As I continued my exploration, I noticed that the busiest site was further south, where a few buildings were already completed and others looked nearly finished. From a distance, I compared this dusty image with the posters and plastic model I have seen at the fair. I tried to picture the finished project in my mind, with neon lights, fountains and shopping malls, but on the hot and dusty construction site my imagination failed me. One of the workers told me that I was not allowed to go closer: “for your own safety.” I thus turned back toward the city center, stopping at a small restaurant along the way to eat some noodles in the shade of a veranda covered with grape leaves.
I felt a little disappointed, as actual work at the Special Economic District was nowhere near as advanced as I had been told it was at the fair. Still, I thought, part of the fair’s purpose was to impress its visitors, and in that respect it had largely succeeded. Central Asian traders would point to Kashgar’s new, modern buildings, to praise China’s power and development. Pakistanis, on the other hand, seemed impressed by the peaceful crowd of buyers and sellers. “Here we don’t have to worry about anything,” Ahmed, a gemstone trader from the Swat Valley, tells me. “And people have a lot of money. It’s good for business.”
Pakistanis were, in fact, by far the most numerous foreign traders at the fair. With more than 200 stands, they alone outnumbered representatives from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan combined. Many were familiar with Xinjiang, owning businesses in Tashkurgan, Kashgar and Urumqi. They sold gemstones, marble, rugs and other handicrafts imported from Karachi via the Karakoram Highway. This year, they told me, has not been a very good one thus far. Recurrent violence in Xinjiang is severely affecting domestic Chinese tourism in the region, their major source of business. “Even the fair, this year, is not as crowded as it used to be,” says Karim, a businessmen from the Hunza valley who owns different shops in Xinjiang. “But we are optimistic, it will get better in the future.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Most of the Pakistani delegation comprised occasional traders. They visit Xinjiang only twice each year, for the Central and South Asia Commodity Fair in Kashgar and for the bigger China-Eurasia Expo in Urumqi. Most are from Gilgit-Baltistan, a region in the north of Pakistan where tourism has been hard hit since 9/11, forcing them to seek out new business opportunities. China is, by far, the main game, and Kashgar represents for them the gateway to its growing market.
And Kashgar seems ready to fulfill its role as a major hub between China, Central and South Asia. The fair itself represents an important investment in this direction. Many Pakistani traders, for instance, had all their expenses covered for the four days of the fair: from the expositive space, to the travel expenses, to the custom duties and hotel. They were put up at the new Chini Bagh Hotel, another symbol of Kashgar’s enchantment with its future and detachment from its past. The newly opened four‐star facility, in fact, hides a historical building: the old Chini Bagh, former residence of the British consulate in Kashgar between 1890 and 1918. The building is unknown to most visitors, hidden behind crumbling sections of the hotel, and today houses a decrepit Chinese restaurant. An almost unreadable sign, in Mandarin, English and Uyghur, briefly illustrates the historical importance of the building, but barely anybody seems to pay attention to it, and most locals are unaware it even exists. During my first visit to Kashgar, in 2009, I was able to visit the chambers on the second floor, and even enjoy a view of the old town from the roof of the little tower. Today, that’s no longer possible, and this important section of Kashgar’s past is all but lost. With the city’s focus on the future, it’s a loss that will pass largely unremarked.
Alessandro Rippa is a Ph.D. student in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He recently concluded a year of ethnographic research on the Karakoram Highway between Xinjiang and Pakistan. You can follow Alessandro on Twitter @AlessandroRippa.