If ancient markets and a cultural experience are what you are looking for then head to Kashgar in Western China. Kashgar is home to the Uyghur, who are the largest of the 13 ethnic groups in the Xinjiang Province. The majority of their six million population live in and around Kashgar and are Muslims. The Uyghur originated from Central Asia and are descendants of the Northern Di Dingling, Tiele and Huihu peoples. The Uyghur are great agriculturists and over the centuries have turned the dry and windy Takla Makan Desert into an array of oases. Grapes, watermelons, wheat, pears, figs, pomegranates, rice, walnuts, apricots and corn are all grown in the areas around Kashgar. Their apricots are regarded as the best in China.
Since ancient times they have grown mulberries and cotton, and cotton spinning and weaving is an ancient household task. They also excel as craftsmen as they are skilled carpenters, bricklayers and engineers, manufacturing items such as water-powered trip hammers for husking rice and water mills. Their handicrafts are still popular today and their fur and embroided caps, leather boots, rugs, knives, and jade carvings are available at the Sunday market in Kashgar.
Perhaps Kashgar is best known for its Sunday market. For 2,000 years travellers, traders and soldiers have passed through this oasis. Situated on the edge of the Takla Makan desert it was the last supply stop for the east bound travellers and a welcome relief for the westbound travellers. Today this market is potpourri of people and commodities. It is said that the population of Kashgar increases from 300,000 to 400,000 every Sunday. An early morning visit to Market Road, 200 metres from the Kashgar Hotel, which leads to the market, makes this figure appear very realistic. From daybreak there is a continuous, indomitable flood of people heading to the market. Pony carts laden with dowry chests (glory boxes), wooden doors, ice, vegetables and other produce compete with trucks, bicycles, taxis, bleating sheep, braying donkeys, horses, push-carts and pedestrians for a way to the market. ‘Boish boish!’ (coming through) is shrieked out by everyone – this has to be the most spellbinding bazaar in Asia and it will leave you wide-eyed and dumbstruck – definitely not to be missed.
Once you have waded through the swarming rabble on the street enter the market. Here you can ‘test drive’ a horse, buy a camel, bargain for a flock of sheep, check the teeth of a donkey, repair your cart wheels, acquire knives, nylon stockings, dried snakes, rakes, baby cradles, leather boots, musical instruments, be entertained by magicians and musicians and that is only the beginning. Hats and more hats, all shapes and sizes; petite embroided ladies hats, felt hats, Kyrgyz sheep’s wool hats, Uyghur fur hats, berets, camel hair hats, Russian yak hats and more. Food stalls abound throughout making this truly the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. To appreciate the market allow a full day to wander around. Sure, it can be dusty and getting to the market can be wearisome for some, but the treasures that unfold are worth any inconvenience.
Head for the food stalls at lunch time and you can get a good meal for about US$1 and have the opportunity to mingle with the locals. Perhaps some of the local delicacies will not appeal to you, but the choice is as varied as the products in the market. Although very few people speak English don’t miss an opportunity to mix, as many a light-hearted moment can be had with the friendly residents, especially the elderly men, using sign language.
Kashgar has more to offer, a visit to the old town will continue to astonish you. Go to the Post Office in Renmin Xi Lu and walk up the small street directly opposite, to the left of the cinema. Along this street you will discover old-world blacksmiths, carpenters, cobblers, tinsmiths, turners, musical instrument makers among the coffee shops. Even though they are using antiquated equipment their skill is evident in the quality of their products.
In front of the Id Kah mosque is an ideal spot to ‘people-watch’. Young and old, buses and bicycles, old and modern buildings all add up to pure fascination. Nearby barbers shave their customers under the trees near the main bazaar, which contains more hidden treasures. Standing in the centre of town is Mao’s statue, one of only three left in China.
As you walk through the narrow streets in the residential area the friendly locals will
quite often invite you into their houses. Although their main objective is to sell their handicrafts, it gives one the opportunity to get the true feel of the Uyghur way of life and taste some Uyghur cuisine.
Kashgar has obviously changed over the decades, today the pony carts are barred from the town centre, replaced by taxis, old shops are being replaced by high-rise buildings and some of the younger Kashgaris are wearing western clothes. Nevertheless Kashgar still has charm; its a people-watching town, around every corner there is something to captivate you, astound your thoughts and allure your sub-consciousness back to the days of the old Silk Road.