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Street Foods of Kashgar

Kashgar. It’s a city that will never cease to be intriguing, beautiful, and complicated, sitting close to China’s far west border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. I visited the city again at the end of last year and despite recent upheavals the city remains safe for travellers. Even solo female travellers like myself. Importantly, the rich  human landscape of Kashgar survives unchanged – welcoming, friendly, and above all hospitable.
And the food? The food is as glorious as ever. Smoky lamb kebabs, great flat rounds of crisp nan bread, mounds of buttery rice polo, and browned pockets of samsas – Kashgar remains one of the best cities in China, if not the world, for street food.

Although English and Chinese are of limited use in Kashgar, within a day or so, I had learned the only two phrases a food-loving traveller needs:

rahkmet  – thank you
tamak bake orshepto – that meal was delicious
These two used in combination with a lot of charades and pointing brought delighted smiles to these street food vendors.
Should you make it to Kashgar in the next little while (and as an ancient Silk road city it’s on many travellers’ lifelong lists) here’s a guide for eating street foods in Kashgar. Some I’ve written of before, many are new after my most recent visit, all delicious.

For up-to-date travel information on the region from a local expert I suggest reading Josh Summers’ excellent blog Far West China.

Continue reading “Street Foods of Kashgar”

Ten Must Try Uyghur Foods 十大不容错过的维吾尔食物

Here are ten mouth-watering foods from our travels through Xinjiang, all of them Uyghur foods. There are five savory and five sweet ones for your enjoyment!

1. Laghman 拉面

Hand-pulled noodles, Uyghur style, are rustic and delicious. The noodles are stretched, stretched, then stretched some more (you may be able to just see the young boy behind the old man, just starting out with a batch), boiled quickly then turned out onto a big enamel platter to cool a little before being portioned out by hand.
Laghman are usually topped with a rich rustic vegetable ragout simmered in the pot from peppers, eggplant, onion, garlic and tomato, with or without a few pieces of lamb. If there are extra vegetables in season (celery, spinach, beans) these often make their way in too. It’s a filling and very satisfying dish.
Want to make your own? Instructions here from my last visit to Kashgar.

2. Kawap 烤羊肉串

The smell of charcoal, spice and grilling meat is a vivid memory for travelers to Xinjiang, with outdoor barbecues smoking up a storm on every street. Lamb kawap (known to us as kebabs and to the Chinese as yang rou chuanr) are the quintessential street food of Xinjiang – succulent pieces of fatty lamb threaded onto long metal skewers, with a nice juicy chunk of lamb fat in the centre to keep the meat tender. Sometimes there’s a piece of lamb’s liver in there for variety, if you like.
The kawap are grilled to order over a long, narrow waist-high charcoal brazier, sprinkled as they cook with that magical mixture of spices that gives incredible flavour – usually cumin, white pepper, chili and salt – and when ready are served with nan bread. Grilled meat, soft bread – a perfect taste combination.
木炭,香料和烤肉的味道是来新疆旅游的人们最鲜活的记忆,街上到处洋溢着烤肉的烟味。羊肉串(对我们来说就是烤肉串,对中国人来说就是羊肉串)就是新疆街边小吃的 代表——鲜嫩多汁的肥羊肉块被穿在长长的金属棒上,在肉串的中间有一块多汁的羊肉脂肪。如果你喜欢,有时肉串上还会有一块羊肝。肉串被放在一个狭长的齐腰高的木炭架子上烧烤,辅以香料的混合物,散发着令人难以置信的香味——孜然,白辣椒,红辣椒和盐——肉串烤好后再配上馕一起吃。烤肉,松软的面包——一个完美地味道组合。

3. Carrot salad 胡萝卜色拉

If you order kawap in a restaurant rather than on the street, the other great accompaniment to them is this cold, spiced salad. It cuts through the fat in meat dishes perfectly. Western Xinjiang has both orange and bright yellow carrots, and both are shredded together with white radish and some fine rice vermicelli noodles in this salad, dressed with dark vinegar, salt and chili.  

4. Samsas 烤包子

There are constant food and linguistic reminders that Xinjiang shares much more in common with central Asia, including the name of these spiced lamb parcels wrapped in dough and cooked in the tall tonur outdoor pit oven. Known as samosa in India, sambosa in Afghanistan, sambusa in Iran, and samsa in Pakistan, they are perfect as a snack in their smaller version, while the larger ones, kumach, are a meal in themselves.
What I loved as I travelled through Xinjiang was the regional variations in shape – some like parcels, some like large balls, some like crescents, some flat and square like envelopes. All delicious.

