Ah, Kashgar. The great oasis city on the edge of the formidable Taklamakan Desert. The meeting point of the northern and southern silk roads. The remote listening post of Russian and English consulates staring down the road at each other and playing the Great Game for control of Asia a century ago.
I have my own history with Kashgar. During my first trip to China in 1987, I became one of the first western travelers in 50 years to visit Kashgar and the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan when I found myself unable to enter Tibet, which had been closed by unrest. At the time, China was still a black-and-white movie of worker's coats and grimy streets. When I stepped into the colorful bazaars of Kashgar, it was as if I had landed in Oz. There were no paved streets or cars. Donkey carts padded along beside water channels lining every street. The huge Mao statue stood on the edge of town ignored by the local population.
Some cities are bounded by time as well as space. The Kashgar I had known was gone – still there in another time but gone from the present, replaced by a gritty, bustling Chinese city with cars, wide streets and underground shopping malls. The water that used to run alongside the streets now goes into pipes.
In the intervening 23 years, China's “Develop the West” program has paid millions of people to move to Xinjiang, the “new border” in an attempt to overwhelm and subdue the native Uighur population. Billions of dollars have gone into trains, paved streets and urban reconstruction, which in China means knocking down whatever was there and replacing it with drab apartments and an occasional concrete reproduction to entertain tour groups.
Of course not everything has changed. The 600-year-old Id Kah Mosque still stands in the center of town, and the Abakh Hoja Tomb and above-ground graveyard in its outskirts. Parts of the old town still remain, though falling into disrepair as the wrecking balls move closer. Storefronts and sidewalks are still crowded with vendors and repairmen, like the cobbler who restitched Marcia's boot for 1 yuan (15 cents in US currency). Uighur men and women still walk the streets in their hats, scarves and the occasional veil. Children still want their pictures taken. And everyone still ignores the Mao statue.
I met John Hu again. In 1987 he was just starting his cafe in a town where westerners attracted a crowd of 50 staring locals. He learned to cook pizza by asking travelers how to do it. This was a born entrepreneur and I knew he would go far. He now owns a chain of four cafes and tourist outfitters across Xinjiang and has just opened one in Lhasa.
And Kashgar still has its Sunday Market, bigger than ever. It is so big, in fact, that they have split it in two, moving the animal market six kilometers out of town, where the fat-tailed sheep and horses can be displayed in a suitably muddy environment. Donkey and horse carts are still common there, and people wanting to buy a horse can take it for a test drive around the mayhem. It’s the Tsukiji of Central Asia.
The regular Kashgar Sunday Market is the world’s largest flea market. All manner of clothes, rugs, hardware, and daily appliances are on display in almost a square kilometer of covered market, and the wares spread out into the surrounding streets. We were, however, somewhat disappointed at the selection of food, which we needed to buy for our time in Tajikistan, where supplies are reportedly limited. Food was limited to the staples of the local Uighur population and not much of it will travel well. We finally shopped at a grocery store in town.
So in a way I have now visited two cities called Kashgar. A different city in the same space but a different time. Who am I to say that the old mud houses were better for living than the new apartment blocks? Running water and sanitation are a good thing, and taxis are more comfortable than donkey carts. Time has been moving on for thousands of years here and it will again.