The death of cities is not a rare event in the history of Xinjiang. Nomad invasions, shifting sands, and changing river courses had all taken their toll of numerous urban centers and settlements, which left their disintegrating corpses along the fringes of the Taklamakan desert.
However, it is much less common to witness a city die and revive at the exact same time. Until you reach Kashgar. On the long day’s travel from the Kyrgyz city of Osh and through the Irkeshtam pass, I pictured to myself what it will be like – after all, it had been a longtime dream to visit the fabled queen of the Chinese Silk Road, a city shrouded with stories of trade, religion, and espionage.
Pressing through the now-bustling main streets of modern Keshi, as Kashgar is known in Mandarin, I tried to locate the sites I knew only from chronicles and textbooks. The legendary old British consulate, the “Chini Bagh”, or the Chinese garden as it was known, is now overshadowed by the monstrous modern Chinese hotel of the same name, while the old red and white brick house behind is serving as a family owned restaurant, showing little of its past glory, when weary explorers, diplomats, and agents passed through its gates. I tried to guess where the old city wall had once separated the Oasis’s sheltered premises from the perilous surroundings, and where the small European cemetery once stood, firmly planted on the Kashgar riverside, before disappearing under blocks of commercial and residential buildings.
So, not much is left of the old sites of my dreams and highly romantic imagination. More than that, since the year 2009 the Chinese administration had started a several years and tens of millions dollar project that included the demolishing and rebuilding of Kashgar’s old quarters. The ancient mud-brick, wood, and reed-mat houses have been toppled down and replaced by new, modern concrete structures.
A stroll through the streets and alleys of Kashgar’s old town is a weird, and to a much extent, melancholic experience. It gives the same feeling as when you walk into a room where a random party has taken place, and all that is left are empty plastic cups and partly-eaten pastries. You enter the silent labyrinth of side streets, acknowledging that someone had changed the set, but without realizing what the former play actually was.
And it’s not that the city had been razed off the face of the earth. On the contrary, the old city is pretty much still there. Albeit built of modern materials, the basic design was left somewhat true to the original, and with mud-based plaster and carved wooden window panes , there is no real reason why in a hundred years, these houses will not become a classic in their own right. So what is actually the problem? Well, Welcome to Ye Olde Kashgarland.
Cities don’t really last long; like the snake’s scales they are in an ongoing process of change and movement, replacing and reconstructing their particles throughout the years in an ever-lasting cycle of regeneration. it’s the balance between the old and the new that makes a human settlement vital, a society which acknowledge the needs of the future, as much as it has a genuine connection with its past. Great cities are those that manage to preserve that unique inner essence that defines their spirit, while not becoming a dead museum on one hand, or pursuing a sterile future on the other.
It’s easy to accuse the Chinese leadership of maliciously plotting to destroy the cultural heart of the Uyghur homeland in order to eradicate any national aspiration they might have, but despite the fact that The PRC government is keeping the Uighurs under the boot, China’s policy in its Central Asian domain is more complex than that.
The Chinese have always had a developed historical perception, keeping a meticulous account of their histories for at least the last two thousand years. Most Chinese people I’ve met had a pretty profound knowledge of their past, and references to important events and figures of the long Chinese history are interwoven into the Chinese cultural life, national memory, and even into the Chinese language itself.
Given that, it’s hard to grasp this notion when we take into account the obvious recent decades destruction of historical centers in Beijing, Chengdu and other cities inside China proper.
In the last few decades China has undergone an overwhelming economic growth, and much was spoken of its ability to withstand the last global crises while largely maintaining its impressive annual growth, but this did not come without a cost. The Chinese appetite for rapid modernization had inflicted a hard blow on its cultural heritage, perhaps the worst since the infamous cultural revolution of the late 1970s. Pristine landscapes are being mowed down by bulldozers, as new highways and interchanges are being built to connect China’s mega cities, while ancient towns and Hutong neighborhoods are being replaced by new residential compounds and shopping malls.
Giving the Chinese’s famous deep historical perception, it is hard to grasp this self-destruction of its past in such a massive scale. Is it solely a governmental policy intended to maintain the promise for economic growth instead of political freedom, no matter the cost? Or is it simply a Chinese down-to-earth functionalism, favoring the needs of the hour over conservation of China’s cultural and environmental heritage? Sometimes it seems as if the Chinese approach to the Chinese landscape is similar to the design of a traditional ink painting, when the ideal form of nature is more important than the actual natural reality. As an example it’s not rare to see the destruction of a scenic site of natural beauty while replacing it with a recreational “scenic spot” with an idyllic construction of fiberglass water spring and concrete waterfalls, or the erecting of a concrete image of a classic Chinese town of old, with curvy bridges and stylish lanterns, sometimes where an actual old town use to stand.
