Kashgar is almost as far west as you can get and still be in Chinese territory. Once an ancient Silk Road oasis town, Kashgar is now a thriving trade city in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, a part of China that rubs up against seven other countries. The mix of ethnic groups is intoxicating. Squint your eyes so that you don't see the modern buildings and you can make yourself feel like you stepped back in time.
I made a whirlwind whistle-stop tour of Kashgar and Turpan with my family in October of 2015 and enjoyed Kashgar the most. If you are planning a trip to Xinjiang, then beginning in Kashgar and working your way around to other parts of the region is a good idea.
My recommendations for what to see and do while in Kashgar follow. We had a limited time in the region so our itinerary really only scratches the surface. For a true in-depth description of all there is to do, I highly recommend your purchasing Josh Summers' e-book Xinjiang: A Traveler's Guide to Far West China. Regardless, even if you only have an afternoon, there is much to see and do in Kashgar and you should pack in as much as your time allows.
With a long list of sights we wanted to visit during the one day we had allocated to tour in and around Kashgar, our guide with Old Road Tours, Ali, advised us to start outside Kashgar at Shipton’s Arch, make our way into the city for city-sights and lunch and then follow the rest of our itinerary.
So in the early morning of a sunny Sunday, we left the Radisson Blu hotel where we were staying and drove the roughly 30-minute drive to Shipton’s Arch. This amazing feature in the mountains was only “discovered” (and therefore recorded) by Europeans (Mr. Shipton) in the 19th century. Before that, it was a well-kept local secret.
To see the arch, you’ll leave your transportation in the parking lot and follow an obvious path to the top of a view platform to get a good look at the arch and the incredible mountain scenery beyond. The arch is the world’s tallest natural arch at 460m (with a 366m opening).
The hike up is easy if you’re fit but was a bit tough on our younger kids. Everyone in our group managed to get to the top in the end (bribes of chocolate helped) and we enjoyed the spectacular view.
The hike there and back takes about 1.5 hours. I recommend wearing solid walking or hiking shoes as the terrain is quite rough.
Sunday Livestock Market
This is one of the main reasons many travelers go to Kashgar – to get a look at the lively animal market. Now, if you don’t happen to be in the area on a Sunday, it’s OK. The market takes place most days. But Sunday attracts the most traders.
We happened to visit on a Sunday during a holiday week so the crowds were very thin. That said, we got a good look at the local butcher’s stall strung with sheep carcasses. There were yaks and camels for sale but by far the most prevalent were sheep and goats. We had a good look around, horrified our kids and then headed back into town.
A shoe warning: if you’re going hiking you’ll be wearing proper shoes but just in case you decide to change into sandals, don’t do this before you visit the animal market. The ground is covered in animal dung, mud and straw. You’ll want closed-toes for this visit.
Walking through the Old City of Kashgar
As of October 2015, there was an old Old Town and a new Old Town in Kashgar. At one point, there was just one crumbling quaint Old Town where the majority of Kashgar’s Uyghur population lived. In an effort to raise their standard of living (and exert a level of control), the local government has been “renovating” the Old Town.
So now you’ll find an old Old Town that is truly crumbling away as the bulldozers make their way in and a new area that has been rebuilt and renovated in the old style with running water, electricity and better services. The old Old Town is sadly not very charming and the new one is more attractive and is where you’ll find the Id Kah Mosque, shopping streets and restaurants.
Ali led us through both parts of the Old Town. After our visit to the Sunday market, we had lunch and then walked through the new part of the Old Town on the way to Id Kah Mosque.
Id Kah Mosque
Notable as the largest mosque in China (by area), the Id Kah Mosque building itself is understated. A yellow brick building tucked under the leafy trees of the Old City of Kashgar, it’s not a large imposing building but rather welcoming with its brightly painted walls. The front of the mosque is dominated by a large entrance gate. Next to the gate is a small minaret that is roughly the same height as the gate. The mosque dates from 1442.
Inside we walked along cleanly painted corridors and through lovely shaded courtyards. Our guide sat with us in one of the courtyards for a chat and a quiz to the children on the four pillars of Islam and then led us over the prayer halls. Outside, we posed for some photos and then moved on to our next sight.
Women are allowed to visit without issue. All visitors should dress conservatively.
Apak Khoja Mausoleum
After our visit to Id Kah, we drove about 20 minutes to the outskirts of Kashgar where the Apak Khoja Mausoleum and gardens are. By now, the end of a long day of sightseeing, the kids were no longer even pretending to listen to Ali, our guide, but enjoyed greatly running through the gardens in the mausoleum compound.
Basically, the mausoleum entombs relatives of a historically prominent Uyghur leader. There are also signs for (and you may even see this sight listed in your guidebook as) “the Fragrant Concubine”. This legend tells of a famously beautiful Uyghur widow-queen who was sent to Beijing to become a concubine of the Qing Dynasty Qianlong Emperor. According to our guide, she insisted her body be sent back to Kashgar when she died and is buried here in the mausoleum.
A Walk Through the Former Old City
After our trip out to the mausoleum, we went back into town and walked more through the old part of the Old City. We visited the Omar Ali family who have had a pottery studio there for many generations.
After our walk, we then continued to the home of Mr. Abdul Wahab, the owner of Old Road Tours, to enjoy a traditional Uyghur meal. We had indicated before our trip that we really wanted our children to meet and interact with local kids if possible and this led to the arrangement of the meal.
I don’t know that this option is available for everyone visiting Kashgar but if you’re interested, you should speak to your tour director. Sitting in someone’s home and interacting with the family is a really lovely way to get to know more about a new culture. None of us in our party of eight had been to this part of the world before and so it was delightful for all of us.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Kashgar
Our time in Kashgar was short. We ended up with an extra half-day at the end of the Kashgar portion of our trip so we went back into the new Old City for some hat shopping and more enjoyable walking. But to do again, I’d like to spend at least one more day in Kashgar. It would have been nice to slow the pace down during our visits and see a bit more of the city. If you have the time, try to allot two whole days to Kashgar before you head off to the Karakoram Highway, south to Hotan or east back to Urumqi.