In China’s far north-west, the Uygurs of Kashgar are a reminder of the Silk Road outpost’s cultural convergence.
The Saturday Paper - Apr 4, 2015
The little mudbrick building is hidden behind gleaming high-rises. Nothing suggests the white-washed residence in the heart of Kashgar, China’s most far-flung city, was once a vital but unlikely listening post in a high-stakes spying game. Or that the assortment of explorers, spooks, writers and oddballs who stayed under its roof made it a Chelsea Hotel of the Far East.
Today, the down-at-heel Chini Bagh houses a Chinese restaurant serving mediocre food. Its shady verandah still offers refuge from summer heat. Inside, cast-iron stoves are reminders of how winters were spent more than a century ago where desert temperatures drop to minus 12.
I’m overjoyed to find the old house, battered but still standing, when so much of the traditional Muslim oasis has vanished. The building has suffered numerous indignities over the years. After its terraced orchards were left to rot and stables converted into a dank shower block, Chini Bagh was a flophouse sheltering Pakistani traders and backpackers when I first stayed under its castellated roof in the late 1980s. A view across Kashgar’s tilled fields to distant snow-capped Muztagh Ata was compensation for a sagging bed in a room shared with a Portuguese juggler, a Japanese with a taste for local rocket fuel and a brawny German yellowed with jaundice.
I wandered Kashgar’s enchanting alleys, bought pomegranates from stout matrons with heads covered for modesty, who raised their skirts to pull change from substantial cotton bloomers.