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China’s Westernmost City a Forlorn but Strategic Outpost

Times Staff Writer

For those Americans who dream of getting away from the crowds and to the other end of the world, Kashi may be the place.

Kashi (pronounced kah-shur and sometimes spelled Kashgar) is China’s westernmost city, a border outpost nestled between one of the world’s highest mountain ranges, the Pamirs, and one of its most forbidding deserts, the Taklimakan.

There are no rail lines here. The taxis are horse-drawn carts. There is no McDonald’s, either, and the main tourist attraction is the tomb of a local girl who made good--the favorite concubine of a 16th-Century emperor. The local airstrip is surrounded only by three apricot stands and a couple of donkeys braying on the sand.

For centuries, Kashi was a city of considerable importance, one of the main stopping points on the Silk Road carrying trade between China and Western Europe. That era ended with the development of sea routes to Europe.

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Now, in a different way, Kashi seems to be a strategic location again. Within 200 miles of Kashi are China’s borders with the Soviet Union, Pakistan and war-torn Afghanistan.

Road to Pakistan

Travel outside Kashi is strictly regulated. The Karakoram Road, which runs through snow-capped peaks from Kashi south to Pakistan, has been closed for years to everyone except Chinese and Pakistani nationals.

Officials of both countries say they hope the road will be opened to third-country nationals later this year. But for now, the Chinese impose fines on tourists who try to leave Kashi by road, and Pakistani officials in Peking will not issue a visa to foreign correspondents who ask to cross the border.

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“We know many of you would like to travel across this road,” a Pakistani diplomat in China told one correspondent the other day. “And we would like you to be able to go, so that you can see that there are no arms moving along this road. But we are not quite ready yet.”

China has denied Soviet accusations that it provides arms and training for Afghan guerrilla groups, but a mountaineer who recently climbed one of the peaks south of Kashi told The Times he could see Chinese military vehicles moving south along the Karakoram Road, one every 45 minutes or so.

Forlorn, Sleepy Place

Still, the presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is less obvious in Kashi, the only town of note near the border area, than it is in Urumqi, the provincial capital 700 miles to the east-northeast.

And on the whole, despite its location, Kashi is still a forlorn and sleepy place.

The Soviet Consulate, which China closed in 1962, has been turned into the Kashi Old Hotel, an establishment that will never make the Michelin tourist guides.

A century ago, the consulate was the scene of much intrigue as Russian and British officials vied for influence in Central Asia. Now, the nearly empty hotel is occupied by a handful of tourists, visiting Communist Party cadres and what may well be China’s largest species of cockroach--a two-inch-long creature that looks like an armadillo.

Life in Kashi is indefinite. No one knows when the wind blowing across the Taklimakan Desert will gather enough strength to kick up a sandstorm, turning the sky to a hazy yellowish-brown. When that happens, the single daily round-trip flight to Urumqi--the plane is a Soviet Antonov 24--is canceled, and the apricot sellers pack up for home.

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Some Cyrillic Script

Even the language is a bit uncertain. Most of the natives are Uighurs, so Chinese is an unpopular second language. The Cyrillic script seen on some of the buildings testifies to the Russian influence, and some Kashi residents are beginning to struggle with English.

At a recent wedding celebration, a city official pointed to a swarthy young man and said, “He is the bride.”

The downtown area contains two structures of note. One is a statue of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung. It is at least 25 feet tall, and towers over much of the rest of the city. It faces not east, as is customary, but west, presumably to emphasize his supposedly strong feelings for China’s western frontiers.

The other noteworthy building is the Id al Kah Mosque, the largest Muslim place of worship in China. Inside the mosque, the white-bearded chief imam, Sala-da-Mola, 71, said proudly that more than 20 Muslims from Kashi made the pilgrimage this year to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Muslims Make Pilgrimage

More than 1,000 Chinese Muslims from Xinjiang province go to Mecca every year, most of them by way of the Karakoram Road to Pakistan, where there are low-cost flights to Saudi Arabia.

Making the pilgrimage by the Kashi route is far from certain. A year ago, 400 to 500 Chinese Muslims arrived in Pakistan too late for the special flights and never made it to Mecca.

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Because most ordinary Chinese are allowed to go abroad just once in their lifetime, many who missed the flight decided to wait in Pakistan and make the pilgrimage this year. Chinese religious officials were sent to Pakistan to promise the group that those who came home would be allowed to leave a second time, and most of them returned.

In Kashi, where life changes little, virtually anything out of the ordinary can be a source of entertainment.

A few days ago, at the end of a performance of traditional Central Asian dances, the audience was asked to take part. Adrian Hyland, a young Australian traveling in China, rose and joined the revelry. A television crew filmed it all, one of the men explaining that the team was collecting footage for a special program about Xinjiang province to be shown this fall. That night in his hotel, Hyland found himself unable to sleep because of loud noise in the next room. Finally, he went over to ask for quiet.

“There were about 30 people in there,” he said later, “sitting in front of a television screen, watching a rerun of my dancing and laughing uproariously.”


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