AT 4,000M above sea level, the sky takes on an otherworldly blue hue. Perched on the old fortress in the town of Tashkurgan, we could see the barren mountains give way to a veritable oasis.
Tashkurgan, sited on a plateau, is the last major town on the Karakoram highway before the Pakistani border. It is where the Tajik minority eke out an existence.
But our journey began, as many others have for centuries, 230km to the north- east in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang whose name conjures up visions of the Silk Road and caravans of camels. The reality is, it is a city torn between its past and the ever creeping demolition ball of modernity. Xinjiang is in the far western part of China.
News of the old town's destruction is premature but no one seems able to give a definite answer as to how long it will remain.
The Id Kah Mosque, more impressive on the outside than inside, marks the heart of Kashgar, which itself marks the heart of Uighur culture. Here the names are more pious (they are usually Muslim and taken from the Quran, which is not the case in other parts of Xinjiang), alcohol abstention more strictly adhered to, and the prayers more solemn.
While it is possible to easily spend many happy hours getting lost in the labyrinth, it is perhaps more educational to go on a tour. There are two areas of the old town that charge a 30 yuan (S$6) admission and provide an English- or Mandarin-speaking guide. They are not tourist traps. There are no souvenirs for sale or restaurants. What you get is a look into some people's homes.