5. Polo 手抓饭

Polo is a rich and satisfying rice pilaf, made in a large deep curved pot like a wok, with shreds of carrot that cook to a caramelised loveliness, pieces of onion that brown and crisp on the bottom, and mutton on the bone. The entire dish is all buttery rice, with the sweetness of the carrots and the saltiness of the tender, tender meat. In Xinjiang, whole restaurants are devoted to the perfection of polo, but you can also find slightly less perfect (but no less tasty) versions in markets and truckstops. 

6. Zongza 粽扎

I know what you’re thinking, those parcels being unwrapped in the picture below look mighty like zongzi – sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves – and hang on, isn’t that a Chinese dish? Well, you’d be right, up to a point.
In a marvelous Uyghur take on a Chinese classic, these zongza are made with a sticky red date in the tip. To serve, the zongza are unwrapped, pressed flat on a saucer, then covered in rich, creamy cold yoghurt curd and drizzled all over with brown sugar syrup and eaten with a tiny teaspoon. One word: divine. 

7. Matang 麻糖

Matang refers to a whole group of slightly different sweet treats made with locally grown nuts as one of the main ingredients – usually walnuts or almonds, made into a giant block of sweet, chewy nut brittle.
Some matang is very crunchy with a toffee base, and some is soft, chewy, and creamy, like nougat. You just tell the vendor how much you would like in weight, and he will slice off a hunk with a very sharp knife, chop it into bite-size pieces and weigh it on scales. 
For more details there’s a great description of the treat and how it’s made here

8. Fresh figs  新鲜无花果

It’s impossible to travel through Xinjiang during fig season (July to October) and not eat your own body weight in sweet, fresh figs – enjur. Just take a fig leaf, and choose your own from the pile to take away, usually 1 yuan each. The best and sweetest are reported to come from the town of Atash near Kashgar, and Beshkirem, but you will find fig vendors everywhere.

9. Summer Snow kar dogh 夏季刨冰

A street food miracle, this delightful summer treat is made from snow harvested in the depths of winter and kept frozen until the heat of summer arrives in underground rooms filled with blocks of ice. A pre-electric freezer. 
The vendors keep their own blocks of snow cold with blankets, and when you order a bowl of kar dogh he will scoop snow from the block and top it with freshly made yoghurt, brown sugar syrup and some rich, creamy yoghurt curd.  
I sat in the Hotan Bazaar next to a very ancient Uyghur man, both of us grinning and slurping on our bowls of kar dogh like kids tasting icecream for the first time. Fantastic.

10. Sweet Samsas 烤甜包

In a few restaurants, notably the wonderful Altun Orda restaurant in Kashgar, you can end your meal with a sweet samsa filled with a spiced mixture of sultanas and crushed nuts in crisp, flaky pastry. A perfect way to finish a round-up of sweet Uyghur treats!


Kashgar Bazaar: A Dozen Temptations 喀什集市:诱惑连连

Need a mosque alarm clock that gives you a call to prayer? You can buy this and much, much more at Kashgar’s famed bazaar, otherwise known as the Sunday Market. Door hinges, goat bells, donkey harnesses, stockings, scarves, silks, tea, jewellery, dried fruits, carpets and spices, the bazaar sells the most extraordinary variety of interesting articles and covers a vast undercover area next to the old city.


Just when you think you have the measure of the place you discover an entirely new section with a labyrinth of alleys selling nothing but wheat sacks. Or perfumes. Or copper pots.


The bazaar is in fact open every day of the week, and although they no longer sell live animals there (the Sunday animal market having moved to a new home north of the city), everything else is fair game.

Here are a dozen things I couldn’t resist:

1.Tukche 门把手

After learning to make bread here in Kashgar I realized finally what these funny little turned wood doorknobs are – tukche. A small device used for making patterns on traditional Uyghur flatbread, I now own a whole set – should I ever decide to set up a Uyghur bakery (more on that idea in the next post).

Does anyone else out there have a kitchen full of essential equipment like this, purchased on holidays with the romantic notion that when you go back home you will make (insert name of foreign food here) every single day, thereby justifying the purchase?


