We are at the end of the Karakoram Highway, on the rim of the Taklamakan desert and in the great city of Kashgar, a regional center for the western part of the Chinese Xinjiang province, an oasis on the Silk Road and historically a small, independent kingdom of its own.
Few foreigners visit Kashgar today due to current tensions between official China and its Muslim Uyghur minority here which have been covered in international media and was commented on, for example, by Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post in February.
Current events are the latest phase of a long history of independence movements, repression and terrorism during the 20th century – though my own impressions going here 20 odd years ago were mostly of other things.
Having left Tashkurgan on a bright summers morning I reached Kashgar by bus going through the eastern Pamir mountains and then by the rim of the Taklamakan desert.
Kashgar is an oasis city, surrounded by vast stretches of poplar trees and it’s been a crucial waypoint on the Silk Road forever. You either got here after a hard trip over the Himalayas or after the deadly journey across the Taklamakan.
The city is flat, with straight, wide boulevards lined with poplars and dusty with desert sand. There’s little left of old Kashgar since it has been bulldozed to make way for modernity. A few blocks of “old town” are seen within minutes. On my first day I walk up to the main historical landmark, the striking, yellow-tiled, AD 1442 Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, of great symbolic value and a site of major events in the past.
The Tarim Basin, which is the largest part of present Xinjiang province and which mainly consist of the Taklamakan desert, is a true crossroads of history.
In the early centuries AD, there was a line of small, independent oasis kingdoms here along the Silk Road routes north and south of the desert. Kashgar in the far west was one of them. This is while direct Chinese control ended behind the Jade gate of the Great Wall, to the east of the Taklamakan.
Tang dynasty Chinese rulers tried to conquer the Tarim Basin with temporal success. Later on, the entire area fell to Muslim, Turkic peoples in the 11th century and the following 1 000 years was a complex tapestry of struggles between different powers. Xinjiang was set up as a regular Chinese province in the late 19th century.
The 1930s and 40s saw failed rebellions aimed at establishing an independent “eastern Turkestan” state. In 1933 the head of the executed Uyghur leader Timur Beg was put on a spike outside the Id Kah Mosque.
I explore the city on a rented “Flying Pidgeon” bike and I soon get the idea to bicycle out to the edge of town to see the desert. Going for hours on an endless poplar-lined avenue seems to take me nowhere and I am forced to give up, hitching a truck ride back.
So Kashgar is mainly a Muslim city, but Islam looks quite different here from in Pakistan and Afghanistan which I just came from. Women are seen everywhere and are seldom as veiled as further south. There is also nightlife here with bars selling liquor.
Another main difference is language. No one speak English and I don’t understand the signs in Chinese, which builds up a huge cultural barrier.
The Great Bazaar of Kashgar is one of the largest in Asia. It’s a maze of small stores and gives you a glimpse of past Silk Road glories.
On my second day, I suddenly discover the famous old British consulate building is actually preserved just behind the huge concrete block in which I stay. The Qini bagh was a major hub in the Great Game – the late 19th century powerplay of empires on the roof of the world, and I can’t wait to explore it.