Beijing Getaways: Kashgar Guide 喀什
East meets West: Experience Uyghur culture in Kashgar and the Taklamakan towns
The legendary city of Kashgar, self-styled "crown jewel" of the Silk Route, sits on the western edge of Xinjiang's baking Taklamakan Desert. It has been an important trading centre for over two millennia, and merchants from neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan continue to fuel impromptu street-corner negotiations, bazaars and back-room deals. Although paved roads, train tracks and regular plane flights have now rendered the perils of desert travel all but harmless, the city still holds an exotic charm, mainly due to its fascinating ethnic mix of Uyghurs, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
Indeed, some things still haven't changed in Kashgar since medieval times. The Old Quarter still reverberates to the sound of hammering blacksmiths, and the Id Kah Mosque calls the city's faithful to prayer as it has since 1442. Stallholders peddle rows of shimmering silks, knives, jewelry and rugs, and narrow, earthen-walled alleys filled with playful urchins wait to be explored.
Prior to the arrival of the Mongols (the great Genghis Khan occupied Kashgar in 1219), Islam first arrived in Kashgar by the tenth century CE. The city became such a centre of Islamic learning that one of the greatest Muslim scholars and lexicographers of the eleventh century, Mahmud al-Kashgari, was buried just outside of the city in Upal Village. Al-Kashgari compiled the first complete Turkish dictionary, which has been translated into 26 languages. Here, the early Muslims encountered strong Chinese, Persian, Turkic, and Indian influences, much of which can still be seen in the region's art and architecture.
To enter the labyrinthine, jumbled mass of backstreets centered around Kashgar's dominating Id Kah mosque is to experience Uyghur life at its busiest and most authentic. Mud brick homes with ornate doorways jostle for space with quaint, diminutive mosques, shopfronts decorated with assorted cuts of mutton, and merchants plying their roadside trade. Groups of Uyghur men with sun-darkened, careworn faces and pristine white taqiyah (caps) sit on low stools, engaged in animated conversation, or gather round battered pool tables. Uyghur women in colorful headscarves and long dresses, occasionally veiled, walk arm-in-arm through the din and confusion, the epitomy of serenity and modesty.
Another must-see in Kashgar is the city's famous Sunday market. Once a week Kashgar's population swells by 50,000 as people from near and far flock to one of Asia's most incredible open markets. Those who go make it out onto the street at dawn will be carried along by a raucous crowd of pedestrians, horses, bikes, motorcycles, donkey carts, tractors, trucks and tuk-tuks to a massive outdoor maze of livestock pens and covered stalls on Kashgar's eastern periphery.
Kashgar market is a great place to witness Uyghur life at its most vibrant. The air is thick with dust as sheep, goats, camels, cows and donkeys mingle with buyers and sellers, and money changes hands everywhere. Traditional snacks, rugs and blankets, boots and clothing, fruit and vegetables, hardware and all manner of junk are sold from colorful blankets and groaning tables. Market blacksmiths do a brisk trade, and vendors of dogh (a local drink made from ice, syrup, yogurt and water) help to keep the crowds well-watered. If you want to pick up a souvenir, remember to bargain but don't quibble over pennies.
200 kilometers to the south of Kashgar, Yarkand is one of those central Asian towns, like Samarkand and Tashkent, whose name still conjures up images of spice caravans, desert traders and cosmopolitan bazaars. At the end of a major trade route from British India, over the Karakoram Pass from Leh, Yarkand was for centuries an important caravan town, and centre of Hindu tradesmen and moneylenders.
Today, the town has a more authentic feel than Kashgar. In the old town, donkey carts still jostle for space on congested roads, and dust swirls along the narrow backstreets in the fierce heat of the midday sun. The Altyn Mosque and nearby cemetery are particularly interesting, and it is still possible to climb the orda darvala, or solitary gateway of the former citadel. Yarkand also makes a good starting point from which to venture into the nearby rolling dunes of the Taklamakan Desert. This shimmering sea of sand stretches as far as the eye can see, although bandits, sandstorms and lack of water are now perils less likely to bother the present day traveler.
On the way to Yarkand from Kashgar, travelers should stop off in the sleepy town of Yengisar, famous for its beautifully crafted knives. Knives have been made in Yengisar for over 400 years and are worn by every Uyghur man. Each knife is crafted by a master knife maker, using simple tools and techniques handed down from generation to generation. You can buy the knives, made with silver, white copper, wood, bone and deer hone directly from the Yengisar County Small Knife Factory.
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