China’s Wild, Wild West: Kashgar, Xinjiang

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More so than westernized Urumqi, Kashgar feels like you’re in an entirely different country. From the moment we stepped out of our cab and onto the dusty, crowded streets – Kara and I could tell we were somewhere as far removed from traditional China as we could be without actually crossing a border.

Gone are the high rises and garishly lit signs that are ever present in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing – they’re replaced with low, stone housing you’d expect to see in Central Asia.

Instead of expensive cars and swarms of motor bikes choking the streets, you instead see donkey drawn carts and vehicles pieced together from various parts to form something vaguely bike like. The streets smell of dirt and sweat and roasting lamb. The skies – far removed from the pollution that conjures an ever present haze in eastern China – are clear and full of promise.

old town kashgar
Traditional dwellings in Kashgar, Xinjiang

They say that you haven’t been to Xinjiang if you haven’t been to Kashgar, and it’s safe to say that I fell in love with the dusty city in China’s far west. Only Tashgorkan is closer to the Pakistani border, but it lacks Kashgar’s size and its melting pot of Han and Uighur culture.

Getting Settled

We arrived in Kashgar early in the day. While our watches informed us that it was 10am, we’re so far west that it’s probably closer to 8am. The Chinese government’s rigid adherence to Beijing time means that the city doesn’t really come alive until around noon – nor does it go to sleep until well after 10pm.

We’ve learned from our mistakes in Urumqi and already booked a room at the ostentatiously named New Delhi Business Hotel. We’re checked in quickly and soon tossing our packs onto separate beds in a large and comfortable room. The television blares an unnerving mix of CCTV (China’s ever present government run network) and the locally run XTV with its bizarre mix of shows that resemble Lute Idol, Uighur dance contests, and a truly surreal Russian talent show that seems to have a Christmas theme in every single episode.

We’re told breakfast is served free of charge every morning, but for now our stomachs are grumbling and we’re eager to make up for the time we wasted seeing precious little in Urumqi.

Id Kah Mosque and the ‘Old Town’

After long showers we’re ready to explore the city. The people here are predominantly the dark skinned and dark eyed Uighur – people of Central Asian stock that resemble Middle Easterners rather than the Han who dominate mainland China’s population. They are a friendly and welcoming people, although scant few of them speak more than a few words of Mandarin and we have trouble making ourselves understood to our taxi driver.

But we’re deposited at the Id Kah Mosque without too much difficulty and are immediately swept up in a sea of people. The traffic grinds to a standstill as people of all kinds mill in the street. Some wear Western clothing, but the majority are traditionally dressed in hijabs and long robes. It must be torture in the 30 degree heat.

On both sides of the road, vendors vie for the attention of those passing by. The air is thick with the smell of lamb – the area’s staple meat. It’s available as kebabs or in various other forms including ‘buns’, mixed into pilaf, or served in a hearty vegetable broth. Others are selling everything from trinkets to fresh fruit.

Id Kah Mosque Kashgar
Id Kah Mosque and the assembly area where upwards of 30,000 devout Muslims meet for prayer each Friday
Id Kah mosque Kashgar
A closer look at the Id Kah Mosque
Id Kah Mosque detail
Doves sit atop the entrance to the Id Kah Mosque
id kah mosque bikes
A bike left at the entrance to Id Kah Mosque by a respectful visitor
Detail on an arch by the Id Kah Mosque

But we’re here to see the Id Kah Mosque, which plays host to 30,000 worshippers every Friday. It’s Tuesday today and the crowds are mostly tourists and bored locals, but we get a sense for the place’s size and importance as we walk across the vast open area that leads to the entrance. It’s 20 RMB to enter and we’re feeling cheap, so we content ourselves with taking photos of the exterior and sneaking a few glances within.

The idea of paying to enter a religious establishment just seems alien to me.

Much of Kashgar’s old urban sprawl has been cleared away in the name of progress, but some of the ‘Old Town’ still exists around the mosque. The government have begun charging up to 30RMB to explore the historic sprawl of slums and markets, but we duck down a back alley and find ourselves immersed in another time and place soon enough.

