South China Morning Post, Mar 9, 2010

On the edge of a desert, an old market thrives and enchants


The road leading into Kashgar's livestock market is a veritable animal jam, a quagmire of unruly sheep, cows, horses and donkeys, all pulling in different directions.

Above the bleating, mooing and hawing, one can hear the herders shouting 'Posh! Posh!' , 'Get out of the way'.

I go with the flow, almost on the backs of this sea of animals, and find myself in the livestock area, the size of two football fields and enclosed by brick walls. The market is on the outskirts of this ancient Silk Road oasis city, which is on the western edge of the Taklamakan desert. It was once located downtown beside the Tuman river, where the animals could help themselves to water, but was moved to this area several years ago when it got too big for increasingly urbanised Kashgar.

Once inside, I find a magical Central Asian market, for two millennia the greatest animal exchange along this ancient trade route.

A steady stream of sheep are being marched onto this field, while others are being driven here in the comfort of big trucks. Many are quite big, but burly Uygur farmers easily hand the kicking and twisting animals over the side of their trucks to men on the ground. There must be a thousand sheep here, and they push up against one another seeking to keep warm.

This is the only section where one sees children working. The children - who appear to be no older than nine or 10 years - either hold the reins of five or six animals, or guide the unruly livestock into separate holding areas, where men shear the animals.

Meanwhile, other men are busy sharpening their knives on stones - halved sheep hang on meat hooks not far away.

Other corners of this open area are dedicated to the trading of donkeys, camels, cows, and horses - there are no pigs for sale in this Muslim enclave. In the midst of all this confusion stand craggy-faced and bearded Uygur men, dressed in long black and brown overcoats and fur-lined winter hats.

They sometimes dart over to vigorously shake the hand of a friend, before laying their right palms on their stomachs in a traditional Uygur greeting. In between, the men exchange handfuls of bright red yuan, which pop out against this backdrop of dark clothing and white snow.

On the sidelines is a string of Uygur restaurants specialising in lamb dishes and hand-pulled noodles. Noodle makers, who look almost like circus performers, stand in the cold twisting long strands of noodles, swinging them up and down like a jump rope to stretch them; their actions give the area a sort of medieval feel. Although the ground is covered with snow and it's very cold, farmers, on a break from their constant haggling, come in a steady stream to slurp down a plate of home-made noodles and to sip tea from chipped bowls. In the summer, colourful Uygur rugs - similar to Turkish rugs - are thrown on the ground for diners to relax on.

In the sheep-holding area, potential buyers walk around prodding the animals for clues to their worth. These ancient sheep were originally bred for the high quality of the fat stored in the tail area, which is still used for cooking. These lumps of snow-white fat are hung from makeshift butcher shops on streets throughout Xinjiang .

In the donkey section, these beasts of burden come in all sizes and colours. I try to figure out what buyers look for in a donkey. A man walks up to one and presses hard on its forehead with his thumbs. He nods to the seller, passes over some bills, and leads his donkey away. Another man runs his hand seductively along the back of a donkey down to its rear, feeling the coat. I keep turning in circles, expecting at any moment to get kicked by a donkey, which appear to outnumber the people here; the Uygur farmers show no such fear.

A donkey tries to run away and his owner, in his 50s, pulls hard on the rope around its neck. When that doesn't work, the owner pulls hard on the tail, which does the job. The man gives me a big smile - exposing a row of missing front teeth.

I ask one young seller how much he wants for his donkey and he answers 1,200 yuan (about HK$1,360; the animals sell for anywhere between 1,000 to 15,000 yuan). I nod knowingly and walk away. He shouts after me: 'It's a good one.'

A man hands a donkey dealer a wad of yuan. The seller looks at the money and, without even counting it, hands it back brusquely, feigning that he's been offended by the low offer. As if that's not enough, he then looks away to cement his contempt.

An argument breaks out a few metres away between a buyer and seller and a crowd of Uygur men crowd around. Everyone here obviously enjoys a good bit of bickering. The potential buyer shouts 'Too expensive!' his face showing disgust. As he sticks a wad of bills into his back pocket, the angry seller grabs him by the shoulder and tries to pull him back. He pulls away.

A team of cows is lumbering through the crowd of donkeys and people, who politely make way for these large animals. Suddenly, a few cows get out of control, and begin surging through the crowd, sending people running every which way. A young girl is sitting against the back of her family's donkey cart with her grandfather. Fear flashes in her eyes as the animals rush by, and she moves behind her grandfather for protection, her eyes darting over his shoulder. As the danger passes, her look of concern turns into a smile and she sits down again, just as a young man rushes past being pulled by a cow. Man and animal crash into the snow, roll over, and stand up again as if nothing happened.

Meanwhile, some of the animals are refusing to move. A cow won't budge, despite the owner pulling on a rope around his neck and the wife pushing from behind. She whacks the cow's rear a few times with a tree branch, but still nothing. An old man walks up with an air of confidence and takes the tree branch from the woman's hand, as if to say, 'Watch how I do it'. He picks up the cow's tail and whacks the exposed region twice. The cow starts to move.

The horse section at the back is the most colourful. There are ornately-decorated horse carts, and some of the horses have colourful Uygur saddle blankets and ornaments in their manes. One owner tenderly straightens the hair hanging over his horse's forehead and affectionately pets her.

Some men, excellent riders, take the horses out for a test ride, either bare-back or atop intricate leather saddles, whipping the horses as they gallop cross the snow-covered fields.

There are about six lonely-looking camels in their own section. One wonders if there's less need for such animals in these modern times, when the Taklamakan can be traversed via trucks and buses.

When I ask the seller what the camels are used for, he answers, 'Nothing', which I translate as 'Stupid question'.

The real beauty here is a sweet white camel who stands obediently as Uygur men - who obviously have no intention of buying the animal - softly caress her soft hair. The owner is in a heated debate with a would-be buyer, who has offered him 3,300 yuan. The seller shakes his head and stands firm: 4,000 yuan. The potential buyer hands over his mobile number and says: 'Call me at the end of the day if you don't manage to sell it. My offer stands.'

The crowd begins murmuring and the gist of the chatter is that the selling price is too high. 'You know, 3,300 is a good amount of money,' one elderly man with a long white beard says, 'you should accept it.' The seller good-naturedly shoots back: 'Hey, it's my camel. Who are you to tell me how much to sell it for?'

Smiles break out discreetly under the beards of the contented crowd of onlookers.