Great Game heritage

On my second day in Kashgar I discover, to my surprise, that behind the brutal concrete hotel in which I stay, the old British consulate is fully preserved though stripped of its famous garden.

The British interpreter, later diplomat George Macartney arrived in Kashgar on expedition in 1890 and soon became the first British consul here. He was to stay until 1918 as a major player in The Great Game – the struggle between empires for ultimate control of the roof of the world in Central Asia.

Macartney married Catherine Borland in 1898 and together they managed the British general consulate in Kashgar – the Qini bagh – which was a grand house with beautiful gardens famous for their views over the mountain ranges in the south.

The Qini bagh

Diplomats, spies, explorers and archaeologists investigating the ruins of the Taklamakan desert all stayed at Qini bagh and most famously archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein, who often recuperated here after desert expeditions.

Russia, the main British counterpart in The Great Game, already had a consulate in Kashgar when Macartney arrived.

Though Kashgar was formally a Chinese city in the 1890s, the most powerful man there was the Russian consul Nikolai Petrovsky who kept a military garrison on the consulate.

When the Swedish explorer (and rival of Aurel Stein) Sven Hedin arrived in Kashgar in 1894 he was greeted by Petrovsky with free vodka and Hedin stayed several times here, receiving all kinds of support from Petrovsky in his desert explorations.

Previous Russian consulate in Kashgar

I find that the cheapest rooms of the Seman hotel in Kashgar are actually inside what was previously the Russian consulate, so for my second night I reside there.

It’s not well kept but strolling around the house I manage to enter the dining hall, where Petrovsky held banquets for diplomats, explorers and Chinese dignitaries a hundred years ago.

The old consulate houses remain in Kashgar as memorials to the clash of empires on the roof of the world and to the strange age of imperial explorers stripping the amazing ruins of Silk Road cities in the Taklamakan of antiquities to bring home to European museums, which is another story.

Dining hall of the previous Russian consulate





Kashgar, Silk Road Oasis

Uggla finalWe 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.

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram Highway. Read the previous ones here, here, here and here.

On the square outside the Id Kah Mosque (right) in Kashgar

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.

Uyghur “Doppa” hats on sale

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.

On the outskirts of Kashgar

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.