Kashgar, China: The Market at the Top of the World

By Jessica P. Hayden

An Uighur sign in the market at Kashgar
A Uighur sign in the market at Kashgar

We woke up early, at least by vacation standards, to make it to the Sunday Animal Market in Kashgar. Showered and more or less awake, our group of three (none of whom speak Chinese or Uighur) jumped into a taxi and managed to point to the right spot on the map, thankful for our multilingual maps.

As we exited the taxi and paid our driver, we walked into the busy market, where traders were buying and selling this week’s stock of cows, sheep, goats, and horses.

Frenetic Bargaining

The bargaining was frenetic and we visitors watched from afar. Young boys were shearing the sheep, experienced traders examined the animals’ teeth and others who were finished with their business were enjoying a social morning over cups of tea.

There were several other tourists visiting the market and when we caught each other’s eyes we’d share a common smile as if to say, “Can you believe this market? Amazing!”

It was hard for me not to suppose that every person with a fantastic camera was a photographer from National Geographic, simply because every image, from the melon vendors to the old men drinking tea, was something you’d expect to see in the pages of the magazine.

This Week’s Victim

As we made our way to the exit of the market, a group of old men called us over to where they were sitting. Their sun weathered, wrinkled faces smiled: teeth missing, wide joyous smiles. I pantomimed to the group, “Can I take your photograph?” Obviously used to wide-eyed tourists, the men posed for us, enjoying the attention.

Rough play in the market at Kashgar
Rough play in the market at Kashgar

By way of thanks, I walked over to the men to show them their imagines on the screen of my digital camera. They laughed and gestured to the group to look at the pictures.

As I turn to leave, the oldest man in the group gestures me closer. He wants to get a better look. As I hold the camera up to his old and wise eyes, he snatches my camera and puts it in his jacket pocket.

My heart skips a beat. My face must have turned ashen white, and the group erupts in laughter. I was this week’s victim of the game of “let’s-see-the-tourist-freak-out.” He hands me back my camera, smiling knowingly and we part ways.

Stepping Back in Time

If you were to remove the tourists with their high-tech digital cameras, and the few cars that putt-putt through the streets of Kashgar, not much has changed in the last several millennia.

The streets of the old town are lined with mud-brick houses in which pots are made and sold, along with every other kind of wares, spices, and textiles. This famed spot on the Silk Road was a vital hub for traders from the East and West and a hot spot in the struggle for empire in Central Asia known as “The Great Game.” Both the Russians and British set up consulates here in the late 1800s.

Western China is a rugged land with stark mountainous terrain and vast lonely desserts. It is not the China of the modern world. It is not Tiananmen Square. It is not the bustling nightlife of Shanghai or Hong Kong.

A young boy tends his flock.
A young boy tends his flock.

In fact, very little in western China seems “Chinese” at all. Until several decades ago the Uighur minority, a group more closely associated with Central Asia than the Far East, outnumbered the Han Chinese in Urumchi, the capital of the Xingjian province.

To truly understand the diversity and beauty of this part of China, a young man (and woman) you must go west!

The Sunday Market

Most visitors head to Kashgar with the Sunday Market in mind. And this is for good reason. There are few other markets in the world that have been in continuous operation as long as Kashgar’s. And there are few in the world that can match Kashgar’s colors, smells, hustle and bustle.

Most here speak Uighur, a Turkic language that resembles Uzbek more than Chinese. This ethnic diversity is reflected by the population, made up of not only Chinese and Uighurs, but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks. It is China’s flavorful melting pot.

Here you’ll find entire animals, hung on large steel hooks, cleaned and ready to be purchased.

For those more used to buying beef from Safeway, walking through the market can be an education in animal anatomy. (I didn’t know sheep had storage depots of fat there!)

A meat vendor
A meat vendor

Young boys run up and down the aisles with baked dough, selling their product to both locals and tourists alike.

You’ll find entire aisles dedicated to scarves and textiles (and even knock-off pashminas), Central Asian hats, and even bike tires.

