Of animal markets, magic carpets and sacrifical lambs...
- Categorized in: June 2011
I had an excellent time in Kashgar. After 7,000km on the road in China, I had thought about this city a good deal, and had tried to imagine what it would be like to finally reach there.
I had always thought it would be very different to the rest of China, and in fact I was quite right about that. It was like no other city I’ve ever been to.
Unlike most of the other big cities in Xinjiang, at least 70% of Kashgar’s population are Uighur. This means that Mandarin is very much the second language there, and the areas that feel like Han areas are few and far between.
Sun-baked mud walls of the Old City, Kashgar
As I rolled into Kashgar, the streets seemed to be swarming with far more people than usual. Pedestrians spilled out into the road, and I had to dodge folk of all ages far more intent on getting to the other side quickly than in one piece. I saw old city walls made of sun-baked crumbling mud stood amongst ramshackle houses, some of which had collapsed or were being pulled down, and then I would pass a new development or even open parkland and ceremonial squares that reminded me once more of the Chinese economic and political influence, even this far away from the big urban hubs of the east.
Women everywhere wore headscarves, yet some also wore brightly coloured summer dresses and impossibly high heels, while others, their hands and face bound up under a thin muslin material according to the modesty of their religion, shuffled around looking like featureless spectres.
Typical looking Uighur man at the market
A lot of the men wear the squared-topped hats typical of the Uighurs, but these were jumbled in with the higher white and black pointy hats of the Kyrgyz. I also saw more faces of the Subcontinent there. Pakistani street vendors selling gold watches and strong perfume, or Indian businessmen swaggering into ornate restaurants, their thick black hair swept back by a pair of sunglasses and bushy chests protruding from open-necked shirts. If these overland trade routes have long passed their heyday, in many ways you wouldn’t know it.
The jostling and buzz on the streets was noisier, more beggars stationed themselves along the sidewalks and in the underpasses, and the smell of meat being roasted over open-air stoves was everywhere.
Fanning the flames over an open stove
In short, this was something different. This was the Central Asia of a traveller’s imagination and expectation, after at last crossing the invisible line that drew the limit of Chinese cultural influence and heralded something new.
After a single night in the “nice” hotel in town – the usual carbon-copy business hotel than the Han expect in all their major cities – I installed myself in the Seman Hotel, the former consulate of the Tsarist Russian government back in the 19th century. This was one of two consulates that now serve as hotels, the other being the British residence of Her Majesty’s Consul, Sir George McCartney who was responsible for this rather remote listening-post of the British Empire in the closing years of the 19th century, and on into the early 20th.
My room smelt of the previous occupant’s feet, which was unpleasant, but this soon floated away after I opened the windows. Unlike most beds in China which are so hard that they would serve as well as doors as beds, this little bed was a treat, and it was so nice to fall asleep with a cool breeze blowing in the open window – warm enough to sleep all night on top of the sheets, and only carrying the faintest sounds and smells of the surrounding city through the pine trees that stood in the back courtyard.
For any traveller, one of the most important checkpoints for a few days in Kashgar is to drop in on “John”. John Hu – an ethnic Han but born in Kashgar – must do extraordinarily well out of the fact that he is noted as the man to know (for a tourist) in Kashgar in the Lonely Planet. He’s actually a very friendly, and for the most part, efficient person and does a great job essentially giving foreign what they want and need: some interesting experiences in and around Kashgar, and an efficient means of onward travel (which in a lot of cases means providing a way of crossing borders into Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Pakistan), and a bolt hole to enjoy some decent food and a cold beer. (The last is not so easy to come by in this Muslim city).
It was through him that I arranged how I would actually get out of China and into Kyrgyzstan. There are two roads into the country and I wanted to take the northern road for various logistical reasons. This border crossing is prohibited to cyclists (unlike the western crossing at Irkeshtam). Instead, I would have to load up the bike into a mini-bus with a few others and make my way through the various checkpoints beyond Chinese jurisdiction by motorised vehicle. This is expensive if done alone, but through this fella John, he teams you up with various other travellers wanting to do the same, so the price drops and becomes quite reasonable.
Since my Kyrgyz visa didn’t activate until June 4th, and the border wasn’t open after that until June 7th (because of the Chinese National Dragon Boat holiday), I had a few days to kill, or rather explore, in Kashgar.
In fact the photos of my time there tell probably a more compelling story that I could in words so be sure to take a quick look here.
Instead, I’ll give a few impressions of the various things I did.
The sine qua non for any visit to Kashgar is the “Sunday Bazaar”. This has been going on since forever and involves two entirely separate locations. The first is the Sunday Livestock Market, which is held every week a little outside the main centre of Kashgar, and then the actual Sunday Bazaar which goes on in the central bazaar, located just a little east of the heart of the city. All tourists either time their arrival on a Friday or Saturday, or hang around until they have passed a Sunday in town, so that they can see this. And it is well worth hanging around for.
