I had been told profusedly by everybody that Kashgar animal market was something I could not miss. “You have to see it” told Mauro in such a convincent way that I reconsidered my initial plan to visit Yunnan (and now, whom I thank for changing my life with this advice), “Oh Kashgar and all that happened there” said wistfully a random French tourist I had crossed in Tibet (whom I am sure was thinking of Nepal because Kashgar is not exactly the place where a lot of good things happen and happened, although is truly such an atmospheric and fascinating place today). So how could I resist the invitation? One has to listen to all the tiny bits of hints and clues he or she finds on his way.
The drumming about the animal market had been so well prepared and built-up by guidebooks and travelogues, that of course, when I ended up there, everybody in Kashgar hostel was absolutely excited about it. Everybody was ready to go on that Sunday morning: me, a couple of sweetest English teachers on a six month trip, and several others, even a couple that pretty much had not got out of the hostel (mind my words, not their room, just the hostel, that oasis of english speaking world) after two weeks, in a probably need to restore themselves after traveling through China for several weeks before.
We hired a small open truck in full style and headed out of town, where the market had been relocated by the Chinese, that maybe were afraid that one day the Kashgari could overthrow the city centre with an army of sheep, or maybe corrupt to their cause all the Han officers with the delicious little dumplings stuffed of goat fat (they melt in your mouth, delicious indeed).
Already in the road there were sellers or buyers trying to convince goats or donkeys to come out from the side ditches where they had decided to stray in and have a rest.
The market had camels, goats, sheep, horses , donkeys. Here and there you could here people mounting and galloping to test the horse they were about to buy. There were real transactions indeed. And there were all sort of hats . A great place for pictures without any doubt. The locals, Uigurs, Tadjiks, Kazhaks, were all smiling at us (maybe laughing at us going there and wondering : what the tourists need to do here, what?).
There were no dumplings, but totally satisfying langma noodles and juicy watermelons. While we were enjoying the slippery sauce enveloping the langma noodles, one of the English teachers started to consider or joke about the fact that this place was great, and that funnily he remembered that when he was a kid, he had already had the chance to go to similar fairs in England with his parents, with animals, games and all, and at the time they seemed the most boring thing ever . How amusing was to discover now in Kashgar he found that local animal fair was great fun. I thought that was the pithiest and wittiest consideration to do: here we are in the almost westernmost part of China, in an animal market and everybody was spontaneously accepting the fact that an animal marked is a great experience, not the uncoolest thing on earth, had we been in our origin countries.
And surely I have to admit, it was indeed great experience; it was coming close with the local life, almost peeping into it, feeling part of a lifestyle, although maybe only in appearance and none of us would have ever bought a sheep or a camel nor could barely speak the four words to haggle a car back. But indeniably it felt exciting to be there, to see all that happening, to feel the tension and the excitement of the deals done and those hoped to be done.
Besides, many of us had never had the chance before to see this type of economy, strongly dependent on cattle and animal, while a the same part a non intensive type of breeding. A part of our heritage.
Yet, I have to say that part of me still wonders why such an animal market turns out to be so wondrous and exciting for travellers in a foreign land, that most probably would have shunned it in their own town. I came to suspect that the success of Kashgar and Khotan and all other animal markets lies in something less noble and inspiring. Valerie Hansen in her book “Silk Road” says that “as the visitors watch farmers fiercely bargaining over the price of a donkey , it’s easy to imagine that Khotan has always been this way- but this is an illusion.” She argues that we tend to imagine that any non-Han Chinese to our eyes looks like an early settler from the old Silk Road. I think she is pretty right, I think that we are fascinated and we deeply desire to find our past or a fabled past re-enacted for us today. We want to be witness of that fabled past, to be there. The East is usually very prone to look immobile in time and unchangeable to the eyes of travellers, who are often lured into watching it as a living piece of the past, a way almost to explain their own past ( and sometimes in a very egocentric or “western-centric” way, I must add).
So these faces that when looking upon them, make us dream of the bygone days where a camel was paid in bolts of silk and measures of grain, are actually not even related to those days. Xinjiang consisted not of one state but many kingdoms with different languages. Kashgar was one of them, among Khotan , Kuqa and many more. Buddhism and the local script arrived with migrants from the Kushan kingdom (most probably) but there were also Nestorian Christians and Manichaeists ending up there from all the way from Syria and Central Asia. People arrived and changed with time, Sogdians, Gandaharans and Chinese Han . The great change happened at the turn of the first millennium where the Kharakanids of Kashgar embraced Islam (they needed big friends and Islam was a rising power), but still it was an isolated change and Buddhism, for one example, stayed very strong until 1400.
During many centuries where Xinjiang or better, the kingdoms that made Xinjiang, changed hands, religions (and languages) until the Mongols imposed their pax and unified the region, yet another delicate balance to be broken soon afterwards.
in its westernmost position Kashgar is probably for many the symbol of the region, of its strong character and its desire for independence. it is ironically the place where physically you change buses to Tibet or to Pakistan or to Central Asia, similarly to the oasis tradeposts once ago, but if you tend your ears to try to pick that chorus of different languages and people that must have animated the market place here, you cannot hear much, nowadays for the economy sake or state security sake, the doors have closed and there are no pilgrims nor merchants anymore. Still you can hear the sheep and the camels.
All photographs by Tania Simonetti