The story of Kashgar represents a similar, but yet a somewhat different version of this story. China is a huge country, and although what we call the Chinese, otherwise known as the Han people, compose a majority of more than 90% of its total population, there are 55 officially recognized ethnic groups in China. The massive Han group forms the major support base of the Chinese government. During the last decades the Chinese administration has managed to silence any real call for political change by supplying the Chinese growing “middle” class the promise of a constant economic growth. For the other, less fortunate mass of Han Chinese, the option of immigration to China’s periphery holds its own promise of a better life, with governmental tax reduction, and the option of escaping the one child policy, its an offer many cant refuse, and thousands are heading west by the train full.
The Han immigration to Xinjiang, similarly as the population shifts to Tibet and Inner Mongolia, represents the Chinese government’s need to reinforce its firm hold of these provinces, as much as it’s meant to ease the social and economic tensions in the densely populated China proper, while as said, offering the new immigrants a chance for better life in the Chinese periphery.
In Addition, Xinjiang holds a prime status in China’s aspiration for economic and political leadership in Asia. Besides its important deposits of coal, fossil fuel, metals, and other resources, crucial for china’s development, it holds once again, as centuries ago, a central importance in China’s connection to Central Asia’s post-soviet republics, and onward to Russia, the Middle East, and eventually Europe in what is now promoted as “The new Silk Road”. In this newly-forged political and economic network, gas pipes are being stretched from east to west and modern commodities such as Chinese manufactured cars, and cheap washing machines, are carried on rows of white lorries, replacing the textile, grain, and rhubarb-laden camel trains of the historical trade routes.
The region of Xinjiang has known it’s high and low tides under the Chinese sway, although very rarely coming under direct Chinese domination. The final incorporation of the region into the Chinese superstructure had occurred under the Qing dynasty and resulted in ongoing waves of uprisings and revolts, and with two exceptions of short live independent republics (1933-1934, 1944-1949), usually ending up being overrun by the superior Chinese forces, be it Chinese warlords, Guomindang or CCP.
When following Chinese-Uyghur relationship throughout the last two centuries, the pattern becomes vividly clear. Given the obvious historical, religious, and cultural connection of the Uyghur, and the other ethnic groups (Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik etc) in Xinjiang to the central Asian milieu, the Chinese political and cultural dominance is a hard one to swallow, especially when the one in question is the highly-involved and ideologically profound rule of the PRC.
Given the Uyghur historical aspiration for political and religious independence, the Chinese central government has always had to keep a watchful eye, while simultaneously making an effort to incorporate the Uyghur community into its vision of a so-called multi-cultural and ethnically diverse China, reshaping and remolding the local culture to its harmless multi-cultural Chinese version. The reshaping of Kashgar seems to serve this exact purpose.
Back on the main streets of the new-old city, one cannot ignore the feeling that the contractors must have been at some stage working for the Disney Company. The old hole-in-the-wall workshops have been replaced with neatly standardized shops, decorated with uniformly made signs, obviously designed first for the Han and foreign tourists. On several street corners you can spot cast bronze sculptures of artisans, vendors, and musicians, replacing the actual ones who might have sat and worked there before it was made into an engineer-designed sidewalk and parking lot.
The situation is not at all monochromatic; there is no doubt that the improvement in sanitation, water supply, and street lighting benefit the indigenous Uighur as well as anyone else, as some of them admit themselves. However, as long as the PRC government will not prove its sincere effort to improve the lives, not only of the Han population, but of the entire people of Xinjiang, while allowing it to fully enjoy the new economic opportunities which lay in this resource-rich land, the internal tensions will surely will not only not come to an end, but will intensify.
Perhaps the story of Uyghur Kashgar who turned into a Chinese amusement park is the story of all of us on a Chinese scale. “The museumification of the world is today an accomplished fact”. Our hyper-transmitted media-bound consciousness, combined with Lonely Planet-herded mass tourism, roaming on a UNESCO list universe, has made the separation a complete fact. When the world is no longer experienced as it is, but as an abstraction of once natural, flowing usage; when objects and locations are no longer experienced as they are, but as layered levels of meanings and symbols that are to be processed and consumed on Facebook, Twitter, and Flicker; there is perhaps no more place in the world for an old musical instrument maker and his trade, only for his bronze-cast shadow, on a tourist-attracting main Street, in a dusty Central Asian town.