2. Gold 金饰

Uyghur women wear small fortunes of gold, with elaborate gold earrings being part of normal daily dress. When a woman marries, her husband-to-be will provide for a whole set of gold jewellery – earrings, necklace and bracelet, which she will choose with the help of her female relatives.

I did have my heart set on a pair of real gold earrings, each filigree curl inset with one tiny rough turquiose stone, but when I went back to the store in the bazaar it was closed. Tragedy. Instead, I bought a handful of fake gold earrings, just as much fun and way, way cheaper than 370 yuan/gram (about $60/gram), which is the going price for gold in Kashgar.

维吾尔族妇女佩戴金饰,做工精美的金耳环已经成为她们日常服装的一部分。当一个女人结婚的时候, 她的未婚夫将提供一整套的黄金首饰,耳环、项链和手镯作为聘礼,而她会在家族女眷的帮助下挑选这些东西。

我真的很中意一对在它每个饰有金银丝细工的螺旋状耳环中嵌入一个小而坚硬的绿松石的纯金耳环, ,但当我再回到集市的商店时,它已经关门了。真可惜。取而代之,我买了一把假的黄金耳环,这些同样也很有趣,而且价格远比喀什现行370/(60美元/)的黄金价格便宜得多。

3. Traditional Uyghur Silk 传统维吾尔族丝绸

Vibrant colors and woven from the softest silk, this traditionaly patterned resist-dye silk known as khan atlas (the king’s silk) is sold either as small scarves, or in 6.4 metre lengths. 

When I enquired why one might need 6.4 metres exactly (a turban?I  hadn’t seen any of those) I was shown a pattern book full of Uyghur women’s dress styles. So now you know how many metres it took to make this:


4. Glazed Earthenware 釉面陶器

Well OK, not the most practical or lightweight souvenir I’ve ever purchased, but I love my glazed green ewruk or water jug. The style is typical of Kashgar, with the earthy colours and simple designs perfect for serving hearty Uyghur food and drink. 

The shops selling earthenware goods lie between the old city and the western edge of the bazaar – just look for piles of jugs and pots on a long stretch of pavement.


5. Spices 香料

In every bazaar is a whole postcode dedicated to spices, the air thick with the smells of dried chili, cumin, saffron and cinnamon – it’s intoxicating. 

Visit any dora dermek shop selling spices and ask for a tetitku – a spice mixture. The vendor will take a little of this, a little of that, and hand you a small paper parcel inside which is a dynamite powder packed with flavour used for seasoning kebabs, roast lamb, chicken or vegetables.


6. Doppa 毡帽

Worn by Muslim men, the doppa is simple and beautiful – embroidered and decorated, there are no strict rules about who wears what kind, although older men favour the embroidered green hat of Uyghur muslims, and younger men the simpler ones shown above.

I love the simple white doppa – with designs of circles and inverted hearts woven into the fabric.


7. Tea 

Black tea is the staple drink of the Uyghur people, served at every meal and seemingly every other hour of the day too. Enter a Uyghur home and the first thing you will be offered is a shallow ceramic bowl of tea, drunk with the thumb hooked over the bowl’s rim.

The tea is also drunk flavoured with spices, rose petals, saffron and cinnamon.


8. Teapots 茶壶

You’ll need a teapot for making your tea in, and apparently, if you’re me and you have a large vehicle in which to store purchases from bazaars, you’ll need two.

Inexpensive but elegant, the brass teapots have a filter basket inside to stop you getting a mouthful of leaves, and to enable multiple steepings.



9. Brocades and Other Shiny Stuff 锦缎和其他闪亮的东西

As a lifelong sewer and hoarder of all things related to textiles and sewing, the Kashgar bazaar is a dangerous place to let me loose. These brocades are popular for furnishing fabrics, and not just a feature cushion or two either – imagine whole rooms decorated in this flamboyant brocade style, from wall coverings to quilts to the long, oblong cushions used for sitting on the floor. Every Uyghur house is a riot of colour, pattern and shine.

By the way, can you spot the camouflaged second woman in this shot?


10. Bounty of the Oasis 慷慨的绿洲

Last year in Kashgar I bought a small bag of the most exquisite tiny dried figs, about the size of a marble, sweet and chewy with the crunch of tiny, tiny seeds. The figs ran out  ten months ago, so I’m not making that mistake again – I stocked up on several kilograms of the world’s best dried foods – apricots, figs, dates, sultanas, raisins, walnuts and almonds. 

