Artists try to capture ancient beauty of changing Silk Road city
 

In the shadow of tower block apartments and the giant ferris that looms over the East Lake Park, a man pedals to keep a millstone turning in an ancient Uygur-style home.

Here in the city's old town, a cluster of households struggle to preserve a way of life that existed for centuries in one of the great staging posts of the ancient "Silk Road."

Omereli and his family are one of the over 10 families still making earthenware vases, jugs and lamps by hand.

"Handcrafts are being replaced by machine-made products, but I prefer to keep making my products by hand. The tradition cannot be abandoned," says Omereli, 38.

The family survives on the hand-crafted pottery, as other generations have done throughout the 2,000-year history of Kashgar, also known as Kashi, in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

"I have never thought about quitting," says Omereli, who has worked with clay for more than 20 years.

The family occupies five rooms and a yard, where Omereli displays his work, in the 300-year-old Uygur Gaotai area, which sites on a 40-meter-high and 800-meter-long earthen base. Gaotai is at the center of Kashgar's 8.36 square km old town, a landmark of Kashgar city.

Buildings in the old town are being reinforced or rebuilt to withstand a strong earthquake, says Wang Yongzhi, deputy commissioner of the city.

The municipal government last year started to rebuild and reinforce the homes of 50,000 families, and all the houses would be built in traditional Uygur style, Wang says.

The original architecture style will be maintained and the city will be a "Uygur style modern city," says Wang.

The central government has decided to establish Kashgar special economic zone (SEZ). By 2020, the SEZ would cover an area of 100 square km and the population would exceed a million, according to the plan.

The old town, home to 221,000 people, looks like a huge white and gray maze, but it is changing. Western restaurants, chain hotels, convention centers and entertainment venues are springing up among the old buildings.

Many neighbors have moved away, but Omereli is reluctant to leave.

"We would like to live in a modern building, but we worry that it will not be suitable for making clay products," he said.

Yimingyam hopes his paintings of the old town will last as a record of the changes.

In his home hang his pictures of the old houses as well as the Id Kah Mosque, the Apak Hoja Tomb and the East Gate Bazaar.

"I am trying to adopt a more modern way to interpret traditional Uygur culture," says Yimingyam, a student majoring in art at Kashi Teachers' College.

Originally a traditional handcraft painter, he fell in love with oils and is seeking a new way to combine Western and the Uygur painting styles.

"My painting school and the old town are separated by a river, but I can see the town through my window. It is so close that I feel I can touch the old buildings through my window," he says.

"The government's reconstruction plan says it will keep the old look of the city, which reassures me. However, I still want to record it with my brushes."

He describes the Uygur-style architecture as the unique beauty of Kashgar.

"Kashgar is changing. My record may help people in the future know about the changes," he says.

Liu Xuejie, a scholar of Xinjiang culture and chief editor of "Study of Kashgar" magazine, says the ancient city is trying to remain relevant amid its rapidly modernizing surroundings.

"It is good for the government to improve people's living conditions and protect traditional cultures at the same time," Liu says.

"Kashgar has been an international city since ancient times as it was an important stop along the Silk Road. With the development, more cultures will meet here and the city will become more inclusive."

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