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After living in many Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Yemen, I couldn’t wait to visit Xinjiang, China’s biggest Muslim region with a predominant Uygur population.
Tucked in the westernmost corner of China, the oasis city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region marks the intersection of two branches of the ancient Silk Road and has been the junction of regional trade and cultural exchange for more than two millennia. And so it remains today.
Like Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Kashgar dramatically contrasts the rest of China. I was most fascinated by the local population of this metropolis. Home to over 500,000 according to the 2010 census, the city is fueled by colorful ethnic diversity——a mosaic of the Uygurs, Han, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks.
Kashgar’s Old City has been deemed one of the “best-preserved” examples of a traditional Islamic city anywhere, and it attracts more than one million tourists annually, according to estimates.
Most people don’t realize that the award-winning movie The Kite Runner, set in Kabul, Afghanistan, was actually filmed in Kashgar due to safety and security concerns.
Kashgar’s narrow, labyrinthine alleys all seem to lead to the yellow-tiled Id Kah Mosque, built in 1442, which remains the spiritual and physical heart of the city. Muslim and non-Muslim men and women are allowed inside, but visitors are required to dress modestly and remove shoes before entering the carpeted area, and women are asked to wear a headscarf.
Local street snacks such as mutton kebabs and bagel-like breads can be found in food stalls opposite the Id Kah Mosque. The neighborhood is also a great place to buy souvenirs and local crafts such as copper teapots, musical instruments and wooden jewelry boxes.
As they have done for centuries, Uygur craftsmen and artisans continue working with hammers and chisels, traders haggle in boisterous bazaars, and carts pulled by donkeys still creep down narrow alleys.
A highlight of any trip to Kashgar is an excursion to the lively Sunday livestock market, which only happens on that day and remains a fascinating sight. Thousands of Uygur farmers and herders from peripheral areas come to sell cattle, sheep, camels, horses and donkeys.