Kashgar is a city full of charms and like no other. Despite being in China, Kashgar does not feel like a typical Chinese city. Yet its Uyghur identity and culture does not quite make it Middle Eastern or Central Asian either. I would say that Kashgar, home of the Uyghurs, is a unique blend of various cultures that culminates in a distinct identity. Although I am not a big fan of cities, I could not resist staying in Kashgar for longer. Kashgar is bursting with culture, full of amazing people and located in a very peculiar country. Here are nine exciting things to do in Kashgar:
1. Wander through the old city
Kashgar used to be the centre of the Uyghur kingdom for centuries. The reconstructed old city is a great place to explore. Ogle at the stunning Uyghur houses, get lost in the many alleyways or mingle with the beautiful Uyghur children who would rather say “Hello!” than “Ni hao!”.
The various streets within the old city still retain their unique flavour. Meet the artisans along the metallurgy or pottery streets or buy some antiques at the lane full of antique shops. If you are hungry, pop into one of the shops that bake fresh Uyghur bread, otherwise known as nan. For the adventurous, walk into the alleyways. You will discover Uyghur ladies laughing in the courtyards, little children skipping rope and old Uyghur men wrinkling a smile at you.
2. Say “hello” to the locals at the ancient residences
Located next to the old city, the ancient residences (高台民居 or Gao tai min ju) is a living 600-year-old estate. Unlike the old city, this area was not reconstructed and it gives a good idea of how the old city looked like before. Many Uyghur families have been living there for generations and you can find various interesting personalities there. Some have been baking nan for centuries while other have been making pottery or musical instruments.
Despite the crumbling homes, the local residents are proud to live there and would not hesitate to show you around. Do not be afraid to say “hello” to the lady sitting by her house or the man whizzing through the alleys on his motorbike. The Uyghurs may seem a little shy at first, but they sure are brimming with hospitality.
3. Buy a sheep at the animal bazaar
The animal bazaar in Kashgar is the largest in China. Happening only on Sundays, it is a meeting place for Uyghur men and their prized possessions: sheep, goats and cows. Watch how animals are traded in this part of the world: First the buyer squeezes the butt of the sheep. If it is fat, it is a good sheep. Next come the haggling process and eventually the trading of the ubiquitous red 100 Yuan notes.
You might also come across various interesting personalities in this bustling area. I met an old Uyghur couple who has come a long way to sell their one and only sheep. The wife was so reluctant to sell it and was constantly caressing the sheep to calm it down. As I approached them, the husband asked in the most gentle and benevolent manner, “Do you want to buy our sheep?” I looked at the wife and she smiled at me while hugging the sheep. Would you have had the heart to buy their sheep?
4. Jostle like a local at the Sunday bazaar
The Sunday bazaar in Kashgar is the most crowded, bustling and lively market I have seen in China. You can literally buy anything at the bazaar, from food to cloth to televisions and even magic health potions. Walk through the bazaar and just enjoy the vibes. Watch how the sellers measure and cut cloth, or how they serve up delicious rice dishes. There is a lot of street food in the bazaar so you will definitely not go hungry while you shop!
5. Drink tea and listen to traditional Uyghur music
Drinking tea at a teahouse is the Uyghur men’s favourite pastime. Although Uyghur women do not visit teahouses, the men are more than happy to welcome female tourists into one. Do not be shy and just walk into one. Order tea and the Uyghur men would share some bread with you, which you can dip into your tea. If you are lucky, some Uyghur men will play their traditional guitar, known as the dombira. Sit, relax and enjoy the brilliant Uyghur muqam music.
6. Eat all you want at the night market
Uyghur food is amazing! The night market is located in the old city and is bustling with life in the evenings. The adventurous can dig into the sheep’s head or foot for dinner, or have a plate of sheep offal stuffed with rice. Others can have lamb skewers or Uyghur cold noodles instead. Finish your meal with a cup of Uyghur ice-cream (which strangely sits in the open without a freezer) or a bowl of crushed ice with yoghurt and honey.
7. Amaze yourselves with Kashgar’s modern fixtures
Kashgar is not all old and ancient. Surrounding the old city and residences are some really beautiful apartment buildings. The contrast between old and new is stark, but it is not a bad thing. Rather, it is interesting to see how people can still live in harmony regardless of where they live.
Take a walk around the city at night. Kashgar turns into a beautiful light show, with the old city and residences lit up and the apartment buildings decked out in flashy LED screens. Visit the wetlands park just by the city walls and enjoy the mini light shows and colourful fountains. In summer, Uyghur families all come out to play in the evenings and the city comes alive.
8. Gorge yourselves with incredibly sweet melons
Melons would not taste the same after you have tried the ones in Kashgar. From July to September, you can find melons everywhere in southern Xinjiang, especially in Kashgar. Watermelons, honeydew and rock melons are all up for sale. Towards the end of the season, you can even buy watermelons for as low as 30 Chinese cents a kilogram (5 US cents). If you do not fancy carrying a huge watermelon, you can also buy a huge slice for 1 Yuan (15 US cents). These melons are so sweet you cannot believe that they are naturally grown!
9. Go on an exciting 2-day roadtrip to Taxkorgan
Taxkorgan is about 300 kilometres south of Kashgar. As you drive towards Taxkorgan, you will pass by beautiful alpine lakes surrounded by snow-capped mountains. You will also go around one of the highest peaks in the world, the Muztagh Ata. These stunning and dramatic views are all along the famous Karakoram highway, which passes through Taxkorgan into Pakistan. Stay a night at Taxkorgan to experience a little of the Tajik culture. Alternatively, camp around the Karakul lake, which is along the way to Taxkorgan.
The Uyghurs always say that if you did not visited Kashgar, it is as good as not visiting southern Xinjiang. I cannot agree more. Kashgar is the core cultural hub of the Uyghurs, who live all over southern Xinjiang. There is so much to do in Kashgar, from learning about Uyghur culture, enjoying various gastronomic experiences to exploring amazing landscapes and nature.
The next time you visit Xinjiang, put southern Xinjiang on your list. And if you are already in southern Xinjiang, do not miss out the city of Kashgar. There are so many things to do in Kashgar that you will find yourself wanting to stay a day longer every day! If you are concerned about the security situation in Xinjiang, here is an objective reality check.
Are you amazed by Kashgar’s charms? Share with me in the comments below. Also, do share this article with your friends so that more people are aware of this beautiful city!