Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on May 2010
At 4,000m above sea level, the sky takes on an otherworldly blue. Perched on the old fortress at Tashkurgan, in China’s north-western Xinjiang region, we could see the barren mountains give way to an oasis. This is the last major town on the Karakoram Highway before reaching the border with Pakistan, on a route which follows part of the ancient Silk Road.
Our journey began 230km away in Kashgar, a city whose name alone conjures up visions of caravans of camels. Once a busy trading post on the Silk Road, today it is torn between its past and the ever-creeping demolition ball of modernity. News of the Old City’s destruction is premature, but no one seems able to give a definite answer as to how much longer it will remain.
The Id Kah Mosque—more impressive on the outside than in—marks the heart of Kashgar, which is itself the heart of China’s Uyghur culture, a predominantly Muslim minority of Turkic origin. Wander down the streets surrounding the mosque and you’ll find yourself in a maze of low-rise adobe alleys, where stall keepers hawk dried fruit, nan bread and bagels.
While it’s easy to spend many hours getting happily lost in this labyrinth, it’s perhaps more educational to go on a tour. English-speaking guides shepherd visitors around two areas of the Old City, each of which charge RMB30 (about ¥400) for admission.
The High Platform Old Town, overlooking the Tuman River, is home to 600 families. My guide explained one handy trick to stop getting lost: hexagonal stones on a path indicate that it is a through road, whereas normal bricks mean it leads to a dead end. The low doors on buildings are to stop heat escaping in winter, as well as to make people bow to the angels as they enter. As elsewhere in Xinjiang, the locals are incredibly friendly: on seeing someone with a camera, children in the Old City ask to be photographed and then crowd around excitedly to look at the result on the LCD screen.
A red banner towering above the road welcomes you to Kashgar Old City, the other preserved quarter that charges for admission. Once the site of a Karakhan Dynasty palace, it is now home to over 2,000 households—some 10,000 people in total. The 2km² area contains no fewer than 15 mosques, as well as the oldest house in Kashgar, thought to date back about 500 years. Many of the residents keep pigeons both for racing and for food.
Times have changed at the Sunday market: it operates every day now, and you’re more likely to hear the automated “Dao che qing zhuyi” (“vehicle reversing”) warning from a mechanized cart than the “Posh!” (“coming through!”) of a donkey cart driver. Though it has declined in popularity in recent years, the market is still the best place to stock up on tourist trinkets and Uyghur knives. Don’t expect any action until at least 11am Beijing time, and note that the livestock market is now held outside the city—and operates only on Sundays.
Leaving Kashgar along the Karakoram Highway, the route starts off comparatively flat before lurching up into the mountains. Camels graze on the sides of the barren hillsides and, higher up, are joined by yaks. You’ll pass Bulunkul, whose name means “lake in the corner”—the road hugs one shore as the other side rises up into a sand mountain that towers over the water. Further along, Lake Karakul offers hiking opportunities, as well as acting as a huge mirror for the Kongur-Muztagata range, whose peaks tower to more than 7,000m and have a permanent snow covering.
Unless you’re going on to Pakistan, Tashkurgan marks the end of the line. The Silk Road may be gone, but looking out from the town’s stone fortress over the green valley with its meandering stream, the sense of having completed a long journey still remains.
There are no direct flights from Tokyo to Kashgar. The area is usually accessed via Urumqi, which you can fly to from Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou or Shanghai. From there, either catch a flight to Kashgar (five times a day, approx 1hr, 40min) or take the train (twice daily, approx 24hrs). The Chinese government has deemed most of the Old City an earthquake risk and is demolishing it at a rapid pace, so it’s best to visit sooner rather than later.