Asia | China | North West | Kashgar – The Sunday Bazaar
Today is Sunday, the big market day in Kashgar. To the hordes of tourists that flood the city, us included, the market area was mecca. Even though we were all told that the market wouldnt start until noon, everyone in the hotel headed toward the eastern edge of town by 10.
It did not take long before we started seeing low-quality clothing laid out on a plastic cloth on the ground, and as we proceeded, the small congregation soon spread into what I had fancied. The street was a flux of colors: the white and black of the sheep and donkeys, the mens green caps, the womens bright scarves, the yellow, green, white, and mud walls of the shops and mosque, all flashing in front of me before I was able to catch a clear glimpse. Both vendors and buyers shouted to one another, the exotic mix of tongue-twister vowels mingled with the pungent smoke of lamb kebab, reminding me every moment that I had theoretically left the familiar Chinese territory.
As the reputation of the Sunday Bazaar grew and more tourists started coming, the market itself had turned into an outdoor mall, largely selling touristy items such as sequined hats and machine made Persian rugs. The real fascination lay just outside the market instead. Hundreds of women compared and traded with one another their stitch work on squares of clothes that would eventually become hat tops. Daniel called it a cult. Just like every other profession holds a convention once in a while, the hat top stitch workers also have their weekly meeting. Gender segregation couldnt be more obvious, as a group of men sold leather boots next to these women without any mingling between the two groups at all.
A local pointed us to an alley when we tried to find a teahouse. A family sat at the end of the alley making dumplings, and an old woman eagerly gestured for us to sit down on a couple dirty rugs in a corner that we originally thought was a social center for the homeless. Excellent cinnamon tea was served in questionably clean bowls along with the smell of horse manure from the rug. We ordered a plate of fresh out of the steamer dumplings, and chose to eat with our not-so-clean-hands after comparing them to the chopsticks coated in brown goo. The skin of the dumpling broke right away, and I stopped after the first one, gulping down a bowl of tea to wash out the taste of lamb fat.
Food stalls lined up on the street, offering barbecued lamb, noodles, fried buns, and boiled sheep heads. I had come to the bazaar hoping to sample local food, but the lack of variety and moreover, the sanitary conditions turned me off even though my iron stomach always got along just fine with street food. The melons sold by the slices were much more enticing, and assuming that the pieces I picked were the few hadnt been chosen by the flies circling around the stalls, I indulged until my hands started dripping with juice.
The eastern end of the market seemed to have retained the same look for years. Taxi and bus drivers honked with frustration, but could not disentangle themselves from the donkey carts, pull carts, pedestrians, and other animals. This was the real bazaar, where the animal trades were held. We stood next to a boom box blasting Uygher movie soundtrack, and watched the crowds coming and going, amazed by the plethora of activities. Mothers held the hands of the younger children and fixed the caps and scarves of the older ones, and fathers yelled at sons to keep an eye on where they were pushing the cartful of sheep. Maybe I was hallucinating from the watermelons, but all the sheep seemed a bit relieved that they hadnt been butchered just yet.
Moving from one world to the other, we went to Caravan Café, operated by an American expat who made it an expensive, but much welcomed hangout place for all the westerners in town. Bright and clean, it not only served real espresso, to-die-for chocolate cakes, and purified ice, but also had a spotless bathroom equipped with toilet paper, hand soap, and functional sit-down toilet, the first establishment with all three I had seen since leaving the airport in Shanghai. Yet kicking back in the comfort, I couldnt help but miss the chaos out at the market, the masses in the rolling dust, and the sight of lamb chunks boiling in the big pots.