Kashgar

The lady beside me gripped the sides of the seat, shut her eyes and started mumbling some prayers as the plane rocked from side to side.

Elsewhere in the cabin, people started screaming.

Not exactly the prospect I had in mind when I booked my flight from Urumqi to Kashgar in China’s remote western province of Xinjiang.

The day had started promisingly enough.

Fresh snow had just fallen on Urumqi, giving the industrial-looking city a fairytale sheen.

Snowing in Urumqi

But the first hint of trouble came when I arrived at the airport at 7am.

The flight to Kashgar had been postponed to an indefinite time due to strong winds in that city.

Given that the alternative was a 25 hour train journey (yes, Kashgar is that remote), I had little choice but to wait.

Waiting at Urumqi Airport

After milling around the airport for hours, it was a relief when the ground crew finally announced that the first flight of theday to Kashgar would take off at 2pm.

Somehow, amidst the mad scramble, I managed to get a coveted seat on that flight.

But I had rejoiced too early.

Flying from Urumqi to Kashgar

After an aborted attempt to land as the plane started swaying and plunging on its descent to Kashgar, the pilot announced that he was returning to Urumqi – a two hour flight away.

By the time I finally arrived in Kashgar after the pilot made another attempt to fly there after he arrived in Urumqi, it was already 9pm.

I was exhausted, bedraggled and grouchy.

Not the perfect mood to start a holiday.

But as the taxi made its way to the city, and I caught my first glimpse of the mythical oasis city of Kashgar and parts of its 500-year-old city wall, my enthusiasm and excitement returned.

Bazaar opposite the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar

Kashgar, whose very name evokes exoticism and adventure, was an important trading city during the days of the Silk Road, and is still today.

Being closer to Bishkek and Almaty than Beijing, the city is seen as China’s gateway to Central Asia, and this proximity gives the city a distinctive Central Asian flavour.

In fact, if not for the Chinese characters on signboards and road signs, it doesn’t even feel like China.

Kashgar

Uyghur bazaars, tea houses and faces dominate the streets.

And many of the women are veiled.

Open air market in Kashgar

However, since the deadly ethnic clashes in several areas of Xinjiang in 2009, Kashgar has been put under heavy police surveillance.

It is after all the Uyghur’s heartland.

But while some residents told me that there still exists some animosity between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese, it won’t hinder you from exploring the city.

Nor will it stop you from interacting with the city’s friendly and hospitable inhabitants – one of whom even volunteered to send a Uyghur song to my mobile phone via Bluetooth when I asked him about the song which he was listening to.

Traditional hat makets, Kashgar

Uyghur Flat Bread, Kashgar

However, Kashgar will not remain the way it is for much longer.

Though its Old Town has been hailed as the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia, the Chinese authorities have started tearing down huge chunks of it.

Kashgar Old Town

By some estimates, some 85 per cent of the structures within the Old Town will be razed eventually.

And the reasons cited for doing so are that many of the buildings are vulnerable to collapse in a seismic event.

Demolition works in Kashgar

Some question, however, if other motives may be at play as the area is at the heart of the Uyghur culture.

Regardless of the reasons, the move is lamentable as the demolition works, once completed, cannot be reversed.

For now, most of the remaining parts of the Old Town, with its labyrinthine alleys and mud-and-straw houses are on both sides of Jiefang (Liberation) Road.

And this is where one can still catch a glimpse of how Kashgar used to be.

Kashgar Old Town

On one street corner, there’ll be coppersmiths hammering away on their bowls, pans and jugs, while on another, women in their headscarves are haggling over the cuts of mutton hanging on meat hooks.

And every once in a while, donkey cart drivers can also be heard shouting the warning Posh! Posh! as they navigate the narrow streets.

Donkey cart, Kashgar

It was in one of the side streets of the Old Town that I came across an amicable middle-aged Uyghur woman who invited me into her house for tea.

She had seen me snapping pictures of the ochre-coloured alleys and archways outside her house in the biting winter chill.

It was a pity we could not communicate as there were many questions I would have asked her.

The Uyghur woman who invited us to her house for tea

What are her thoughts on the destruction of the Old Town?

How does she feel about the ethnic clashes?

These questions would remain unanswered.

Emerging from her house, I headed to the magnificent yellow-tiled Id Kah Mosque which lies at the heart of the existing Old Town.

Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar

Built in the 15th century, the mosque is one of the largest in Central Asia.

Every Friday, it houses nearly 10,000 worshippers, and on special occasions, it can accommodate up to 20,000 people.

Non-Muslims are allowed to enter outside of prayer times, offering a peek into its unique Islamic architecture infused with Uyghur elements.

Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar

The serenity of its inner courtyard with its majestic poplar trees and ponds provides a refuge from the hustle and bustle outside.

But it was not long before I plunged headlong into the madness that is Kashgar’s Sunday Market.

Sunday Market, Kashgar

It is said that Kashgar’s population swells by 50,000 every Sunday as people all over Central Asia stream in to the market, which sells just about everything under the sun – from exquisite carpets to traditional Uyghur daggers to modern appliances.

If I had the time, I could have spent hours exploring every nook and cranny of this fascinating market which is open every day, but is liveliest on Sundays.

Just as interesting, or perhaps more so, is the Livestock Market which lies southeast of the city.

Livestock Market, Kashgar

When I arrived there in the early afternoon, it was abuzz with buyers and sellers from all across Central Asia.

Add to that mix thousands of bleating sheep, dozens of cattle and camels, the aroma of cooked meat wafting across from the nearby makeshift food stalls, the swirling clouds of ochre-colored dust, and it’s as if I was transported back to the days of yore.

Livestock Market, Kashgar

But for how much longer will this Old World charm endure in Kashgar?

For the longest time, its remoteness has sealed it from the big changes sweeping across China.

Perhaps its time is up.

Perhaps the wave of modernity will render it unrecognisable five years from now.

I hope I’m being overly pessimistic.

Kashgar Old Town

Kashgar