The Silk Road- this famous ancient route system has been connecting two main civilization areas for thousands of years. It has been like a bridge between the West and the East. The West has been known for its highly developed classical empires- Greek, Roman, and the European kingdoms. And the East has been known for its “Subcelestial Empire”, now known as China, and its surrounding smaller kingdoms. But the vast spaces in the middle, between these civilizations, has been always veiled in mystery and legends about giant mountains, deserts, and unknown nomadic tribes. And there, in the middle of this remoteness is Kashgar, an ancient trade center, full of things to reveal. Let’s make a journey to Kashgar and dive into its history and reality.
Where is Kashgar
Kashgar (Kashi- 喀什) is known as the westernmost city in China. And China is so big so that its westernmost point is almost in the middle of Eurasia- the largest piece of land on the Earth. So, geographically, Kashgar is in Central Asia, somewhere in the middle of the Silk Road routes. It is also the largest city of the southern part of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, built on the western edge of the large Tarim Basin.
I knew about Kashgar for many years, since I have always wanted to cross Eurasia from west to east. I have looked a lot of maps, and this city was an important point on such a route, just like it has been for the ancient people. Crossing from the plains of Europe, then through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, crossing Pamir and Tianshan, and finally arrive on their eastern side, where Tarim Basin begins, has been always an exciting challenge.
So, let us now start exploring Kashgar. What kind of city is it? What secrets it has to reveal? And since it is an ancient city, where a lot of civilizations have left their traces, let us as usual make a short trip through its history.
History of Kashgar
First, let’s take a look at the physical map of Asia, particularly to its central part. You can see the highest mountains on the Earth, known as “The Top of the World”- Himalaya, Tibet, Kunlun, Karakoram, Hindukush, Pamir, and Tianshan. And Tianshan is more separated from the other mountains of this group, stretching like a horn on the northwest.
Then you can see a large oval between Tianshan and the other high mountains, like a giant yellow eye. This is the Tarim Basin, locked far from any oceans on the Earth, with its vast sandy Taklamanak Desert on its bottom.
But exactly there, on the northern and the southern edges of Taklamakan, there are two fertile oasis chains. The northern one stretches between the desert and Tianshan, and the southern one- between the desert and the Kunlun Mountains. They join together on their western ends into a large oasis land. This is Kashgaria- the land around Kashgar, which is not only located on a very strategic position on the Silk Road (in the middle of Asia) but also on a place with good agricultural conditions.
So, it is not strange that there have been a lot of wars for this piece of land. Many civilizations, kingdoms, and empires fought for Kashgar and left their traces there. As a result, Kashgar has a long history, and it is worth to make a short trip through it.
Ancient period and Shule Kingdom (until 177 BC)
Since thousands of years, known and unknown cultures have set foot on the oasis of Kashgaria. They were mainly from the Persian language family- Saka, Tokharians, Wusun, Yuezhi and some others. And the first known state on this place is known as Shule Kingdom, which was independent until the arriving of Xiongnu and the Han Chinese.
Han and Xiongnu (177 BC to 150 AD)
During that period, there were constant wars between these two competitors- Han Empire of China and the nomadic Xiongnu Empire. But since Kashgaria is located too far west, its Shule Kingdom remained, sometimes as a vassal of Han or Xiongnu, sometimes fully independent, until the arriving of the Kushans.
Kushan Empire and the White Huns (150 to 552)
The Kushan Empire was a strong formation, stretching from the north of today’s India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan into parts of Central Asia. It gained control over Kashgaria for around 173 years, but then its time has passed. Temporary, during the 4th century, the area was divided between a few local independent kingdoms. And then- the next candidates for Kashgaria arrived- the White Huns (Hephthalites). With some interruptions, they ruled over this place until 552, when most of Central Asia was conquered by the Turks.
