In the earthy confines of an ancient Uighur courtyard house in the heart of the endangered Old City of Kashgar a shaft of sunlight illuminates the deep furrows of an ageing face. In front of me sits an elegant 97-year-old Uighur lady, an ornate shimmering white shawl draped over her head. Given the repression meted out in this Muslim outpost of China her name shall remain anonymous.
Her deep lines on her forehead reflect the tumultuous times she has lived through. Speaking in a quiet croaky voice, perched on a ledge, she recalls the arrival of the Communists. “From then on our lives were never to be the same, for better or for worse,” she says in a hushed tone, anxious not to be overheard by any of the hundreds of spies who mill about town. A shard of light spotlights half her face, and falls to the wall below her and intricate blue and white patterned tiling of the house she has called home all her life.
In 1958, Kashgar was electrified, something that changed daily working habits dramatically.
Ten years later, red guards charged through the old lanes, tearing off women’s scarves, smashing ancient relics and mosques, burning books and pillaging old homes.
“But we survived that,” recalls the old lady. “That was easy with what came next.”
Chinese authorities tore down much of the ancient city wall, a 10-metre-high earth berm, and paved over its moat in the 1980s to create a ringroad. The roar of cars is now monotonous from this lady’s house.
At the end of the 1990s, running water came to the old city. With the onset of the new century though and the whole nation undergoing irrevocable change, redevelopment sped up in Kashgar with many old lanes jettisoned in favour of a wide highway known as Liberation Road that bisects this ancient dwelling.
In 2002, renovations to the Id Kah Mosque commenced. “If they could touch that, well then, we knew nothing was sacred in their eyes,” recounts the old lady. “We knew then that it would only be a matter of time before they came knocking our way.”
During this round of renovations, the traditional bazaar and old residential area in front of the mosque vanished and were replaced by a broad, dull square and giant commercial buildings on the other side of the street. Hanification was in full swing now that the railway was up and running.
My kind host pats the earthen wall beside her. “Look,” she says, “this is a proven way of living in the desert. These walls are cool in summer and hot in winter. What do they know about desert life,” she says dismissively, her wrinkled hand waving weakly to her side.
I spent a month in Xinjiang province in August 2008, an incredible trip, one I’ll remember for the rest of my life, not least the sights, sounds, smell and people of Kashgar. But I know it is a city with little time left. When the announcement comes through earlier this year that 85% of the remainder of the Old City is to be razed to the ground I am saddened, irritated, despondent, but not surprised.
“Because many houses were built privately without any approval, the life of residents is not convenient and the capability against earthquakes and fire is weak,” a report in the state-run local media said. “Our target is every family has a house, every family has employed members and the economy will be developed.”
The fact that these centuries old houses have withstood countless earthquakes in the past unlike, say, the modern cheap rubbish that was blown away in last year’s Sichuan earthquake is, needless to say, not discussed. 220,000 Uighurs are moving out of their beautiful homes. Any house with a red + sign on the wall is due for demolition, not unlike the dreaded star that marked doom for Jews during the Second World War.
In a 2008 book called Kashgar: Oasis City on China's Old Silk Road, architect and historian George Michell described the Old City as “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia.”
The outcry over the city’s demolition might have been larger had it been where it rightfully belongs, on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but Beijing never applied to have it certified.
I slurp down the remains of my tea and get up to leave, thanking her profusely for her hospitality. “Now go and tell others of what’s happening here,” she urges me. “Our way of life is coming to an end.” Outside her pink studded door, there’s a red + on the wall. Her days in the old city are numbered.