Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Brad Schouten
The markets of the world are popular for a reason. They give locals an opportunity to trade and visitors an accelerated lesson in culture, providing both a window into the lives of the people and an appreciation for the things they hold dear. It may be the sights and sounds that form the impression but it’s the smells that linger in our minds for years to come, staying dormant until the faintest waft of air triggers a flash of recall, bringing with it a memory and hopefully a smile.
In the far north-western corner of China, amidst a predominantly Muslim population struggling to hold on to its ideals, is such a market. My wife and I had arrived in the Xinjiang Province because of the political situation in the country and our inability to travel into Tibet. We were certainly not disappointed. The place had immediately drawn us in. It was vibrant, fresh and an attack on all of the senses but most of all it was so different from the rest of China.
Kashgar, along with a constant barrage of dust-storms, gives off an air of confusion. The Uigher people, who are the descendants of nine tribes of Central Asia, outnumber the Han Chinese by 5 to 1 but have soft voices and an endangered culture. The area has 2 times, with anything related to transport or government matching the rest of China and everything else running two hours behind. When you consider that Kashgar is more than 4,000 km’s west of Beijing you can’t help thinking that it would make sense having a few time zones in the country, but that would go against a political quest for uniformity and in China sense is something that happens only a few times a year.
After a quick breakfast on Sunday morning we jumped onto the back of a 4X4 with 5 other tourists; attempting to strike up some form of conversation but choosing rather to stick to our private yawns. On the way to the market our driver, who was expertly weaving between the fleet of cars and donkey carts, explained that it had been moved to the outskirts of town a few years ago. It’s known locally as the Central Asian Market and attracts shepherds and traders from far off plains and mountains, with a few thousand flocking in every Sunday.
We’d been told to get there as early as possible allowing us to witness the entrance of the animals but it seemed that everyone had also heard this because on our arrival, just after 8am, it was already bursting at the seams. We walked along the dusty side road towards the entrance, passing through a corridor of men wearing long robes and various forms of head gear, squatting and discussing the news of the week while washing down lamb with pots of tea. The rusty gated entrance sucked us in, not only because stopping would have resulted in definite death by donkey cart, but also because it seemed almost choreographed with the enchanting sound effects and thought out set design of a West-end play.
Plan A was finding somewhere to stand amongst the heaving mass of life inside. In the relatively quieter sheep section we managed to find a corner and began processing what lay before us. Our first impression was one of chaos but a closer look revealed that this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Cows, goats and sheep arranged according to size and breed and men wandering between them in a peaceful, trance-like state. A scene that could only be described as being precise and ordered, the kind you’d expect to find in a German train station. The sheep surrounding us were restrained by zigzagging lines of rope around their necks, providing interested onlookers the best angle at their most sought after assets. The specific breed, most common to the area, have a fatty pouch above each bum-cheek and these were groomed accordingly by various women kneeling in front of us.
We passed carefully between the rows of cows but had been distracted by an area at the far end of the football-field sized grounds that seemed to be the big crowd-puller. We made our way towards the commotion, narrowly avoiding a speeding horse on route. The area, that we were soon to realize was the test-drive zone, provided not only a display of the full range of transport options but also an area to physically test both quality and compatibility. Various sizes of horses, donkeys and camels all taken for a quick spin, with the watching crowd enthusiastically providing advice and assistance.
As a vegetarian my wife reacted to most of the activity with shock but if she’d managed to find a seat she would certainly have been perched on its edge. We’d thoroughly enjoyed the show and after deciding it was time to leave we made our way to the gate, where we paused and watched the departures, along with the constant wave of new arrivals. Sheep strapped side-down on the back of donkey carts, men cradling goats in their arms and miniature trucks buckling under the load of massive cows.
Helen Keller once said that ‘smell is a potential wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived’. My memory of the Livestock Market seems to be fading behind an ever-expanding cloud of dust but as soon as I encounter the odour of a nearby flock of sheep I am taken straight back to Kashgar and reminded of the Uighers and the passion they have for their animals. Modern life and power hungry Chinese politicians will change many aspects of their daily lives but one thing will remain as constant as the cold of winter. Every Sunday morning the roads surrounding a town in the wild west corner of China will fill with optimistic men and the livestock they live for.