What was once an oasis city on the cusp of the Taklamakan Desert that dates back to 200 B.C., Kashgar (or Kashi, its modern Chinese name, which, in this rare case, doesn’t sound as “cool” as its predecessor) is a major stop on the old Silk Road. Reading the Wikipedia page, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how much history this place has.
Before I started my travels in China, I used to picture Kashgar in a romantic manner; caravanserais filled with nomadic people and traders from Europe and Asia staying the night as they journey eastward or westward and growling Bactrian camels chewing grain, whose backs were loaded up with delicately-balanced trade goods ranging from silk carpets to copper lamps. I have to say, I was a little disappointed that my expectations did not match reality. It couldn’t.
Much of Kashgar is now modernized. Concrete buildings, modern vehicles, people in modern-ish attire, traffic lights, and fast-food joints are everywhere. While not as developed as major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Chengdu, it is a far cry from my initial romantic image of it. (I guess this stems from how much I’d like to time-travel back to that world.)
Arriving by camel (just kidding, I decided to fly since it was cheap) from Urumqi, I navigated my way to my hostel in the Old Town area, which, in a way, was like a caravanserai; a strong, creaky metal door up front, a spacious central courtyard in the middle where people could gather, adventure motorcycles (modern day “camels”) with cargo parked in the corners, and simple, functional beds to help weary travelers rest and recover from their journeys. It was also the only budget option in Kashgar; the rest were business hotels. (This, again, stems from the limitations the government has in place to prevent too many tourists (read: outsiders) from visiting the region.)
Sadly, if I had wanted to experience the “true” Kashgar, I would have had to visit the area before 2009. The “Old Town” of Kashgar that I stayed in is, in fact, the new Old Town. The previous one, the one with all the history and glory of Silk Road lore and which hereupon I’ll refer to as “Original Gangsta Kashgar” or “O.G. Kashgar”, was in the process of being torn down when I was there. Most structures were made of mud and as you can imagine, crumbling under age and was unsafe. The efforts to replace O.G. Kashgar with modern structures is also part of China’s efforts in bringing the city in the the 21st century. (What’s next? Public wifi everywhere and a Starbucks on every corner? At some point, the Silk Road will turn into the Silk Information Superhighway.)
I regret not learning about O.G. Kashgar sooner. Initially, I believed the Old Town I was staying in was O.G. Kashgar. However, I was reading my Lonely Planet guidebook to learn of things to check out in Kashgar when I came across a section that mentioned another “old city” but that it was off-limits to the public due to safety concerns. But I also learned that people can go explore at their own risk if they chose to which, in hindsight, I should and would have done. Sure, maybe O.G. Kashgar would have been an empty shell of its glorious former self, filled with heavy machinery working on tearing down structures, devoid of people (which I believe make or break a city), and devoid of the sounds and hustle-and-bustle of daily life but I still believe it would have been fun to wander around and fill in the gaps with my imagination. Maybe next time.