The smell hits me as soon as I step down from the train in Kashgar: a scent of melons and pomegranates, an odour of livestock, a whiff of spice and a waft of grilling kebabs. It is the perfume of Central Asia, letting me know that though the flag fluttering in the clear blue sky above the station concourse might be unmistakably Chinese, I have arrived in another world. Welcome to Xinjiang, China’s Wild West.
Text and Photos by Tim Hannigan
Xinjiang province is vast, fully one-sixth of China’s huge landmass. A land of deserts and mountains with an indigenous population of Turkic Uighur Muslims, and a history traced with the trade routes of the old Silk Road, it has always leaned more to Samarkand and Bokhara than to Shanghai and Beijing. Today it is a place where the romance of a past of camel caravans and cultural collision lingers. Even the names of the geographical features here have a tantalising resonance: the Kun Lun, the Tien Shan and the Taklamakan.
As I step out of the station in Kashgar, a city steeped in history, I catch sight of a distant line of ethereal mountains, levitating over the desert horizon. Excitement lies ahead.
Kashgar was once a key junction on the Silk Road, the two-way trail that carried goods, technology, ideas and religions back and forth between Europe and Asia. Roads from the east were forced north and south around the Taklamakan, the world’s second-largest shifting sand desert, only to rejoin at Kashgar. And if there was ever an identifiable point on the Silk Road where east met west, then this was it. Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam, all of them at one time or another dominated here, while Turks, Mongols, Chinese, Indians and Arabs all added their own dash of spice to the melting pot. This was an international city long before anyone had coined the term “globalization”.