Some traders are professionals, while others are old men with what seems to be their household goods on display on an old blanket.

Around lunchtime, we found our way to the “food court” where mutton was being sliced, diced, and grilled on open stoves. For less than $2, you can have an entire meal here and take in the market from the sidelines while breathing in the peppery scent of the meat.

There are few places in the world where visitors can actively take part in traditions that stretch back over thousands of years. Just like the western adventures who came before us, visitors today are no less amazed by all that Kashgar has to offer.

Getting There

From any major city in China or Central Asia, fly to Urumchi, and then onward to Kashgar. You can also take a luxury train from Urumchi to Kashgar, which takes about 23 hours.

A melon vendor
A melon vendor

Buses are available from northern Pakistan run from mid-April to mid-October and take you along the infamous Karakoram Highway. If your travel itinerary includes a trip to Kyrgyzstan, local tour groups can help arrange an overland trip through the Tourugut pass.

Where to Stay

Kashgar offers several decent, clean hotels (although neither will win the style of the year award). Hotel Seman (+ 86 0998-258 2129) was the former Russian consulate and just renovated this past year. The Chini Bagh Hotel (+86 0998-298 0671) is centrally located and was built on the grounds of the former British consulate.

Where to Shop

Obviously, the Sunday Market is the place to shop in Kashgar. The market itself is huge and depending on what kinds of goods you are looking for, you’ll want to focus on different regions.

Many visitors come to Kashgar hoping to pick up a Central Asian rug. My two travel partners found beautiful silk Hotan carpets for phenomenal prices at Muhammat Ali’s shop in the Sunday Market. You can set up an appointment by calling him at 0998-293 2457.

Camel and horseback riding at Karakul
Camel and horseback riding at Karakul

Best Excursions

For all of the sights and sounds that Kashgar has to offer, the surrounding regions are just as breathtaking. Be sure to schedule enough time to take one or two excursions from Kashgar during your stay.

One of the most popular night trips from Kashgar is a trek out to the Taklamakan Desert. Leaving from Kashgar, you can visit Yarkand and its old town, which boasts a collection of Sufi Tombs and several markets. Check out Silk Road Tours.

From Yarkand, you’ll travel to the edge of the Taklamakan desert and an endless sea of sand dunes. Entrepreneuring locals will offer you rides on their camels for a small fee.

Another option is a visit to Karakul, which is a beautiful lake at the foot of Muztagh Ata (a peak that rises to 7500 feet) and a four-hour drive from Kashgar.

The drive to Karakul is an adventure in itself, as you’ll navigate through mountainous turns and washed out roads.

Once at the lake, you can spend the night in a yurt (a felt tent-like structure) for about $8/night. Be sure to bring warm clothing – we barely stayed warm with thick fleeces.

Karakul is a great base from which to hike in the mountains or simply relax by the lake. You can also take a horse ride around the lake and visit Kyrgyz locals who live in a small village near the lake.

Best Tour Group/Café

If you’ve ever tried to make travel arrangements with someone who doesn’t speak English, you’ve discovered that pantomime is only sufficient in certain circumstances.

That’s where the Caravan Café comes in. This wonderful little oasis in Kashgar serves up the best coffee in town and can help you book hotels, guides, and excursions into the nearby mountains and desert.

 Jessica HaydenJessica P. Hayden is a freelance writer who covers a range of issues including travel, politics, foreign affairs and law. Her work has appeared in Slate, Transitions Abroad, TravelMag, and numerous other publications. She also contributed to a book on investing for teens published by the Motley Fool. Visit her website at www.jesshayden.com.

Read more stories by Jessica Hayden:

Backpacking in Kazakhstan: Negotiations at 10,000 Feet

Istanbul: City of Superlatives

Ephesus and Gokova: Two Turkish Treasures

Bukhara, Uzbekistan: Modern Adventures on the Ancient Silk Road

Culture and Carpets: Discovering Turkmenistan Through Its Art

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