There is a smell of goats, fresh bread and melons. A cacophony of bleating animals rises, mixed with conversations full of hard-edged Turkic gutturals. A small boy clambers deftly onto the back of an unbroken, barrel-bellied pony, and reining it back sharply he somehow stays in place as it gallops wildly over the stony ground. Horse-trading elders with beards and skull caps look on with approval and begin to count wads of tattered money. Above everything arches a vast Central Asian sky.
I am in China, but here, at the Sunday livestock bazaar on the outskirts of Kashgar, an ancient city in the southwest corner of Xinjiang, I have to keep reminding myself of that fact.
Xinjiang is Chinaâ€™s Wild West, a state of deserts and mountains peopled by Muslim Uighurs, and leaning more to Bokhara than Beijing. It has long had a troubled relationship with the rest of the country, slipping in and out of effective Chinese control as imperial power waxed and waned over the centuries. Today the tensions continue. In July, protests by Uighurs in Urumqi, the state capital, turned violent and a government crackdown followed. But unlike in neighboring Tibet, the government has kept Xinjiang open to tourists. When I arrive in Kashgar on a long-distance train, rolling though vineyards and pomegranate orchards, there has been a state-wide telecommunications shutdown for over four months and army trucks bearing antiseparatist slogans were rolling down the streets. But I am free to go wherever I like, and the first place I head is Kashgarâ€™s famous Sunday Market.
Kashgar stands astride the ancient Silk Road, the much-mythologized trade route that once linked China with Europe. From here trails led east along the fringes of the desert, and west over mountain passes. For centuries, people, religions and ideas passed along the caravan routes. The Uighursâ€™ Turkic ancestors dropped out of the mountains in the sixth century. Before them, Buddhism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity had traveled west. A few centuries later, Islam arrived.
Today a hint of this old romance survives â€” the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan lie within 150 kilometers of Kashgar, and trade goes on in weekly markets across the region. In the Kashgar Sunday Market I see carpets, fruits and embroidered cloth, mixed in with everyday metals and plastics. Women in sparkling headscarves jostle with old men in embroidered pillbox hats.
But the Chinese government is determinedly dragging Xinjiang into the mainstream. The market has now been corralled into a modern complex, and beyond it new high-rises tower over the remnants of the old mud-walled city. In recent years, swathes of the Uighur old town have been bulldozed, and immigration from other parts of China has been encouraged. These moves â€” and the dominance of immigrant Han Chinese in the job market â€” have only increased tensions. English-speaking Uighurs I meet on my journey whisper their disquiet in hushed, paranoid tones. A man at the Sunday Market explains the resentment at the destruction of old Kashgar.
â€œThere is no privacy in a Chinese apartment,â€ he says. â€œOur traditional houses are built around a courtyard so we all live together, but with privacy. We donâ€™t want to live in apartments.â€
Looking for something a little more authentic, I head to the livestock bazaar. It is a glorious chaos of goats, donkeys, horses and sheep and haggling men in fabulous hats. I am hoping to see a camel or two â€” real evidence that I am on the Silk Road â€” but to my disappointment there are none. I console myself with a plate of greasy kebabs and plot my onward journey.
From Kashgar I head east. Human habitation in Xinjiang has long been squeezed into the narrow margin between the mountains and the desert. A string of oases runs along what was once the southern branch of the Silk Road. My first stop is Yarkand â€” a place once as fabled as Samarkand or Xanadu. During Xinjiangâ€™s periods of independence from Chinese rule, Yarkand was usually the capital city. It was also the terminus of skeleton-strewn caravan trails over the mountains from India.
Today, it is a backwater. A Uighur old town of mud alleyways remains, and a dusty graveyard of royal tombs studded with the faded flags of mystic Sufi cults sprawls behind a medieval mosque with a vine-shaded courtyard. A modern Chinese town of arrow-straight boulevards dominates, but away to the south I can pick out the faint white line of the Kun Lun mountains, the back wall of the entire Himalayan range.
From the next oasis, Karghilik, I take a taxi into those hills along a road that leads, eventually, to Tibet. An army check-point by the chilly banks of the Tiznaf River is as far as I can go, but I scramble up a steep brown slope to take in the view. A mass of brown mountains, ribbed and scored with dark shadow, spreads east and west. Behind them, rising in a glittering white line, is the backbone of the Kun Lun. This was the barrier that Silk Road traders from India once had to cross en route to Kashgar, Yarkand, and my own final destination â€” Hotan.
The road to Hotan blazes across the stony desert, the mountains floating to the south. The vast void that surrounds it makes arrival in Hotan a strange experience, for here, at the very limit of Chinaâ€™s vastness, is another large, modern town. As a Uighur heartland, the Chinese government has been particularly keen to integrate Hotan with the rest of the country. Roads from the north now plough straight across the Taklamakan Desert, and from next year a railway line will link it to Kashgar. A Uighur man I meet at a kebab stall hisses, â€œWhen the railway is ready we will be finished â€” Hotan will be all Chinese.â€
But something remains here: a week has passed and it is time for Hotanâ€™s own Sunday Market. Nothing has been regimented here; the bazaar sprawls over a vast area, filling all the lanes and alleys of the old quarter with a mass of color and commerce. There are sections given over to cloth and carpets, to the jade mined from the banks of nearby rivers, to animals and even tractors. Donkey carts clatter through the crowds, the drivers calling out â€œ Bosh! Bosh! â€ (â€œComing through!â€). When I am tired of wandering I feast on laghman (Uighur noodles) and slices of fresh watermelon.
And as I leave the market I spot something â€” what I had hoped to see in Kashgar. A boy is leading a pair of shaggy, twin-humped Bactrian camels through the crowd. They are enormous beasts and they pass through the chaos unperturbed and disappear among the trucks. I stare after them as they go, now sure, despite the political tensions and the heavy-handed Chinese modernization, that I am in Central Asia, and on the Silk Road.