The Old Town in Kashgar has been the heart of the city for over 2000 years, is a splendid example of an ancient Islamic city and is in the process of being destroyed for safety reasons.
The origin of Kashgar’s Old Town can be traced back to the foundation and initial development of the city around 100BC. At that time Kashgar was growing in size and prominence as a key gate way on the Silk Road and was being fought over by the Han Dynasty and western kingdoms.
Around the 10th century the Old Town was also housed the site of a Karahan Dynasty palace and it was around that time the residents were converting from Buddhism to Islam. Since that time the maze of streets and mud brick houses that make up the Old Town have changed very little with most homes lasting for several centuries and behind passed down through 7 or 8 generations of families.
Prior to 2009 Kashgar’s ld Town was regarded as “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.”
The Fate of Kashgar’s Old Town
The demolition and reconstruction of Kashgar’s Old Town started in 2008 and accelerating in 2009 after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, By May 2012 two thirds of the Old Town had been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of residents relocated.
The reasons given for the demolition of the Old Town are that officials found many of the houses there were non compliant with fire and earthquake codes, crowded and had poor drainage. The deaths of thousands of people due to faulty architecture after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was another key reason given for the destruction of Old Town’s ancient buildings.
The reconstruction of the Old Town had a budget of $448 million and involved relocating over 220,000 of the city’s residents to modern high rise apartments, the development of plazas and the reproduction of ancient Islamic architecture.
Some of the houses in the Old Town will not be demolished and many more buildings will be rebuilt. There are also plans for a tourist center to be built in the middle of the original old town.
The loss of so much history and culture as well as the impact on the Uyghur residents who must leave a way of life they have maintained for centuries is tragic.
The Kashgar Old City Itself
The Buildings – They buildings for most of the Old Town’s history were made with mud brick and they were joined together by a maze like network of cobbled lanes and alleys. The homes ranged in size from a modest several rooms up to 20 rooms with two wings spread out over 2 or 3 levels. Many homes had courtyards that varied in size depending on the wealth of the family and the terrain in that part of old town. Court yards were the focus of the building, were well shaded, tranquil and relaxing.
Size – The Old City is located on the North Hill in the Yawak district of Kashgar and the total area covered is not clear. Estimates on area covered range from 2 square kilometers to 4.25 square kilometres (12% of the cities area) and depends on source of information, the age of the data and the political motivation behind the data.
Traditionally the guest room of a house in the Old City was the most elaborately decorated and luxurious room.
The Old City is divided into 12 areas and each area has at least used to have it’s own mosque.
Current Occupants – Not all of the structures in the Old Town will demolished with some key homes ear marked for preservation and off limited to the bulldozers. Current data from the local government states that there are now 630 occupied homes with a total population of 2450 residents in the Old City. With the demolition of the Old City still in progress, this data is subject to change.
Visiting Kashgar’s Old Town
With most of the Old City in ruins and many new buildings under construction, visiting the Old City is a little sad. There is still a lot to see there and many beautiful buildings with Islamic architecture still stand so visiting the Old City is still a rewarding and worthwhile experience.
There are families in the Old City who open their homes to tourists and provide meals. The best way to visit one of these families is to arrange a tour through a local travel agent. The Old City also has a number of traditional workshops where you can see the production of carpet, brass objects and other traditional goods. These workshops are commonly passed down through the family and will have several generations working there at the one time.
The Old City is quickly disappearing and the opportunity to see a part of an ancient city in its original form will soon be gone. So if you are in southern Xinjiang, visit Kashgar and experience a key part of the Silk Road history while you still can.