Turk Khaganates (552 to 648)
The Turks established their large khaganate from the Caspian Sea to the middle of today’s China. But such a vast nomadic empire couldn’t remain united for a long time and it soon divided into two main parts, as Kashgaria remained under the Western Turk Khaganate.
Tang Empire and the Tibetans (648 to 791)
Two strong empires competed for Kashgaria during that period- the Chinese Tang Empire and the epic Tibetan Empire. And Kashgar often changed its masters. But during that time a third invader wanted to swallow it- the Arabs. They conquered Kashgar in 711, but couldn’t remain in their hands and the Chinese took it back. Anyway, finally, both Tang and the Tibetan empires weakened and lost the city, which got new masters- the Uyghurs.
Uyghur Khanate (791 to 840)
The Uyghurs created a strong empire, covering most of today’s Xinjiang. They ruled over Kashgar for half a century, until their empire collapsed, and the city was conquered by the Karakhanids. However, the Uyghurs remain from that time as the main ethnic group in the area until now.
The Karakhanids (840 to 1134)
They were another Turkic group of people, ruling over Kashgar and much of today’s Xinjiang. This time they introduced Islam to this region. Most of this period was peaceful. There is a famous poet, lived in the Karakhanid’s capital in today’s Kyrgyzstan, but died in Kashgar- Yusuf Khas Hajib, and now you can see his tomb in the city.
Karakhitai (1134 to 1218)
It is another dynasty, another ethnic group, this time of Chinese and Manchurian origin. They created the Western Liao Empire, ruling over a large portion of today’s China, including Kashgar, until the Mongol conquest. And during this whole period, the Karakhanids remained as vassal rulers under the Karakhitai’s control.
The Great Mongol Empire (1218 to 1348)
Nothing in Central Asia has escaped the invasion of Genghis Khan and his Mongols. He created the largest in-land-area empire ever existed, and Kashgar was a part of it. But since this empire was highly unstable, it soon was divided between the sons of Genghis Khan, and Kashgar remained under the rule of Chagatay’s dynasty.
Moghulistan and the Timurids (1348 to 1466)
Then other branches of the first Mongol Empire arose. One of them was Moghulistan (or Eastern Chagatai Khanate). So they were descendants of Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai. Kashgar remained under their control and they later turned into Islam. But then another Mongol empire emerged from the west- the Timurid Empire of Tamerlan. He conquered Kashgar and it was devastating. The Timurids ruled over the area for 40 years, before it back again in the hands of Moghulistan’s Chagataids.
The local kingdoms- Dughlats, Yarkent, and the Dzungars (1466 to 1759)
Eventually, the era of the Mongols and their descendants came to an end, and a new period of often changing powers and control over Kashgar began. This period was a period of instability and wars, so Kashgar had to pass through times of destruction and times of rebuilding. The main two powers who controlled Kashgar at that time were Dughlats and the Yarkent Kingdom.
Other pretenders for the power over Kashgaria were the White and Black Khojas, somewhere during the time of Yarkent. During the 17th century, some religious leaders also played a significant role in the political life of Kashgar. The most famous of them was Afaq Khoja, who is today associated with the story (or legend) of the „Fragrant Concubine”. Now his Mausoleum is one of the symbols of Kashgar. Later the next invader came- the Dzungars (which were the last nomadic empire of Central Asia), but Kashgar still preserved its autonomy.
Qing Empire (1759 to 1913)
The Chinese army of Qing conquered the whole Xinjiang, including Kashgar, but there was some local autonomy existed in the area, and the power of the Khojas, descendants of Afaq remained, although under the control of Qing. However, they also often revolted against Qing and there were short periods of independence. But the biggest revolt was the so-called Dungan Revolt in 1862 when many Muslim groups united against the Chinese. As a result, Kashgaria gained independence for almost 15 years, before reconquering again by Qing.
