When I first went to Kashgar it was already two places. Walking between tall white-tiled buildings, past shops selling engine parts, steamed dumplings and fireworks was like being in the small town in Hunan province, 5,000km to the east, where I’d spent the previous year. It wasn’t what I’d expected (or wanted) from an almost 3,000 year old city that had been a major hub of trade and culture on the Silk Road, a place Marco Polo had praised highly (“there are a good number of towns and villages, but the greatest and finest is Cascar itself”), albeit whilst damning its inhabitants (“The natives are a wretched, niggardly set of people; they eat and drink in miserable fashion”).
But in 2000 all I needed do was turn off the main street. Then the buildings quickly lowered and the streets grew narrow. The adobe houses had heavy old doors through which, if ajar, you could see courtyards with rose gardens and tethered sheep, or into rooms where men hammered metal and wood. The lanes twisted, forked and wound, some quiet and shaded, others thronged with bicycles, horse-drawn carts, women wearing bright headscarves, men in square, stiffened skullcaps stepping from a mosque. This was Kashgar’s old city, populated by Uyghurs, a Turkic people whose language and culture are more Central Asian than Chinese. They were the largest ethnic group in the Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region, which is China’s largest province, yet one of its most sparsely populated, owing to its alternation of mountain and desert. Thirteen years ago all I did for several days was wander through the dusty streets taking mental photographs of knife-sellers, saddle-makers, sheets spread with dried snakes and seahorses, swathes of dried fruit and nuts, walls of golden dowry caskets, gaily painted cribs. I smelt the smoke of grilling lamb, saw boys whipping wooden tops, heard the ring of anvils, the bleat of sheep, the rising call to prayer.
When I was tired, or the sun too hot, I sat beneath a tarpaulin by the Id Kah mosque, built in the fifteenth Century and China’s largest mosque. There I slurped yoghurt with golden sweet syrup through splinters of ice. Or I rested in a teahouse on a first floor balcony, its walls turquoise with golden panels, its row of beds dark green. Birds in wicker cages chirped. An old man gifted me a red plastic heart. Later, he played the flute, and then, from deep inside his canvas bag, produced the bright red plastic of a 3D ViewMaster. He offered it to me and when I looked I saw Mecca in colour: it was a hadj in twelve easy clicks.
I was, of course, just passing through; the streets were like exotic scenes that I clicked between. But during the next few years in China I found no other place that had such a palpable sense of the past and yet remained vibrant. Although so much else was changing in the country, I thought of old Kashgar as a place that would endure.
The demolition of old Kashgar began in 2009. According to the Chinese government, the old houses were too great a danger in the event of an earthquake. Xu Jianrong, the vice mayor of the city, sought to justify the proposed demolition of two-thirds of the old city by asking, ‘What country’s government would not protect its citizens from the dangers of natural disaster?’ Yet although there had been major tremors in the region over the previous two years, there was no shortage of alternative explanations. Many saw it as a deliberate attack on Uyghur culture and identity, prompted by the violence in the city the previous year. A truck had been driven into a group of police recruits, who were then attacked with grenades and knives, causing sixteen deaths. Whilst the official explanation was that this was an act of terrorism against Chinese rule — the region only became a fully integrated part of China in 1949, and some Uyghurs resent the government’s policies in the region — exactly what happened, and why, remains unclear; some suggest that the incident was caused by local grievances with the police. There were also rumours that the demolitions were an attempt to disable a network of tunnels that ran beneath the old city.
But perhaps the most persuasive explanation for the demolitions is the one offered by Jane Jacobs to explain the death of old neighbourhoods in American cities: old Kashgar was doomed because no one was making a fortune on it.
Two stubbornly entrenched features of the Chinese system made old Kashgar’s demolition almost inevitable: land ownership and city finance. In China, all land is owned by the state; residents only have ownership rights for their homes, not the land they’re built on. Even in the countryside, farmers only lease their land from village collectives. For most cities in China the main source of revenue since the late 1980s has been selling land leases to real estate companies, who can then build on it, even if the land is currently occupied, so long as they offer compensation to the inhabitants. Residents usually end up having to move to a new home in different area, and whilst for some this can mean an improvement in their material circumstances, they have no say in the matter.
Of course the cultural and economic explanations for the demolitions were not mutually exclusive. What could be better than destroying Uyghur's cultural identity and getting rich in the process? But there’s an instructive example in the destruction of Beijing’s old hutong neighbourhoods in the preparations for the 2008 Olympics. The fact that these buildings, so rich in Chinese heritage, and at the symbolic heart of modern China, could be destroyed, suggests that profit was the stronger motive.
But whatever the reasons for the demolition of old Kashgar, one thing I was sure about was that I didn’t want to see it. By the end of 2010 more than 10,000 houses had been destroyed. It was bad enough looking at photos of wreckage and rubble, the empty spaces where there had been families, lives, the culture of shared surroundings. Going back would be too depressing. So long as I stayed away, my memories would endure.
In September 2013 I went to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to report on a drug clinic that put its patients into comas. Once there I had no real excuse for not visiting Kashgar: all that stood between me and the city were several mountain ranges and a 22-hour bus ride.
Long before we reached the centre of Kashgar it was clear that the city was no longer two places. More like one and a quarter. The part that appeared whole was certainly impressive. Bright ten and fifteen-storey buildings lined the eight-lane roads. There were shops selling gourmet cakes, Apple phones and computers, expensive bottles of wine. It all seemed to confirm what Chinese news reports were saying: that the ‘once prosperous Silk Road hub’ was ‘experiencing something of a renaissance’ and had ‘a bright future ahead’.