All of these fruit and nut trees thrive in the Kashgar oasis, along with melons, tomatoes, eggplant and the local yellow carrots. 


11. Door Hinges 门铰链

Yes, I am the kind of person who buys door hinges. Who wouldn’t want a set of stunning hand-made Uyghur hinges like these? No? How about a door knocker? 


12. Musical History 音乐历史

Uyghurs have a rich and proud musical history and at the bazaar you might be tempted to purchase one of these beautiful instruments – a stringed duttar made from patterned mulberry wood. Then you can practice singing the muqam, an ancient Uyghur song with 14,000 lines named by Unesco as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’


Kashgar Bazaar/Sunday Market 喀什集市/周日市场

Yengi Bazaar, Aizirete Lu
Open Daily from 8am to 6pm

Yengi集市, Aiziret

Uyghur Food: The Glutton Goes West

It was so much fun preparing the posts Xian: A Glutton’s Journey and Xi’an: The Glutton Returns, and they got such great feedback, I decided to make a Glutton’s Page a regular feature whenever I travel. Some meals are memorable enough for a whole post, like the Pulled Noodles, Lady Style, but I try so many new foods every day that by putting them together it gives an overall idea of the local cuisine of the area. And goes some way to explaining why I have to go on some sort of restriction diet when I get back to Shanghai.

Xinjiang food is quintessentially Muslim food. Lamb and mutton feature heavily, slow-cooked or smoke-grilled, and although noodles are common bread is the mainstay of every single meal. Unlike other parts of China, yoghurt, milk and cream are a regular part of the diet.

Arguably Xinjiang’s most famous Uyghur dish, mutton polo is a rice pilaf coloured with shreds of sweet orange and yellow carrot and enriched with strands of caramelised onion, cooked over low heat until the rice absorbs all the stock and develops a buttery, muttony flavour. It’s always served with a hunk of slow-cooked mutton on top, and a bowl of Kashgar tea, yellow with saffron and lightly spiced.

In street stalls enormous blackened pots are filled with enough polo to feed five hundred, gently warmed by a charcoal brazier beneath.
The breads of Xinjiang are one of the seven wonders of the culinary world, extraordinary in their variety and their rustic taste. And yet like creatures of ephemeral beauty – butterflies, or rare flowers for example – they last but one day, and then transmogrify into hard and inedible bread platters you could quite reasonably use in place of china plates. Eat it fresh out of the oven, or not at all.
At six every morning the bread vendors begin to appear in the streets and outside the entrance to the bazaar. Street side tandoors are fired up and the breadmaking begins for the day – rounds of dough are flattened onto a curved cushion, the edges curled, and a decorative pattern punched all over the surface. 
Then a sprinkling of black onion seeds, or sesame, or a flurry of chopped garlic and the breadmaker stretches down into the depths of the tandoor to roll the bread off its cushion and onto the tandoor’s walls. A few minutes later the bread is nicely crisped and studded with tiny flecks of charcoal from its short fiery stay inside the oven. 

These small torture devices are for making the gorgeous circular patterns found in the breads.

Afternoon prayers have just finished in Turpan’s mosque, and as the men leave many stop to drink tea at a small outdoor restauarant behind the bazaar. As I look on, the men are preparing an entire sheep, slathered with saffron yoghurt marinade before being lowered into a smoking tandoor oven with the lid tightly sealed. 
“How long will it take to cook?” I ask. 
“Just two hours” comes the reply. Aha!
Two hours later and I am feasting on a carnivore’s delight, mutton juices dripping down my arms. The mutton, so tender it can be torn apart with chopsticks, has been shredded and placed on top of two rounds of garlic naan bread cut into pieces with huge black kitchen shears. The juices from the meat seep deeply onto the bread, softening it. The only accompaniment? Bowls of spiced black tea studded with rose petals, fennel seeds, cinnamon and saffron.
Every street in Xinjiang has a charcoal grill barbecuing lamb kebabs, metal skewers with chunks of lamb punctuated in the middle by a piece of fat for flavour (often from the fatty tail of the fat-tailed sheep). As the kebabs cook they can be sprinkled with a mix of chili, salt and cumin to taste, then served on top of a piece of flat bread.
Lamb samsas – crisp little parcels cooked inside the tandoor, filled with a juicy mixture of fatty lamb mince and wilted onions flavoured with a little cumin.
Noodle dishes are served both cold (serik ash, on the left, with chili, vinegar and strips of tofu skin) and hot (suoman, on the right, with peppers, mutton, tomato and beans). Both are good, but the serik ash I tried lacked oomph.
In Turpan, an oasis town along the Silk Road, I walked into the back of the busy bazaar  to find a vast dining hall filled with stall after stall selling variations on dumpling soups. The tiny dumplings, filled with lamb and onion or vegetable and spice, were added to a rich beef broth with black wood ear mushrooms, tiny beef meatballs, and black-eyed beans, topped with coriander and small cubes of tofu. The soup was a meal in a bowl, hearty and filling, but the real surprise was the lovey little black-eyed beans, cooked al dente.

