Trade and Religion

We had two days in Kashgar, which in retrospect was designed to show us different aspects of power and influence – trade and religion.

Having left Kashgar now, and travelled into Kyrgyzstan- in fact we saw a third way of wielding power – but more of that later.

Religion: China is a predominantly Buddhist country which the majority Chinese Han observe. However the Uighurs who make up the majority of the population in Kashgar are Muslim. We were taken first to the Central Mosque of Kashgar and in a similar way to the mosque in Xi’an it has elements of Buddhism in its design. It certainly doesn’t conform to the typical Arabic Mosque architecture that we will see later in Uzbekistan. There are lots of open areas with trees, and open spaces, the prayer hall is much more reminiscent of a Buddhist temple than a mosque. The quibla – whilst facing Mecca – is understated. Indeed the whole mosque is understated in design and decoration. It seems that the biggest mosque in the Islamist region is not a typical mosque at all, but one that retains the characters of the overall majority religion of Buddhism.

 

We were also taken to a mausoleum which houses the remains of the gloriously named “Fragrant Concubine of Emperor Qi”. The pictures of the mausoleum show the extraordinary tiling blue, green, and white, that makes the whole structure breathtaking. Whilst it was a mausoleum which housed the remains of the Fragrant Concubine, and her subsequent generations, it was not a practising mosque anymore. The whole compound contained a number of buildings, including a very old madrasah, and a mosque that was used in the summer, but as a religious entity it seemed to have been taken over by its historical significance – again catering to the needs of the incoming Han to demonstrate their strengths and relative importance.

Trade: We were taken to the livestock market in Kashgar. Words cannot describe the sudden change from 21st century iPads, iPhones, internet access, walking on the moon, and all the other advances that we have seen, to a scene from 200 years ago. The noise, the smell, the atmosphere has not changed in over 200 years. The livestock market is held every Sunday and attracts all the local farmers. Sheep, goats, cows, bulls, yaks, and donkeys are bartered and sold. The braying, lowing, shouting, and whinnying was extraordinary. It was all mixed up with the dust, the indescribable smells, and the farmers all assessing bartering and buying stock. In the middle of all of this, are almost equal numbers of tourists, Chinese and Western, with their cameras getting in the middle of everything, to try and record what it was like 200 years ago.

 

Tourists: Kashgar is a very old city, and has a 2000 year old “old quarter”. More exactly, it had a two thousand year old “old quarter” which is where the Uighurs lived, and was the centre of their culture. The local government are in the process of destroying and replacing it with a renovated Old Quarter designed for tourists. The new “old quarter” is a bit like a Disney creation, which seems to be rarely used by the local residents of any belief or faith. The public are not allowed to enter the true Old Quarter, so the only photos that we have are from a distance, but one can see how different it is to its newer Disney version.

These are the images from the weekly “opening ceremony” designed for tourists:

This was as close as we got to the true “old city”:

Looking at the long history of Kashgar, it is clear that the only reason it is there is because of its position on the Silk Road. It is the first place where the two main routes from Xi’an meet, at a river, and where the routes out of the high Tian Sian mountains come down to a level plain. This is where trade from the West meets the East, and markets are the way to manage that trade. Adding taxes to traded goods, which has been happening for centuries, creates wealth. Wealth creates power. Control who enters the city and you control trade, and therefore wealth. Use religion to control when the city is open and who can trade which goods, and religion controls wealth and power.

None of this is new, it was just very elegantly demonstrated in Kashgar.

 

Today we left Kashgar and drove the relatively short distance – perhaps only 200Km to Tash Rabat in Kyrgyzstan. The journey (which our guides told us was quick) took some 7 hours, the majority of which was taken up with negotiating the border between China and Kyrgyzstan. Our passports were checked at least four times, and our luggage checked twice in China alone. There was increasing numbers of increasingly armed soldiers on the Chinese side, as we passed through increasing amounts of razor wire, tank traps and barriers. At one check the English couple behind us whose passports was being checked by a senior customs officer were laughing at a joke. Very politely but quite clearly peeved, he asked the couple why they were laughing and could they please form a straight line. Although he remained polite the message was clear.

An earlier posting described the number of police on the streets of Kashgar, and the atmosphere of “control” by the incoming Han Chinese. The border control just felt more of the same only more so. The relief at crossing into Kyrgyzstan was tangible.