The Last Authentic Silk Road Open Market

Grapes for sale in the livestock market
Grapes for sale in the livestock market

All roads lead to Rome? Maybe. The same adage describes the ancient city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Province of China. This timeless city on the northwestern China border, or in simpler terms, mid-way between Rome and Beijing, became the key-trading oasis for the ancient Silk Road more than 2,000 years ago.

When the bus driver dropped me off near the Kashgar Sunday Bazaar, I felt I’d taken a giant step back in time, but not in China. The faces and dress were not Chinese, but Uygur, one of several groups whose origins are traceable to Turkish nomads living in the former Soviet Union. Over time the race infiltration from Tibet, Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Iran gave Uygurs an appearance that is no longer typically “Chinese.”

Uygur is the dominant nationality in this area, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and they are followers of the Islam. Until recently, these independent people lived in self-governing villages, but Han Chinese of the majority Chinese ethnic group are settling in the area under government orders to bring Uygurs in line with the rest of the country.

Historically, Uygurs aligned themselves with Genghis Khan during the 12th century and later lived along the Silk Road, working as caravan drivers transporting silk, spices porcelain and jade. The city’s pulse is best felt at the bazaar as this market continues as it has for centuries.

In 200 A.D., the transcontinental route of the Silk Road linked the Roman Empire in the west with the imperial court of China. Trade along the route was carried on by foreign merchants and middlemen such as the Uygurs, who really belonged to neither one of the two old empires, but who profited from both.

While the name implies that the most important good traded along the route was silk, many different kinds of trade items passed east and west along its passages.

The bazaar is the apex of life, both socially and economically. Most of the population of 300,000 attends. This is their “leisure” day. Uygur men sport heavy beards, dark clothing, knee-high boots and embroidered skullcaps, a distinguishing Uygur feature. Women dress traditionally in long dresses with covered faces and heads, while others wear brightly colored knee-length dresses and small headscarves.

Traffic jams have a unique flavor here. Every available donkey cart is in use, as this is the main mode of transportation. The carts are crammed with families, stacked high with products, produce, live animals and anything related to the market.

Chaos intensifies as goats, donkeys, sheep, horses and camels move along with market-bound traffic. Trucks hauling long-horned yaks honk, bullying a path on the dirt road. Swarms of bicycles also jockey for space, honking feeble-sounding horns.

A few farmers and crafters jumpstart the market outside the gate by spreading a blanket along the road to sell eggs, cabbage, clothing, dumplings or live chickens. Bicycling merchants hurry to their stalls to begin wagering and selling.

I didn’t understand Uygur, a Turkish-based language, but quickly learned that “poosh-poosh” means “get out of the way.” The same words apply when contemplating a buy. A merchant wants a quick sale so he can move to the next customer.

Older, white-bearded men in skullcaps sit cross-legged alongside the road, meditating. Others squat over a board playing a chess-type game.

Families stroll along eating, looking, laughing and gesturing. Teenage boys and girls tease and show off to each other. Children tug at their moms’ skirts, wanting attention. They do not wear diapers here, but “split pants”—trousers split along the central seam for an easy squat and relief. Even in the cool morning, little pudgy, pink bottoms were visible.

The market is in rows separated by dusty walkways and according to merchandise. Wares are stuffed onto counters and shelves under temporary-appearing roofs. The animal paraphernalia alley displays decorative Kazakh saddles, bridles and carts. An old woman sits cross-legged, spinning black sheep yarn, and near her, a “foodie” hawks shish-kabobs. The smoke, crackle and aroma rising from makeshift coal-burning barrel stoves titillate all your senses with the food preparation.

Butcher alley displays freshly cut-up goat, sheep, pig and live chickens and ducks with caged songbirds for variety. Since most animal parts are consumed, animal heads and feet, considered delicacies, are visible. Pharmacy stalls offer unusual herbs and dried sea creatures to keep a buyer in the Ying and Yang of it. Jars of animal body parts covered in clear liquid peer back at you.

Need a hair cut, a tooth pulled or shoes repaired? Dental and barber chairs are set up throughout the market. Get a tooth pulled while watching a boxing match—no appointment necessary. The livestock market is an exciting spectacle.

There are no corrals, so owners simply tie their animals together, fully expecting them to remain in place; surprisingly, they do. Groups of camels, goats, donkeys and sheep seem oblivious and doze off till an animal moves and tugs at the shared tie-up.

Suddenly, negotiations begin, and conversation is rapid and heated as arms and hands fly about. No buy it and bag it here. A potential buyer pries back a camel’s lips, checking the teeth. Small gestures indicate a “right price” and a successful transaction, a system of bartering existing for centuries.

In the center of the livestock market is a wide pathway. Whoa! A boy races a horse up the path, stopping abruptly. Horse dealers choose sons or young boys to show off salable horse’s abilities, while young riders show off their riding skills. Adding to the drama, animated acrobats and magicians draw a crowd of their own near the camels.

Brilliant colors in the fabric and spice alleys are nothing but spectacular. Uygurs favor a palette of yellowish brown, deep brown, red, orange-red, deep blue and pea green, the same colors appearing in the gunnysacks and boxes of spices displayed in the spice and alley.

Food-on-the-go vendors are random throughout the market. Chapatis, prepared spicy chicken or mutton curry, is served with fresh yogurt, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. White buns appearing to be not fully-baked and on-the spot, hand-pulled noodles are popular.

Noodle makers show off stretching, throwing, folding and slicing the dough. Roving “sweets” vendors peddle cotton candy, persimmons, candied crab apple skewers and baked sweet potatoes. Flat bread, called nang, is stacked high on skewers, and prata, fried dough dipped in sugar, (it tastes like a raised doughnut) are delicious pastries.

Kashgar is a hat-making center. There are felt and fur-lined hats and embroidered Uygur skullcaps. Silk fabric and wool yarns are hand woven. Knives made in a nearby village get your attention as the vendors flash the blades in the sun and your face.

Beyond the market, in “Old Town” Kashgar, dirt paths lead to a maze of Biblical-era adobe houses. They’re adorned with bright multi-colored curtains hanging in the doorways—keeping insects out and allowing a breeze in. Residents are out and about and do not mind photos. Children like to practice saying “Hello.”

Silk Road caravans diminished in the eighth century due to the use of water trade routes rather than overland ones and silkworm smuggling into Europe. Although the modern world is fast approaching inland China, as one peruses Kashgar’s Sunday Bazaar and the Old Town, you can still get a feel for China’s Ancient Silk Road cultural legacy.

If You Go

In the last 15 years China has opened the door to the outside world. Modern wares and conveniences appear alongside ancient crafts, but not quite as rapidly in the western region. Independent travel is available in China, but most travel continues on a package basis such as those offered by the California tour company China International Travel Service (CITS). Understanding the language, using public transportation and finding available hotel rooms can be problematic.

Plane travel from the Chinese capital, Beijing, west to Urumqi, is five hours and an additional one and a half hours west to Kashgar. There are tourist hotels in Kashgar. Visit from late October through April. Summer is beastly hot. Tourism is new and slowly mixing with the old. Kinks are still being worked out, so keep your expectations in check. Be adventuresome, flexible and a patient traveler, not a tourist.

China National Tourism Administration (CNTA):