Turpan is also very famous for its fruit, made possible by the use of underground water. It hardly ever rains. Here grow fat yellow figs, pomegranites so ripe they have split, watermelons, sweet orange Hami melona, plums, apricots and jujubes.
Locals claim Turpan’s as the best grapes in China and the streets are covered with trelisses hanging heavy with purple and green grapes. Outside the town – back in the desert – special structures of latticed brick are built in which to dry grapes into raisins or sultanas (yimish).

Rising earlier than the rest of the family one morning in Turpan I could see three ladies in a row, heads covered with coloured scarves, selling little bowls of something white. Thinking it might be yoghurt I got dressed and went to investigate, finding instead fresh milk straight from the farm, and small bowls of warm cream intended to be drunk on the spot. It was the best cream you could imagine.

The centre of every town in Xinjiang is the bazaar, an open air embarrassment of riches crowded with meats, spices, dried goods, nuts, seeds, and sweets. I spent hours wandering, photographing and snacking.

And then at the end of the day, in the rather full-feeling hour after dinner and before bed, there is just enough time to visit the night market and find foods that don’t come out in daylight.  
No vampire, but too ugly to be seen in the harsh sun, this huge put holds an artistic arrangement of sheep lungs, sheep heads, liver and kidneys, and sausage made from sheep intestines. Luckily I’ve already eaten a very satisfactory dinner so I can easily resist the more unattractive organs, but I’m curious enough to try the intestine sausages. The vendor fries them on the griddle cut into bite-size pieces, topped with vinegar and pickles. The sausage is stuffed with meal, blood and spices, a taste rich and foreign. 
I imagine this customer saying, in heavy Uighur, “I’ll have one serve of chopped tripe, a slice of lung, and a little sausage. Go easy on the kidneys!” 
As I walk past the man in the next seat is scoffing his dinner hungrily from inside a plastic bag. It’s a whole cooked sheep’s head. Delicious.

Seeing Red

A full twenty four hours from Kashgar by rollicking train across the northern edge of the Taklamikan Desert lies the green oasis of Turpan, home to China’s best grapes, and our destination for the next few days. Except that, thanks to my thorough reading of the guidebook, I discover too late that the train isn’t actually arriving in Turpan, but in the rough and ready transit point of Daheyan, 60 km away and smack-bang in the middle of a dusty desert wasteland. It’s definitely not an oasis.
The road between Turapn and Daheyan threatens to be one long hour of monotonous flat grey gravel, broken only by the vicarious excitement of our driver overtaking trucks on the wrong side of the road while the truck is overtaking something slower, like a bus. Then back to gravel, lots and lots of gravel. 
Then all of a sudden, the entire horizon changes from grey to red, and as far as the eye can see in every direction are acres and acres of long red chilies drying on the hot dry ground. I cajole the driver into pulling over so I can get a closer look, and as soon as I open the car door the pungent chili in the air makes my eyes smart and my nose sting just a little. 
Nothing, and I mean nothing grows out here – not a blade of grass or a stunted tree, nothing – so I wonder where the trucks delivering the bags of fresh chilies have come from. Each truckload of chilies (and in a sweep of the horizon I count fifty or sixty trucks) is being tended by a small work group of four or five men with pitchforks. The chilies are poured out of sacks onto the ground and spread evenly by the men to a depth of about two inches. The men tell me it will take three days for them to dry, then they will be packed back into sacks and driven away again.
As we chat the men tell me they are non-local labourers, Han Chinese not Uighurs, from far afield. Despite the heat and the pungency they are enjoying the camaraderie and passing around cigarettes as they wait for the next truck’s arrival. 

