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Muslim worshipers pray outsise a mosque in noon prayers in Kashgar, China, Friday, July 10, 2009. (Elizabeth Dalziel/AP)
Muslim worshipers pray outsise a mosque in noon prayers in Kashgar, China, Friday, July 10, 2009. (Elizabeth Dalziel/AP)

China plans massive change in Uyghur cultural capital Add to ...

Walking through the labyrinthine alleys that snake between the mud-and-straw homes and handicraft shops at the heart of this ancient city, it's easy to see that life here has hardly changed for centuries.

Five times a day, holy men climb to the top of their mosques and sing out the Muslim call to prayer the same way they did in the time of Mohammed. The homes in Kashgar's Old City are so close together that there's no need for such newfangled inventions as the loudspeaker.

For more than 1,000 years, this place has resisted the march of modernity, as have the 220,000 ethnic Uyghurs who call the Old City home. But under a Chinese government plan to redevelop the city, massive and irrevocable change is slated to come swiftly to Kashgar, China's westernmost city and the cultural capital of Xinjiang province.

Over the next few years, more than 10,000 families will be moved out of the Old City. There homes will be demolished to make room for a new development of low-rise apartment blocks and streets wide enough to accommodate cars.

In the wake of this week's deadly riots that left 184 people dead in the provincial capital of Urumqi, the future of Kashgar's Old City looms as the next potential flashpoint between the Uyghurs of Xinjiang and their Han Chinese rulers.

The government says the Old City is no longer safe to live in, citing a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Xinjiang six years ago that killed 266 people was felt in Kashgar, even though its epicentre was 200 kilometres away. In 1902, a massive quake did hit the city, killing 667 residents.

The government says families that are moved out of the Old City will be given money to build new homes and promises the new $440-million (U.S.) development will maintain an Islamic style of architecture that hints at the history here.

But that's little consolation to those who will soon be evicted from homes that their families have lived in for generations.

Opposition to the plan among residents of Kashgar's Old City is quiet but widespread.

"Kashgar has 2,000 years of history. If these homes are removed, we lose this," said Omar Ali, a 36-year-old pottery maker who sells his wares to the foreign and Chinese tourists who still flock to the famous Silk Road oasis. Other residents sell handmade scarves, prayer hats and copper pots, plying the same trades in the same buildings that their ancestors did.

Some locals see the government's plan as an attack on Uyghur identity. "Beijing has the Great Wall, Kashgar has the Old City. If we don't preserve the architecture, how can we understand the history of the nation?" said a young Uyghur man who works in the Old City as a tour guide. Fearing repercussions, he asked that his name not be printed.

Even without the plan to demolish the Old City, the situation is tense here following the riots in Urumqi. Thousands of soldiers have poured into the city in recent days, patrolling the streets in long convoys of green trucks draped with red banners proclaiming their mission "to maintain the stability of society and the border region." Military helicopters kept watch from the sky.

The city's main Id Kah mosque has been closed since Sunday, when some 200 Uyghurs gathered for a brief protest that ended when police moved in and began arresting participants.

The few foreign journalists in Kashgar yesterday were taken from their hotel rooms and escorted to the airport just before noon prayers. "You must leave the city, for your own safety, for your own good," said a man who identified himself as a local government official told The Globe and Mail, before arranging a police escort to the airport. "The situation may look calm now, but it could change at any second."

Flights out were delayed, however, by a steady stream of incoming military aircraft unloading more soldiers who boarded buses heading into the city. Some of the troop-carrying planes came from as far away as the Pacific Ocean port of Shenzhen.

Even without the recent unrest, the government knows it has a tough sales job on its hands with the Old City redevelopment plan, especially in the charged environment following the Urumqi riots.

"Because many houses were built privately without any approval, the life of residents is not convenient and the capability against earthquakes and fire is weak," a report in the state-run local media said recently. "Our target is every family has a house, every family has employed members and the economy will be developed."

Today's Kashgar no longer has the Silk Road traffic of previous eras, but it very much remains a crossroads of cultures with traders and travellers arriving from nearby Pakistan and Central Asia. The city was linked by rail to the rest of China in 1999, preceding an influx of Han Chinese that has escalated tensions with the local Uyghurs.

The Han Chinese community lives outside of the Old City, in apartment blocks that stretch south of the city's main square, which is dominated by a large statue of Mao Zedong.

Local Uyghurs challenge the government's assertion that people must be moved out of the Old City because of the danger of an earthquake, arguing that because the homes there are made of mud and straw, they would be less likely than modern concrete buildings to kill inhabitants in the event of a collapse.

While simple in appearance on the outside, homes in the Old City are often quite elegant on the inside, with rooms grouped around a central courtyard. Some are quite spacious, housing three or more generations of the same family. Astonishingly, the centuries-year old site has never been added to the UNESCO world heritage list because China has never applied to have it certified.

In a 2008 book called Kashgar: Oasis City on China's Old Silk Road , architect and historian George Michell called the Old City "the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia." Nevertheless, that example has been under attack for decades.

Mr. Michell made his assessment long after Chinese authorities had torn down much of the ancient city wall, a 10-metre-high earth berm, and paved over its moat in the 1980s to create a ring highway. It later tore down homes to build Liberation Street, a wide boulevard that bisects the Old City in two.

"I can't understand why no international organization like UNESCO is doing anything to save this," said Marica de Goti, a 23-year-old Italian tourist who visited the Old City this week with two friends.

Most residents expected they would have little choice but to leave when the government eventually came knocking.

"We are just ordinary people, and the government is the government," said an old woman with gold teeth, knitting a traditional Uyghur cap in her living room while at the same time keeping an eye on her rambunctious infant grandson. "If they say move, we will have to move."

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