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Abakh Khoja Mausoleum, Kashgar, China
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China: Kashgar
2019

Old Town Id Kah Mosque Abakh Khoja Mausoleum
Uyghur dancers, Kashgar, China


Kashgar was, for millennia, one of the most important cities on the Silk Roads, where north and south routes around the Taklamakan desert converge and the west beckons; and where, much later, the British and Russians vied with each other for influence in the Great Game.

Old Town

Kashgar
Dry landscape south of Urumqi.
Kashgar
Flight Path
The Tarim Pendi is a vast area occupied mostly by the Taklamakan Desert.
Kashgar
The landscape became ever drier, the desert stretching far into the distance.
Kashgar

Kashgar, or Kashi, the most romantic of the Silk Road cities, where travellers rested and merchants traded before their onward journey, either west, to India or as far as the Mediterranean, or east to go north or south around the formidable Taklamakan desert for the cities of China.

Nowadays there is a lot of demolition and rebuilding going on, but there are still remnants of the ancient homes and way of life to be found. And the time itself is weird - we were operating on Beijing time, though the actual time difference is two hours earlier! The hotels keep to Beijing time but the people who live here, such as farmers, operate naturally on local time, two hours earlier, so when we were at ten o'clock it was only 8 for them.

We flew in from Urumqi late one afternoon on a beautiful day. East of Urumqi the dry landscape gave way to a high range of snow-covered peaks then deep blue mountain lakes and drier valleys.

Kashgar

The snack served on board was a meat-filled bun, something like sausage meat, yogurt, dried red dates and water.

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On board snack.
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Approaching Kashgar.
Kashgar
Old town ramparts and rebuilt/renovated buildings.
Kashgar
Kashgar

It was a good flight and our guide and driver were there to meet us after we'd had our passports checked by security in the baggage hall.

The following day Carol, our guide (her real name was difficult for us to pronounce!), came to our hotel to pick us up in full traditional dress - a very high quality colourful silk dress and doppa cap. All day she led us in her high heels - I was very impressed!

Kashgar
Kashgar

 

Ancient Kashgar was a walled oasis city, rising above the surrounding land, visible to travellers approaching from afar, much as Jaisalmer, another ancient desert walled city, would have been.

Carol rearranged our itinerary a bit, to make the most of everything, and our first stop was the reconstructed gate of the old city where each morning there is a ceremony celebrating Uyghur history and traditions. The attraction for us, though, was that the local people dance their own dances beforehand.

Before the ceremony began there was continuous Uyghur music and the local people danced. A young boy and a famous, beautifully dressed, 91 year old man seemed to be dancing all the time.

It was exuberant, full of joy, and lovely to see.

Kashgar

 

Kashgar

 

The ceremony itself consisted of a parade of famous figures with more dancing and music and a celebration of the local produce.

On top of the gate men dressed as ancient warriors stood guard and banners fluttered in the breeze.


Video: dancing at the gates of Kashgar.
Kashgar




Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar
Celebrating the produce of the region: Atlas silk, jewellery, nang bread, peaches, lemons, grapes, dates - not sure what the gold urn signifies.
Kashgar
On the main street - very newly built or renovated, with a traditional facade.

Stefan Green1 reported in 2010 that almost half of the old town had gone but that the buildings on the main streets had been preserved.

Kashgar
Kashgar
A pristinely restored interior.
Kashgar
This traditional home has been converted into a small hotel, but had many typical furnishings, including the outside "bed" which (shoes off!) was used for eating, resting, working, and at night, sleeping.

Kashgar
If the pavement is tiled with a herring bone pattern it is a dead-end. Hexagonal tiles indicate a through street.

Carol made a point of taking us well away from the main street and the central tourist area into the quieter parts, but we're still not sure how much is authentic traditional Uyghur. In general, I think, it seems the main streets are original but renovated; many of the smaller alleys have been demolished and replaced with wider streets to allow access for vehicles, and buildings rebuilt in a semblance of traditional style. Wider streets do not allow for the traditional way of expanding a home by building out over an alley to the building opposite. So we think a narrow alley with bridging buildings is probably at least an original in design and layout.

We were able to go into one or two places. The first was pristine and there were musicians playing.

Kashgar
We had seen the original of the famous painting behind the musicians in the museum in Urumqi.
Kashgar

 

 

This was obviously set up for tourists who all, apart from us, looked like local people - there weren't a huge number of them.

Most homes have two floors, if the house has any more then a rich person must live there!

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Beautiful wall decoration.
Kashgar

 

Kashgar
Traditional wooden balcony.
Kashgar
The people seem to have a great fondness for plants and almost all balconies had pots, many frontages festooned with vines. Traditionally, behind the curtain there would be a courtyard with a big "bed", but we did not wish to pry.

