The cacophony sounds like a school orchestra nervously tuning up for their first concert. The base-note braying of the camels, the percussionist huffing of the yaks, and the squealing strings of the horses. Their impatient hooves send up dust that settles on my camera lens and the hats of swarthy men with faces as varied as their animals: Kazakhs, Uyghurs, Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks, all come to barter and buy livestock at Kashgar’s Sunday Animal Market — still going strong after two millennia.
I lean back against the bars of a scooter, narrowly missing the backsplash of a cow relieving himself, and watch. Young men with powdery moustaches cajole hulking bulls onto the back of trailers, wrestle shaggy sheep off two-tier trucks and lasso their heads together so they’re lined-up as neatly as interlaced fingers. Brokers, acting as go-betweens for sellers and buyers, animatedly call out offers and counter offers, while potential customers slap the rumps of the beasts to gauge their worth. Others stand around sipping plum tea, or slurping juice from thick wedges of watermelon, while open kitchens roast shish kebab just metres from sheep resigned to their fate. “It’s more than a market,” says our guide, Ablajan, “it’s a club for local people to exchange ideas.”
Indeed, it’s always been this way. China’s westernmost city, Kashgar — pronounced kesh-ger — is where the Silk Road trails rejoin after splitting at Dunhuang and head west towards Samarkand. It sits at the centre of the Silk Road and a convergence of empires — borders with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and India are all close by. Over the years, it’s been under Chinese, Mongol, Tibetan and Turkic control and was a ‘listening post’ during the Great Game, played out between the Russian and British Empires. It’s always been decidedly un-Chinese. So much so it stood in for Afghanistan as a filming location for The Kite Runner.
But the city is changing fast. Much of the Old Town and its mud-wall ramparts have been destroyed by a far-away government nervous of its backward appearance; the remaining 100-year-old homes are hemmed in by main roads, blurred by a whizz of candy-coloured scooters, and a giant Ferris wheel. The destruction of their history angers the Uyghurs and clashes between the Chinese government and Uyghur separatists — who fight for independence as East Turkestan — are ongoing. When the writer Colin Thubron visited a decade ago, a young Uyghur man told him: “Uyghurs don’t have a nation as the Uzbeks do. We’re just a persecuted minority.” From my hotel room, I can see the soldiers stamping along the concrete slabs of People’s Square. Visibly demonstrating their might in a bid to strengthen their weak grip over this region.
It’s time to leave this vast and complicated country. Central Asia and the steppes of Kyrgyzstan beckon from over the hills…