The Silk Road Lives on in Kashgar

2011-07-13 16:15:57      Web Editor: Duan Xuelian
The western Chinese city of Kashgar is the living remnant of Silk Road culture.

A baker pulls sesame bagels out of a tandoori oven in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. []

By Angela Pruszenski

Find travel information about Kashgar at

The western Chinese city of Kashgar is the living remnant of Silk Road culture; visitors can see and feel the echoes of camel caravans bearing spices, tea, and other curiosities from faraway lands to dusty bazaars where merchants hawk their goods under red canopies.

Kashgar is the midpoint of the 2,000-year-old Silk Road. Home to the largest Sunday bazaar in the world, the city’s mercantile culture has not waned with time.

Nestled between the treacherous mountains of Pakistan and the vast Taklamakan Desert, traders on the ancient trade route looked to Kashgar as a crucial outfitting stop on their long journey as well as an opportunity to unload some goods for profit. The influx of products and traders from Turkey, Russia, Persia, eastern China, and other Central Asian territories created a colorful, unique trading atmosphere and perhaps the world’s first shopping town. This melting pot of cultures is Kashgar’s most unique and defining characteristic.

The city itself is a dichotomy; a mixture of new China and the traditional culture of the native Uyghur people. The outskirts appear like any mid-sized Chinese city, save for signs printed in both Uyghur and Mandarin Chinese; cars share the road with bicycles and motorbikes that zip past serene, manicured parks, shops, and newly-constructed high-rise apartment buildings. The East Lake is surrounded by walking paths that resemble eastern China’s gardens, but the view overlooks the oldest and most distinct part of Kashgar’s Old Town.

The core of the city, however, is purely Uyghur in appearance and culture. Winding alleyways flanked by wood and mud-brick houses all lead to the Idkah Mosque in the center of town. The surrounding streets are crowded with shops selling cloth, pottery, hardware, and even dental services. Women in vibrant headscarves browse the shops, motorbikes swerve around pedestrians, and the Islamic Call to Prayer rings out over the street chatter. Building facades carved with intricate wooden patterns in yellows, oranges, and pale blues bring the sunrise to the Old Town’s streets.

Local Kashgar cuisine usually includes rice or noodles, vegetables, tomato sauce and some lamb.[]

The Old Town is entirely populated by the Uyghur ethnic group, and the houses take on distinct cultural characteristics. “Almost every Uyghur house has a small courtyard, even the houses in Kashgar’s Old Town,” explained Imam Husan, an ethnic Uyghur who runs the tour business, Kashgar Guide. “They have a grape shelf and keep figs, pomegranates, and flowers in pots to help to cool down the house and keep flies away.”

The Chinese government is investing in the distinct appearance of Kashgar’s Old Town. Many of its buildings are aging and in need of renovations. The government is slowly rebuilding the historical neighborhoods, replacing each building with a new, stronger construction, but with the same traditional beauty. “My dream is to have a home like that, right in the old town,” Imam declared, pointing at a new two-story house with arched wooden doorways and windows.

Kashgar’s Uyghur culture is a bridge between the fascinating Middle Eastern Islamic civilization and Chinese stability and development; travelers can wander the streets, feeling free to engage with locals and enjoy the Uyghur hospitality.

The movie version of the American best-selling book The Kite Runner, set in Kabul, Afghanistan, was filmed in Kashgar, proving that the city is the secure way to venture into the Middle East, and at times, visitors could truly confuse the look of the two locales.

But perhaps the best thing about the streets of Kashgar is the food culture. The scent of lamb and fresh bread permeates the air.

In the evenings, groups of men congregate on large carpets dragged onto the sidewalk for tea and conversation.

A woman walks into a small eatery in Kashgar’s Old Town; meanwhile, the outdoor grill billows smoke into the street. []

During the day, fresh bread and bagels are in high supply, constantly being plucked from large, barrel-like tandoori ovens on the street and displayed for shoppers on large tables with red tablecloths. A sesame bagel hot out of the oven costs as little as one yuan.

Lamb is the centerpiece of cuisine, from lamb-filled crusty pastries (lamb samosas) to the constant supply of juicy lamb kebabs being grilled on the street, and the savory pieces that accent common dishes involving vegetables, tomato sauce and noodles or rice.

