Friday, 14 June 2013

Silk Road Markets

Every Sunday, farmers from all over Kashgaria come to a place a bit outside of Kashgar, to trade their livestock. Kashgar's Sunday Market is the big event in the region, the place to be, to meet friends and other farmers, exchange news, buy a good sheep and sell your old donkey. So of course I was there already early in the morning.

The day started with a breakfast of noodles and tea:

Then the first farmers began to arrive.

At the entrance of the compound, a policeman collected a small fee from everyone.

Those already there sceptically scrutinized every newcomer.

Some of the newly arrived happily greeted old friends.

Then the trading began:


Soon the place was bustling with activity.

Some people though were taking it easy.

 In a corner, two old dudes were grinding scissors and knives, using a hand-driven grinding stone.


 The day was hot and dusty, so that one had to take a rest from time to time.

However, Sunday is not only a busy day on Kashgar's cattle market. Also on the great bazar in the centre of the city, trading was in full swing. At the entrance of the bazar, this guy was selling all kinds of necessary reptiles, snakes and turtles.


Then I fell into the hands of a hat-seller. He fiercly argued that mid-May is the best time to buy a warm hat, as prices are low and the next cold winter will come for sure.

So I had a try. Here we see the traditional Uyghur model.

Then I tried this woollen cone. The wool was very nice, but it left the ears unprotected.

This one was better. But a bit narrow.

If one was to join a group of fierce mountain-rebels, this version would be the thing to wear.

This one was soft and warm, if slightly shapeless.

Designwise, the last model I tried was unrivalled.

Still, I finally decided to postpone the purchase of a hat until later in the year, as temperatures outside were already around 30 C, and the need for a warm hat seemed not that urgent.

Soon afterwards, I came to the stand of a knife-seller.

The Uyghurs are famous for their hand-made knives all across Central Asia, and it is true that the knives he sold were all very beautiful and reasonably priced. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to bring them out of China, as carrying a knife in your luggage as well as sending it by post is forbidden by law. 

Shortly afterwards, I met another knife-grinder. Unlike with the two dudes on the cattle market in the morning, his grinding stone was powered by the engine of his motorcycle (also note the protective glasses - this guy was evidently a master of his trade).

The bazar was a place where one could buy many things. Apart from the usual spices, shoes and clothes, a huge choice of perfumed toilet paper was on offer, as well as good Paknur fridges from Pakistan.


Finally, I called it a day and went home to the place I had rented in the old city. On the way, I met these two girls, who were teaching their little sister how to walk:

Thursday, 6 June 2013


Four days after trying to cross the Tian Shan mountains for the first time, I tried it again. This time, the bus was full of tough Russian women who were active in the cross-border trade between China and Kazakhstan, and everything went well. When we had finally managed to cross the frontier (after at least a dozen checks by Kazakh and Chinese border police), we celebrated our success in a Chinese restaurant:

Having arrived the next morning in Urumqi, I right away took another bus to Kashgar, as I wanted to be in time for Kashgar's famous Sunday market.

After a bumpy ride along the Western fringes of the Taklamakan, we got to Kashgar on Friday morning, just in time for the big Friday prayer.


While the prayer was going on, the side streets around Kashgar's central mosque were full of heavily armored riot police, a testimony to the considerable tensions between the native Muslim Uyghurs and the Han Chinese who are settling in ever greater numbers in China's westernmost province of Xinjiang.

After the prayer, the narrow streets were crowded with men coming out of the city's many mosques.

Kashgar's old centre still has a very distinctive silk road feel. The busy streets smell of dust, spices and charcoal fires.

Walking along, one can see Uyguhr craftsman chiselling away, traders offering their goods, watermelons being cut and food being prepared, while old men meditatively strike their beards, observing the hustle and bustle.


In a side street, a man in a shop full of strange bottles, flask and decanters was selecting a number of wiggeling scorpions into a bowl, for a special client.

Around the corner, another man was selling small bottles full of a magic potion, whose beneficial properties were discussed by interested passers-by.

On the dimly-lit gold bazar, women in colourful veils examined rings, chains and other golden ornaments.

Already during the times of Marco Polo, tea bricks were used both as a way to store tea and as currency along the silk road. They can still be bought today in Kashgar's narrow streets.

Unfortunately, Kashgar's old town centre is getting smaller every year, as a sea of Chinese urbanity is slowly encroaching upon the old city's mud-built structures.

Many buildings in the old town are no longer inhabited, and are slowly crumbling away.

Critics say that the decay is deliberate, as the government tries to resettle the unruly Uyghurs out of their old city centre into new appartment blocks around the city, where they will be easier to control. However, the government argues that re-settlement is due to most of the old mud-brick buildings being unsafe in the case of earthquakes. In defense of the government, one has to say that there is also a lot of reconstruction work going on, with buildings being re-build and restored in a way that tries to safeguard traditional architectural styles.


Still, there is probably a risk that after being restored, these new buildings will host souvenir shops for the ever growing numbers of Chinese tourists, rather than the scorpion and magic potion sellers that lived in these streets before.