Perhaps the foremost reason why so few travelers make the journey to northwest China’s Xinjiang province is, quite simply, its vastness.
Aside from being located on the exact opposite side of the country from Beijing, which itself is a journey of epic proportions, the arid autonomous region is the largest in China, spanning over one-sixth of the second largest continent in the world.
Conversely, considering its proximity to central Asia, sharing borders with an astonishing eight other nations, one wouldn’t believe that Xinjiang is the People’s Republic’s least touristed province. But it is this solitude in fact that makes the provincial desert an oasis of the orient.
Not far from the scalding sands of the Tarim Basin is the region’s political and commercial center, Kashgar. What Marco Polo called Cascar and the Han now refer to as Kashi, the Asian outpost has fashioned itself over the centuries into one of the Silk Road’s most vital international crossroads, linking China with northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan by way of the Karakorum Highway.
As such, Kashgar more closely resembles the Mid-East than Han culture as we are familiar with; the city is a veritable tapestry of central Asian cultures, as reflected in its massive weekly bazaar. Located in the Kona Sheher old town, the famous Sunday market is, like all things Xinjiang, China’s largest.
Approaching the market district, one is immediately beset by a commingled scent of smoke and fruit. If China is famous for its cuisine, then Xinjiang is responsible for half its success. Lamb kabob roasted throughout the day over sizzling coals against an undulating landscape of spicy lamian noodles topped with peppers, tomatoes and garlic, goat’s head soup, deep-fried fish and yellow mountains of pilaf rice, all washed down with boiling vats of satiating cinnamon tea.
There may not be as much bread in the whole of China as in Kashgar, and one is oft tempted by stacks of lightly seasoned nan or pyramids of sesame seed bagels fresh out of the oven. Scarlet slices of watermelon, Xinjiang’s most abundant fruit, and pink peaches blushing like a child’s cheeks are the perfect desert dessert, with market patrons walking away with comically dripping chins.
Gorged on the regional fare, one must then dodge the merchant calls of “kilinglar!” (Turkish for “come!”) while browsing the endless displays of useful house wares, useless souvenirs (genie lamp anyone?), outdated electronics, knockoff clothing and eye-catching textiles, the later being the most popular, at least amongst the women of Kashgar. It’s quite a site to see a Muslim lady shrouded in an hijab headscarf burrowing through hills of shimmering silk and other fine fabrics to further veil herself in.
Xinjiang’s predominant nationality, the Uyghurs, flavor the region with both their unique Turkish-influenced culture and devout religious faith. With more then twelve million Muslims in China, Xinjiang naturally accounts for over half the national total. Kashar’s Id Kah is the largest (of course) mosque in the People’s Republic; the city literally comes to a halt five times a day, when the faithful respond to the calling of the adhan and rush to mosque for a congregational series of Mecca-facing prostrations and Islamic prayer. Half an hour later, the city is again screaming with activity and commerce.
Despite the traditional lifestyle of the Uyghurs, Kashgar has developed itself over the years into a white-tiled mercantile metropolis, whereby even the famed weekly bazaar is now held in a modernized indoor facility of thousands of identical stalls. Though still quite a spectacular site, this refinement has left many enthusiasts desiring something a bit more…authentic.
Not to be discouraged, the answer to anyone dissatisfied by the comparatively contemporary Kashgar is Xinjiang’s lesser known yet arguably more impressive souk in Hetian, a day’s scenic drive south along the lethally hot Taklamakan, the second largest desert in the world. The shaded, tree-lined respite is renowned throughout China for its jade, silk and carpets – the three treasures of Hotan (as the Uyghurs spell it), which translates into “place that abounds in jade”.
Indeed the first site anyone will happen upon at the Hetian marketplace is an entire street of jade dealers, either from storefronts, on blankets spread out on the ground, in the trunks of cars, or out of their pant pockets. The rabid riots of precious stone peddlers and prospective buyers haggling in their Turkish tongue over every size and color of jade imaginable add to the chaos that is only the beginning of Hetian’s bazaar.
Extending countless kilometers in all four directions, the traffic-stopping market literally takes over the city streets; ass-drawn carriages contending with big bad busses and motorcycle taxis navigating through scores of preoccupied people. An entire boulevard of fragrant fruits and prismatic vegetables intersects an avenue lush with carpets and rugs, which is then separated by the canals of the Hotan River.
Beyond the medieval blacksmiths pounding on their anvils, asphalt soon turns to dust. Livestock both alive and freshly slaughtered trample the dirt or turn it into crimson mud, and baying horses, camels, mules and bulls excrete freely onto the ground while being industriously inspected by interested human parties.
To a pulsating background score of 200-BPM Arabic tabla drums and the two-stringed dutar, the bizarre bazaar dramatically segues into heaps of faux jewelry, henna hair dye and cheap cosmetics ravaged through by young, olive-skinned women wearing heavy black eyeliner whom prefer neck and arm-revealing (gasp!) western fashion to their more conservatively concealed counterparts. Meanwhile the local men get a shave and their head scalped by an outdoor barber or go browsing for a new knife or an embroidered dopi cap.
The blazing desert climate begins to cool at sunset, which in the summer months is about 11pm, and the mad market in Hetian winds down. Beggars seek those last few alms, exhausted vendors relax with a few chapters of the Qur’an, and the rest of us return home to look through our treasures.
Travel photographer Tom Carter spent 2 years backpacking 56,000 kilometers across all 33 provinces in China to create "CHINA: Portrait of a People" the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China ever published by a single author.