The bustling cattle markets once sprawled across Xinjiang are slowly vanishing, the promise of a glistening international future fuelling the rapid consumption of valuable city-limit land. Hordes of bright-yellow gas-guzzling behemoths crawl over sun-bleached sandstone, levelling the archaic landscape in preparation for dusty glass shopping malls and empty concrete carparks. Having nowhere to sell their livestock, Uyghur farmers opt to stay well away from the rapid urbanisation of Xinjiang’s capital, Kashgar, and its smaller satellite hubs dotted around the arid Taklamakan. For most of them, their time is coming to an end.
This major move from the central government is evidently intended to bolster the countries’ entire western frontier, opening up Xinjiang to mass tourism from the neighbouring ‘Stans and southern Russia. In the process, however, it has at times led to Xinjiang’s majestic landscape undergoing an all-too-common red-roofed transformation. This investment in the borderlands has led to an understandably party-centric infrastructure, and whilst dreams of Pop Idol stardom and international business degrees are rife amongst the younger generations, ethnic divides remain strong. Most locals in Kashgar repeat the same words as if a mantra, that they belong on the other side of the border.
It is comforting to learn that many of China’s ethnic minorities, often with the blessing of the Han, continue to document and develop their cultural traditions, albeit here hidden in pockets of magical oases throughout the blistering deserts and ice-capped peaks of China’s wild west.
Today is no exception.
Nestled in the valleys of the Pamir mountain range, as far west as one can go, early morning sun bathes a remote dusty field in gentle light. Local residents meander slowly along the main road from Tashkurgan’s town centre to gather at the edge of the festival grounds with food, family, and their prize winning stallions. It’s the morning of the annual Tashkurgan horse Fair and it’s shaping up to be quite an event. But whilst only one horse will win the race, all those taking part are actively investing in the survival of their heritage.