Modern China (1913 until now)
After the fall of Qing, the whole Xinjiang enters a messy and unstable period, during which wars and human disasters were not rare. One of these is the civil war in 1933-1934 between the Chinese Muslim army and the local Uyghurs and Kyrgyz. There are two battles in Kashgar, which devastate the city. After the Communist Revolution in 1949 Kashgar and the whole Xinjiang remained firmly incorporated in China, and it was (and still is) a period of much stability. Although the tension remains (and sometimes broke into occasional violence), in general, everything is in peace now. Yes, this peace is gained by the strong police presence, which can be seen everywhere in the city, but that’s no problem since it doesn’t disturb the normal daily life. On the contrary, as a result, the crime level is lower than in the rest of China.
Our journey to Kashgar
All of this made Kashgar an attracting place to visit and explore. And we were quite excited to plan a trip to the middle of the Silk Road, in the heart of Asia.
Our journey to Kashgar was a part of a longer Xinjiang itinerary, and we reached Kashgar from Turpan, by train. We arrived at late evening, the railway station was in partial repair and we were really surprised when we got down from the train, that nobody checked us, nobody even checked out tickets (as in every railway stations in China).
We got a taxi and arrived at our hostel, called Maitian, and located near the East Lake (东湖公园) park of Kashgar. It was late for us (around 11:30 pm), but not for the locals, who live at least „two hours later” as in the whole Xinjiang. We planned to stay in Kashgar at least 4-5 days, during which we have included a 2-3 days trip to Tashkurgan, on the Chinese side of the famous Karakoram Highway. But on the next day, our first full day in Kashgar, we had to explore the interesting places within the city.
Places to visit in Kashgar
So, as you can assume, Kashgar should have a lot to see, within the city and around it. You can expect a strong presence of history and culture, and there is indeed such a presence. We visited its main landmarks, and there are more that we couldn’t visit. Anyway, let’s explore Kashgar and see what does it have to present.
Kashgar Old City (喀什噶尔老城)
It is the main and most important place to see in Kashgar. The Old City is large, spreading into two parts, separated by a wide boulevard. But first, have in mind that it is not the original “Old Kashgar”. The original one used to be located north of East Lake Park, but it was gradually demolished, since it has been found unsafe, and its mud houses (probably) easily to collapse.
Yes, that may sounds disappointing, but let’s think this way: there are many cases of this kind in the history, from ancient times until now- for various reasons capitals, other cities, palaces, and other clusters of buildings or constructions has been moved from one place to another, and their second versions were often better and more beautiful than the first.
The same is true about the Kashgar Old City, just its moving didn’t happen hundreds of years ago, but only during the last 10-15 years. And I have to confess that its new version now is really beautiful, clean and attractive, built on a hill, with surrounding fortress wall.
One of the best starting points for exploring the Kashgar Old City is its East Gate (东门). From there you enter another world like it has been hundreds of years ago. Beautiful 2 or 3-storeys houses in old traditional Uyghur style, souvenir, and daily life stock shops, cute cafes, small gardens and decorations- it can be seen everywhere on the streets. You can leave the main streets and enter some narrow alley between the house, and there you can see the life of the locals as it is. And eventually, you will arrive at the old center of Kashgar- Id Kah Square and its Id Kah Mosque.
Id Kah Square and Id Kah Mosque (艾提尕尔广场清真寺)
Id Kah Mosque is one of the Kashgar’s symbols and it is really old (not newly constructed or moved). It is built by Saqsiz Mirza during the Moghulistan era, around 1422. Now it is known as the largest (in area) mosque in China since a large part of it is a park. It has a few buildings, and it is religiously active currently- every Friday thousands of local Muslims go there for worship.
During its recent history, a few assassinations have happened there, two of them during the Kashgar wars in 1933-1934, and the last- in 2014. But now it is a safe place to visit since the mosque is serving also as a cultural and historical museum. Entrance fee: 30 CNY
And the square in front of it is one of the favorite places for the locals. There are a lot of other beautiful buildings in old traditional architectural style, including a tower and many bazaars (shops). There is an Uyghur Museum in the area, although currently closed for renovation.
