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Kashgar, China

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Kashgar (originally known as Shu-le) is one of the remotest towns in the Xinjiang Province of China. To the north are the Tianshan, the 'Celestial Mountains', and to the south is the Taklamakan Desert. Their first recorded Western visitor was Marco Polo in 1275, and since then they've suffered the odd Jesuit missionary, and a German explorer ended up murdered there in 1857. More recently the first Englishman to reach Kashgar was Robert Shaw in 1869 - he was a tea merchant. Shaw was followed by George Hayward, an ex-army officer sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. They were both imprisoned by the Kashgar ruler of the time, Yakub Beg. Thankfully for them he released them after only a few months. Both Britain and Russia opened consulates in the area; the Russian consulate is now part of a hotel, whereas the British consulate is ruined.

Kashgar was on the border of Xinjiang, which was mainly the Taklamakan Desert and important oases. The Chinese and the Kushan Empire of Afghanistan, fought to control this area and eventually the Chinese General, Pan Ch'ao, won in 90 AD. He then led his army across the Pamir mountains, which join the Kunlan Range with the Hindu Kush. This led him to the Caspian Sea, where he established trading links with the Persian Parthian Empire. Subsequently Kashgar became a trading post on the Silk Road, and in the 2nd Century, although Han China and Rome never established formal diplomatic relations, they certainly has established contact with each other.

Invading Kashgar

The Chinese protectorate of Western Regions encompassed Kashgar but it did not prevent it from being taken over by many other invaders, such as the Sasanian Empire in the 2nd Century which was founded by the Prince of Persia when he defeated the Parthian Empire. In the 3rd Century China was often attacked by northern tribes, starting with the Huns. These were the Kidarite Huns as opposed to the Ephthalite or White Huns. Another group of Huns were the Black Huns, led by Attila, who invaded the Roman Empires. The Mongolian nomads then started to attack.

The constant attacks were probably why Kashgar escaped the influence of the major religions which were expanding at this time along the Silk Routes. China was Taoist, while both Hinduism and Buddhism were becoming more widely known. Eventually, though Kashgar became the site of a Christian Bishopric, a branch of Nestorian Christianity had spread from Ctesiphon, the Persian capital. The Nestorian branch was the largest branch of Christianity between the 7th and 11th Centuries, and it spread far into central Asia, partly due to the tolerance of the Mongols. The Nestorian Church fell due to intolerance caused by the Crusades, whereupon Islam started to spread throughout the region.

Genghis Khan and the Unification of the Mongol Tribes

It took the Mongol known as 'Temujin' to unite the Mongolian tribes, before they were successful. He became known as Genghis Khan and invaded Kashgar in the 12th Century; the whole of North China was also invaded. The death of his son, the Great Khan Mongke, saw the end of the Mongol aggression, and the beginning of the Ming dynasty. The beginning of the 16th Century also saw a resurgence of Muslim power and Kashgar was ruled by a Muslim ruler in what was known as the Khanate of Kashgar.

The Manchus from Manchuria started to expand their territory in the 17th Century, and Kashgar was one of the first to be taken over. The Manchus also established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). At the end of the 18th Century the Manchus were heavily influenced by Chinese culture and started to lose their identity. This paved the way for violent Muslim uprisings, by the Yeo people who lived near Kashgar in Kweichow, and were exploited by both Chinese and Manchus. The Yeo rose up in 1790 and 1833 and the oases of Kashgar and surrounding areas were in open rebellion from 1825 to 1828.

Yakub Beg

The last foreign ruler of Kashgar was Yakub Beg was an Islamic fundamentalist from Uzbekistan. A Muslim General, he used Kashgar as a headquarters from 1928, he was ousted by the Chinese in 1877. The Chinese renamed the province Xinjiang, meaning 'New Dominion'. Another Muslim rebellion was quashed by a Chinese provincial warlord called Sheng Shih-ts'ai who, with help from the USSR, ruled from 1933-1944.

The locals call the area Altyn Shahr, meaning the 'Land of Six Cities', after the six major oases which ring the desert. It is an extremely arid area, with only 4 inches (100mm) of rain each year, mainly falling in the hot summer months. The temperatures vary from -6°C in January to 26°C in July.

Present day Kashgar is still Islamic and some of the oldest and largest mosques in China are found here. The Communist takeover in 1949 (ruthless and bloody according to some historians) did leave some of the traditions alone, such as the Sunday Market, when the busy bazaar gets even busier. And it's here where you'll find the local produce of grain and fruits such as melons, peaches and cherries. Textiles are also produced, such as cotton, silk, rugs, furs and also pottery and copper. It is for now, at the time of writing, an unspoilt area which does at last welcome strangers.


  • Geographical Magazine - the article which originally inspired this one was from this magazine, but it has grown a lot since then!
  • The Times Atlas of World History
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (on DVD)

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