Kashgar Revival?

November 17, 2010

Once the western oasis town that connected the Silk Road routes encircling the Taklamakan Desert, the city of Kashgar is re-emerging onto the global scene as a peculiar focus of Beijing’s “special economic” devotions.  Located in the Xinjiang Autonomous region in northwest China, Kashgar is approximately 4400km from Beijing and sits at the edge of the western Chinese borders with Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and India.

Kashgar, connecting the north and south routes of the ancient Silk Road around the Taklamakan Desert.

The city’s geographic location, surrounded by the Pamirs to the West, the Taklamakan desert to the east, the Kunlun and Karakoram mountains to the south, and the Tianshan mountain range to the north, made it an essential way station for travelers along the Silk Road. The city has a storied history, once one of the four garrison towns of the Tang dynasty and visited by travelers like Marco Polo and the monk Xuanzang. With a population composed heavily of Muslim Uighers resentful of imperious Chinese governance and cultural subordination, the city has throughout the years been the site of much political contention and ethnic strife. As China relentlessly plows forward with her vision of modernity, Kashgar is being noticeably influenced by the latest multi-billion dollar promise of economic aid from the Chinese capital.

In “Aid Fuels Change of Fortunes on Silk Road”, published November 14th 2010 by the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs considers the effects of the $30 billion economic development plan on the city of Kashgar. This increased funding from the central government has led to growing attention from industrial, real estate, and even tourism sectors.

A street in Kashgar.

While many Kashgar residents are hopeful for the city to become an important center for Chinese economic dealings with the West, Jacobs suggests a more realistic outcome is for the city to grow into a “transit hub for Chinese goods heading to Central Asia and a manufacturing zone using raw goods coming the other way” – a familiar scenario, not a far cry from the role the city once played on the ancient Silk Road.

Narrow alleyways lined with mud-brick are being replaced with wide boulevards and modern buildings.

However, as is the case with many of the Chinese government’s undertakings, when the sole focus is economic development and the goal an ostensible veneer of modernity, many important cultural considerations fall by the wayside. With the construction of a new urban landscape, comes the destruction of the centuries-old, traditional Uigher mud-brick architecture. The skyline of the city, as Jones observes, once defined by the minarets of Muslim mosques, is now obscured by construction cranes and high-rise apartment buildings. The infiltration of the banal, modern Chinese city prototype into Kashgar is accompanied by many Han Chinese themselves. Pouring money into the city is not only diluting the “contumacious” Uigher population, but also reconfiguring Kashgar into another easily controlled Chinese metropolis. Given the existing resentment towards the central Chinese government’s control of the region, the stifling of minority culture, and the racism and past violence between the Uigher and Han ethnic groups, one must call into question the motivation behind the increased economic support and the future repercussions of the heightened attention and presence of the government in the region. Maybe the most we can hope for is that the historic, cosmopolitan nature of this ancient cultural crossroads will not fall completely victim to the efficient omnipotence of Chinese urban development.

– Gabrielle Niu