All this- the Old City and Id Kah area can be explored together, in one tour, since they are in the same city area. But to proceed further your exploration of Kashgar, you have to leave this area. The next very important landmark of Kashgar is Afaq Khoja Mausoleum.
Afaq (Abak) Khoja Mausoleum (香妃墓)
It is something like the „Taj Mahal” of Xinjiang. Built around 1640, it is a tomb of several Afaq Clan’s generations. The tomb is initially built by a Sufi master, who came in the area to spread Sufism, and his son Afaq Khoja was not only a religious leader, but also entered in the political life of Kashgar.
Later many Afaqi members were buried in the Mausoleum, but one of them is of special attention. Whether it is true or not, it is believed that she was the so-called „Fragrant Concubine” (Xiang Fei- 香妃), an Uyghur girl, a descendant of Afaq Khoja family, serving as a concubine of Emperor Qianlong, and carried in the Mausoleum after her death.
Although the Uyghur version of the story is different, and in general, it is not clear what is a reality and what is just a legend, now this Mausoleum (whether there is a real „Fragrant Concubine” inside or not) is considered as a symbol of peace and friendship between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. On the other hand, the Muslim Uyghurs consider it as a Muslim holy place.
Today it consists not only of the Tomb, but a large garden with a pond, and several more Islamic buildings, including a mosque. Thus the whole complex is a beautiful masterpiece of architecture, culture, history and park design. Entrance fee: 30 CNY
Yusuf Khas Khajib Tomb (玉素甫·哈斯·哈吉甫墓)
Now lets back in time and from the era of Afaq Khoja (17-18th centuries) to jump to 11th century. It was the period of the Karakhanids, ruling over Kashgar and a large part of Central Asia. At that time, there was a man from Balasagun, the capital of the Karakhanid Empire near today’s Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. His name was Yusuf, called also Balasaguni.
Yusuf was a notorious poet and he wrote his famous masterpiece Kutadgu Bilig- „The Wisdom Bringing Good Fortune”. Later in his life, he moved to Kashgar, where he presented his work and in return, he gained the title Khas Hajib (which means something like „Chancellor”). He died in Kashgar, and today we can see his tomb- a beautiful structure, surrounded by a yard, built in traditional Uyghur Islamic style. Entrance fee: 30 CNY.
Now, let’s back to our modern time and taste more of the real Kashgar life. Some of the most colorful places in this part of the world are the bazaars- the open-air markets, where you can see and feel the most authentic of the local life and culture.
East Bazaar (东巴扎)
This is the main bazaar of Kashgar, located just east of East Lake Park. We visited it on our way back from Afaq Khoja Mausoleum since it is on the same boulevard. From its north entrance, you can see some beautiful traditional buildings, one of them serving as a gate of the bazaar.
At first sight, it looks just like a normal market, where you can find everything- products for daily use, souvenirs, fruits, spices, decorations…just everything. But what makes it more interesting is the people inside- most of them local Uyghurs, wearing their traditional caps, called „doppa”, women with their specific clothing, and their market behavior of selling and buying. So even you don’t like shopping, it is still really worth to walk inside the bazaar, diving in its unique atmosphere.
It is another very attractive bazaar. It is for domestic animals- cows, sheep, goats, horses, hens, etc. (no pigs). There you can see a lively trade, sell and buy, and many local people from the city and the nearby villages.
This market is located northwest of Kashgar, near the intersections of roads G314 and X435 (it is its new location). But it is working only on Sundays. So if you visit Kashgar during the other days of the week, you can’t see this bazaar. However, if it is Sunday, don’t miss this opportunity!
Local people, culture, food
Yes, finally, the city and its people are a “must-visit site” themselves. Here you can feel a strange mix of Central Asia with Chinese and Arabic signs on the streets everywhere. You can see the locals, most of which look different than the Chinese. And although there is some hidden tension in the air, all the people live a normal peaceful life.
