Kashgar, home to mosques, bazaars

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-27 20:15:03

 The Abakh Khoja Tomb
The Abakh Khoja Tomb
It's a city of hidden histories, and a fusion of ancient and modern. It is also a place of light, as strong sunshine and long daylight hours make it difficult to feel like resting.

It was my first time in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as well as to the very western end of China. Having lived over 20 years in the eastern coastal area, I had little idea about the place except for the sweet fruits, vast deserts, and pretty Uyghur girls who can sing and dance that are often seen on posters and on TV.

When I landed at the Kashgar airport, it did not feel like I had just traveled over 5,000 kilometers. I didn't realize the city has a history of over 2,000 years. Small as it is, the airport is modern, and has simple, plain colors, with few uniquely Uyghur features.

The feeling of a blend of many cultures came when I arrived at the city center.

There are numerous shops, selling everything from wooden tools to DVDs, new apartment buildings, and a giant sky wheel on one side of the city. Not far away is the Old Town.

Most people in the streets wore traditional costumes, with the younger generation dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Unlike women in the Middle East, Uyghur women are more open about showing their faces and wearing shorter dresses.

The Old Town and its people

Kashgar, which was called Shule in ancient times, was on the ancient Silk Road. One of the earliest mentions of this city dates back to the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-25AD), in Sima Qian's Records of the Great Historian (Shiji) when envoy Zhang Qian was sent by Emperor Hanwu to explore land to the west. 

Now after thousands of years, most parts of the city have been replaced by buildings made of brick and armored concrete, except for the residential area on the High Platform, which is said by travelers to be a living museum of Uyghur folk art.

Having a history of over 600 years, all the houses in that area were built on a 40-meter-high yellow earth platform. Most of the houses were formed with similar yellow earth and wood.

It is said that the platform has existed for over 2,000 years. Because of a flood from Pamir Plateau hundreds of years ago, it was separated in the middle, and has become two platforms, one to the north and the other to the south. The residential area is on the southern platform.

According to tradition, Uyghur families add a floor to a home when a new generation arrives. With no regulations on building style, all the houses have been built casually, making it easy for a stranger to get lost.

A friend advised me to look at the bricks underfoot. If they are hexagonal, you are about to walk into a dead end. There are also no standard beds in these houses. People either sleep on a carpet placed on the floor or on earthen beds connected to the wall.

Uyghurs are fond of chromatic colors and plants, as they use a lot of red and green colors in their carpets and keep plants in their homes.

It seems that during the daytime, men work while women stay at home and take care of the kids. The city was much safer than we imagined. Though we were not able to communicate well in the local language, we were welcomed by the people, who invited us into their homes, showed us around and treated us with fruits.

The local people liked having their picture taken and were interested in seeing how they looked in the photos. 

Not many local people speak good Putonghua, but they seem to be very curious about the outside world. I kept meeting people who asked me questions about my profession, my salary, and what life is like in Beijing.

But there is one thing you need to remember when talking to Uyghurs - avoid talking about pig or pork, as most of them are Muslims. Strict believers pray five times a day, from morning to night. Don't be surprised when you see someone suddenly stop something important, no matter where they are, and begin a solemn prayer.
A Uyghur family having lunch together
A Uyghur family having lunch together
Sightseeing for travelers

While Kashgar is one of the cities that has the most sightseeing for those interested in Uyghur culture, most buildings  are known not for the grand architecture but for their back stories. 

The Abakh Khoja Tomb, for example, is regarded as one of the holiest sites in Xinjiang. Built in the 17th century, it stores the body of Abakh Khoja (1626-94), a religious and political leader of local people in ancient times, as well as those of five generations of his family.

Han people revere the site because it houses the Fragrant Concubine, a concubine of Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and great-grandniece of Abakh Khoja.

According to folklore, the Fragrant Concubine was named Iparhan, which means "the fragrant girl" in the local language, because she was born with an enchanting fragrance. Though it is unclear whether the famous concubine had really been buried there, Emperor Qianlong did send an order to improve the cemetery in the 18th century. With no clear reason for the decree, many believed it was for the concubine.

The buildings are in typical Islamic style with delicate decorations. The tomb chamber is the main building. It is about three to four stories high, with walls and roofs decorated with white, blue, green, and yellow glaze. Other highlights include a gate tower, worship walls, and a teaching hall.

Id Kah Mosque is another tourist site worth visiting. Built in the 1400s, Id Kah Mosque is the largest mosque in China, able to house 20,000 worshipers. It is said that the place where the mosque now stands used to be a graveyard in ancient times until Saqsiz Mirza, the governor of Kashgar, built a small mosque for devotees to pray for their buried family members. After years of contributions by both nobles and common people, it stands in its current form today.

A large carpet given by former Iranian president Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made this holy place even more famous. It was made especially for the mosque and presented after Khamenei attended a Friday prayer there.

Fridays are the busiest time for worshipping. If you want to take a picture of the worshippers, be sure not to disturb them. A local who worked at the mosque said we could snap pictures, but only from the back. Also, remember to take off your shoes when you enter.

There are many more sites in Kashgar than mentioned here that dot the map, witnessing the changes of the city over thousands of years.
A shop in the Grand Bazzar
A shop in the Grand Bazzar
The bazaar

If you are on the lookout for one-stop shopping where you can get all the special local products of Xinjiang, the bazaar is your best choice. From handicrafts, foods and clothes, to daily commodities, everything is available at the bazaar.

Bazaar, in Uyghur, means "the market" or "trade place." In the old days, they were only open on Sundays, but now most are open every day. In Kashgar alone, there are more than 20 bazaars. The biggest, what locals call the Grand Bazaar, lies in the city's eastern area.

I arrived at the Grand Bazaar at about 9 am local time, and it was already busy. The Grand Bazaar is well planned, with shops neatly set in rows and divided into different sections according to the goods they sell.

The outside shops feature prepared food and drinks, where you can have local eats such as roast chicken, lamb, and icy milks. Walk inside and you will find yourself among shops that sell handicrafts, many hard to get elsewhere, like fur hats, woolen carpets, and folk music instruments.

Shops that sell dry fruits and nuts are a must for any traveler. There are raisins, dried apricot slices, dried figs, dried dates, and other varieties.

It is okay to bargain, and you can get up to half off the original price, though the process can be a little long. Handicrafts are usually between 20 and 200 yuan depending on the size. Woolen carpets are usually more expensive, as most of them are larger.

One thing to remember at the market is to bargain for what you really want to buy. Otherwise, it is not polite to spend a long time bargaining and then not make a purchase.

General tips

In downtown Kashgar, you can choose either taxis or the bus as modes of transportation. Neither is expensive. Five yuan ($0.78) is the starting rate for a taxi and it is less than 20 yuan for most rides between sites. Hiring a taxi costs about 200 yuan a day.

It is convenient to take buses, as most of the tourist sites and bazaars have bus stops. It's one yuan per trip, and most buses do not have an attendant. So, remember to have change ready.

If you want to travel to another city from Kashgar, there are cars and coach buses at the city's central bus station. Many of the cars are privately owned, and as long as they have a certificate, they can pick up passengers.

Free maps are available at the airport, making it easy to take taxis if you expect communication to be a problem. For lodging, book a hotel online. Prices range from 200 to 600 yuan a night.

Besides roast lamb, chicken, and pilaf, which are traditional foods in Xinjiang, yoghurt is also recommended, especially on a hot day. It is often homemade and served with sugar, melting by the time it hits your mouth.

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