But I arrived on a Wednesday. So to fill in the time I went off on a day trip to one of several lakes in Central Asia called Karakul. I say several, because there is one in Pakistan, one in Tajikistan, one in Kyrgyzstan, and the one I actually visited in China. “Kara-kul” simply means “black lake”.
It’s not black. It’s blue.
"Horse-ride hawker" by the lakeshore of Karakul
But it is – I suppose one must say – extremely beautiful. I shared a car up there with two very friendly and adventurous Aussie ladies, and a Malaysian-Chinese Australian guy. I came to know these ladies quite well since we hung out together in Kashgar, and I ran into them again in Bishkek (where I am now). I suppose you would call them middle-aged (they both have grandchildren) but they are full of energy and interesting to spend time with. It seems they make it an annual adventure to head off into fairly unbeaten tracks to see what’s out there.
The lake itself lies on the beautifully made (for the most part) road which leads south and west towards the massive Karakoram mountain range, through which you must pass to reach Pakistan. As with any border crossing in this part of China, the checkpoints begin some 100 or 150km before any actual boundary, and we had to negotiate these to get as far as the lake.
The Karakoram Highway - that runs from Kashgar to Islamabad
The lake itself was bright light blue and as a punter you get dropped in amongst a babble of Kyrgyz camel- and horse-owners who immediately expect that you are dying to saddle up and take off wherever they would lead you. In fact it probably is pretty good value if you do happen to want a ride (less than $2) but they are so pushy all you want to do is say no to them.
Still you can go for a little wander down the lakeshore, and see yak wading around in the shallows (or somehow grazing on a little island some way off the shore – not sure how they got there). The air is pretty thin by that height – some way over 3,500m – and you begin to feel it unless you’re well acclimatised. (The speedy car journey up there means most people won’t be.)
So it was a worthwhile day trip but really the more interesting stuff was to be seen in the actual city. If you take your camera, and an artistic eye and just go for a wander pretty much anywhere in the centre of the city, you are sure to see and capture some interesting and unusual things.
Bread-baking kilns, bizarre fountains of some kind of milk-based drink, dazzling bright colours of cloth and dress shops, tourist trap souvenir stalls, delicious samsa ovens, and the ubiquitous roasting stoves that see any part of sheep you care to think of stuck on a spike, all roasted over a leaping flame and sold for a kuai or two.
Bread oven on a Kashgar street
Then you get the more serious shops, selling carpets and rugs, or antique bits of metalwork that look so authentic you wonder whether they’ve been kicked around the backyard by the storekeeper’s kids.
Typical street scene in Kashgar
On one evening I went for a stroll around the People’s Park. As the name may suggest, most of the big cities throughout China have a “People’s Park”, although I’ve rarely walked through one that was being put to better use. It was a beautiful sunlit evening, but the walkways in amongst the shady avenues were filled with both Han and Uighur, playing chess, watching the world go by on the many park benches, trying to keep an eye on kids chasing in all directions under the boughs of the trees, riding on the little fairground rides set up in the middle of the park, or enjoying an ice cream strolling along arm in arm. On the south side I found a smallish lake – more like a big pond – into which little Uighur kids were hurling themselves and each other while old Uighur pensioners took a breather and sat on the steps with their hands on their walking stick, enjoying the warm evening sun on their face.
Watching the world go by in the People's Park
I saw young Uighur men, dressed up in their best - which usually meant specially pressed but ill-fitting trousers, and conservative-looking t-shirts with the top button done up - squiring the demure-looking young women they were pursuing, with ever so much respect and honourable intent. They were so young – probably not much over 20 – and yet I could see that in this park would be secured so many of the marriages and dynasties of the coming few decades.
Before the great event of the Sunday markets, I returned to John’s Café where the two Australian ladies – Lindy and Cathy – were chatting with a Kiwi guy who they’d met a couple of days earlier. It so turned out that…this very friendly and interesting man - named Michael Wix – was in fact a good friend of Gung Ho Pizza Co-Regent Jade Gray (the business partner of one of my best friends John O’Loghlen who all live there in Beijing).
Small world of course. Even smaller in China. But Michael (I believe) had had perhaps a few beers sitting there in the café, and was in an exuberant mood. So when the conversation turned to the trip to the market the following day, he declared that he was of a mind to buy and sell a camel at the market. Just for the hell of it.
This seemed like a splendid idea, although I think we all had the tacit reservation that there’s no way any Uighur was going to be stupid enough to pay more than Michael had for a camel. Whether it was this in mind, or just because I was hungry, I said if we were going to buy anything at the market, I wanted to eat it. This idea seemed more plausible. (Although who’d want to eat a camel?) And soon we were asking John how much we should be paying for a lamb, at current market rates.
Personally I had a pleasant vision of roasting the thing up and having a kind of “Babette’s Feast” moment back at John’s Café the following night, where all-comers would share in the special occasion, bringing together all non-local people of every race, colour and creed who wanted to enjoy a tasty piece of lamb. It didn’t quite work out like this, but it wasn’t far off.