This is what I really get out of travelling across China – a better understanding of food, where it grows, how it’s processed, and how completely simple and unmechanised many of these processes still are, albeit on a massive scale. 
So next time you buy a packet of dried chilies here in China and there’s a bit of grit in the bottom of the bag, and the chilies are on the dusty side, think of this post. That packet holds not just any old dirt but a little bit of the Taklamakan Desert, free of charge.  
Travels on the Silk Road

Pulled Noodles, Lady Style

Have you ever watched hand-pulled noodles being made? An enormous leaden lump of dough, pulled and stretched with the use of sheer brute strength, is then twirled, pulled and stretched again and again until an armful of fine, evenly sized noodles appears like magic, ready to be immediately boiled in a cauldron of steaming broth.
The Herculean muscular strength required for those first few pulls has always put me off trying it for myself, until I discovered a technique requiring much less…er…grunt. The ‘Lady Style’ method of hand-pulled noodles is practised by the ladies of Kashgar, and thanks to our wonderful guide, Waheed, it had been arranged that I would learn to make hand-pulled noodles in the home of a local family living in Kashgar’s Old City.
I love to learn a bit of cooking while I’m on holiday, but Kashgar doesn’t have anything to offer the non-Uighur-speaking non-local in the way of classes, so it was very lucky Waheed was able to enlist the help of local friends. Waheed, as it turned out, could arrange practically anything, from impossible-to-buy train tickets, to tea in a traditional Uighur teahouse, to trips to an out of the way cemetery that caught my inquisitive eye. 
And so it was that one afternoon he arranged for us to meet Aygul, our host and reportedly an excellent cook, who greeted us at the door of her traditional house, hidden down a dusty laneway in the Old City. She was going to teach us to make laghman, Uighur hand-pulled noodles, made the way ladies make them at home.
The house was wonderful – built from honey-coloured bricks placed in decorative patterns. As you walked from the lane outside you passed through a colourful curtain into the double-story light-filled atrium. On the ground level were many of the functional rooms for washing and cooking, and upstairs the reception rooms for guests, the sleeping quarters, and a raised eating platform covered with carpets and furnished with a low table.
Aygul led us to the tiny narrow upstairs kitchen, which had a deep red dresser covered with brightly coloured paper doubling as a work bench. Next to it, a double burner hotplate occupied the corner and beside that stood a tall dresser filled with plates and bowls. There was a large pot filled with clean water in the corner, above which windows looked back out onto the house’s atrium.

Aygul got straight to work, making a simple wheat flour dough from three cups of wheat flour, a cup of water, and 2 teaspoons of salt, mixed and kneaded. Then she flattened the dough into a slab and sliced it into 12 inch lengths.

Each length was gently rolled, with hands slightly oiled, into lengths of dough the thickness of your little finger.
As the dough was rolled, Aygul coiled it inside a silver Uighur bread tin, covering each layer with a little oil and sealing it with a lid. It went back into the dresser at this stage to rest for an hour.

In the meantime, we prepared the sauce for the noodles, a simple meat and vegetable mixture using available local vegetables. 1 cup of diced potato, 1 cup of sliced peppers, I cup of sliced eggplant, 1/2 cup chopped mutton, half a cup of sliced  onion, 1/2 cup of beans chopped into short lengths were fried in a wok with 2 tablespoons of oil. Once softened, two chopped ripe tomatoes, a teaspoon of salt and a little hot water were added and reduced into a thick vegetable sauce, and kept warm to one side while a large pot of salted water came to the boil and we finally got down to the business of pulling some noodles.

Taking the tin back out of the dresser, Aygul took thick coils of dough from the pan, one at a time, and stretched them between her two hands, twisting her fingers slightly as she pulled the dough into a small pile of noodles with the thickness of twine.
Well-practised, Aygul could chat away as she did this, and still the strands were even and unbroken in her hands.
Once she had made two small noodle piles, Aygul took both thick strands and wrapped them cleverly around her hands, like skeins of wool.

Then a stretch, a slap onto the board…..

And a second wide-armed stretch…..

