Uygur children play during Ramadan on the streets of the old city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Photo: China Daily
The old city of Kashgar is a living testament to the ancient Silk Road - Uygur craftsmen and artisans hammer and file away at copper vessels of different shapes and sizes, traders haggle over deals in the world's biggest Sunday bazaar, and donkeys and camels with tinkling bells tied around their necks thread their way through the narrow lanes that wind between the cramped buildings.
Kashgar's 2,000-year-old spirit is still in evidence as the city undergoes a massive renovation project. It was launched in 2009 to strengthen the old houses and make them more resistant to earthquakes while preserving the city's original appearance as much as possible.
Having lived in the city for five generations, Arep Aji's family has seen it all, from the splendor of the old days to the new city growing up around them.
"My family has been here since the generation of my grandfather's grandfather, but they never lived in a house as good as mine," the 31-year-old shopkeeper said.
A pearl in the desert
The ancient city, in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, is located in the westernmost corner of China and connects the country with Central Asia and Europe. Known as a "pearl on the Silk Road", it has been the center of regional trade and cultural exchange for more than two millennia.
Zhang Qian, an envoy sent by the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) to explore China's western expanses, arrived in the city in about 128 BC and was amazed by its stores and well-maintained roads, as well as the various commodities imported from Rome and Central Asia.
Kashgar still displays many traces of its old splendor, and about 220,000 people from 13 ethnic groups still live in the old city, which covers about 8 square kilometers. More than 100 lanes of various widths form a labyrinth that leads visitors straight into the lives of the locals.
Like Arep's pottery shop, many of the stores in the city have been in operation for generations. The Sunday market, the world's largest outdoor bazaar, sees the city teeming with vendors hawking spices, handmade blankets, headscarves and spices, while customers bargain for sheepskin hats, replica daggers and copper kettles.
A marathon project
Local officials often refer to the renovation project as a "marathon". Located in an area frequently hit by earth tremors, the old houses were dilapidated and extremely vulnerable to earthquakes and fires. The local government has invested about 7 billion yuan ($1.1 billion) to fund the project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2017 and will cover 65,000 households and all 220,000 residents.
Arep used to live in a low, shabby house with no gas or indoor plumbing. "We had to build the toilet on the roof and empty it late at night when our neighbors were asleep to avoid embarrassment," he said.
He now lives in a new home that has more than 10 rooms and is fitted with modern amenities. "It's much better than my old house, and I can use the open space in front of the house to display my products," he said.
The renovation work is undertaken by both the government and the individual householder. The authorities help the residents to build the main structure of the house, while the residents decorate them - including the roof, doors, windows and handrails - in accordance with the original architectural and cultural characteristics and the traditional way of life.
Abibula Yasen, the official in charge of the project, said the work is extremely time-consuming because the design process is conducted on a "one-on-one" basis, and the designers have to produce plans that combine the building's original appearance and the owner's wishes.
The design of Arep's house changed more than 10 times. "I remember that the designers showed me the blueprint, but I felt the living room would be too small for all our carpets. They constantly modified the design until I was satisfied," he said.
"I shed tears when I saw the new house," he said. "I thought of my late grandpa. He would have jumped with joy if he had seen it."
The reconstruction of Kashgar is not only designed to improve local living conditions, but also to attract a greater number of visitors. The city officially opened as a "scenic spot" in July, and now receives about 1,000 visitors every day. "It's a good start," said Adila Alet, an official at the Kashgar Tourism Bureau.
The growing number of tourists is also bringing more business to Arep's shop, which began to lose trade after modern supermarkets began offering cheaper alternatives to his handmade goods.
"Now my works are welcomed by tourists, especially those from overseas," he said. The shop's monthly revenue is now between 3,000 and 10,000 yuan, a vast improvement from the average 1,000 yuan Arep made in the old days.
Arep said that when he walks in the city, he always feels as though he's traveling through time. "Modernity won't change Kashgar. As long as we are here, the old city will remain," he said.