Carpets in Kashgar
Traditional carpets and scarves for sale in old town

The paved roads give way to dusty alleys of packed earth. Cars are a rarity here, replaced instead by bikes and carts. The buildings here are squat, unattractive things. The doors are rotten and it seems unlikely that their rooves could keep out the rain. Stalls choke the road and bring even foot traffic to a near standstill. We are jostled from all sides.

kashgar old town street
A quiet street in Kashgar’s old town

It is here that we brave our first street food in Kashgar, rewarding our empty stomachs with some ‘baotze’ (steamed bread wrapped around meat or vegetables). These ones are ostensibly full of lamb, but at 1RMB apiece, we’re not surprised to find mostly fat and gristle inside. All around us the churning mass of humanity goes about its business. People buy freshly slaughtered sheep and goat right off of the hook while kids rush about chasing one another. Old men smoke and gossip while over-zealous hawkers try to win us over with their few words of English.

kashgar pilaf
A pilaf vendor in Kashgar’s old town district

The further into the mess we progress, the further back in time we go. Gone are the cheap electronics and gawdy bawbles – replaced instead with hand-made clothing and food of all varieties. We are experiencing the bazaar on a small scale and it is dizzying.

The locals gawk openly at us. Some even stop us and ask us to take their photos.

uygur man
This local asked me to take his photo. He then offered me a cigarette.
ruins in old town
Slums in Kashgar’s old town

I could spend hours wandering those twisting streets and dark alleys, but our stomachs are not satisfied with half-finished food and neither of us feels quite ready to brave anything more exotic just yet. Knowing the bazaar is not going anywhere, we head back towards the real world.

Delicious Kashgar

Kashgar is quickly catching up with the rest of China. What was once a massive sprawl of slums and markets has gradually been replaced with glittering apartment blocks and tacky malls. But there’s a certain relief to be felt when you emerge from the crowded alleys of the Old City and into something a little more familiar.

We spot a string of restaurants purporting to sell goat, but we’re disappointed when our requests are waved away and we’re informed that all three restaurants only sell a traditional mix of lamb, vegetables, and noodles. Still, a meal of noodles and lamb sounds pretty appetizing and the tea (complimentary in every restaurant in China) is an amazingly fragrant blend we’ve not been able to find since.

noodles and lamb
The mix of noodles and lamb is a staple in Uighur cuisine

We spend an hour chatting and making a mess of our meal. The staff – all members of the same Uighur family – gather to watch us eat. They are not shy or subtle about us, and openly laugh and point when Kara spills noodles into her lap or I burn my mouth on the tea. It’s a good natured kind of amusement though and we’re happy to provide the entertainment.

We found this to be almost universal. Across the alley from our hotel is a Uighur restaurant called Ruslan. The family here are exceptionally welcoming and friendly.

On our first night in Kashgar we stepped inside and were immediately approached by a young boy and a slightly older teenage girl.

“Good evening,” the boy intones in an improbably deep voice. He sounds like Boris Karloff and looks something like Borat.

The girl doesn’t speak a word of English, but the grin on her face can’t be removed as she takes us each by an arm and leads us to a table. She excitedly chatters to us in Uighur as we try to make sense of a menu in two languages neither of us read.

“What do you like?” Kara asks in her limited Mandarin. The girl’s eyes light up!

She hastily points to a few items on the menu and we’re relieved that they aren’t the most expensive. We nod agreement and our feast is soon brought to us:

– Two bowls of goat milk yogurt served with sugar for taste
– A plate of unsalted peanuts
– Lamb with noodles

It’s an odd meal, but it’s damned good. The yogurt is freshly made and tastes delicious, and the lamb is of a better cut than we’d had so far in Kashgar. The girl – who never leaves our side – sits with head on her crossed arms and watches us with open admiration and wonder. She’s pretty and sassy and will doubtlessly break a few hearts when she is older.

