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The Heart of the Silk Roads

Exploring the oasis town of Kashgar, where living traditions are still alive. But how long will they last?

We  are in the cultural heartbeat of Xinjiang and the Uyghur people. The  historic crossroads of the Silk Roads with numerous branches extending  in every direction from its center. Kashgar - a place of the grandest  bazaars and outstanding workmanship, both past, and at times, though  barely holding on, present. Located in the extreme southwest of China,  Kashgar borders several countries. In fact, Kashgar is closer to  Istanbul or Egypt than it is eastern China, and is true not only  geographically, but also culturally and spiritually. We reached the  dusty town via a long journey by rail skirting the Taklamakan desert,  passing desert oases, ruins of days past, and billboards proclaiming the  Chinese government’s “benevolence.” What ancient traditions have been  retained in Kashgar, if any.

We are about to find out.

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Currently, Kashgar is a  bustling center of Islamic affairs, cultural clashes, and daily trading,  with roots tracing back to the origins of the Silk Road. Lying at an ever so important crossroads of the east and west, it comes as no surprise to the importance of Kashgar in the Silk Road days. The geographical position is also highly advantageous, with the Tianshan Mountains to the north, Pamir Mountains to the south, and the vast Taklamakan Desert to the east, nearly all routes of the ancient highway passes through Kashgar. This is a place where travelers and merchants alike traded goods, exchanged ideas, and rested for the long and treacherous journey ahead. We like to envision ourselves as merchants from an age ago - 

Kashgar is one of those few places where more remains than is lost. 

Here  it was often coined the Pearl of the Silk Road due to its strategic  location, beauty, and value of goods. Kahsgar was, and still is, a  shopping and trading paradise with an abundance of bazaars and markets.  Miraculously, but not indefineitly, Kashgar still retains its cultural  heritage to this day, where local handicrafts, grand bazaars, and daily  trading still exist in the daily life. We visited Kashgar starting on  Sunday, the best day to experience the locals going about their life. At  the center of town is the Grand Bazaar, the largest of its kind in  Asia. Further outside of town is the livestock market, a hectic  conglomerate of animals and people looking to buy, sell, or trade their  livestock. Scattered throughout the streets of Kashgar are various shops  and stalls displaying the Uyghurs beautiful heritage, whether it be  music, crafts, or food. Join us as we visit all these gems that make  Kashgar the cultural heart of the Uyghur people.

The Grand Bazaar

The first stop in Kashgar was the Grand Bazaar, one of largest of its kind in Asia.

With  goods ranging from jade, carpets, silk, fruits, and nuts, it still exhibits the Uyghurs colorful culture every day. On Sundays it is especially busy, a time where locals put on their best clothes and  wander the endless stalls to find a hidden gem. We arrived in the  morning when the stalls were just opening and the locals just arriving. The variety on display here is quite overwhelming, with each stall  cluttered with numerous goods and wares. Most of the bazaar lies inside   large warehouse, but there are some side streets equally interesting selling numerous fruits, nuts, and snacks. Being a food lover, we found  this the best of the bazaar. We walked away with a large bag of fresh almonds in their shells for only 5 yuan ($0.75)!

The  bazaar had a peculiar Central Asian flair, unlike anything found in Central or Eastern China. The locals were overly friendly, if not a bit pushy in trying to sell us their goods. The ladies dressed in their  Sunday best, likely a tradition passed down through numerous generations. The fact that people from all over town and nearby villages gather together to shop, haggle and hang out is what makes being a  human so unique. Relationships are formed, both simply and at times more  in depth, and meeting your neighbor takes on a new meaning. Overall, the experience of wandering around for a couple hours and observing the  local life is not to be missed while in Kashgar, and set a blueprint for our time in the heart of the Silk Roads.

Sunday Livestock Market

On  the outskirts of Kashgar lies a loud commotion of sheep, lambs, traders, shepherds, butchers, and, us that day, tourists. This weekly spectacle and quirky assembly occurs only on Sundays, where Shepherds and butchers come from near and far to sell, trade, buy, or just observe the livestock on offer. Although it smells rather unpleasant and is quite dusty, it was a unique opportunity to witness this market that is full of Central Asian flavor. It was a journey in itself reaching the market on the northwest outskirts of town, joining countless other locals on a rickety bus - some holding chickens. From the drop off point, we followed the crowd to a the dusty and noisy commotion ahead to find an amusing ensemble of folks. The stalls and walkways were packed with traders and in the middle of the day.

Walking around and observing the wealth of animals that will soon be on the dinner plate, we couldn't help but to pity these innocent creatures. The laughing locals clashed with the agony of the livestock, but such i  life here in Xinjiang, where both extremes stand side by side. Honestly  it is hard to imagine when most of the shopping back west is made in  shiny grocery stores with packaged meat, not actual live animals as seen before us today. But at least we know it is fresh. Sorry for the little goats, but the most tantalizing aspect of this market were the street-food stalls lining the perimeter. Ranging from lamb meat  pies to freezing ice cream, the treats were out of this world, yet so simple at the same time.

It is quite ironic that one moment we were photographing the lovely sheep and the very next we were munching on mutton.

The Old Town of Kashgar

Kashgar really contains two distinct old towns - the newly constructed ‘old town’ built on the groundwork of a demolished one, and another one east of town that is still lived in, albeit a bit crumbling. The vast majority of visitors walk the perfectly organized streets and stalls of the manufactured town, and although it is really quite enjoyable, it doesn’t represent the Kashgar we came to uncover. A walk across town and river led us to an ancient town lived in for a couple thousand years.  The folk here don’t make a living off the Chinese tourist dollars, but eke it out as they have for generations. Side glances and possible murmurs were heard when walking the streets, but we found it refreshing that not all was lost of the original Uyghurs way of life in the heart of the Silk Roads. Some children left their abode homes to follow us while others scurried quickly inside.

The Future for Kashgar

What does the future hold for Kashgar, a town at the crossroads of a rapidly changing environment? The tourism business is expanding rapidly with nearly every sight requiring an entrance fee. The city is also firmly under deep surveillance from the government due to its close proximity to several international borders and the long-standing heart of the Uyghur people. Sadly, as seen from a visit to the ‘old town’ some of their ancient ways are rapidly being replaced with the modernity of China. The locals have been thwarted in a position that has to be dealt  with. Unfortunately, we can only deal with what the circumstances are, but anyone can make a difference by standing up for what they believe and being a leader. We can only hope new leaders are raised in this generation to stand up for what is right.

The Uyghurs are a wonderful people that deserve to be treated in a wonderful way.

Thank you for reading the story.

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