Kashgar – at a crossroads
All roads lead to Kashgar, one of the Silk Road’s great centres. The northern and southern roads coming from Dunhuang skirt the Talkamakan desert and meet up in Kashgar. To the south is the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan; to the west, the Irkestam Pass into southern Kyrgyzstan; to the north, the Torugart Pass into central Kyrgyzstan (our route in) – and to the east, all of China.
It’s an uneasy place. The Han take-over is almost complete and the old town is being left to crumble. Kashgar is being rebuilt in a theme-park incarnation of its former self, but there are still traces and its Uighur people are not going quietly into their new homes.
New Kashgar is probably safer, more resilient to earthquakes, than the old town, but it has lost its Uighur identity. Our hotel is a good example of the brave new town.
We search for traces of the Great Game, which was played out here by Britain and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both maintained consulates and the diplomats schemed and met for dinner in this remote outpost. The buildings still stand, but have become restaurants.
To see real life Kashgar, we go to the Sunday livestock market, which now takes place outside town. Here there is drama, action – and hundreds of animals: horses, camels, sheep (lots of those), donkeys and yaks. There is also a dust storm, which gives everything a slight sepia tone.
Kashgar is still an exciting, interesting place, but it also feels uneasy with itself – and that makes it a sad place.