Our second visit to the restaurant – made a few days later on our last night in Kashgar – is a family affair. Not only are Boris Karloff and his pretty sister in attendance, but we’re also waited on by a stunningly beautiful Uighur girl and what I can only assume was a gruff older brother.

We’ve done our research this time and order up some local delicacies (and more yogurt). Soon we’re battling through lamb kebabs, yogurt, and pilaf. Our final dish – the aptly named ‘Big Plate Chicken’ is a meal big enough to feed four men grown. Suffice to say, we barely make a dent in our meal.

lamb kebabs
Lamb kebabs are an ever present (and not particularly good) part of Uighur cuisine
big plate chicken
Big plate chicken is a delicious, spicy treat. My favorite Uighur dish.

The young boy with the deep voice drops by, looks at our 120RMB bill (around $20) and gasps openly. He shakes his head at our impulsive spending. That kind of money doesn’t get thrown around often.

We sit for two hours and barely eat anything. We shame-facedly ask for our meal to go and the girls hover over us with take-out containers while chattering away about how much food we ordered. The sassy girl goes so far as to snatch up a bit of food from my plate, grab my attention with her eyes, and then tuck it into her mouth.

She presses her finger to her lips to let us in on the secret.

ruslan uygur restaurant
The fabulous girls at Ruslan Uighur Cuisine in Kashgar

Before we leave we ask if we can take a photo with the staff. The entire family comes out – chef and all – and pose with us. They invite us to come back without ever speaking a word of English, and I’m left with a feeling of genuine sadness as we head back to our hotel. I daresay I’ll never set foot in that restaurant again, but I certainly hope others do. I’ve never been to a restaurant quite like it.

Western Kashgar

Kashgar is not without its Western conveniences. After returning from our trip down to Karakoram Highway with a bout of food poisoning, I am encouraged by our guide to eat only Western food. He directs me to the Karakoram Cafe where the WiFi is free and the food is familiar.

Over the course of our two visits there I get to chatting with the friendly Uighur men who work behind the counter. One of the dreams of studying hospitality management in Australia. He asks me countless questions about living and working in Australia while I eat my sandwich and suck down a banana smoothie.

On our second visit we share a Greek style lamb pizza washed down with locally brewed Xinjiang Beer. It’s not a bad drop.

xinjiang beer
Sinkiang beer ‘ain’t a bad drop

Elsewhere there are the supermarket chains and other Western conveniences, although we don’t spot a single KFC or McDonalds in our travels.

Our last day in Kashgar is a sedate affair. We seek out a lakeside park where we pay 10 RMB to ride a ferris wheel affording us a dizzying view of the city. The Old City stands out like an island in a sea of progress – its dour brown walls somehow beautiful when placed against a backdrop of glass towers and paved roads.

old town kashgar
Kashgar’s old town as viewed from the ferris wheel
kashgar ferris wheel
The ferris wheel in Kashgar affords a stunning view of the city
kashgar lake
South Lake in Kashgar is a popular spot with locals
chairman mao kashgar
The Mao statue in Kashgar is one of the last remaining in China

This is an area devoted to tourists. Cellphone stores and restaurants charging outlandish amounts cluster around the base of one of China’s last remaining statues to Chairman Mao. I pay one of them 150 RMB to fix my shattered iPhone screen and we sample a few flavourless local snacks that leave our memories even before we’ve swallowed.

Kashgar is an enchanting place. A gateway to the rugged, primarily nomadic expanse that lies before the Pakistan border with its towering peaks and endless sprawls of desert.

It is a comfortable base from which to launch all manner of expeditions – be they to the border, into the Taklimakan desert, or further afield to one of the so-called Oasis towns that dot the area.

I never quite feel at ease in the city, but I never feel unsafe either. It’s not a place that has adjusted to tourists just yet, and it’s all the more endearing for that. It truly is one of China’s last frontiers – a bastion of old nomadic life struggling to keep its head above a rising sea of bureaucracy and ‘progress’.

As always, when planning a trip to Xinjiang – your best resource is Far West China. This is an utterly fantastic blog packed full of handy info, tips, and stories about the entire region. Be warned, it is blocked by China’s firewall.

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