How Bazaar – A Guide to Kashgar’s Ancient-Modern Markets

Roman aristocrat. Sogdian trader. Chinese silk weaver. A complex web of business that linked these and others from diverse walks of life almost 2,000 years ago found its center in Kashgar. Over the centuries that followed, empires rose and fell, trading moved from the backs of camels to the seven seas, and Kashgar’s markets slipped off the mainstream map.

With colossal mountains to the west and south and a sea of desert to the north and east, it’s hard to comprehend how very isolated this place is unless you pay a personal visit. Now is the time to see how Kashgarians live and thrive in this unique environment, set apart from the rest of the world.

With modern commercial practices and lifestyles spreading into the area in recent years, you may wonder how the locals are dealing with fewer Sogdians and more “made in China” product tags. Here we will try to give a brief outline of what the markets of Kashgar are like today – the modern and ancient centers of local business.
Kashgar’s famous Sunday Market of the past saw huge crowds from surrounding areas stream into the city and gather on the riverbank to buy and sell goods ranging from fresh vegetables to colorful carpets, hard-working donkeys to ornate pocket knives. The market offered a terrific portrait of an ancient Central Asian bazaar. Wonderful though it was, the local government considered the outdoor bazaar a traffic hazard and then built a massive, metal-roofed structure on the site to control the crowds.

Now known as the Yengi Bazaar, or New Market, it’s still a bustling marketplace. And although indoors, local merchants keep their old habits alive. Here you will find hats, hardware, carpets, crafts, spices, fabrics and much more. Naturally, despite the walls, the trading excitement still spills onto nearby streets every Sunday and provides travelers with a more-than-satisfying, lively spectacle of Kashgar.

For Kashgar’s ethnic Uyghur majority, business in China comes with unique challenges. A tall, 25-year-old merchant we’ll call Ali offers a typical glimpse at how Kashgar’s New Market businessmen operate in modern China. He has little formal education. His tradition-oriented family arranged a marriage for him when he was in his mid-teens. Since it’s nearly impossible to get a decent job without a university education in modern China, Ali traveled to coastal China in search of business opportunities. He visited Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen, then toured smaller cities with industry-specific factories. He learned Mandarin, established business contacts, took a course at a business training center, and returned to Kashgar.

Ali’s relatives have been relying on him as the family’s sole Chinese speaker ever since he returned five years ago. Of course, his older brothers are excellent salesmen and have no trouble convincing fellow Kashgarians to buy the suit jackets they offer. But Ali is the only family member who calls factory suppliers. He orders the clothes shipped more than 4,000 kilometers from factory in eastern China to the family shop at the bazaar. Their specialty is a Turkish brand of men’s formal wear. Although Ali would like to work independently, and has tried to break away from the family business, he has found nothing pays as well as this market arrangement.

Almost all of Kashgar’s goods are made in China. Turkish goods have a certain appeal, since Uyghurs consider Turks their European cousins. But apart from cookies and a few other edibles, nothing can compete with affordable, mass-produced products sent wholesale from the factories of eastern China.

So what can be bought in Kashgar that is truly called Kashgarian? Many tourists struggle to find something of value. It’s important to note that just a few years ago, Kashgar did not have a single, paved road. It was still an isolated city, distant from international trade. So locals had little need for anything the rest of the world. Nor did they buy in quantity. Blacksmiths made horseshoes, plows and door hinges for local consumption. Carpenters produced rolling pins, stair railings and baby cradles. Most homes were full of carpets. Fur hats were worn in winter. Every respectable man carried a knife. These are the sorts of goods people still use for everyday life in Kashgar.
Plenty of traditional goods are still to be found in the bazaars. More than that, a walk through the old town section is a journey through a world of traditional trade, shops and workmanship. All along dusty lanes are blacksmiths, carpenters and other craftsmen following in the footsteps of their grandfathers.

Another remarkable spectacle in Kashgar similarly takes travelers back to olden times: the city’s amazing livestock market. A few years ago, tethered donkeys and braying camels gathered right among hat and spice traders at the Sunday Bazaar. Hardly sanitary, it was impossible for this modernizing city to keep a sea of domesticated beasts in the center of town. It’s now on the city limits. But there, as always, bargaining for the best-priced camel continues, and visitors can still find the traditional Kashgarian trader in all his glory. With him are bulls, donkeys, sheep and yaks waiting for new homes. And even more fascinating than the animals are the people who cling to traditional ways, despite the hustle and bustle of a modernizing city.

Tourists who visit Kashgar from coastal China don’t buy many handicrafts – they are looking for a more deluxe kind of souvenir. Nearby Hotan is the origin of China’s most precious white jade (called mutton fat jade). Foremost in the mind of many Chinese who come to Xinjiang is purchasing a pendant or bracelet made of Hotan Jade. Kashgar also hosts kiosks for selling gems from nearby Pakistan and Afghanistan. A town near Kashgar is known for selling semiprecious stones such as smokey quartz mined in the surrounding desert. Amber from Iran and Europe seeps into China via Kashgar. These treasures add a unique sparkle to Kashgar’s otherwise austere market scene.

A supermarket near Kashgar’s city center seems to be losing money. Sales are slow. Could it be that Kashgar is just not ready for a modern market, and that even with the planned addition for the already massive Yengi Bazaar, the ancient ways of doing business will live on?

The “made in China” label is nothing new, since the silk trade that made Kashgar prosperous two millenniums ago was also based on goods trekked across deserts and over mountains from the far east. So will the city soon give way to modern commercialism and lose its charm as an ancient relic? Hopefully not. But change is apparent. So it may be wise to plan your own bazaar adventure soon and personally experience Central Asia’s modern-ancient trading center.

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