KASHGAR: Xinjiang is China’s largest province and it has been earmarked as a key connection between east and west in China’s grand “One belt, One road” plan to link trade across Asia, Africa and Europe.
Besides a vision to make over the economy, the region is also home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. What perhaps tops the list is the city of Kashgar, in the west. China’s Belt and Road vision has in some ways revived the city’s former status as an old trading outpost along the ancient Silk Road.
Despite the influx of Chinese migrants and the government’s economic push, time seems to have stood still for most of the Uighur residents here, most of whom can be seen going about in their daily lives dressed in clothes reminiscent of the old Silk Road.
To kick off your experience, visit a local livestock market – just ask the locals where to go. Essentially, this is where farmers herd dozens of sheep, camels and goats to an open field for sale. The scale of the market is massive - the size of at least two football fields.
One thing to note: Be respectful of the locals. While you’ll be tempted to go trigger-happy with your smartphones or cameras, it’s widely frowned upon. Also, women were traditionally not allowed into the market so make sure that your presence is welcome before making your way in. But once you’re there, the experience is rewarding because you get to see up close and personal how a trade is made.
First a group of men will huddle, as if sharing a secret. Then two men shake hands, not to close a deal, but move their fingers within their handshake to negotiate a price. This special way of communication is said to keep the deal private and prevents other farmers or traders from undercutting each other.
Not far away from the livestock market are food stalls. The fresh mutton barbecued on a stick is a must-try, but if you prefer something without meat, go for the liangmian or liangpi, which are thick rice noodles that are roughly cut, tossed with shredded cucumber and peanuts in a simple ,savoury spicy and sour sauce.
At the local bazaar, old Uighur craftsmen wearing doppa, a traditional cap on their heads, still make knives the hard way, peddling on bicycle-type machines to power their sharpeners. Donkey carts carrying goods and humans, big and small, rule the alleyways here, even though motorcycles appear to be taking over as wealth grows and logistics improve.
What is especially interesting at the local market is the sheer variety of food available, especially raisins. Kashgar is reputed to have the sweetest watermelons, pomegranates and honey melon too. The fruits here produce more fructose because of the climate and long hours of sunlight. Other highlights include mutton baozi, or buns. And at some restaurants, the entire lamb carcass is hung right at the entrance, indicating just how fresh the meat is in their dishes.
Road trips in this region will take you through miles and miles of desert, snow-capped mountains, narrow tunnels and hairpin turns - but it’s all worth it. And that’s why it begs a visit from any intrepid traveller.