China: A little market research on the Silk Road

Jim Eagles is intrigued by the goings-on at a centuries-old meeting-place on the Silk Road.

“In Kashgar we have a saying about the Sunday market,” said Abdul, our Uigur guide. “You can find anything here except your parents.”

Up piped an Australian woman who was travelling with her mother and auntie. “I think I can find at least one of those here.”

There was no chance I could find a parent here but, looking at the seething mass of stalls where I could already see a thousand kinds of hat, knives of every size from tiny ones you could use to sharpen quill pens to massive killers, gleaming silver pots that looked as though a genie might live in them and, of course, acres of hand-woven carpet, it was easy to believe you could indeed find just about anything.

Kashgar, in the northwestern tip of China, has been a trading centre for thousands of years. During the long centuries when the Silk Road was the key trade route, it was one of the places where silks and gunpowder from China were exchanged for cotton from Persia and glass from Rome.

Today’s market, the biggest in Central Asia, continues that tradition. Mostly the stall holders look to be Uigurs, the former nomads who make up 90 per cent of the population in the city, but there are also Kazaks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyrs — in their distinctive white hats — Huis, Tajiks and Pakistanis . . . and I saw one stall run by a mysteriously fair-skinned and freckled family with hair a light ginger in colour.

Add in a bunch of tourists from the Antipodes, plus a band of adventurers who had travelled to Asia overland from Europe in a specially equipped bus, and this place is truly a melting pot of nations, much as it must have been a thousand years ago.

There was so much on sale — the biggest problem was where to start. “That way,” pointed Abdul, “you will find hats. There,” he added as his finger swung round in a circle, “are the carpets. Down there the antiques and some souvenirs. Over there are the silks. That way you will find food. On that side are the hardwares.”

But before we plunged into the maelstrom Abdul had a few final words of warning: “Take care. There are many good things here but also some bad things.”

Someone wondered aloud what we had all been thinking: What bad things?

“Some people here will try to sell you fake things, fake antiques, silk carpets or jade,” said Abdul, “so be careful what you buy. And look after your valuables, your passport and you money, because there may be thieves.”

No doubt that was true — and I had already noted a warning about pickpockets in Lonely Planet’s China — but the atmosphere of the market was amazingly cheerful and friendly.

In every direction there were smiling faces, almost all happy to be photographed and all with a polished patter for selling their goods.

As I wandered down the endless aisles of glowing carpets, one trader was lying half asleep on a pile of his stock. Could I take a photo? After smiling assent he leaned his head on his hands and shut his eyes to make an even more amusing
picture.

In the hat section of the market there was everything from elegant furs to peaked caps promoting American sportswear, from the plain white hats worn by the Muslim Hui to the ornately embroidered versions preferred by their fellow Muslim Uigurs.

One especially pushy salesman took off my floppy sunhat and plunked on one of these Muslim caps. It was clearly too small, sitting on my bald dome like the proverbial pea on a drum, but he assured me in an obviously well-practiced bit of English that it was, “Magnificent, make you very handsome, the ladies love it.”

In one of the aisles of clothing dozens of women, their hair and faces obscured by scarves, were on their knees scrabbling desperately in a pile of scarves that had presumably been offered on special by some trader eager to clear old stock.

Further down the same aisle a line of female traders sat on the floor, their stock of jewellery and knick-knacks spread out before them on sheets of canvas, adding to the congestion.


From time to time there would come a cry of “Boish, boish” — Uigur for coming through — and through the crowd would come a young man on a motorcycle, or a trader driving one of the little three-wheeled trucks so common in China.

Amid this chaos I was particularly intrigued by an old man with the beard and manner of a prophet who sat on the floor behind a box on which were spread no more than a dozen books.

From time to time a woman — I never saw any men take an interest — would approach respectfully and ask a question.

Mostly the sage seemed to turn them away with a quiet word. But a few chosen ones were offered a book to peruse.

No money ever seemed to change hands. But, as I loitered for some minutes looking for the chance to take a photo, one young woman sat down and read, seemingly entranced, for several minutes. And those he spoke to appeared to treat his words as though they were precious jewels.

Who was he? Some famous imam taking his message to the market place?

When I finally turned away a waiting knife salesman pounced.

Waving a huge gleaming blade in front of my eyes he asked, “Hello. Where you from?”
New Zealand.

“Ah, Newzillan. This very good knife for Newzillan. You buy two.”

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines

operates 12 times a week between Auckland and Singapore and then onward to other destinations, including China.

GETTING AROUND
World Expeditions‘ 27-day Silk Road to Samarkand via Kashgar tour starts at $8490pp.

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