Travel

In China’s far north-west, the Uygurs of Kashgar are a reminder of the Silk Road outpost’s cultural convergence. By Joyce Morgan.

Revisiting the Uygurs of Kashgar, in north-west China

Uygur watermelon sellers on the streets of Kashgar.
Credit: JOYCE MORGAN

The little mudbrick building is hidden behind gleaming high-rises. Nothing suggests the white-washed residence in the heart of Kashgar, China’s most far-flung city, was once a vital but unlikely listening post in a high-stakes spying game. Or that the assortment of explorers, spooks, writers and oddballs who stayed under its roof made it a Chelsea Hotel of the Far East.

Today, the down-at-heel Chini Bagh houses a Chinese restaurant serving mediocre food. Its shady verandah still offers refuge from summer heat. Inside, cast-iron stoves are reminders of how winters were spent more than a century ago where desert temperatures drop to minus 12.

I’m overjoyed to find the old house, battered but still standing, when so much of the traditional Muslim oasis has vanished. The building has suffered numerous indignities over the years. After its terraced orchards were left to rot and stables converted into a dank shower block, Chini Bagh was a flophouse sheltering Pakistani traders and backpackers when I first stayed under its castellated roof in the late 1980s. A view across Kashgar’s tilled fields to distant snow-capped Muztagh Ata was compensation for a sagging bed in a room shared with a Portuguese juggler, a Japanese with a taste for local rocket fuel and a brawny German yellowed with jaundice.

I wandered Kashgar’s enchanting alleys, bought pomegranates from stout matrons with heads covered for modesty, who raised their skirts to pull change from substantial cotton bloomers. 

Kashgar, in the restive Muslim province of Xinjiang, formerly Turkestan, is closer to Islamabad and Kabul than Beijing, yet clocks are set on the distant capital’s time zone. Encircled by the Tian Shan and Pamir mountains and on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, Kashgar was a Silk Road crossroads for centuries. Caravans would halt there before traversing some of the earth’s most dangerous terrain.

In the late 19th century, Kashgar’s Chini Bagh became a nerve centre of “the Great Game”, when the expanding empires of Britain and Russia manoeuvred for influence in Central Asia. Fearful Russia had designs on its imperial Indian jewel; Britain dispatched envoy George Macartney to remote, strategic Kashgar to keep an eye out.

He moved into Chini Bagh, meaning “Chinese garden”, in 1890. It became the British consulate and his home for 28 years. Within its thick walls the ever-watchful Macartney penned secret reports to his British masters on anything that might destabilise British interests. He documented the rapaciousness of Indian moneylenders, tensions between “excitable” Afghan and local traders, and a near riot when a Hindu man was found in the home of a local Muslim woman. I dusted off Macartney’s yellowing reports a few years ago, bound in crumbling leather volumes in the British Library, and marvelled at the minutiae.

Macartney’s lonely outpost became more hospitable when he brought his gregarious young Scottish bride to Kashgar. She promptly dispatched Chini Bagh’s more feral inhabitants. “Wolves, leopards and foxes did not appeal to me,” Catherine Macartney wrote in an evocative memoir. A pair of geese and a well-travelled piano were installed in the drawing room.

There the Macartneys welcomed a stream of intrepid visitors – 19th-century European explorers bent on looting Turkestan’s antiquities, Australian George Morrison (correspondent for The Times), and refugees fleeing a murderous uprising in the oasis. Writers Peter Fleming and William Dalrymple have been among more recent visitors. 

The most frequent visitor during Macartney’s time was an eccentric Dutch priest whose chief talent, aside from brewing altar wine, was gossip. When Father Hendricks died, the Great Game foes temporarily forgot their differences. Macartney and the rival Russian consul led the funeral procession to a graveyard behind the building. 

I looked in vain for Hendricks’s grave recently; if any trace exists it lies buried under concrete. But the old Russian consulate, more austere than Britain’s, still stands. Its entrance sports a newly added pair of sparkling Doric columns, like gold incisors in a mouth of otherwise decaying teeth. 

Cossack guards singing Russian airs could once be heard by Chini Bagh’s inhabitants a kilometre away. You would be hard-pressed to hear them today over the hammer of construction and blare of horns from cars that have replaced donkey carts as the main form of transport. The winds of change that have blown through Kashgar are as fierce as the dust storms that blast the oasis each spring.

Most of the town’s ancient walls, maze of alleys and adobe buildings have been torn down in the past couple of years. Sections have been rebuilt in the traditional style. But it feels like the Central Asian equivalent of mock-Tudor. China says the old buildings were an earthquake risk. Locals are unconvinced, fearing the new structures enable better surveillance of fractious local Uygur Muslims.

One local tells me his family’s home for 250 years was among those demolished two years ago. He has central heating now, he tells me. But he is circumspect about the new home. “It takes a bit of getting used to,” he says. 

There is resentment that an influx of Han Chinese is destroying a traditional way of life. I witnessed armed Chinese police patrolling the streets and stationed outside hotels, public buildings and schools. It was the most overt show of strength I have seen in the oasis. There is talk of a new Great Game in this strategic, resource-rich region, over which the Middle Kingdom is increasingly exercising control. China has declared Kashgar a special economic zone, just as it did with Shenzhen, where it transformed a sleepy southern fishing village into a high-rise Chinese mega-city in 30 years.

The groundwork has been laid. Tracts the size of football fields on the fringe of the oasis have been cleared. Five kilometres from Kashgar, near the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine – one of Xinjiang’s holiest Muslim sites – a mudbrick village has been flattened since I previously visited five years ago. 

Then, I sat in the shade of poplar trees fed by babbling irrigation channels that have been the lifeblood of Xinjiang for more than 2000 years. As I leave the mausoleum this time, walk through its rose garden and cross a wasteland outside its gates, I wonder where the inhabitants have moved to. And, in a place reliant on snow-melt, how water will sustain not just a rose garden but a rapidly growing population. 

The Karakoram Highway, which connects Kashgar with Pakistan, is being rebuilt and will speed access to China’s backdoor. The original narrow, winding high-altitude road through towering snow-capped mountains and around sparkling Karakul lake has long been impassable during winter. Bulldozers are now more prevalent along it than hardy Bactrian camels still used by locals as beasts of burden.

But camels remain king at the weekly livestock market on Kashgar’s outskirts, the largest in Central Asia. They command the highest prices of all the animals bartered each Sunday by local traders. Amid dust and dung, teeth and hindquarters are inspected, creatures are taken for test drives by Uygur men in traditional green embroidered skullcaps and sporting wispy beards. Kyrgyz men, noted horsemen, in conical white felt hats, inspect the steeds. Local traders haggle in the bazaar, which is hung with felted rugs, fragrant tea, fur hats and brass kettles.

Back at Chini Bagh, I look out through the window, while seated at one of its circular Chinese tables. Within Macartney’s residence, a decaying emblem of the former reach of the British, I’m reminded that all empires rise and fall.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Stage of empires". Subscribe here.

Joyce Morgan
is a Sydney-based arts journalist. She is writing a biography of artist Martin Sharp.