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Wheeling and dealing on China’s Silk Road

The knife is sharp. He had proved it by seizing my right arm, turning it veins up and dragging the blade across my skin. At the sight of a three centimetre-square bald patch in my arm hair, I agree to only ten yuan (66p) less than his initial asking price.

Bargaining at the Sunday market in Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, was never going to be easy given the town’s long-standing trade experience. A major hub on the old Silk Road a thousand years ago, the oasis was an important bartering point between the Taklamakan Desert to the east and the Pamir and Karakoram mountain ranges to the west. Modern transport links may have nullified its role in European-Orient relations but it remains an important weekly meeting place for thousands of traders from around Central Asia. Silk rugs and saffron are still brought from Iran and Pakistani salesmen brood in the Pakistan Café on Saturday nights like boxers in their pre-fight dressing rooms.

The animal market is now located on the outskirts of the town after an unpopular decision by the local authorities to separate it from the main bazaar. Impromptu farms springing up around the city streets every Sunday did not concur with China’s efforts to modernise. The trade area is a large rectangle of dusty earth bordered by a brick wall and metal poles form shopping aisles. The tourist’s role as observer has never been so accentuated; you are not a customer unless you are planning to slaughter your own dinner.

The sale of livestock is a man’s business. The few women that are present sit in the shade of their carts and wait for decisions. A huddle of six men, in prayer hats and flat caps, discuss the hind quarters of a small herd of cows. A teenager is excluded from the circle and strains to hear valuable tips for his future career. The cows guzzle greens as if it is their last supper.

Away from the scuffles between buyers and the bought, is the test-drive track. Donkeys are ridden up and down a stony strip as drivers trial their responses to a metre-long cane. Looking on from a concrete ledge, you feel every one of the 4,000 kilometres away from Beijing. The distinctive faces all belong to the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, of which there are eight million living in the province of Xinjiang. A Han Chinese tourist looks more out of place than an unshaven westerner.

At the main market area, the Yekshenba Bazaar, red pomegranates wait to be squeezed over glass tumblers. A steel roof covers stalls of rugs, children’s suits and cassette ghetto blasters. The structure was recently built to introduce some order to proceedings, a move never appreciated by travellers. The surrounding clogged streets are much more interesting. Here a man in white gloves holds a car boot, roof and bonnet sale of unidentifiable dried objects in the name of traditional medicine. He lures customers by whispering miraculous tales into a microphone as the snake around his neck uses his shirt to hide its head from the crowd.

Kashgar is sliced in two by Renmin Lu, the main road that runs from east to west. To the south lie the wide streets and grey oblongs of China’s “Develop the West” campaign, under the raised arm of one of the largest statues of Mao Zedong in the country. Behind his back, a jumble of narrow stone streets forms the Uighur old town. The Han Chinese and Uighurs co-exist but social interaction across the dividing line is rare. “We get along fine – separately,” quips a carpet merchant, who introduces himself as ‘Elvis from the Lonely Planet’.

Mao Zedong encouraged the Chinese people to make their own Journeys to the West in the 1950s and 60s. The ongoing mass migration has caused widespread dissension, some silent, some violent, among the local population who can’t compete with native Mandarin speakers in the expanding workplace. Integration is also impeded by a time barrier. Government employees begin their working day in darkness while the Uighurs stay under the sheets. They stick to their unofficial time – two hours behind.

The Chinese government is championing technology and innovation to drive the country’s economy further forward but the lanes leading off from the main square and the Id Kah Mosque remain in an antiquated bubble. Renovations on adobe walls are carried out on wooden scaffolding and the local blacksmith pounds iron, dressed in a flat cap and suit jacket. The bakeries conduct the bulk of their business late at night to provide nan bread, the staple Uighur breakfast. A single light bulb reveals a wooden frame, its peeling blue paint blackened by smoke. The picture is of a squatting teenager, sweat trickling from under a white prayer cap, removing flat bread after flat bread from the earthen oven with long metal tongs.

The Karakoram Highway runs south west from Kashgar to the Pakistan border, shaving Tajikistan and coming within loudspeaker distance of Afghanistan. The region may only share a 76km-long border with Afghanistan but it did not take much to decimate tourism in Muslim-dominated areas after September 11, 2001. The Chinese government used the anti-terror climate to accentuate the perceived threat of Uighur separatist groups and the number of visitors plummeted. But this year, media reports that Osama Bin Laden was hiding on the Chinese border have excited rather than perturbed the curious – 700,000 tourists visited Xinjiang between January and October, according to government figures. This has increased the travel opportunities along the Karakorum Highway and a three-day trip is only 400 yuan (£27) each.

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