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Kashgar -- Wild Wild West
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The knife is sharp. He has just proved it by seizing my right arm, turning it veins up and dragging the blade across my skin. At the sight of a three sqcm bald patch in my arm hair, I agree to pay only RMB 10 less than his initial asking price.


Bargaining at the Sunday market in Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, was never going to be easy, given the town's long-standing trade experience.


A major hub on the old Silk Road 1,000 years ago, the oasis was an important bartering point between the Taklamakan Desert to the east and the Pamir and Karakoram mountain ranges to the west. Modern transport links may have nullified its role in European-Orient relations but it remains an important weekly meeting place for thousands of traders from all over Central Asia. Silk rugs and saffron are brought from Iran and Pakistani salesmen brood in the Pakistan Café on Saturday nights like boxers in their pre-fight dressing rooms.


The animal market now lies on the outskirts of town, after an unpopular decision to separate it from the main bazaar. Impromptu farms springing up all around the city streets every Sunday did not concur with China's efforts to modernize. The trade area is a large rectangle of dusty earth bordered by a brick wall and metal poles form shopping aisles. The tourist's role as observer has never been so accentuated; you are not a customer unless you are planning to slaughter your own dinner.


The sale of livestock is a man's business. The few women present sit in the shade of their carts and wait for decisions. A huddle of six men, in prayer hats and flat caps, discuss the hind quarters of a small herd of cows. A teenager is excluded from the circle and strains to hear valuable tips for his future career. The cows guzzle greens as if it is their last supper.


Away from the scuffles between buyers and the bought is the test-drive track. Donkeys are ridden up and down a stony strip as drivers trial their responses to a meter-long cane. This is far from Shanghai, and the distinctive faces all belong to the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, of who there are eight million living in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.


At the main market area, the Yekshenba Bazaar, red pomegranates wait to be squeezed over glass tumblers. A steel roof covers stalls of rugs, children's suits and cassette ghetto blasters. The structure was recently built to introduce order to proceedings, a move unappreciated by travelers, as the surrounding clogged streets are much more interesting. Here a man in white gloves holds a car boot, roof and bonnet sale of unidentifiable dried objects in the name of traditional medicine. He lures customers by whispering miraculous tales into a microphone as the snake around his neck uses his shirt to hide its head from the crowd.


Kashgar is sliced in two by Renmin Lu, the main road that runs from east to west. To the south lie the wide streets and grey oblongs of China's "Develop the West" campaign, under the raised arm of one of the largest statues of Mao Zedong in the country. Behind his back, a jumble of narrow stone streets forms the Uighur old town. Mao Zedong encouraged the people from other provinces to make their own journeys to the West in the 1950s and '60s to develop the area. This has meant that the local population can't compete with native Mandarin speakers in the expanding workplace. But government employees begin their working day in darkness while the Uighurs stay under the sheets. They stick to their unofficial time-two hours behind.


There may be new buildings and infrastructure dotted around the city to improve the economy, but the lanes leading off from the main square and the Id Kah Mosque remain in an antiquated bubble. Renovations on adobe walls are carried out on wooden scaffolding and the local blacksmith pounds iron, dressed in a flat cap and suit jacket. The bakeries conduct the bulk of their business late at night to provide nan bread, the staple Uighur breakfast. A single light bulb reveals a wooden frame, its peeling blue paint blackened by smoke. The picture is of a squatting teenager, sweat trickling from under a white prayer cap, removing flat bread after flat bread from the earthen oven with long metal tongs.


The Karakoram Highway runs south west from Kashgar to the Pakistan border, shaving Tajikistan and coming within loudspeaker distance of Afghanistan. The region may only share a 76 km-long border with Afghanistan but it did not take much to decimate tourism in Muslim-dominated areas after 9-11. Last year, however, media reports that Osama Bin Laden was hiding on the Chinese border excited rather than perturbed the 700,000 curious tourists that visited Xinjiang between January and October 2006. This has increased the travel opportunities along the Karakoram Highway, with a three-day trip only RMB 400.


In a rickety minibus from Kashgar, the first three hours are spent traveling through gravel plains punctuated by pensive camels and faceless mud settlements. We enter a wider gorge of red-flecked mountains and the white crags of the Pamir barge their way into the windscreen. As passing yaks struggle to find pasture, the driver's tape player munches through Uighur pop star Kutarman’s latest offering and our distorted soundtrack accompanies us to the 4,000m mark.


The reflection of Mount Muztagata, the range's highest peak at 7,546m, in the cerulean waters of Karakul Lake is faultless. As at any remote beauty spot, a car park full of tour buses blights our first impressions. But a three-hour horse trek around the lake shore, without the bind of a guide, guarantees solitude. On the southern shore, a simple village acts as an advert for renewable energy. Solar panels are fixed on flat roofs and the whine of two wind turbines creates a haunting background noise to the chatter of a classroom. The school costs just RMB 70 a year.


A small hamlet of five yurts is 15 minutes walk from the visitors center. The residents are Kyrgyz, nomads who hung up their walking boots for this spectacular water source 50 years ago. The night is cold but our new family of seven finds enough blankets to cover the whole of Xinjiang-one sixth of China's total land area. Chunks of boiled lamb are followed by yak tea, inadvertent charades and bedtime. With 11 people lying in a yurt, we find it difficult to sleep. The altitude of 3,800 meters is tweaking our body clocks. Instead we lie silent, listening to a xylophone of sighs and murmurs from our hosts.


Another two hours drive south is the end of the road for travelers not crossing to Pakistan.


(China Daily by Chris O'Brien July 27, 2007)



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