 

Kashgar
I can't imagine this kind of traditional adobe construction could survive long in anything but a very dry climate.
Kashgar
These buildings are probably renovated rather than newly built.

 

Kashgar

The labyrinthine back streets are more evocative of the traditional way of life. They are very shady and cool with no motorised vehicles, maybe the odd scooter. Small children ran around playing in the puddles of water or kicking a ball, not many adults to be seen.

Once these alleyways would have been bustling and noisy, loud with the sounds of blacksmiths, vendors, music and countless children playing or reciting their lessons in the madrassas. There would have been tea houses filled with gossiping men - merchants and travellers come to impart news from distant lands and learn what was happening locally, to relate on their next journeys.

Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar

In the depths of the back streets we entered a quiet courtyard of homes, lots of plants in pots, a kettle on a smouldering wood fire. The lady of one of the houses came out to push the wood further into the bowl of embers. She and our guide had a friendly chat while we wandered around.

Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar
This lovely lady was OK with me photographing her. She still lives in her home in the old town and here sits outside her front door surrounded by her plants including figs and pomegranates.

Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar

 

 

We saw a couple of beautifully decorated buildings, their walls sculpted into geometric 3D patterns. At least one of these looked to be a mosque, all new.

 

Kashgar

 

Some parts of the old town were protected from demolition, but it seems that these too may no longer be safe from destruction.

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Pomegranates
Kashgar
A blacksmith.
Once the streets would have been filled with blacksmiths, bakeries, food sellers, potters and craftsmen of all kinds.

Video: blacksmith in Kashgar.

 

Kashgar
Samsa, the ubiquitous lamb stuffed pastry.

 

As we left the old town we passed a number of street food vendors. It all looked good and we had a really excellent samsa - pastry stuffed with spicy meat and veg which is cooked by slapping it onto the inner sides of a very hot stone cauldron - a very common Uyghur cooking method..

Kashgar
Kashgar
Excellent samsa.
Kashgar
The cooking method of choice.
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The new and the old.
Beyond the bridge an original part of old Kashgar, south east of where we were allowed to visit, which is now about to be "renovated". This was one of the areas that in 20101 was said to be protected.

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Kashgar
Palace Restaurant
Kashgar
Kashgar
Probably nang breads.

Later we went to a bridge on the Tuman River which lies to the south east of the part of the old city of Kashgar that we had already visited. We approached from the east, and could see across to another part of the old city which we were not allowed to enter - we could cross the bridge but not go amongst the buildings. Once protected this is now being demolished and replaced.

Kashgar

The old town here also rises up above the surrounding ground with at least three levels of building that we could see.

Kashgar

Carol took us to a very good restaurant, the Palace, for lunch in Kashgar (she was one of the guides who just took it for granted that we would pay for the guide and driver).

It was extremely opulent inside with a huge choice of food.

Kashgar
A huge pile of nang bread on the table.
Kashgar
These spicy vegetable wraps were gorgeous.

 

Kashgar
Kashgar
Upstairs at the Royal Restaurant.

We had thin wraps stuffed with spicy vegetables which I really liked, noodles with lamb and vegetables in a spicy broth (lagman?), mutton kebabs which were a bit chewy - probably the least good of the three lots we'd had so far in Xinjiang, and mutton-stuffed pastry buns (samsa), again very good.

Ginger tea was excellent, though a bit sweet for me, I think honey had been added.

Kashgar
Kashgar
Private dining room upstairs at the restaurant.

 

Upstairs the restaurant has a number of private dining rooms, an arrangement which we discovered in the hotels in Xinjiang too. It's obviously a popular way to eat out with a group of friends, family or for business.

Kashgar
Back out on the streets.

 

Kashgar
Candy of some description - I think it is milk or yogurt based.

 

Back out on the streets we enjoyed just poking around the small shops that line every thoroughfare. As in many ancient cities these are often just a space with no facilities or room to walk or sit, all the goods for sale packed in tightly in most cases. Metal shutters pull down at the front and are padlocked overnight.

Kashgar
On the streets of Kashgar small shops like this abound. At the front are dried chillies.
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And if you don't live in the city, or don't own a shop, you can just set up on the pavement. These hand brushes are beautifully made.

 

Id Kah Mosque

Kashgar


Kashgar
Student accommodation.

 

A huge space in front of this mosque is thronged with thousands of worshippers at Friday prayers - at least it used to be, I'm not sure what the situation is in the current climate.

Kashgar

 

 

Originally built in 1442 it has undergone many restorations over the centuries.

Inside the mosque are shady spaces and tree-lined gardens. This is also a place of study and there is accommodation for the students

Kashgar
Kashgar

 

When we came out from the very small covered interior there were two young Muslims who wanted to pray in the mosque but as foreigners they were not allowed. The guardian asked Carol to explain to them as she did not speak English. They were on a pilgrimage to pray in every mosque in the region so decided they would go to the local police to ask permission. I wonder how they fared.