One of the things that can make you feel the local atmosphere is the food. Since it is influenced by Islam, there is no pork. But you can enjoy beef, lamb, and chicken. There are various dishes, made by these kinds of meat, including a lot of vegetables, spices and other products. Mostly you can enjoy Leghman (Lamian)- a noddle dish, Polu- which is rice mixed with meat and vegetables, Kawaplar (Kebab)- beef or lamb on a skewer with spices, and Dapanji- a big plate with chicken and many vegetables, usually spicy. See more about the Uyghur cuisine here.
There are a lot of restaurants where you can enjoy traditional Uyghur cuisine, but now I would focus on the places where you can eat outside, in an open-air style, which gives you a special unique local feeling. There are two places where you can enjoy that- both in the Old City. The first one is in front of Id Kah Mosque, and the second one- right behind the southern gate of the Old City.
But maybe the most essential for Kashgar and the whole Xinjiang is the fruits. Yes, the best fruits in China come from Xinjiang, and they are some of the best in the world! Watermelons, Hami melons, grapes, peaches, apples, you have to try them in Kashgar. Xinjiang fruits are so delicious, that they became symbols of many Xinjiang cities. The Hami melon is a symbol of Hami, the grapes are a symbol of Turpan. And the symbol of Kashgar is the pomegranate.
How to reach Kashgar
There are several ways to reach Kashgar- by plane, by train, by bus, or by other transport like a car or even bicycle.
If you want to reach Kashgar by plane from the interior of China- there are direct planes from Urumqi, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. And since Kashgar is quite isolated from the rest of the country, it takes a few hours to reach it- around two hours from Urumqi and 5-6 hours or even more from the cities of the east.
You can reach Kashgar by plane also from Pakistan. First, you fly to Islamabad, and then- by direct flight to Kashgar.
This is how we reached Kashgar. Currently, there is only a normal (slow) train from the east of China and Urumqi. The railway comes from there and proceeds to Hotan. The trains to Kashgar are not the best and newest slow trains, but at least it is a cheap way to travel to this city.
There is a bus from Urumqi, which arrives in Kashgar for 24 hours, so it can be an option too. There were buses from Osh and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, but as far as I know, the bus from Bishkek is not stopped, and I am not sure about the bus from Osh. Maybe the reason is the strengthening of the border area control.
Until recently, it was possible to travel from Islamabad to Khunjerab Pass (the border with China), then by bus through Tashkurgan to reach Kashgar. But now Khunjerab Pass is much restricted and crossing from Pakistan to China on the Karakoram Highway is much more difficult, nearly impossible (the regulations often change, and even the local officials sometimes don’t know about the changes).
By other transport
Yes, there are other ways to reach Kashgar, most of them usually difficult or even weird. You can reach Kashgar from Urumqi, from Hotan (and the whole southern way from Xining, Qinghai) by car, hiring a driver or even hitchhiking. Yes, you will pass several police check-points, but they will not stop you to proceed, just have to register there.
You can still reach Kashgar from Kyrgyzstan (through Irkeshtam and Torugart Passes), from Tajikistan (through Qulma Pass) and (probably) from Pakistan (through Khunjerab Pass), but only by a travel company arranged car (with all necessary permits) and a lot of money. Maybe you can also reach Kashgar from Lhasa (Tibetan Autonomous Region), but again- only by a travel company (at least within Tibet).
Another adventurous way to reach Kashgar is by bicycle, but again- only from Urumqi or another place inside China. But if you try it from a neighboring country- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Pakistan, or the Tibetan Autonomous Region, currently it would be really difficult (if not impossible).
Accommodation in Kashgar
As in many other cities in China, especially in Xinjiang, many hotels don’t accept foreigners. So you have two options. First- choose an expensive, splurge hotel. Usually all they can accept foreigners and if you are ready to spend more money for such a hotel, you would not have any problem. Second- choose a hostel. There are two good hostels in the Old City: Kashgar Old City Hostel and Pamir Youth Hostel.
