Some locals remain but many have been relocated.