Kashgar's claim to fame is its spot on the Silk Road. Some of the first settlers built their clay homes along this major caravan route more than 2000 years ago. It is, and has been a major trading post connecting the Western world with Central Asia and the Far East even if carpets are now sold off the back of trucks rather than camels. Silk, woven goods, exotic fruits, jade, and probably a little opium turned Kasghar into one of the more powerful Turkic kingdoms up through the 17th.century and later transformed this desert oasis town into one of Asia's major commercial powerhouses.
These days, textiles, jade, camels and cows still get bought and sold all over Xinjiang's bustling bazaars, though it's the province's abundant natural gas, oil, and coal deposits that make it truly rich in the eyes of foreign investors and the Chinese government. For locals, however, it's still about the basic consumer items. I went to one of Kashgar's most important historical marketplaces, the Sunday Bazaar and Animal Market- today to see the bedrock of the local economy in action.
Farmers have been selling their livestock at the "Animal Market" for a long time. The trading post, which is literally a patch of open dirt inside a huge walled compound, is a principle mainstay of Kashgar's commercial economy and enables the Silk Road spirit of negotiation, bartering and entrepreneurship to live on.
I arrived a little after 730am to find dozens of trucks filled with goats and cows roaring into the compound. An hour later, horses and donkeys arrived and eventually filled up three-quarters of this tightly-controlled sales arena. In order not to miss a great bargain, men quickly unhitched the doors of their rear cabs, grabbed a set of ropes, yanked out 100-pound sheep and 600 pound bulls, and tied them up to haggle over for the next severl hours. It did not look like a pleasant experience for one heifer who slipped on her own feces while jumping off the 3.5 foot truck bed.
Every few seconds, the screams of donkeys and whinnies of horses smothered the sound of intense negotiation between men. After inspecting the whithers, teeth, and hind legs of the animal, potential buyers usually haggled with owners from anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes. A series of gestures, then firm handshakes took place once a deal was made. Sometimes when a price didn't sound good enough, an intermediary got involved and physically grasped the seller's hand and placed it in the buyer's. All things are possible through negotiation.
In an eerie sign of what may come, three massive Chinese military helicopters flew overhead landed at the nearby airport. Dozens of livestock owners gazed toward the sky and wrinkled their brows in the midday heat. What does that mean for my family, their expressions seemed to say. While business and a dose of Chinese chrony capitalism may go on as usual, a new round of the government's Strike Hard policy looks like it may go into affect now that the Olympic Games have ended, and noone is watching Xinjiang.