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Xinjiang Province, 1,470km (911 miles) SW of ?rumqi, 520km (322 miles) NW of Khotan

The northern and southern Silk Routes joined at ancient Kashgar and bifurcated again, leading south through the Pamirs to Gilgit, and west through the Ferghana Valley to Samarkand. At the height of the Han and Tang dynasties, Kashgar was in Chinese hands. The Chinese were routed by the Arabs in 751 in the Battle of Talas River (northeast of Tashkent). This allowed Islam to spread east into the Tarim Basin, displacing Buddhism and Manichaeism. Kashgar subsequently became a center of Islamic scholarship and, but for a brief return during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, it lay outside the sphere of Chinese influence. During the Qing dynasty the Chinese reasserted control, and Kashgar became a key site for players of the Great Game -- it had both a Russian and a British consulate.

Trade is the lifeblood of Kashgar, and with the opening of border crossings at Khunjerab, Torugart, and the Irkeshtam route to Osh, it is now once again an international trading center. Kashgar's strategic position has unfortunately made it a priority in efforts to "Sinicize" border areas, and since the opening of the railway line in 2000, Han settlers have arrived by the trainload. In 2009 the old town maintains its charm, but plans are afoot to redevelop most of the historic quarter and demolition has already begun. This will likely only add to the tension that boiled over in the July 2009 riots in ?rumqi as many Uighur residents will be displaced as the old town is torn down and rebuilt. The government cites the risk of earthquakes as the reason, and undoubtedly much of the old town is dilapidated. However, locals argue that as much of the old town has survived for hundreds of years, that this is just an excuse to further impose Han culture on the Uighur population. The government stresses that redevelopment will follow Islamic style, but for the 13,000 Uighurs to be relocated, this is the end of an age. A few parts of the historic old town will be preserved, but the redevelopment will undoubtedly change the face of old Kashgar forever; get there while it's still around. For now, the markets are still a riot of color and exotic scents, donkeys pull rickety carts laden with watermelons and cotton bales in and out of town, gray-bearded mullahs call the faithful to prayer on every street corner, and serene old men enjoy long chats over tea.