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 womens 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 sheeps 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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