January 12th, 2012
10:59 AM GMT
Kashgar, China (CNN) – China is investing hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize some of the historic trading towns on its western frontier. But critics say modernization is happening at a cost to the region’s cultural heritage.
In the ancient market city of Kashgar, traders have been wheeling and dealing for thousands of years. For centuries, the city was dominated by the Uighurs - a Turkic speaking Muslim people - now considered a minority group in China.
The government is now investing heavily to revive this sleepy backwater and transform it into a modern day boom town.
Yet critics say there the Uighur's cultural heritage is being lost.
Photographer Wu Xiangqian has been documenting the changes to the historic city, considered home to some of the best Central Asian architecture.
"What I shot a few years ago has already disappeared," he told CNN’s Eunice Yoon. "I'm concerned the transformation could destroy the traditional culture."
Traditional Central Asian homes are being demolished as part of a mass modernization program.
Where homes have traditionally been made of adobe, new ones are being built with concrete and brick. The government says that these new homes are much safer but some locals argue that they have been living in adobe homes for centuries.
The modern makeover extends to other parts of Western China, including the provincial capital of Urumqi.
Protests have erupted in the region in the past, triggered, some say, by brewing resentment as more Han Chinese migrate to this region of more than 8 million Uighurs.
In Kashgar, silk trader Ma Shoucheng, a Chinese Muslim, tells his Uighur friends to embrace the changes.
"A stable environment has offered us Muslims good business opportunities," he said. "I tell my Uighur friends to get more education so they have relevant skills."
Wu Xiangqian says the government is offering locals compensation to rebuild their homes and he believes the government wants to preserve the main characteristics of the old town as much as it can.
But some in Kashgar say they still feel a sense of loss as their ancient city moves towards a new era.
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