After a four-hour drive, we reach ancient Kashgar, the fabled Muslim oasis on the Silk Road once traveled by countless medieval traders between Europe and China. We are stuck in traffic, in a sea of motorcycles, horses, donkey carts, buses, trucks and exhaust-belching tuk-tuks. It is Sunday, market day, and the bazaar streets bustle and heave with tens of thousands of people. Shouts of “boish-boish!”, Uighur for “watch out!”, fill the air.

There are faces from of all Central Asian ethnic groups in Kashgar: Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks and even some Turkmens. The Uighurs have very similar, slightly Mongolian features. Many men have long, yet thin, beards and wear doppa skullcaps. The elderly are mostly dressed in traditional boots and hitay, long black coats, with some carrying precious daggers in their belts. The women’s outfits vary widely, from orthodox to secular. Some wear long skirts and a hijab, while others prefer nylon trousers and have their hair falling freely onto their shoulders. A large number of women, young as well as old, are covered from head to toe in a strict adherence to the Islamic code that I have only ever seen in Afghanistan. In lieu of the colorful silken burqa robes used there, an ugly brown knitted cloth is draped over the head and shoulders of Kashgar women. The cloth does not even have slits for the eyes like the burqas, although the rough-meshed fabric allows for some visibility.

Occasionally, a Han Chinese appears in the crowd, including a few as policewomen on motorcycles. Most people are farmers from the neighboring villages who have come to town to sell produce and meat. Giant heaps of melons lie piled up by the side of the road, which the vendors cut into juicy slices and hand to passers-by. Traders offer hand-woven carpets, rugs, boots and hats, metal pottery and tools. At the food stalls, one can choose between naan, the bagel-like bread of the region, laghman egg pasta, and the ubiquitous plov of rice and mutton. A local specialty is singed and cooked sheep’s heads. Uighurs gnaw with pleasure at what little meat there is on the bones, with only the broken eyes in the sockets left behind.

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