Captivating Kashgar: What to See & Do in China’s Ancient Silk Road Oasis
Two-thousand-year-old Kashgar is unlike any other place in China. Situated in the country’s westernmost fringes where the Tien Shan, Kunlun, and Pamir mountain ranges meet, this incredible oasis city has been at the heart of commerce and cultural exchange for centuries, enticing travelers and traders alike with its intoxicating bazaars and vibrant street life.
During the height of the old Silk Road, both the northern and southern caravan routes around the Taklamakan Desert converged in Kashgar, making it one of the most important trading centers on the ancient crossroads between China, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Tibetans, Persians, Turks, Mongols, and Chinese have all laid claim to this remote desert outpost, giving the city its brilliant mosaic of cultures, flavors, and rich artistic heritage.
With its maze-like Old Town and famous Sunday Bazaar, Kashgar still retains the exotic air and immense appeal of medieval Asia. But change is afoot.
Controversial government redevelopment projects have already drastically transformed the look and feel of the Old Town, as city blocks have been demolished and replaced with modern buildings and tourist-friendly zones. More reconstruction efforts are slated for the future, so the time to experience Kashgar’s mercantile spirit of old is now, before the city changes forever.
Here are some of our favorite ways to explore this colorful and captivating Silk Road city.
Shop Kashgar’s Sunday Bazaar
With its brilliant blend of peoples and chaotic bustle, Kashgar’s Sunday Bazaar is absolutely unrivaled. For centuries, this huge bazaar was the region’s commercial and cultural hub, and locals and merchants from all over the Silk Road would come to hawk their wares, trading everything from silks and spices to horses and livestock.
These days the market is open throughout the week, but Sunday undoubtedly is the best time to catch it in full swing. It is possible to spend the majority of the day at the market, where you can find a remarkable array of traditional silks, instruments, handcrafted knives, embroidered hats, and an amazing variety of fruits, nuts, and household wares.
As you wander among the market stalls, be sure to stop and sample some of the fantastic fresh fruits and vegetables that Western China is famed for. Melons grown near Kashgar are especially sweet and juicy, and often cut and sold by the slice.
Stroll Through the Sunday Animal Market
No trip to Kashgar is complete without a visit to its famous Sunday Animal Market. Farmers and shepherds from throughout the province trek here every week to auction off their livestock, from herds of cattle and fat-tailed sheep to yaks brought down from the surrounding mountains.
With traders chatting, wrangling feisty flocks, taking animals for a test drive, and haggling with lightning-fast hand signals, the market is a lively cacophony of sights and sounds, and gives incredible insight into a unique aspect of the local culture that’s survived since the days of the Silk Road.
If you happen to get hungry from watching all of the action at the market, stop for a quick snack at one of the nearby communal cooking areas and food stalls. Vendors here sell a variety of tasty treats, including generous helpings of plov, hand-pulled laghman noodles topped with a rich tomato and pepper stew, and savory Central Asian pastries called samsa, blisteringly crisp on the outside with a spiced lamb and onion filling inside.
Admire the Abakh Khoja Mausoleum
Built in 1640, the beautiful Abakh Khoja Mausoleum was built to honor 17th century Sufi and political leader Abakh Khoja (for whom the mausoleum is named), and shelters five generations of his family. The site is also known as the Fragrant Concubine’s Tomb in memory of Abakh Khoja’s granddaughter, Iparhan, who was an imperial consort to Chinese Emperor Qianlong during the 18th century.
Decorated with brilliant blue-glazed tiles, striking woodwork, and arabesque floral designs, the mausoleum complex is one of the finest remaining examples of Islamic architecture in Western China. Its beautifully manicured gardens make a perfect place to stroll when you’re craving a little peace and serenity away from the hum of the city.
Marvel at the Id Kah Mosque
Kashgar’s yellow-tiled Id Kah Mosque is the largest in China, and the spiritual core of the Muslim community. Originally built on a smaller scale in 1442, the complex today includes a shady courtyard, a hall of prayer, and a gate tower.
On festivals and holy days, Muslims from all across China’s Xinjiang Province converge here to celebrate and worship. During the end of Ramadan or the Qurban Festival (Eid al-Adha), you can often witness tens of thousands of people gathering for morning prayers in the mosque’s expansive courtyard.
Take a Trip Back in Time to the Old Town
The Old Town, a marvelous mud-brick labyrinth of traditional courtyard homes and winding alleyways, is the heart and soul of Kashgar. Historians believe that this part of the city lays claim to more than 2,000 years of history, and a number of buildings here have managed to withstand the test of time — some, in fact, date back five centuries.
