The Most Mesmerizing Bazaar in China Is Overflowing with Camel Milk and Sheep Stew
With its abundance of yak yogurts, laghman noodles, and bleating sheep—and a general lack of Han Chinese—Kashgar doesn’t feel like a city in China.
A flatbread seller in Kashgar. Photo by Caroline Gutman.
Kashgar doesn't feel Chinese.
Mud-brick homes adorned with floral brass door-knockers, brilliant turquoise tiles, and patterned arches make it seem more like a Turkic city than a Chinese one. On the streets, vendors sell skewers of roasted pigeon and piles of girda nan, a type of bread that looks deceptively like a bagel but is as hard as a rock. Homemade cheese and yak yogurts are in abundance.
Tucked away in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, Kashgar is physically closer to Islamabad than it is to Beijing. The population is mostly Uyghur—a Turkic Muslim ethnic group with strikingly Eurasian features. Han Chinese people are a minority in town and, for the first time during my travels in China, I have a hard time getting around. Chinese isn't widely spoken in the city.
Kashgar doesn't feel Chinese, but that's part of its appeal.
For thousands of years, the city was a rest stop for traders coming from the desolate Taklamakan Desert (nicknamed the Sea of Death) right before they headed off into the snowy Pamir mountain range and, eventually, into the Middle East.
"Three main routes of the Silk Road joined in Kashgar," Alitash, owner of a local tour company Uighur Tours, says. "This was a place where caravans could rest." Alitash notes that a highway wasn't built until the 1950s.
"Before that, people traveled by camels and donkeys," he says.
Despite the introduction of motorized vehicles, Kashgar still seems like it comes from bygone days. An occasional donkey can still be seen speeding down the street outside of the city boundaries.
Kashgar's convenient location on the Silk Road made possible the development of the Sunday Market, one of the largest bazaars in China. The market is technically held every day, but attendance numbers are especially high on Sundays when it swells up to over 100,000.
I ask Alitash if the Sunday Market is the largest bazaar in Central Asia.
He shrugs. "I don't know about now, but at one point, it used to be," he says. In 2009, the Chinese government came in and demolished a good chunk of Kashgar in the name of progress. It ended up segmenting up the bazaar and diluting a lot of the original sights.
"There's a pigeon market, a pottery market, a carpet market, a wood market, an animal market. Everything," Alitash says. These individual markets make up the Sunday Market. Originally, they were all concentrated in one place but because of governmental regulations, certain operations like the animal market were moved out into the suburbs.
The animal market is held every Thursday and Sunday, though Sunday is when most of livestock congregates. Farmers and businessmen from as far as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan come in with their cows, sheep, donkeys, camels, and horses. Cows and sheep are sold for meat. Sheep are slaughtered and brewed up fresh in a stew. Most of the fat is used to make pilaf.
Camels are mainly used for transport, but they are sometimes milked or killed for meat.
"Camel milk is good for tuberculosis," Alitash says. "Camel meat is the cheapest type of meat. Pregnant women won't eat camel meat because it's said to elongate their pregnancy by months."
I raise my eyebrows in suspicion but before I can protest, he adds: "Of course, those are just local sayings."
Donkeys are almost solely bought for transportation, though Alitash notes that the Han Chinese will occasionally buy them for food.
"We think eating donkey meat is disgusting," Alitash says. "Only Chinese people eat donkey meat."
Unsure of where my allegiances lie, he adds quickly, "No offense."
"None taken. I'm American," I say, downplaying my Han Chinese roots.
The livestock market is an important fixture in the lives of the locals.
"I'd say 90 percent of people in Kashgar are farmers," Alitash says. "Most of the farming families don't sell their crops. At best, they only sell cotton and grow wheat or corn for their own consumption. Most of them make their money from raising animals and selling them."
According to Abdulwahid, a livestock farmer, a single male cow can sell up to the equivalent of $2,200 USD. A sheep averages $900 USD.
"It's simple," he says. "When we need some money, we sell our animals at the market."
At the main bazaar, in the center of the city, there's an endless labyrinth of spices, dried fruit, clothes, miscellaneous gadgets, teas, and food. Most of the tea is pressed brick tea. The food is an array of mainly noodles. Cold bean noodles and hand-pulled laghman—noodles with lamb, potato, tomato, onion, and peppers—are the predominate choices.
It's a mesmerizing, albeit overwhelming, concentration of stalls and options. There are so many people that it's often hard to move.
"We have a local saying here in Kashgar," Alitash says. "'At the Sunday Market, you can find everything except for chicken milk.'"