Friday, January 01, 2010

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Rebuilding of Kashgar


Happy New Year folks. I recently wrote a small story for the Digital Journalist. The un-edited text is below. The link to the Digital Journalist feature can be found by clicking the link at the bottom.
The Rebuilding of Kashgar
By: Ryan Pyle

As a photographer, and a visually sensitive human being, I find it difficult to watch historic architecture of Kashgar, China vanish before my eyes. And this essentially means that all my visits to photograph this ancient oasis town are simultaneously incredibly pleasing and excruciatingly painful. Each time I return something is missing: a market, a pit full of blacksmiths, or a small local mosque. I have to some times force myself to remember to take pictures of everything I see, photojournalism aside, it is the architecture that is disappearing fastest. No other country in the world is knocking down old buildings faster to make way for new hotels, highways and airports than China. In a few more years and there might not be anything unique or original left at all; the whole country, from Beijing to Kashgar, is starting to look the same. I feel my photographs of Kashgar, and the rest of the region of Xinjiang, are providing a historical record of what once was; the homes an laneways as they were intended to be. The entire scenario is a pity really, the cultural and architectural diversity being lost, even if re-built to look somewhat similar, is not something that can be faked, or easily brought back.

China’s contributions to Silk Road trade, the route of trade spanning from the Far East to the Mediterranean Sea that brought both silks, tea, knowledge, and even religion across continents, is storied and well documented. Of all the beautiful towns and villages that one can find along this route, none may be as written about or as often discussed as Kashgar. Situated just a few hundred kilometers from the border of Pakistan and China, in the furthest western corner of China, this Silk Road mainstay has always been at a crossroads between cultures and time. For centuries criminals, holy men, and traders tramped across the region; and it was out of this tradition that the Silk Road, and the mystic of Kashgar, was established.

Much of this mystic, and excellent documentation by travel writers for almost a century and a half, is why the international community has been crying foul since May 2009, when it became apparent that the local city government of Kashgar had acted on plans to tear down much of city’s historic old quarter.
Local officials from the city government, always uncomfortable with direct questions, cited a danger from earthquakes and indicated that Kashgar’s historic old town – which contains mainly earthen homes, some hundreds of years old – must be razed in the name of public safety. Replacing the earthen homes will be similar style brick and steel based structure, with a focus on a stronger foundation.

Since May many local Uygurs have had to up and move out of their homes, some 13,000 families live in Kashgars “maze-like alleyways” of the old quarter, and more questions surfaced about when the local inhabitants would be allowed to move back in to their newly rebuilt, and stronger, homes. Rumors swirled of a possible land grab by the Kashgar government, forcing Uygurs to move out of their old earthen homes to temporary housing on the outskirts of town and then not allowing them to move back. But that appears not to be the case. The Kashgar government may indeed have safety on their mind. As entire families have moved out of center of Kashgar, the wrecking ball has done much damage, but new homes are beginning to be re-built under the watchful eyes of homeowners.

But not all is well. The money offered up by the government to relocated temporarily was barely adequate, but the government has mainly held up it’s share of the bargain; covering the costs of the bricks and steel rebar for the rebuilding of the foundation as well as the outer walls and roofs of the new homes, while home owners are responsible for interior decorations. Many home owners that I spoke with on a recent trip suggested that they were pleased with the outcome, but that there had been delays and they were told they would be in their new homes before winter, but now it looks like spring at the earliest.

While new bricks and steel rebar would make up the guts of the new foundation, many home owners are still planning on covering the exterior of their houses with similar earthen materials; so the “new” old quarter may yet have a similar feel that it did before the onslaught of bulldozers. The earthen, or mud brick, materials are essential for keeping the heat out in the summer and the cold out in the winter.

So, if little will actually change, and the old quarter of Kashgar will be rebuilt much the same, then why go through the entire process of destroying so many homes and relocating so many people? Could all of this been done in the name of economic stimulus?

It might be important to note that if a house is 300 years old, there is a very good chance that it is already earthquake proof. So there should be no need to tear it down and rebuild a stronger version. But the local government may have several motives at play; and first and foremost is that officials in Kashgar view the old laneways of the old quarter to be a haven of dissidents and terrorists. Rightly or wrongly, they have wanted to reorganize and re-account for everyone and everything in the old quarter for some time. Their opportunity came with the global financial crisis; when about USD 400 million was earmarked in the November 2008 stimulus package, a total of USD 585 billion, for the “earthquake proofing” of Kashgar; a very sly bit of pork barrel politics. That kind of money buys a lot of bricks, workers and bulldozers. It might even line a few pockets along the way as well. When in doubt, tear it down and build it up again.

Digital Journalist Story:
LINK: Rebuilding of Kashgar

Ryan Pyle

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This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle