For centuries the spiritual capital of the Uighur people, Kaşgar may be thousands of kilometers from İstanbul and the historic cities of Anatolia, but the echoes and rhythms of Turkic life are clearly in evidence here. Of course, this is no coincidence. The Uighurs who occupy the Xinjiang province of modern China are linguistically and culturally the distant cousins of the Turks of the modern Turkish Republic.
Kaşgar was an important staging post on the Silk Road. Along this route came merchants and diplomats, philosophies and ideas. Trade moved both ways, bringing silk to the Mediterranean and Islam to Central Asia. In the 10th century, Satuk Buğra Han met Muslim traders from Bukhara and converted to Islam. He was expelled by his uncle the Karahanlı king, but later returned to claim the throne and became the first Uighur sultan and established the first Islamic kingdom in Kaşgar. Satuk Buğra Han's neatly domed mausoleum can still be visited in Artuş, a village north of Kaşgar.
In Kaşgar's history, the Karahanlı era was a period of literary and scholarly dynamism and cultural exchange. In 1070 Yusuf Has Hacib wrote the “Kutadgu Bilik” (Wisdom of Royal Glory), one of the most important examples of early Turkish literature, for the prince of Kaşgar.
At the same time, the great Uighur scribe Kaşgarlı Mahmud was diligently compiling the “Divanü Lugat-ı Türk,” a lexicon of Turkic dialects, which was sent to the caliph in Baghdad in 1072. Kaşgarlı also created a map illustrating the areas inhabited by Turks. The map, now housed in the National Library in İstanbul, shows various Turkic groups moving from the deserts and mountains of Eurasia, westward towards Turkey.
Aside from the renovated tomb of Yusuf Has Hacib, there is little remaining evidence of the Karahanlı in Kaşgar. The Id Kah Mosque, dating from the 15th century, is built on the remains of a 10th-century structure. Its lemon-yellow walls enclose shady pavilions, decorated prayer halls and leafy gardens that create a haven from the bustling city outside. Its broad courtyard can accommodate up to 20,000 people for prayer on important occasions.
On Handicrafts Street near the Id Kah Mosque, traditional life continues at a gentle pace. Here Uighur artisans and craftsmen hammer at copper tea pots or sharpen knives while keeping an eye on the street and chatting with passers-by. Bakers turn out immaculately patterned loaves of nun bread and kebab chefs fan the flames of their grills, sending up clouds of tangy smoke.
A convenient drop-in for travelers here is the Uighur Teahouse. This building in Kaşgar architectural style features elegantly carved woodwork and is a meeting point for Uighur elders who are always willing to share a pot of tea and chat with visitors. Its second-floor balcony is a perfect viewing platform for watching the buzz of daily life in the streets below.
Nearby are stalls selling embroidered Uighur doppa caps and the Uighur Musical Instrument Factory. This shop, reeking of resin and wood shavings, boasts a comprehensive array of traditional instruments, including the two-string dutar and five-string tambür, resembling the Turkish long-necked saz. Visitors are likely to be treated to the mellifluous vocals and shimmering dutar performances of local muqam musicians.
Beyond is the Old Town, the symbolic heart of the city. Large parts of the Old Town are being demolished as the government is concerned that its mud-brick houses are not earthquake proof. Nonetheless, it is possible to visit the neighborhoods that remain.
Narrow alleyways, winding between mud-rendered two-storey buildings, provide shade from the hot sun of Xinjiang. Here life is lived at close quarters: Some houses double as shops, their windows allowing passers-by to make spontaneous purchases. Children play in alleyways that have coded paving stones, rectangular pavers for dead ends and hexagonal for through streets.
There are no cars, only the occasional resident coming home on a moped, or a peddler arriving on his three-wheeled motorbike to deliver fresh vegetables. Locals chatter and gossip on their doorsteps. Wandering these alleys, hearing the Turkic cadence of Uighur banter, visitors could easily imagine themselves in old İstanbul, or the backstreets of Safranbolu.
If the Old Town is the defining feature of Kaşgar, then the Sunday livestock market is its defining experience. On the outskirts of town, this weekly event draws a huge gathering of farmers, shepherds, traders. And animals. Burly Kyrgyz farmers bring their yaks to sell; the Tajiks of the Pamir Mountains hustle bleating goats; bearded Uighur villagers cast expert eyes over bullocks or fat-tailed sheep. Visitors may also see two-humped camels or a prospective purchaser taking a donkey for a test ride. Haggling is to be expected, with buyers sizing up what's available, muttering in groups or musing individually before finally making an offer.
Depending on the season, the market may be windswept, muddy or dusty underfoot, but trading is always boisterous, good-natured fun, conducted in an array of languages, most of which Turkish speakers will understand.
Opal, the village where Kaşgarlı Mahmud is buried, also has a weekly Monday bazaar that draws visitors from far and wide. Opal is south of Kaşgar on the Karakoram Highway, a pleasant drive through fertile farmland. Farmers on donkey carts and entire families on mopeds zip along the highway to the market. The abundant produce of the surrounding countryside is on offer. Fruit peddlers hawk plump grapes, melons and pomegranates, all grown locally. Villagers come for weekly supplies, local news or a shave from the barber. It is chaotic, colorful and noisy, just like any village bazaar in Anatolia.
A more contemplative Kaşgar experience is a visit to the Tomb of Afak Hoca on the northern edge of town. Built in 1640, originally as a tomb for Muhammad Yusuf, a sufi sheikh, it is named after his son, Afak Hoca, who encouraged the spread of sufism throughout China and threw off Mongol rule in the Kaşgar region in the 1680s.
The mausoleum itself, with its glazed tiles and stout dome, is a mélange of architectural influences. The grounds around the tomb include mosques and a medrese with sturdy, decorated columns, brush-wood ceilings and shaded pavilions. Visitors wander the pathways under lofty poplar and mulberry trees while paying their respects to the sufi holy men.
Legend says that Iparhan, the grand daughter of Afak Hoca, who was made a concubine of the Emperor Qianlong, is also buried here. Known by the Chinese as the Fragrant Concubine, for her apparently natural perfume, Iparhan's story has been adapted into various plays and books.
Tales of Iparhan, Afak Hoca, Kaşgarlı Mahmud and Yusuf Has Hacib are just a few of many that contribute to the colorful history of Kaşgar and the broader canvas of Turkic history. They are one of the elements here, alongside the lively bazaars, the music, the teahouse banter and the gregarious people, that make this Silk Road city seem like a pocket of Turkey nestled in northwestern China.
How to get there:
Aeroflot and China Southern Airlines connect İstanbul with Kaşgar, via Moscow and Urumçi, three times per week.
Where to stay:
Seman Hotel (337 Seman Rd., 86-998-258 2129)
Eden Hotel (148 Seman Rd., 86-998-266 4444, www.xjeden.com)
Where to eat:
Street food is not to be missed. Eden Hotel offers Uighur and Turkish meals, as does Altun Orda (Xibei Street, near Seman Hotel).
Abdul Wahab Tours (www.abdulwahabtours.com) is one of Kaşgar's best outfits and can tailor-make tours of the city and region.