Still there exists a region in China beyond red lanterns, ideograms and chopsticks, where people chat less online, rather mostly face to face! This is Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where you can have a taste of the good old charm of central Asia and Kashgarh, aka Kashi, is an ideal base camp to get started.
Located between the desert of Taklamakan on east and mountain ranges of Tianshan & Pamir plateau on west, Kashgarh is an oasis town, where northern and southern branches of ancient Silk Route passing through the Taklamakan desert met each other, and hence the city was a resting place for the caravan of merchants, as well as an important trade center where dealers from China, Arab and Europe used to exchange their goods, chiefly silk and spices. Those caravans are no more, but the impact of the eclectic acculturation that Kashgarh had been passing through for ages, still exists. To get submerged in this distinct culture you should be in Kashgarh and do not miss the following things:
1.Strolling through the Old Town
Like all other ancient Chinese cities, Kashgarh is also divided in two parts: old town & new town. But the fact is that nothing is kept actually ‘old’, even in what they refer as old town. Today, the old town had been completely demolished and a newer one with modern conveniences had been built. Then what’s the point of getting around there? Because, a city remains alive in the heart of its people, not in its buildings! The Uyghur neighborhoods are still friendly and sociable; they still wear their ethnic attire, spend their laid back mornings sipping and gossiping in old tea houses; kids are still full of life and play all along the road; air is still full of the smell of kebab & naan; melody of Rabab coming from the shops of musical instruments still mesmerizes the passer-bys; and last but not the least, the houses are rebuild maintaining the old décor and more or less similar color & architectural plans. Therefore, a leisurely stroll through the allies of this new ‘old’ town, despite of its lack of history and authenticity may unfold plenty of tales to you; if you can observe; if you can interpret.
There are some parts of the old town, where you have to buy tickets for your visit, but I will suggest visiting the area near Id Kah Mosque. It is free of cost. How to get there: Arrive at Id Kah Mosque and explore the allies behind. I am attaching a map for your help:
I would like to emphasize on certain things which I felt attractive while strolling through the allies of this old town.
- Shops of Musical Instruments: Huge display of beautifully decorated string instruments, especially Rababs made out of snake’s skin and different types of percussions will take you to a medieval era. You may request the shop owner to play something for you.
- Shops of Copper Utensils: Eye-popping gleam of copper utensils will make you stop while passing one of those shops. It is rare to see the use of copper utensils in such a large scale. The unique shapes and patterns of these utensils may draw your attention and you can have idea of Uyghur cooking style. You may find shop-owners making copper utensils using primitive methods.
- Tailoring Shop: I was personally obsessed with the way the Uyghur ladies dress. Do you feel the same? Then try to visit a tailoring shop to have a glimpse on their fashion as well the making procedure. If you are staying there for a number of days, you may buy a piece of Uyghur silk from the market and order the tailor to make a dress of your choice.
- Dry Fruit Stalls: Piles of numerous types of dry fruits arranged one after another and mobile fruit-carts are signature sights of the Old Town. These fruits are imported from the neighboring countries, along with the other parts of China. Along with fruits, dried snake, lizards, even living scorpions are found on sale for using in medicinal purposes.
- Inside a Household: The majority of the people of Kashgarh are from Uyghur community. While strolling through the allies of old town, it is recommended to enter inside a traditional Uyghur home to see their aristocracy in interior decorations like finely curved wooden furniture, beautifully woven carpets on floor, nice curtains and so on. Their dinning décor including huge and unique spread will awestruck you. Keep in mind, Kashgarh is politically a sensitive area, therefore try to enter inside any house with the help of a local guide and always ask permission from the family before taking photographs inside.
Café-culture is not very common part of the life-style of China, but here in Kashgarh you will find tea-houses everywhere. These are of all budget ranges and people from all socio-economic background gather here. They are all men, especially old men and all of them found wearing Doppa, traditional Uyghur cap. Here Uyghur veterans eat, play, laugh, even sing & dance, and most importantly these emotions inside the tea-houses are all candid, not curated. Though the most fascinating feature of the tea-houses is observing the social life of Uyghur men, but of course, you will have different types of tea! Unlike the rest of the China, here people drink tea with rock sugar.
If you do nothing else in Kashgarh, just treat yourself with local delicacies, and then also your trip will be quite fruitful. This is a paradise of lamb-lovers. Wake up early in the morning and start your day with a bowl of lamb head soup. For the rest of the day, you have plenty of must to taste options like dumpling soup, roasted pigeon, lamb’s feet, Uyghur polo and so on. Try handmade yoghurt made & sold by local ladies and handmade ice-cream. After sundown, you will find roads full with kebab shops everywhere. Kebabs with Uyghur Naans are something heavenly to taste. Don’t forget to watch the process of Uyghur Naan-making. Especially in morning they make Naans. A freshly made hot Uyghur Naan with a cup of tea will make your day. Another interesting thing to observe is handmade noodles. Especially there are shops alongside the animal market where you will get to see this amazing scene.
Markets always hold special appeal to me, not only for the saleable products, but also for people watching. To get the heartbeat of Kashgarh one should visit the following markets:
- Animal Market: Kashgarh is famous for holding Asia’s largest animal market on every Sunday. Kyrghiz and Kazakh traders come here to sell their sheep, cows, horses and camels. It is interesting to observe the local Uyghurs examining the animals they want to buy, bargaining for them and tireless persuasion of the sellers along side. How to get there: 牛羊巴扎–These are the Chinese characters depicting the Animal market. Hire a taxi and show it to the driver.
- Sunday Market: Though the name is Sunday Market, but this terraced market is opened for every day. Here you may have varied options of souvenirs like carpets, silk, fur-garments, musical instruments, wooden handicrafts, copper utensils, stone & gem jewelries, dry fruits etc. How to get there: Hire a taxi and show the following picture to the driver.
- Market Opposite to the Id Kah Mosque: Local Uyghur people usually gather here to buy all kinds of living necessities. This place may not be very scenic like the Sunday Market, but is good to get ideas of their life-style. If you are interested to buy Uyghur silk, then here you will get cheaper price. How to get there: Arrive at Id Kah Mosque and just cross the road. Please go through the map I have attached above.
There are two important Islamic architectures those should be included in your must visit list:
Id Kah Mosque: Built in 15th century, Id Kah Mosque is the biggest mosque in China. Every Friday, a large number of devotees gather here to pray, though outsiders are not allowed inside. How to get there: The mosque is located at the heart of the city. Hire a taxi and show the following picture to the driver.
Afaq Khoja Mausoleum: Built in 17th century, this mausoleum is the most impressive Islamic architecture of Xinjiang Province. It was built in the memory of the Sufi master Muhammad Yusuf and his son & successor Afaq Khoja, who have significant role in spreading Sufism in China. This mausoleum contains the tombs of five generations of Afaqi family. The mausoleum is beautifully decorated with blue and green glazed tiles and looks stunning under the bright sun. There is a prayer zone in the same complex. Here, the decorated wooden beams are worth noticing. How to get there: It is located some 5 km north-east from Kashgarh. Hire a taxi and show the following picture to the driver.