KASHGAR IS VANISHING

Marco Polo named Kashgar the most important city in its region. Now, it's being demolished.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis (2010)

in Kashgar, China

Sign at the entrance to the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

'Kashgar Old Town. Entrance Fee: 30 yuan.' The blue sign removes any doubt you might have: Kashgar in China's far west, for over a thousand years a vital part of the historic silk road, has been reduced to a tourist attraction.

Walking around the old town makes you feel more like you're in the Middle East, Afghanistan or Pakistan than in China. The original residents get more of their identity from Mecca than from Beijing. Once, islamic intellectuals studied and debated in the hundreds of mosques the city counted.

"Kashgar is the origin and the center of Uighurs culture," says a 34-year old man who grew up in the old city. These days, Beijing has such a grip on Kashgar that he is unwilling to say his name.

"People designed their own homes," he tells. None of the small houses, built from wood, stone, hay and hardened mud, is identical.

 Old town Kashgar, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Old town Kashgar, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

"We kept the streets narrow to prevent the sun from getting in." He turns another corner and bumps into a cart selling vegetables. Two women wearing hijabs test the wares.

The man: "Things have been running like this for centuries. Until now. Now Beijing decides what our houses and our streets should look like. Everything is starting to look similar."

The movie 'The Kite Runner' was filmed in Kashgar, which had to double as Kabul. These days, Kashgar looks less and less like the former Afghan capital. Instead, it resembles the Chinese cities thousand of miles removed.

The shadow rich alleys have been replaced by asphalt covered four lane roads. Century old homes with their inner courts have been demolished. People now live in apartment complexes with names like 'Garden of Joy'. At least there's air conditioning.

The man opens the door of one of the few remaining inner courts of a home, build in the sixteenth century. Four families live here. Stone steps in the corner lead to a balcony on the second floor.

"Every one who used to live in the old town has been moved over there," the man says, pointing to a new apartment tower. The remnants of a history going back centuries lie spread out between the apartment blocks.

New apartment blocks bordering a demolished part of old Kashgar, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

China is defending the destruction of Kashgar. Authorities claim the centuries old houses are no longer safe. In case of an earthquake, many more people would die than necessary.

The government refuses to consider a middle road, however, not willing to earthquake proof the old homes. Residents claim that during the most recent quake, in 2003, mainly the new apartment buildings collapsed. Not the old houses.

By now, Kashgar old town has been reduced to two square kilometers. But authorities aren't done yet with what they've branded a reconstruction project.

So the bulldozer keep at it, destroying ever more of an oasis city which Marco Polo deemed the most important place in the region when he traveled through Kashgar in 1273.

Commercials show praise China's goal to make Kashgar 'the Shenzhen of Western China'. Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong, in thirty years has grown from a fishing village to one of the richest cities in the country with close to 13 million people.

The 34-year old resident of Old Kashgar doesn't dare to estimate how long before there's nothing left. "One thing is certain. The Chinese have proven they're not afraid to come here, take over and do as they please. It'll probably end quickly for what's left."