The following morning, the four of us (who by now had formed a smallish clique) ventured out to the market, clear in our intention to get ourselves a good deal, and a tasty one at that, on a fresh and (preferably) unblemished lamb for our evening supper.
The market was, I have to say, extremely worthwhile visiting. Although there were a fair number of tourists mingled in with the locals and not-so-locals coming from round-about to buy and sell sheep, cattle, goats, horses and donkeys, most of whom are snapping away like paparazzi so they can show all their friends what an unusual day they’ve had (just like me I’m afraid), they soon meld away into the crowd so you really can see the market for what it is.
A lifetime trader at the Sunday Livestock Market
The best means of description is for you to look at the pictures here. We looked and gawped, and snapped, and parried (interested hawkers), and smiled and chatted, and snacked. Until I think all four of us came to the point where we asked each other, “OK, are we really going to do this?”
With a little hesitancy as to the means, at least the answer was never in doubt. After some initial enquiries about pricing with a few different vendors, we started to get an idea of the market rate. We eventually settled on a row of soft (if not plump) looking lambs, lined out under a low-slung red awning. It only took perhaps 5 minutes bargaining, and just a single “walk-away” before we’d settled on a price with the owner of the very sweet-looking black female lamb that was to have the dubious fate of being our dinner. (She came to roughly $60).
Taking possession of our new purchase
We whisked her away from the market in a three-wheeler taxi, much to the amusement of the locals, and (I say in modesty) the apparent admiration of other tourists. Somehow it did feel as if we’d gone beyond the usual remit of the goggle-eyed tourists, and actually got our hands dirty as it were. Although I am a farmer’s son, I cannot think of an occasion when I have interacted so tenderly with an animal that I was about to eat. But we all overcame any squeamishness and sentimentality – if you eat meat at all, we reckoned you should be prepared to see the process through from start to finish.
Not expressly with this in mind, but I think generally in response to the whole experience – of being in Kashgar, of the sunshine, of the busy throngs of creased and handsome faces at the animal market, of the rushing air as we zoomed along in the taxi, of the laughing and friendly faces of the Uighurs on their way to the different markets about town, Michael said something which echoed what we were all feeling at the time. He said:
“If I had a billion dollars, I’d still be doing exactly what we’re doing now.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. In fact, I couldn’t have put it anywhere near as well. He was quite right. If I had any expectations about what this part of the world would be like (and I have wanted to visit here for close to 15 years), everything I saw, heard, tasted and did in Kashgar far exceeded them.
Well, the poor little lamb bought it, I’m afraid. John’s friend, Manjan, took her away and roasted her up in time for supper. And mightily tasty she was too. What we couldn’t eat ourselves we shared with the other visitors (except a French party who were overheard to mutter that what we’d done was akin to seal-cubbing – any amazing charge when you think about it).
All dressed up
Anyway, we didn’t waste any of her. Not even her eyeballs or tongue (all of which I ate). Perhaps unsurprisingly they taste just like the rest of the lamb. And that was the end of that.
Previously in the day, I ventured into another typical Kashgarian pastime – carpet trading. I won’t say who are the three lucky recipients of the carpets that I bought because that would spoil the surprise, but I was happy with the price. After trawling around the Sunday market for a while, I decided I could get a better deal at a little shop I’d come across a couple of days previously, owned by an old wizened carpet-seller named Ahmad, and his young(ish) son, Litipjan. The son’s English was good enough that negotiation could be carried on easily with him, and I was joined by an American NGO worker from Almaty who increased my bargaining power by throwing in his lot for another rug. So that meant four.
We reckoned we’d done OK, since Litipjan had to call in the Father to agree on the margin that we’d driven him to. Whether this was just a ruse that they always pull, or we in fact were getting a good deal I don’t know, but it made us feel better at the least.
Thus was my stay in Kashgar. I was very happy with the time I spent there, and I would recommend it to anyone’s itinerary, who is passing within the region.
But when this was all wrapped up, it was time to say farewell to Michael who would be heading back to Beijing just a day or two later, and then Lindy and Cathy would join me and a few others in the journey over the Torugart Pass – out of China and on into the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.
So on the Tuesday morning, we loaded up a bus and set off to cover the 140km to the border crossing. The border officials manning the Torugart Pass are notoriously temperamental and fickle about whether they let parties through or not. But unlike the experience of many others attempting to do this before us, it all passed as planned.
So it was and is GOODBY CHINA – an awesome, beautiful, confusing, friendly, surprising, intimidating but ultimately harmonious land. I have loved my time there.
THANK YOU TO EVERYONE I HAVE MET in CHINA – whether they be HAN, UIGHUR, HUI or “FOREIGN DEVIL” - FOR AN UNFORGETTABLE ADVENTURE!
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