The Old Town’s scintillating Silk Road charm was what convinced producers of the 2007 movie “The Kite Runner” to use it as a film double for the Afghan capital of Kabul. Film buffs might recognize several of the buildings used on set as they wander the city’s twisting mud-brick alleyways.
Unfortunately, much of this history has been eroded over the last decade. In 2009, the Chinese government declared the Old Town a fire and earthquake hazard, and ordered over two-thirds of its blocks to be demolished and replaced with more modern, tourist-friendly architecture.
While lacking the history and authenticity of the original town structure, the “New” Old Town still manages to preserve plenty of the old charms of pre-demolished Kashgar. Bicyclists pedal through the alleyways in the early mornings, selling fresh nan bread and yogurt; children play on the streets; and the town comes alive in the evenings as locals stroll and shop at the city’s night market.
Luckily, you can still see a portion of the “Old” Old Town on the east side of the city, allowing you to get a full picture of what Kashgar was like before it was redeveloped. Take a moment here to walk up the ancient dirt lanes between adobe homes with ladders leading up to the rooftops above. Old mosques are everywhere, and animals crowd the narrow walkways.
Wander the Uighur Handicraft Street
Located adjacent to the Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar’s Uighur Handicraft Street, also called “Ancient Art Street,” is famed for its hundreds of stalls and workshops selling Uighur pottery, gold and silver jewelry, silk fabrics, clothing, and folk instruments.
Technically part of the city’s redesigned section of the Old Town, this particular block is a fantastic place to pick up souvenirs to take home, and offers a chance to observe how these incredible handcrafted items are made by local artisans who practice time-honored techniques. Small workshops spill out onto the streets, where passersby can watch ceramicists shaping clay on the potter’s wheel, coppersmiths hammering raw material into bowls, trays, and tea sets, and craftswomen stitching embroidery onto traditional four-cornered doppa hats.
Spend some time wandering among the finely crafted goods, punctuated at intervals by street food vendors. You’ll find dozens of stands permeating the air with the scents of fresh-baked bread and succulent meat kebabs grilling over a charcoal flame. Be sure to try the classic Uighur nan bread, which is sprinkled hot from the oven with a seasoning of onion, garlic, or sesame seeds.
Visit a Traditional Uighur Family Home
To truly get a sense of everyday local life in Kashgar, make a special visit to a family of Uighurs in their home. One of China’s largest minority ethnic groups, the Uighurs are descended from Turkic tribes, and are in the majority in Western China. Their language, customs, and traditions differ markedly from the Han Chinese, and most closely resemble those of their neighbors in Central Asia.
Uighurs are known for being incredibly hospitable, and enjoy opening up their homes to those eager to know more about their history and traditions. While visiting a local family’s home, travelers will be treated to a feast of traditional Uighur dishes as they immerse themselves in the everyday lives and culture of the people who call Kashgar home.
Travel to Kashgar & Western China with MIR
MIR has more than three decades of experience planning personalized tours to Western China. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise has twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
Explore the sights and sounds of Kashgar on these MIR small group tours:
The Pamir Highway: From the Tien Shan to the High PamirsThis adventurous journey over the Pamir Highway is a breathtaking route through Kyrgyzstan, Western China, and Tajikistan, in use since the time of the Silk Road. China’s Silk Road & Tibet: Route of Monks & MerchantsTrace the path of ancient traders and adventurers on this overland journey across Western China to Tibet. Experience the Kashgar Sunday Animal Market, Turpan’s lush Grape Valley, and Dunhuang’s UNESCO-listed Mogao Caves, then ride the high-altitude train to the Tibetan Plateau, exploring the sacred cities of Gyantse, Shigatse, and Lhasa, “City of the Sun.” Tibet & China Rail DiscoveryRoll across Western China from Urumqi to Lhasa. Discover the teeming Sunday Market in Kashgar and the ancient karez underground irrigation system in Turpan. Then hop the special high-altitude train, ascending from the Tibetan Plateau to Lhasa at 12,000 feet, passing the world’s highest railroad station along the way.
You can also book a custom private journey or a tour extension to Kashgar and Western China based on your interests and schedule. MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates, and pace.
Chat with a MIR destination specialist about travel to Kashgar and Western China by phone (800-424-7289) or email today.
Top photo: Locals shop on Uighur Handicraft Street in Kashgar, China. Photo credit: Steven Orvis.
PUBLISHED: March 28, 2018