The only thing that didn’t fit this picture was the Uyghur man riding a horse through the traffic. On the back of a truck moving alongside him two men were beating a large drum while a third played a two-stringed lute; in front a man with a video camera lent precariously from the back of a battered white Mercedes. This reassured me that I was in Xinjiang, not Hunan, but it was only when we reached the Id Kah mosque that I thought this is Kashgar. It at least seemed unchanged.
But in 2000 the mosque had been the hub from which noisy, chaotic streets of traders radiated. Now the shops near the Id Kah are housed in new buildings whose architectural style could be described as Islamic Lego: blocky, light brown structures graced with ornamental arches. Above their doors are wooden signs saying ‘minority folk art’ or ‘traditional ethnic crafts’ in English and Chinese. But whilst it all looked far too kitsch, the notion of an ‘authentic’ tourist shop is an oxymoron. The shops sell the same knives, hats and musical instruments they sold a decade ago.
Further up the street I saw the first sign of the Kashgar I remembered. Bakers were prising flat circles of naan bread from the walls of clay ovens, stacking them in piles, spreading them in rows. It’s hard to overestimate the centrality of naan bread to Uyghur life; it has a sacred status. Naan mustn’t be thrown away, or put on the floor; in Uyghur there’s a saying, ‘I’d rather step on a naan.' Seeing the bread, and the people lining up to buy it, made me think that, whatever the destruction, something would endure.
The rest of the street allowed me to sustain this optimism. There were stalls selling fruit from other cities in the region – yellow melons from Hami, green grapes from Turpan – parts of sheep hanging from hooks, cobblers soling shoes. Noodles were being banged onto wood; smoke from kebabs moved slowly through the day’s last light. Admittedly, the street lacked bustle, the kind you’d expect at the dinner hour. But at least there were ordinary Uyghur people buying ordinary things.
It was not until climbing Yar Beshi, the hill in the east of the city, that I understood the scale of what had happened. The path leading up was thick with dust, dust that had been houses, homes: despite being one of the two main sections designated for protection, large areas of Yar Beshi have been completely razed. From the top I could see a panorama of clay or white coloured six-storey buildings, more of which will probably fill the huge area — around ten city blocks — that have been cleared at the foot of the hill. It was strange to see such a vast open space in the heart of a city; as if there’d been some kind of disaster.
Yar Beshi has been spared for tourism. I had only gone a few streets in when I saw a sign that said ‘Route One.' A few moments later I came across a large party of tourists from Shanghai. They were wearing yellow hats and listening to a guide; perhaps they had been inspired to visit after seeing a recent Chinese state TV proclaim the joys of old Kashgar.
“Here we are in old Kashgar. It has a history of more than 2,000 years. Walking in the old town is a real experience of touring the Uygur folk culture. With more than twenty streets, it is the only well-preserved labyrinth town in an Islamic style in China.”
I waited for the tour to pass; after they left the streets were deserted. There was a strange hush that made me doubt whether people were still living behind the walls and doors.
Wandering through the narrow streets I came across more absence. I found staircases that went nowhere. There were fragments of walls that still had their shelves.
I saw houses in every stage of demolition: swathes of broken brick and metal; roofless shells filled with rubbish and faeces; houses that looked as if they’d been smashed by a giant fist.
I was taking more photos of the house when I heard glass break. I turned and saw a Uyghur boy bend, pick up a rock, then launch it into the wreckage of a nearby house. After this, he picked up another rock, then another, each time throwing the rock fast and hard into the crater of tiles and bricks, breaking what was already broken.
The most intact house I found had been abandoned several years. I crawled through a broken window and found a room bare except for an old Islamic calendar for 2008-2009.
In the next room there was enough light from the holes in the roof to see wooden shelves, carved panels, the workmanship of the ceiling.
When I exited I met a man coming out of the house next door. I asked him where the people had gone. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Maybe to the one of the new places outside the centre. Many people went there.’
In this respect, the fate of old Kashgar’s population was like that of Beijing’s hutongs. In both places, the compensation the residents were given was only enough to live in new apartments located outside their former area; the property prices in their old neighbourhoods had increased too much for them to remain. The official descriptions for the drastic changes wrought on both old cities was also similar. Instead of ‘demolition’ or ‘destruction’, the street posters and newspaper articles spoke of ‘renovation’ and ‘rejuvenation’. In 2010, the manager of the planning department for Kashgar was quoted as saying that the restoration of 10,799 ‘dilapidated houses’ of the old city would be completed by the end of that year.
But three years later, though most of the demolition is finished, the ‘restoration’ is far from complete. The most finished houses are the ones on the streets behind the Id Kah, which resemble an urban planner’s kitsch fantasy of a southern European street. The houses and the road bricks are complementary shades of terracotta; the balconies and doors are made from wood that has a plastic sheen. Even on these mostly residential streets, there are the same heavily varnished signs placed above the shops as can be found hanging over the souvenir shops.
But to say that these streets resemble a model village would be unfair to model villages – usually these are built with some degree of care. The houses on the fantasy street look to have been built using the construction style common all over China. Quickly laid brick is smoothed over with concrete and then a skin of white (or terracotta) tiles applied. The aim isn’t to make a durable building, just to make a building fast. In the event of an earthquake, I doubt they’ll do much better than the buildings they replaced.
Mercifully, most of the ‘restored’ buildings aren’t as bad. In some cases adobe has been replaced with brick and wood, and there is a degree of architectural continuity with the former buildings. But many of these buildings are unfinished and uninhabited. There is the same hush that prevails in the tourist zone. What’s missing isn’t door and walls; it’s the communal life of old Kashgar and it can’t be restored.
Nick Holdstock is a writer and journalist and the author of The Tree That Bleeds, a book about life in Xinjiang province. He is currently working on a book about urbanisation in China.