It was early morning and I was exploring the back streets of Kashgar, a fabled city on the western edge of China, with a Chinese journalist from Beijing, whom I'll identify only as Ling, and a young handicraft salesman from Kashgar, whom I'll call Mahmati. Mahmati is a Uighur (WEE-goor), a member of the ethnic minority that makes up 77 percent of the Kashgar population. He had traveled to Beijing be fore the 2008 Olympics to take advantage of the tourist in flux and had stayed on. I'd invited him to accompany me to Kashgar to act as my guide to one of the best-preserved--and most endangered--Islamic cities in Central Asia.
The three of us followed narrow passageways bathed in sunlight or obscured by shadows. We encountered faces that testified to Kashgar's role as a crossroads of Central Asia on the route linking China, India and the Mediterranean. Narrow-eyed, white-bearded elders wearing embroidered skullcaps chatted in front of a 500-year-old mosque. We passed pale-complexioned men in black felt hats; broad-faced, olive-skinned men who could have passed for Bengalis; green-eyed women draped in head scarfs and chadors; and the occasional burqaclad figure who might have come straight from Afghanistan. It was a scene witnessed in the early I9oos by Catherine Theodora Macartney, wife of the British consul in Kashgar when it was a listening post in the Great Game, the strategic Russia-Britain conflict for control of Central Asia. "One could hardly say what the real Kashgar type was," she wrote in a 1931 memoir, An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan, "for it has become so mixed by the invasion of other people in the past."
We rounded a corner and stared into a void: a vacant lot the size of four football fields. Mounds of earth, piles of mud bricks and a few jagged foundations were all that remained of a once-lively neighborhood. "My God, they are moving so fast," Mahmati said. A passerby pointed to a row of houses at the lot's edge. "This is going next, " he told us. Nearby, a construction team had already laid out the steel and concrete foundations of a high-rise and was dismantling the surrounding buildings with mallets and chisels. The men stood on ladders, filling the air with dust. A red banner announced the quarter would be rebuilt with "true care from the [Communist] Party and the government."
FOR MORE THAN A THOUSAND YEARS, Kashgar--where the bone-dry Taklamakan Desert meets the Tian Shan Mountains--was a key city along the Silk Road, the 7,000-mile trade route that connected China's Yellow River Valley with India and the Mediterranean. In the ninth century, Uighur forebears, traders traveling from Mongolia in camel caravans, settled in oasis towns around the desert. Originally Buddhists, they began converting to Islam about 300 years later. For the past 1,000 years, Kashgar has thrived, languished--and been ruthlessly suppressed by occupiers. The Italian adventurer Marco Polo reported passing through around 1273, about 70 years after it was seized by Genghis Khan. He called it "the largest and most important" city in "a province of many towns and castles." Tamerlane the Great, the despot from what is now Uzbekistan, sacked the city in I390. Three imperial Chinese dynasties conquered and reconquered Kashgar and its environs.
While Uighur culture endures in the Old City (below: a teahouse), urban renewal (opposite: in Kashgar's central plaza, posters herald building projects) threatens the fabric of traditional life at a fabled crossroads (map). "The destruction of the Old …