One of the highlights of my summer was visiting a little gem of a town known as Kashgar. My friend Chase and I took the long overnight train from Urumqi all the way across China’s largest province, where we saw some pretty impressive views of the Taklamakan desert, the world’s second largest. The Taklamakan is a huge basin, covering most of Xinjiang province, bordered by the Tian Shan mountains in the north, and the Tibetan plateau in the south. For this reason, nearly every major city in Xinjiang is situated around the perimeter of this massive bowl of sand, on the edge of the mountains that surround it. (click here for more info/photos)
Upon arrival, we definitely knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Kashgar has a strong middle eastern feel to it due to its geography of course, and because a majority of its inhabitants are Uyghur Muslim. Â On one side of the city there was tons of beautiful middle eastern architecture, and then you could literally walk to the other side, across a magical road where you were instantly teleported to any other plane Jane Chinese concrete city. The divide was THAT noticeable, and with that, the segregation of the people. The Chinese stick with the Chinese, and Uyghurs stick with the Uyghurs.
Kashgar was surprisingly clean and nice, though. We happened to be visiting during Ramadan, which we initially thought would be interesting, and it was, but it worked against as us Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during this 40 day holiday. What does this mean? All the restaurants were closed!!! We had a real hard time finding local food, and often had to settle for burgers and Chinese food instead……frown. However, after the fast ended at 10pm each night, it was watermelon and mutton heaven!!! (watermelon is traditionally used to break the fast).
We stayed a great (and cheap!) little hostel (Pamir Hostel Kashgar) right in the downtown Uyghur section. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, we were able to get a local guy to come show us around town, and see the real Uyghur culture. He took us to the old quarter which looked like it was off a movie set; dusty run down streets, half finished mud brick buildings, and little kids with freshly shaven heads (because of Ramadan) frolicking through the alleys. Our guide, who shall remain nameless for safety reasons, was very cautious with us as he told us about the last foreigner he showed around turned out to be a journalist, and he was subsequently arrested and questioned for several days.
These things are not clear to the average visitor, but a daily reality to the locals. History has certainly shown that tensions exist in this extremely sensitive area. After several attacks from locals on Chinese police officers over the past several years, China has taken action. After ’08, all the foreigners living there at the time were kicked out. The government also has a plan to move almost half the city’s population (95% Uyghur) out of their traditional old town homes, and into modern high rises that are more “fire and earthquake compliant.”
Politics aside, there are many great little day trips to take from Kashgar. We only had one day outside the city and decided to head out the little known Shipton’s Arch. It’s the worlds tallest (1200 feet) known natural stone arch, and since I love superlatives, I can finally check that one off the list. I can’t say enough about this place, it was amazing! It takes a lot to wow me, and wow me it did. The history is quite interesting, only rediscovered 10 years ago, but this place is on the verge of becoming a coach bus, red had, and yellow flag toting tourist magnet…..but not yet. If you have a chance within the next year, GO!!! The roads, though rough now, are being built there to accommodate the masses as we speak, but if you go now you will beat the crowds. Oh, and 2 sketchy Uyghur guys will make you pay 30RMB to go up the stairs/ladders they built, just pay it and don’t argue, they maintain the area currently. Check out pics below of the view!
(special thanks to Chase for letting me ‘steal’ some of his pics)