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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

At the Bazaar

Most of the talk about bazaars in China is reserved for Kashgar, home to the largest one in the country. On Sundays, it is said that thousands of loaded donkey carts come rolling in with goods to sell. There are also cattle for sale, and horses and donkeys. Tour groups arrange their itineraries around this day, as do many travelers. Those who feel like Kashgar's bazaar is too touristy were much happier with Hotan's (Hetian, using pinyin) bazar, which is almost as large. So my Let's Go book says, and so other travelers have said, no doubt influenced by a similar blurb in Lonely Planet. Given my choice between the two, I came to Hotan as I wanted to see the city, the first major city along the southern route of the silk road.

As mentioned in the last post, the travel book girl and I went through Yarkand and Sache on the way down here. A few things of note on that journey before getting on to the bazar. Yarkand (Shache) is known for its knives, and as we walked through the old town on Saturday morning, the sound of hammers beating sheets of metal into submission was flying from every direction. Three-wheeled motor bikes with blanket-covered planks of wood on the back served as taxis on the bumpy unpaved roads and there was just a general sense of liveliness about the place. Then, in Yecheng [or this, if you like history--ed.] we saw a little girl take a crap right next to a bus, right in the middle of the parking lot. The area outside the bus station was full of bread and fruit vendors, but the amount of flies humming around piles of garbage and fruit rinds littered about next to the stalls, and by a small stream down which two boys were tubing, was enough to dampen the appetite.

We arrived in Hotan at about 9 Beijing time, or 7 local time. I had heard that Hotan is a late night city, and indeed it is. At 9 local time, the streets were full of people strolling or eating. Even at 11 local time when we returned to the hotel there were a lot of people out and about.

Sunday came. After breakfast I walked to the bus station with a French Canadian from Montreal. She came into China from Pakistan, and before that Turkey. She has traveled quite a bit in the Middle East (Iran as well) and has had a book published in French (a travel book). We went to find out about buses to Urumqi (and I now realized how many different ways I have spelled that city - I apologize for that). [Accepted. Anyway, it's clear that people have lots of different ideas about how to Romanize those place names.--ed.] Then we walked in the general direction of the market. On the way we saw a small dirt road that led back to the older style mud-brick buildings so we went that way. Soon thereafter I saw an older woman and asked to take her picture. She was very happy and so we were invited into the house. Then we talked with the woman's granddaughter who could speak just a little English and a little Chinese (she is 17). We told the girl we were not hungry after she brought tea, and then we chatted with her neighbor, a recent college graduate who can speak Chinese well. We learned quite a few things from her. Five years ago Hotan was much smaller, and there were fewer Han Chinese here. The travel book girl had commented on how surprised she was by how developed the city is, how big it is. The girl in the house told us that she likes it better now, bigger. In lines with this, it is interesting how the tile buildings that can be found in every Chinese city line the streets, but behind them can often be seen the old neighborhoods, and one might think of it as the older neighborhoods, the Uigher neighborhoods being hidden behind a more Han, a more modern face.

Then the conversation shifted to talk of the number of Han here. I should say I have seen much fewer here than in, say Kashgar. She said she like the people who came out here several years ago much more, as they made more of an effort to understand local habits and customs, and to appreciate the people. The newer migrants, she said, have not. And in line with this, a couple of small moments on the bus might shed a bit of additional light on things. I was sitting next to a Han Chinese girl on the way to Hotan, and when the bus driver kept stopping, she (along with myself and the travel book girl) were the only ones to shout at the driver and complain a bit. The she muttered something that could be translated as "That's how they drive out here. Stop. Stop. Ai yo." It was the "they" that got me...it could be interpreted as referring to bus drivers, but I suspect she was dropping a racial overtone. Then, the old man who blew smoke in my face and made me rather unhappy asked with his fingers if the travel book girl and I were together, married. I said no. Then the travel book girl indicated with her fingers to ask if the old man and the Han girl were together. He looked at the girl and pulled an awful face and shook his head with a resounding no. Little peeks at how people think, I guess.

We wanted to leave the house after a while, but the grandma had already begun making lunch. The neighbor girl indicated that we could not leave or the woman would be very mad. So we were left to sit and wait for lunch. This was a good thing, as it was the best laghmian I have had yet, and as it is likely the last plate I will have in Xinjiang, a good way to end things.

