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Wild West

In China's far West, the local Muslim community tries to stay cool from harsh desert rays in mid-summer.

sunny 36 °C

What's best to do on a mid-summer day on the edge of a desert so named in the local tongue, "Go in but don't come out"?

The town of Kashgar -- the last outpost on China's rail line near the bleak, waterless Taklimakan Desert -- shirks the heat with a bowl of shaved ice mixed with yoghurt.

Swirling their bowls to a heavy ethno-pop beat, women and men face the ice shaver in theater-style seating as if their happiness depends on his continued performance.


But the hot, dry air does not deter Kashgarians from living out the creed of Islam. Women wrap their heads in scarves, some draping heavy brown knit cloth over their faces. Men top their heads with kofis or even winter fur hats.

We've arrived in far Western China, a Muslim-dominated area bordering Central Asia's 'Stans. The Chinese make a reasonable attempt at weilding a presence here, insisting, for example, that the area give up its local time zone and follow the two-hour later Beijing time. But locals mostly work to their own time and tune, connected to their Western neighbors in nearly every way but statehood.

"You go in but you don't come out" is the local meaning of the Taklimakan Desert, in China's far West.

A seperatist movement in the area has been largely quashed as China, in post 9/11 fashion, seeks to designate the group as "terrorists."

Though China has put out a call for its eastern citizens to populate the West, those who do walk the streets of Kashgar are of the visor and camera-toting sort and stand out as foreigners as much as we do.

Faces here morph from Chinese to Turkic, Mongol and even Slavic, while the signs have three predominant scripts, none of which we can properly read: Chinese, Arabic, and Cyrillic.

"We're in trouble now," said Jacob as we arrived into Urumqi, the region's capitol last weekend.

The Uigher, the main Muslim ethnic group populating the area, have a love for the grill. Our two-thirds vegetable diet, easy to maintain in eastern China, was instantly displaced by lamb galore. We've had it on skewers, in pilaf, and wrapped in bread pockets called samsa's.

Children cool off in a fountain on Kashgar's main square.

We were surprised to see piles of bagels sold on the street. If only we had some of that Tibetan sour yak cheese ...

The main reason for landing in Kashgar was to visit the Sunday market, where half of Central Asia, it seems, descends to shop. As one of the major Silk Road stops, Kashgar is used to the attention, designating a whole stretch of the city to weekend market vending.

A donkey parking lot in back of the vendors at the busy Kashgar market.

Walking there early Sunday, we crossed a bridge where chopped donkey was being sold straight from the sidewalk with the head, hair-intact, as a piece on its own. But most of what was visible, at least to us, was pretty quotidian: vegetables and melons, cooking ware, lots of clothing and fabric, and street food.

Grilled sheep heads are a Kashgar market specialty.

Of course, people watching and not shopping was our main sport (though Tony and Jacob outfit themselves as men with new knives).

Gaggles of women, hip-heavy and toting children, wandered around in sparkly bright dresses, particularly attracted to the fabric section where the patterns were decidedly 20-years old or more. Some of them colored in the space bewteen their eyebrows, creating a unibrow effect.

The men, about half the poundage of their wives, looked rather 19th Century in ill-fitted suits and fedora hats.

Men gather around a melon seller. Melons were, perhaps, the most sold item at the Kashgar market.

A boy stands guard over his chicks at the Kashgar market.

By its sheer size and activity, the Kashgar market was worth the trip. This evening we're off to Yining, a small town on the Kazakhstan border, where we plan to sleep like the nomads we are, but in yurts. Then, onto Kazakhstan.

Posted by ahawkes 20:15 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

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Sounds like it was worth the stop. Any pictures of the market in its entirety?

by clemondo

i have fond memories of samsas and other lamb and goat dishes in kyrgyzstan. at some point, though, the sheer volume of animal fat can start to tax the digestive system, even if cut with regular gulps of vodka. i now have my samara ticket in hand -- i look forward to being your cyrillic tranliterator (and amateur russian translator).

by jirosan

Outstanding post - you write very well. Thanks!

by BryanG

To Clemondo: I found it difficult to take any grand-scale pictures of the Kashgar market for the very reason of its size. The market sprawls across many streets in one section of town, and also into a covered area.
To Jirosan: It was interesting the other day when we had Chinese food again ... kind of felt like we were coming home to something warm and familiar. It's been hard to cut all the fat with alcohol in strict Muslim areas, though I suspect that won't be an issue much longer into Kazakhstan. Already we've been getting some pretty tasty kawas with strong honey overtones.

by ahawkes

when you're in kazakhstan, definitely try the fermented mare's milk (in kyrgyz it's called "khummus" -- like "hummus" -- probably the same in kazakh), and if you have the chance, also try fresh mare's milk.

by jirosan

more common transliterations are "kumis" or "kumys". apparently the spelling in kazakhstan is қымыз (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumis). you can get it at roadside stands. ideally you'll get it spooned straight out of the aged sheep's stomach in which it was brewed. normal street-food hygiene caution should be applied.

by jirosan

my browser is failing to display the first character in the kazakh spelling -- if yours is too, it's a K with a tail, pronounced as a hard K (or Q).

by jirosan

ur photographs are very natural, i like it

by tttttttt

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