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Notes on the Geography of China: Kashgar

Kashgar, or Kashi as the Chinese call it, is a traditionally Uighur city in the far west of Xinjiang. The Uighurs are descended from Mongols who began arriving in the ninth century, but culturally they are Turkic, which is why this city has been not only predominantly Muslim (Sunni, with a Sufi minority) but why it looks like Bukhara and Samarkand--and not like a Chinese city. Han Chinese are still a minority in Kashgar, but although they are outnumbered 3 to 1 their hand is the dominant one: the only flights to the city, for example, are from the east, and a railroad was completed in 1999 but runs only east, to Urumqi. The Chinese are making over the fabric of old Kashgar, too, with as little neighborhood consultation as they employ when remaking the neighborhoods of Shanghai and Beijing. Democracy, after all, is inefficient.

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Efficiency does have its merits, and Kashgar in 2009 was close to getting a new airport. The Chinese do infrastructure incomparably well, and it's not a small thing, as any visitor to neighboring India knows.

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The road from the airport to the city was unpaved until 1976. The journey in prior decades was a considerable one. For an outstanding account of an overland journey from China Proper, see Peter Fleming's News from Tartary, 1937.

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The old Russian consulate, now part of a hotel.

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Another hotel, this one on the site of the British consulate, where Fleming had his first bath in months.

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Kashgar was once walled, but only short lengths of wall remain, in this case hemmed in by housing blocks whose residents probably see the wall more as a hazard than heritage. p>Catherine Macartney, who arrived in 1898 as the wife of the British agent and stayed for 17 years, wrote of "thick crenellated walls, in which are four massive iron gates, which are shut in sunset, and opened at daybreak, to the blowing of horns and firing of guns. And both cities are surrounded by moats, which look imposing, though I don't believe they are ever filled. Probably if they were, the water would melt the foundations of the wall, which seem to be simply of mud or of unbaked brick." (An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan, 1931 [1985 reprint], pp. 63-4.)

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It's easy to go past the wall and ignore it.

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We've walked a few blocks into the old city. The antiques shops lined up here--with tiger skins, not cheap--occupy a high-rent location across the street from the main mosque.

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The shops face the Idgah Square, in front of the mosque. This open space was once a Thursday market, but administrators like Oriental markets about as much as they like nomads, which is not at all. See the cars lined up at the far side of the square? They're parked along a wide street that the Chinese pushed through the old city. (Really, Robert Moses is the secret hero of Chinese city planners.) Now, see that splash of color behind the cars?

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Uighur is put up top, but the Chinese version is visually dominant. From the perspective of tourism promotion, the sensible languages would be French and German.

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The Idgah Mosque, built in the 15th Century, was remodeled in 1838. Lady Macartney described the square as she saw it: "The main streets seemed mostly to run into the big Market Square known as the Id-ga, in the centre of which stood the Chief Mosque.... I wish I could adequately describe the beauty and picturesqueness of the Id-ga bazaar, as seen from the steps of the Mosque. In the centre of the great square were the fruit stalls; in summer piled high with fruit, crimson peaches, apricots, mulberries, enormous bunches of black and white grapes and purple and yellow figs. One kind of white grape had berries about two inches long, and as thick as one's finger. Then there were melons of so many varieties, some being cut open to show the inside.... Fruit in Kashgar was too cheap to be appreciated.... the Cap stalls gave a wonderfully pretty touch of colour. They looked like flowers on their stands.... a Kashgar crowd was very gay compared with an English one. The inevitable tea shop, or Chai-Khana, was everywhere, where people sat and drank tea while they listened to dreamy native music.... (pp. 65-6).

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Look inside?

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Open ground.

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A simple dikka to guide in prayer those who can't see the pulpit.

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The Mecca-facing mihrab, under a coffered ceiling.

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The prayer hall. You might wonder where the timbers came from, but plenty of trees are still grown in the oasis around Kashgar.

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Tick-tock, tick-tock. One wonders how the Muslim world functioned in the days before clocks; certainly no self-respecting mosque today does without several, usual bunched up around the mihrab.

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Another view of the prayer hall.

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Mihrab and coffered ceiling.

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Ceiling detail.

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Ceiling detail.

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The main streets in the old city are often lined with two-story buildings with arched balconies.

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One of the peculiarities of those balconies is that each arch is supported on only one side, which is to say that the arches are purely decorative.

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Another example.

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And yet another.

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Live dangerously!

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The staple is bread baked in a tandoor oven.

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It comes in plenty of sizes.

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Lamb on skewers is available at a hundred stands.

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Repair shops.

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A main street in a mostly residential area. Things are already much changed from what Catherine Macartney saw. She wrote, "The streets of the Mohammedan City were very narrow and dirty, with the ground all ups and downs, and mostly muddy from the water slopped over from the pails of the donkeys and water carriers. Dark little shops lined the streets, in some places made darker by the covering or awning of reed mats that was erected right across the road for shade. The shopkeepers squatted in the midst of their goods, and never seemed particularly anxious for customers" (p. 64).

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Secondary mosques are scattered about.

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Another. The hexagonal paving blocks are recent.

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The Chinese authorities insist that the infrastructure is hopelessly inadequate and even dangerous. The same argument is used to support the clearance of courtyard-houses in Beijing.

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The houses often look like traditional homes farther west, say in Uzbekistan.

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Characteristically, they have a courtyard partly rimmed by a second floor with a wide veranda and--once again--decorative arches.

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Simple construction with wood frame and mud-brick infill.

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New construction with new materials.

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When the paving turns to brick, you can expect a dead-end.

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Peeking into a courtyard.

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