 

Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar

 

 

The old Russian and British consulates are in this part of town too. The British had come in 1890 when the Russians started to make inroads in the region, particularly anxious to protect their interests and northern routes into India. George Macartney was the first consul, remaining in post for 28 years. He married in 1898, and his wife Catherine sounds a very capable woman who "turned their quarters into an English country home, complete with gardens and a cow, and took turns serving cream teas with the Russian wives, while their husbands played tennis"2 and she created beautiful gardens - the British residence was called Chini-Bagh - Chinese Garden.3 The nanny, Miss Cresswell, was perhaps even more formidable, she "used to go to bed armed with a large carving knife, so as to be `prepared for all eventualities`."3

Kashgar

The Macartneys hosted the European explorers of the day including von Le Coq, Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein, though von Le Coq found that his comfortable bed fast became suffocating and he "took my rug, spread it on the verandah, used my saddle as a pillow and, wrapped in a light fur, slept out in the open air."4

Macartney established a network of aksakals "white-beards", usually the senior Indian, and therefore British, trader in each oasis. Ostensibly tasked with responsibility for the welfare and good behaviour of the local British community, and assisting any British travellers, they occasionally also turned their hands to the Great Game.4

Peter Hopkirk4 says that by the 1970s Chini-Bagh had come down in the world "Today it is used as a hostel for long-distance lorry drivers, though its bathroom still has its British taps - and a lavatory called `Victory`." William Dalrymple also mentions "Victory" fitted with "a sturdy mahogany seat, the only flushing thunderbox for two thousand miles."3 and describes the terrible state he found Chini-Bagh in, still a poor lodging for lorry drivers in the 1980s, the beautiful gardens gone.

Today all that remains of Chini-Bagh is a tired building hidden behind a new hotel, perhaps still with its ornate rooms, its most recent incarnation a Chinese restaurant with no sign of the famous gardens.

 

 

 

Abakh Khoja Mausoleum

Kashgar

 

This beautiful tiled mausoleum, 5km outside Kashgar, was built in the seventeenth century for the ruling Khoja family. Abakh Khoja was a famous religious leader and it is said that his perhaps even more famous granddaughter, Ikparhan, known to the Chinese as Xiang Fei, is also laid to rest here. Her name means "fragrant princess or concubine" because of her natural perfume. She was a concubine of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qian Long who took her to Peking (Beijing), but she pined for her homeland.

Kashgar
A traditional study or perhaps classroom.
The mausoleum was originally built by Abakh Khoja's father as an Islamic religious school or madrassa.

 

Kashgar
Next to the Mausoleum is a public Muslim cemetery with distinctive beautifully-shaped tombs.

The mausoleum is surrounded by extensive gardens and a canal has recently been installed to mimic the approach to the Taj Mahal.

Just inside the entrance to the complex there is a small museum which includes a beautiful room furnished as a study or perhaps classroom, with examples of fine calligraphy.

Kashgar

There is a beautiful new relief carving on the approach to the mausoleum itself which tells the story of Xiang Fei. There seem to be several different versions, dependent mostly on whether it is a Uyghur or Chinese telling - she is variously abducted and forcibly taken to Peking, the emperor's mother ordered her to commit suicide, she was given as a gift to the emperor who loved her, or she was murdered.

Kashgar
This relief tells the story of Xiang Fei, the "Fragrant Princess".
I think the fruit on the right probably relates to one legend which says Xiang Fei was finally won over by the emperor when he brought her a particular fruit tree from her home.




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Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar
The tomb hall of the mausoleum.
Kashgar

 

The tomb hall is in a traditional Islamic style with colourful ceramics and a tiled central dome. It holds caskets from five generations of the family, draped in bright silks. Photography of the caskets was not allowed.

Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar

We moved on from the mausoleum to a beautiful wooden structure - Carol said it was a palace but in my reading since I believe it is the High or Summer Mosque.4 It is open and airy which would be more comfortable in the hot summer months. There is an enclosed Low, or Winter, Mosque attached.

Kashgar
Kashgar
The tops of the columns are decorated with muqarnas, stepped small scale vaulting, a typical Islamic architectural feature.
Kashgar
The tiled main entrance to the complex, with a separate entrance up the steps on the left to the High Mosque.
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The High Mosque with entrance to the Low Mosque on the left.
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Kashgar
Kashgar
Kashgar

 

References

  1. Stefan Green: The Last Days of Old Kashgar
  2. Shadow of the Silk Road, Colin Thubron, Vintage Books, 2006
  3. In Xanadu, A Quest, William Dalrymple, 1990
  4. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, Peter Hopkirk, 1984
  5. ARCHNET: Apak Khoja Mausoleum Complex