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China: the romance of Kashgar on the wane but the song and dance go on

When the bull dozers moved in a few years ago in Kashgar, in China's far west, the shocks came from above the ground. As part of Chinese government’s project to protect the people from a quake, authorities decided to bring old structures, some centuries old, down. Sutirtho Patranobis reports.

world Updated: Sep 09, 2013 02:20 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times

“Terraced Folk Residence”, the sign read in English, Mandarin, Uyghur and Japanese and Russian. The flight of stairs led to a cluster of some 500 terraced homes built with burnt mud bricks, packed next to each other around labyrinthine lanes and fit for a closely-shot chase sequence in a movie.

Some of the homes were said to be centuries old; by some accounts more than 500 or more years. The cluster could be seen from far because of the way it is built, oblivious to the construction cranes rising above them all around.

The locality is called “Koziqi Yar Bixi”, which in Uyghur means the street where people make pottery, and is possibly just two of the traditional home clusters that remain in Kashgar.

Across the road is the second one, “Kadimi Shahar” or the ancient city. Not much of it is ancient any more.

Much of the older structures of the city – once Kashgar’s Islamic-style architecture was its signature -- have been demolished for, the government feared, that they will not be able survive the tremors of a major earthquake, had poor drainage system and for other public safety issues.

For Kashgar, in china's far west Xingjiang region, when the bull dozers moved in a few years ago, the shocks came from above the ground. As part of the Chinese government’s project to protect the people of Kashgar from a quake, authorities decided to bring old structures down.

In the process the bull dozers cleared centuries of history in a few frenetic years of what, many residents felt, was development without consultation.

In 2010, the government designated Kashgar as a special economic zone and is pouring billions of dollars for economic development. The money is evidently going into construction projects.

Kashgar, for many, is still the stuff of Silk Road legends when traders from Mediterranean cities headed to Xian in eastern China. This was an important stop.

Now, the city of more than a million people is a muddle of ugly new constructions, Bank of China offices, a customary big exhibition hall and evident urban squalor. A huge statue of Mao stands at its heart. In the western part, roads have been widened and miles of new construction can be seen.

A new five-star building has dwarfed a colony of old, single-storey mud-brick houses.

It’s the older part of the city – in spite of new buildings – around the Id Kah mosque that still instill a sense of wonder. Around the mosque, rows and rows of shops sell traditional symbols of Uyghur culture like handmade knives, scarves, carpets, musical instruments and dry fruits.

This Saturday afternoon, old men sat around the mosque chatting in their native Uyghur tongue. None were willing to speak about the drastic changes. Instead, they looked away.

Streets around the mosque like: “Nour Beixi, Orda Alda and Wustang Boyi” have all had old houses demolished.

The markets are still bustling and traders are the busiest after the Friday prayers. But the hushed complaint was that not everyone – like some did -- was willing to trade culture and heritage for money.

The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) had said in a report that development projects resettling Uyghurs in Kashgar were destroying Uyghur culture.

The report said that the demolitions triggered a loss of Uyghur heritage and represent a loss to world culture; once demolished, these unique communities will be lost to the world forever.

The Uyghur community’s culture of course still thrives on the busy streets of Kashgar.

If the shops near the Id Kah mosque and the Kashgar Western and Central Asian Bazaar for International Trade sell traditional Uyghur artefacts, the restaurants – small and big – offer local cuisine. That includes a local favourite “Laghman” or noodles, which as per legend Marco Polo took back to Italy and named it spaghetti

You might not get your Red Bull at the corner kiosk but the alternative is invigorating enough – Kizil Toga or Red Camel.

Young Uyghur women and men dressed in dazzling traditional dresses dance are possibly dancing now more than ever at hotels and cafes as more tourists make their way here for the exotic,

But for all the cans of fizzy Kizil Toga and swirling dances, there seems to be a sense of imminent loss among many. Few are willing to talk about their apprehensions, fearing reprisal;

Losing house is one thing, losing livelihood is another.

In one of the mud homes of Koziqi Yar Bixi, traditional potter Omar Ali, his wife and three mischievous children appeared always ready to welcome visitors. His beautiful clay vase work was strewn all around.

Ali, a sixth generation potter, said it was up to him if he wanted to move to a more modern house.

His cousin, also a potter, said the same. An elderly couple who sell traditional hats and Uyghur sweets echoed the view. No pressure from the government, they said. It’s clear why: The cluster is now the government’s showcase of Uyghur way of life and culture.

In a few years, the “Terraced Folk House” might be the only such cluster to remind visitors --- and residents – of what Kashgar was once all about.

(Names withheld on request)

First Published: Sep 08, 2013 20:00 IST