After lunch we went to the bazaar. We entered through a narrow dirt alley where men were selling cats and birds. The street was full of men in dirty blue suits that might have been made in the 60's (I really wish I could explain the styles you see here, they are great) and hats. There were also many boys, some in dirty t-shirts, others in suits as well. Through this alley we came onto the main market. From an intersection of two large streets, all that could be seen in any of the four directions were people and colorful umbrellas (serving as stands to cool off sales people). Buses honked horns repeatedly as they made their way through the masses. Motorbikes roared by. Donkey carts came plodding through, the small thwack of a whip on skin heard close up. I headed out on my own.

First I walked past several fruit and vegetable stands. Then there were bookbags and school clothes, and a girl who was trying to sell me a child's shirt. I indicated that it wouldn't fit me so well. She thought maybe I had a child. I said no. Then she pointed to the women's shoes inside and I told her that I am not so keen on sporting high heels. She laughed and then went back to trying to sell me the shirt.

From there I passed some stores and booths selling carpets. I checked those out for awhile. Then I went off the main road and onto a long dirt road. Off of this dirt road were several smaller, narrower dirt roads. One of these was a wood yard, with huge beams of wood and smaller planks for sale. On the next road were long, rusted metal beams and poles. Also pipes of metal that must have been twenty feet long. I saw large rusted circular saw blades and many other types of scrap metal. It was a covered room where the metal was, and not as many shoppers. There was a donkey whose right eye was in a beam of light coming in through the thatch roof, and I got up close to take a picture. Then its driver started threatening me with a whip. After I walked away a bit I looked back and he waved and smiled and I realized it was all a joke. I waved back and everyone around had a good laugh.

In the next dirt alley, they were selling bags of wool. I don't really understand how anyone can make money doing this, when they are all grouped together and everyone is selling the exact same product, but I guess it is a system that has been in place for hundreds of years, so there you go. On the other side of this alley, they were selling dyes. One man's face, teeth, chest, and shirt were almost all red from doing things with the dye. I interrupted his sale for a picture.

The next alley was the scariest. On approaching the entrance, all that was visible were the skull caps of thousands of men. I could not even see the animals. It was only after I had gone in and had to move out of the way for a just sold cow that I realized this was the livestock market. Another passing car hit my elbow with its horn and bruised me. Bastard. A man over to the right was pulling on the lips of a donkey to check out its teeth. A man was whipping and smacking a car, getting it to move where he wanted it to. Cows coming and going. Men standing and bargaining. At the back, I saw some camels, a few small, younger camels and a few tall ones. I asked about the price. 400 USD. I thought about bargaining to see what I could get, but then decided against it. Backpacking is not conducive to lugging around a camel.

In other streets there were nuts, fruits. meat. On the meat street, the smell of decay was noticeable. On one cart there were five sheep heads laid out in a row. Always there were people. Back on the main street, the more touristy areas were selling jade and carpets. There were also several smaller tables full of sex products. My favorites had names like "Tiger" and they advertised that the pills took ten minutes to take effect and lasted 120 hours. I'm sorry, but I don't think I want to have an erection for five days. In another area, they were selling bicycles, and in yet another motorbikes. Near the motorbike areas I saw old-school dual cassete ghetto blasters for sale, and VHS tapes with Uigher writing on them.

The faces of the people were as interesting as they were informative. One young guy looked disturbingly like me. In fact, many times I thought maybe people were actually foreign guys just playing at being Uigher for a lark. The whole time I was in the market I only saw two other foreign tourists and maybe 10 Han Chinese...I think that fact says something about things as well.

I am sure I leaving plenty of details out here, but I have not had breakfast yet and I need to buy some things for my long bus journey across the beautiful and deadly Taklamakan Desert. I have to prepare myself for the possibility that I will be on buses and trains for the better part of the next 48 hours.

But before I go, two more things of note. Near my hotel there are so many "barber shops" as to be ridiculous...and with the doors open I have seen customers getting ready to leave as their "barbers" straighten up the clothes they must have just put back on. Also, a lovely woman yesterday was selling fruit on a corner. I asked about bananas and found them to be rather expensive out here. She gave me one for free anyway, and let me take a picture of her. As I walked away she flashed a wide smile, and just about made my day with that little act of kindness.

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