Another good hostel (where we spend several nights) is Maitian Youth Hostel, which is more like a cheap hotel, and some of its rooms are more like normal hotel rooms. And since it doesn’t like so attractive, foreigners usually don’t prefer it, but it is still a good option- at least you can reach it by taxi, while you have to walk to those inside the Old City.
Besides these, there are still a few more options which you can check, such as Qiniwak Hotel, Kashgar Guesthouse, Seman Hotel, and Hotel Eden. They are mid-range in price. Anyway, you better still check their availability to accept foreigners. See more about the accommodation in China here.
Where the next?
After you explore the city itself, you can “attack” some nearby places. But have in mind that you would be not allowed to reach everything located within the border area, which is very close to Kashgar.
Tashkurgan and Karakoram Highway
It is the most beautiful and attractive place to see near Kashgar. This is the Chinese section of the famous Karakoram Highway and it passes through really stunning places and landscapes. You can enjoy two fantastic lakes- White Sand Lake (白沙湖) and Karakul Lake (卡拉库勒湖). There you can see two breathtaking snowy peaks. These are the highest peaks of Pamir- Kongur Tagh and Muztagh Ata. And finally, you can explore the local Tajik culture and history of Tashkurgan.
But now, from this year (2019) you can do it ONLY by a travel company, which can be arranged from the Kashgar Travel Center since Karakoram Highway is located within the border area.
It is a natural wonder, located in the mountains northwest of Kashgar, known as the tallest natural arc on the Earth. Now it is turned into a National park and is easy reachable by paved road. But, as far as I know, since it is still within the border area, now you can’t just go by yourself, but only by a travel company, arranging the necessary permits.
Mahmud Kashgari Tomb
This is much nearer to Kashgar and is a historic site. It is located in a small town, called Upal, southwest of Kashgar, but still not in the border area, so you can reach it by yourself. The place is related to a notorious scholar and translator, lived in the 11th century and died here.
Mor Buddhist Pagoda
A historic site, located northeast of Kashgar. This is the largest presence of Buddhism in the area. It was built in the 7th century and destroyed in the 12th century during the Karakhitay era. Now only its ruins have left.
This desert is considered a part of the Great Taklamakan Desert. But in fact, it is separated from it, it is only a small “sand island” within agricultural land. That’s why in my opinion it is more proper for tourists, rather than travelers since it is made a tourist attraction, with camels, ATVs and other tourist gluttonies. They get money from the tourists and let them think that they are in Taklamakan Desert. That’s why we skipped this place and chose another desert site, which IS Taklamakan Desert- Maigaiti N39.
Taklamakan Desert- Maigaiti N39 area
This place is further east from Kashgar, some 3 hours by car. And it is really at the edge of Taklamakan Desert. It is called N39 because it is located exactly at the 39th north parallel line of the Earth. Yes, there is now another tourist site, again with camels, ATVs and desert jeeps (which are expensive, and too short in the same time). But this time the desert is more than 1000 km long and 400 km wide, so you can easily just go away from the tourist place and walk alone in the sands (being careful and not penetrating too far inside the desert without preparation, especially in summer, it can be dangerous!).
Yes, finally, this experience is “the cherry on the cake”. Needless to say, reaching the K2 Base Camp on the Chinese side is a serious challenge. Of course, it requires at least a 2-3 weeks trip, a travel company and a lot of money, since K2 is on the border with Pakistan.
From the trips around Kashgar, we chose Tashkurgan and Karakoram Highway, then the trip to Taklamakan Maigaiti N39.
Then we left Kashgar, proceeding our Xinjiang trip. We back to the northeast, to Urumqi, from where we planned to explore Tianshan mountains and to reach Taklamakan Desert again from the north. And our journey to Kashgar remained as a very important and unforgettable part of our trip on the Silk Road to the Chinese Far West.
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