Kashgar: Utopia or Dystopia?

I don’t even know how to begin writing about Kashgar. For the months and months leading up to my arrival here, I’ve heard nothing but horror stories. Travelers detained without reason for hours, police checkpoints every 100 meters, and tailings by secret police were just a few of the reports I had heard. And not even old reports — these were things I heard from travelers up to mere days before my arrival.

So when I got to Kashgar and found none of those things and instead a city that looked to be a fusion of China and Italy, I had no idea how to react to it.

 

Kashgar, the Utopia

I got off the train from Turpan at 6:00 in the morning, and caught a taxi to my hostel in the old city. On the outskirts where the bus station is, the city looks about how I expected: a little run-down, lots of development, little street food stands on the corner with lines of workers waiting on food. But the further into the city we went, the nicer everything became. First, it was nice in the Chinese city sense — big buildings, wide roads, clean (ish) sidewalks. Indistinguishable from other Chinese cities, but nice nonetheless.

When we got out of our taxi at the gate into the old city, we were shocked to see how beautiful it was. Turpan’s old city was cool because of how Middle Eastern it felt, despite not being that nice. Kashgar’s old city looks like a neighborhood taken straight out of Sicily or Istanbul. The signs are even all in Arabic, just like in Turpan.

As we walked down the wide streets, not much activity was happening yet. Some old men chilling on benches, guys starting to make bread and set out their wares. Some young kids walking to school (alone). Vines grew along the walls and the scent of bread and spices wafted down every alley. It was so perfectly idyllic that I couldn’t believe I was in Kashgar. After spending so long in Kathmandu where the nice areas were nice because they were curated for tourists, I couldn’t believe this was a genuine part of Kashgar. But there were no tourists, only people living their daily lives.

In the following couple days, I had every preconceived idea of what Kashgar was and looked like completely flipped upside down. As I explored more and more, I was unable to hold onto the idea of what every blog, article, or anything gave me about Kashgar. The reality did not match the narrative.

But here’s the thing — despite my overwhelmingly positive experience in Kashgar, I remain convinced that I didn’t get the full picture.

 

Kashgar, the Dystopia

Throughout my time in Kashgar, I couldn’t believe that it could be such a nice city. I refused to believe that it was such a nice city. All the stories I heard didn’t come from nowhere. They’re all real experiences. Not only that, despite the obvious niceness of the city, evidence that there was something underneath it all was there.

First, people were very suspicious of me with my camera. When I was without my camera, I was hardly noticed. But with my camera, people treated me differently. I don’t mean different in the way that every white guy with a camera in Asia gets treated, but something much more different. On my first day, I was taking a photo of a building. When I panned it to include to guys sitting on a bench, they immediately got up and crossed the street to get out of my frame. When I left, they returned to sit, watching me until I was out of sight. Every time I asked someone if I could take their photo, they immediately refused. Of course people can say no, but I’ve never had a 100% refusal rate for an entire city.

Second, the police presence was significant. None gave me any trouble, but all watched me as they passed by. They went in roving patrols of 2-3, heavily armed and armored. Some of the shields that they used had serrated edges, like a giant hacksaw on their arm. Any that didn’t have a shield carried metal rods or big guns. It was a much less benign police presence than in Beijing. Even in Kathmandu where police are heavily armed and armored, I never felt uneasy around them.

Third, even when there were no police, there were cameras everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean fucking everywhere. At least six at every intersection, and another 5-10 spaced every 10 meters on each street in between. Taxi cabs had a camera in the front and one in the back seats. Restaurants had cameras in every corner of the room. At one point while I sat in a rooftop cafe, I could count 6 cameras without even standing from my seat.

So find all the cameras in these photos. By my count, there’s at least 10.

Now I’m not doing this part to be able to confirm my feelings going into Kashgar, or to be able to say it’s not a nice city. But it’s important to keep in mind. It’s easy to move through these places and just look at the pretty buildings and spout some cliché about how beautiful the city is and how happy the people are. But it’s important to acknowledge the realities of a place that we as foreigners can’t see, whether we lack the cultural awareness or they’re deliberately hidden from us.

It wouldn’t be fair to Kashgar or the people who live there to present any one side. Before I came to Kashgar, I was imagining some totalitarian police state where people are afraid to come outside or interact with foreigners or celebrate their culture for fear of consequences by the State. Every resource I read focused on the negative. And a big part of the reason I wanted to see it for myself was because I couldn’t believe it was as bad as everyone said it was.

But on the flip side, it wouldn’t be fair to only talk about how nice everything is, because that wouldn’t acknowledge the reality that people are living in. It would just further the cliché of every travel blog: “They have so little but they’re so happy!” Travelers have an obligation to at least try to understand what life is really like for people in the places they visit, or else they’re just a tourist.

So that said, I had a really positive experience in Kashgar. The city is downright beautiful and it feels very safe. It’s very lively and every night people were out having a good time. It almost makes you stop noticing the weirdness of it all. By the end, despite the loveliness of the people and the city, I felt like I was in that movie The Truman Show. Everyone is friendly, the city is beautiful, and life seems almost idyllic. But it’s all being watched and monitored.

So I guess the point is that it’s not nearly as bad as everyone says (from a traveler’s perspective). My anxiety before coming to Kashgar was not unfounded, but also not necessary. From a local perspective, there’s something beneath the surface of Kashgar that I and any other traveler can’t and won’t be privy to.

Travel there, see it, appreciate it, but don’t go in blind. Understand the situation as best you can and present it fairly. Xinjiang is a real-life dystopia and it’s carefully hidden from travelers. It’s also home to, in my opinion, the most interesting culture in China (which the Chinese government is actively trying to eradicate).

So appreciate the culture, understand the situation it’s forced to exist in. To focus on only one of those things is unfair to the people who live there.

 

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