The height of every visit to Kashgar is a trip to the markets. The Sunday Bazaar, also open on weekdays, is bafflingly large and filled with the pleasant scent of saffron. The vast grid of stalls are filled with vendors everything from souvenirs to rugs, scarves, cloth, cookware, and even everyday items like clocks and pantyhose. Just when the first large web of shops has been conquered, shoppers are stunned to stumble into yet another gigantic field of dealers, this time purveying full-size refrigerators that seem to have magically appeared in the center of the narrow network of walkways, along with televisions and other large household items. While the Sunday Bazaar is now housed in a modern warehouse of stalls, the surrounding villages still host smaller bazaars underneath red canopies just like in romantic stories of Middle Eastern markets.

The Idkah Mosque is the center of Kashgar’s Uyghur-dominating Old Town, both geographically and culturally.[]

For a true cultural experience, head to the livestock market east of the city. The street leading into the market is a slow crawl of donkey-pulled carts and old trucks carrying small families, herds of sheep, and cattle. Early on Sunday morning, livestock dealers bicker for space to tie up their sheep for sale, while others debate an animal’s fat content or muscle structure. A deal is in the works when two men lock in a handshake; they won’t let go until the transaction is settled. It’s a cash-only market, and business is conducted based on trust and the appearance of the animal.

The city is not without its tourist sites. The most common stop is the tomb of Apak Hoja, housed in a giant mausoleum designed in the Islamic Uyghur style and covered in patterned green and blue tiles. Apak Hoja was an influential Islamic leader in the region during the late 1600s. Built around 1640, the mausoleum houses 72 members of five generations of Apak Hoja’s family, starting with his father. The tomb is also famous as the reputed resting place of the “Fragrant Concubine,” a beautiful native who served in Emperor Qianlong’s court. Next to the structure is an expansive Uyghur graveyard characterized by the graves shaped like cradles. “We put our babies in cradles, so when people die, we put them under the cradle,” Imam says of the Uyghur tradition.

Kashgar is also a great launch point for various trips around the region, especially the Karakorum Highway that connects western China to Pakistan, and passes by Karakul Lake 410 km from the city. The highway winds through fantastic rocky scenery with towering cliffs in red and blue hues. The settlements quickly turn from the Uyghur ethnic group to the Kyrgyz, and the hot desert air is replaced by chilly winds from the nearby snow-capped mountains.

Karakul Lake is a must-see destination for its striking blue water set against the mountain backdrops. Most visitors stay only briefly, but there are yurts available for overnight stays and the Kyrgyz people living nearby lead horseback riding tours around the lake.

Sheep for sale are tied up at the livestock market in Kashgar.[]

From here, many head onto Tashkorgan, which is the last town before the Pakistan border; but, even a day trip to Karakul Lake is well worth the scenery.

Despite Kashgar’s distinctive and lively atmosphere, the city has not yet been overrun by hoards of tourists. Imam, who has worked as a tour guide since 2002, says that tourists first became noticeable after 1995, and the city is just now in the process of building 5-star hotels. About 98 percent of his clients are foreigners. “A lot of clients work in Shanghai or Beijing, where every site has thousands of tourists. They want to avoid that, so they ask to be taken ‘off the beaten track,'” he says of visitors who book his services. “Kashgar still has that advantage.”

A group of Uyghur men chat at the Sunday livestock market in Kashgar.[]

The tomb of Apak Hoja, an influential 17th century Uyghur leader, is a popular tourist site just outside Kashgar.[]

Kyrgyz villagers gather on horseback on the shores of Karakul Lake.[]

Karakul Lake is a scenic, striking blue lake at the base of snowcapped mountains just over 200km from the border of Pakistan.[]

A Uyghur woman walks down the streets of Kashgar’s Old Town; the film, The Kite Runner, set in Kabul, Afghanistan, was filmed here for its security and likeness to the Middle Eastern city. []

A shopper inspects the spices for sale at a shop in Kashgar’s Old Town.[]






Traditional Uyghur décor features orange, yellow, and pale blue hues added to intricately carved wooden facades.[]

Karakul Lake, just over 400 km from Kashgar, is a popular day trip for tourists.[]

A scenic lakeside Chinese garden enjoys views of the most distinct part of Kashgar’s Old Town.[]

On the southern portion of Kashgar’s East Lake, new high-rise apartment buildings and futuristic architecture are common.[]

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