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Kashgar - following in Marco Polo's footsteps on the Silk Road
Latest Updated by 2006-05-29 11:03:56
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Kashgar - following in Marco Polo's footsteps on the Silk Road

At the western end of China's Silk Road - has been the stopping-off point for travelers for at least 2,000 years. Today's silk and spice merchants, rug dealers and livestock sellers could well be descendants of the locals who provisioned the Chinese silk traders 2,000 years ago and Marco Polo a mere 900 years ago. This oasis surrounded by the arid Pamir Plateau and snow-capped mountains now boasts a population of 340,000, high-rises and highways, but its exotic pleasures remain.

Locals and visitors can be seen at the Sunday market, said to be the largest bazaar in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and one of the largest in Asia. They crowd the Sunday livestock market; and visit Idkah Mosque, one of the largest mosques in China. Streets are alive with tall, blue-eyed old men in embroidered caps; women with headscarves and sequined red dresses; and food is everywhere - shish kebab grilling, bread baking in large clay ovens, and watermelon sliced and sold off carts.

Kashgar is in the far west of China's far west Xinjiang region. It's on the road to Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The old Russian and British consulates from the days of the 19th century Great Game, when the two countries competed for influence in Central Asia, still stand in Kasghar.

The city is a six-hour flight from Shenzhen - four and a half hours to Urumqi, the region's capital, and another hour and a half across the Taklimakan Desert to Kashgar. Last week's arrival of the first oil piped from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang may start a regional boom that could wipe away the past. But meanwhile, Kashgar remains a city of Uygur culture and hospitality.

The Uygurs, an east-west mix of Mongols and Turks, have their own Turkic language with Arabic alphabet and a fairly relaxed form of Central Asian Islam. With both men and women covering their heads, it's a hat-fancier's heaven. Shops sell embroidered pillbox hats and more sedate black caps. Traditional women cover their heads and faces with a brown cloth that supposedly offers good visibility. The more modern observant Muslim woman wears a small white face-covering that looks like a cotton eyelet surgical mask. It hooks over the ears and provides both modesty and protection from the swirling sands from the Pamir Plateau.

Timing is not everything but it makes a tremendous difference in a Kashgar visit. Best to be in the city on Sunday for the Sunday market and livestock market. And be there on Monday for a trip to the Upal market, a weekly market 45 minutes by taxi from downtown Kashgar.

Kashgar's Sunday market operates seven days a week, but Sunday is the most crowded. Alas, it's been modernized - moved inside with orderly rows of stalls, but it's still an exotic cornucopia. Women are bargaining over flashy rayon fabrics and traditional Uygur designs. Men are trying to find just the right hat. Traditional instruments are for sale. Tart and spicy freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, sold outside the market, is one of Kashgar's finest products. At the edge of the market, up a flight of stairs is Mohammed Ali's rug store, the largest in Kashgar. He also has a branch outside the Chini Bagh Hotel and seems to pop up everywhere, ready to find just the red and blue pomegranate carpet you're in search of.

If the Sunday market seems a bit overly modernized, the Sunday livestock market at the edge of the city offers a glimpse of the past, with intense buying and selling of lambs, donkeys, goats and the occasional camel. Food vendors and craftsmen line the edges of the market. Chinese officials are stationed at the exits to make sure sales tax is paid. The best time to visit is after 11 a.m. since farmers come from great distances and don't arrive much earlier. The road to the market is lined with people arriving in their tractors, trucks and horse-drawn vehicles.

The Upal market, also best from late morning, offers the outdoor naturalness gone from Kashgar's mega-market. Livestock are in one area; produce, an outdoor barbershop and handmade goods are in another section; and manufactured suits and shoes in a third section. Red tarps under poplar trees provide protection from the elements.

Back in Kashgar, the small streets ending at the back of the Idkah Mosque are filled with shops selling copperware, samovars, musical instruments, gold jewelry and telephones. East of the mosque lies the old city - a jumble of streets with men streaming out of tiny mosques and craftsmen at work in their storefronts in a neighborhood where time seems to stand still.

Beyond the city to the southwest lies the beauty of the snowcapped mountains rising above the Pamir Plateau. Following the ancient Silk Road in greatly enhanced comfort, the mostly well-paved Karokoram Highway extends from China into Pakistan. Last stop in China, the gateway to Pakistan is Khunjerab Pass, which means valley of blood, harking back to the time when traders were ready to risk their lives for the lucrative silk trade.

Editor: Wing

By: Amy Stone Source: Szdaily web edition
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