And the noodles went straight into the boiling water for about three minutes, as Aygul let me take a turn twisting, coiling and pulling the next batch of noodles. Amazingly simple!  
Once cooked the noodles were drained and spooned into a bowl topped with the vegetable sauce.
Aygul’s sister prepared our side-dishes of small bowls of unsweetened yoghurt, and cucumber with black vinegar.
We washed our hands using the beautiful silver washbasin and jug reserved for guests in every Uighur house, and then tucked in, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted eating platform of the house. The noodles had a perfect bite and consistency – firm yet yielding, smooth and slippery. The rustic mutton vegetable sauce had a rich tomato flavour and was surprisingly spicy thanks to the hot local peppers. 
I suspect that the secret of Lady Style Pulled Noodles lies not so much in the techniques of stretching and pulling, as in starting with the perfect dough with exactly the right amount of salt. Too much salt, and the noodles will break easily when stretched, too little and they will lack bite. Waheed told me, as we ate, that his own mother makes these noodles every single day of the year. It will take me a long time to build up that kind of practice!  I can’t wait to try making my own back in Shanghai.
Waheed can offer a guide service for Kashgar and its surrounds including camping and mountaineering adventures in the local mountains.
Contact him at
Travels on the Silk Road

Yaks, Goats and Fat-Tailed Sheep: The Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar

Need a yak? Want to know the going rate for a donkey? Got a few spare goats you’d like to get off your hands because they keep eating your shoes?
Then get yourself to Kashgar’s weekly animal market, held every Sunday just outside town. In the past the animal market was part of the regular Sunday Market in Kashgar, until I guess it got too messy and rowdy and they decided to give the animals their own purpose-built venue. And don’t go worrying that you’re going to see puppies and kittens in cages, this is an agricultural market, strictly for farmer types. The main business is in cows, yaks, goats and fat-tailed sheep, with a few donkeys and horses and the occasional camel thrown in once a month on camel trading day.
The market is held in a large open field, bordered with walls and entered through a wide gate. Early in the morning the livestock begins to arrive by whatever means is available.
By tricycle…
By tractor….

By truck…
By trailer…

Or on foot.
Once inside the animals are lined up neatly and tethered together, cheek-to-cheek. Goats with goats, sheep with sheep and so on.

Not everyone is happy to be at the market, of course. For some, it’s unbearable being in such close proximity to other animals.
Occasionally on-the-spot pre-sale repairs need to be carried out, like trimming the dirty wool from the extraordinary tails of these local fat-tailed sheep.
Now they look the business. 
Like traders in any part of the world, the farmers walk around, mobile phones pressed to ears, inspecting stock.

At a point, after teeth, hoofs, testicles and overall sheep-ness are inspected, a deal is done. Hands are shaken. Money presumably changes hands, but it’s invisible to the naked eye.

Like stockbrokers working the stock exchange I’m told that some buyers spend the whole day at the markets buying and selling repeatedly in order to make a margin on the sale – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The busines of livestock selling is conducted exclusively by Uighur men – Chinese animal traders are not admitted to the market.Women appear to be welcome but don’t participate in the trading, at least not obviously.

Once everyone is happy with the price, it’s time for breakfast. Around the perimeter of the market food stalls are already feeding dozens with mutton polo, soups, noodles, and samsas.
Diced lamb is ready for wrapping into tasty little pastry envelopes – samsas – cooked inside the smoking tandoor oven.

The tasty soup is kept steaming hot, seasoned by the chief taster after a sip from his ladle.
After watching this expert butcher for ages I decide to buy a beautiful handmade Uighur knife – not because I’m planning to do my own butchering, but as a fruit knife. 

The knives, with exquisite copper-inlaid bone, horn, wood or metal handles are beautifully crafted. They come with their own leather holster so you can wear them on your belt Uighur style. 
I buy one with a smooth black handle inlaid with brass and copper diamonds, but it causes me no end of trouble over the next few days as it becomes clear I can’t take it back to Shanghai on the train, and China Post won’t allow it to be sent. 
Eventually a private courier company comes to my hotel room to tell me that for double the cost of the knife’s purchase price, it can be returned to Shanghai by bus accompanied by a police declaration, and will take one month. I’ll let you know if it ever gets here. To be honest, it would have been less hassle and a lot cheaper to buy a yak. Next time I’ll know better!

Kashgar Animal Market
Every Sunday from dawn
The market has moved three times in the last year alone, so it’s worth checking the current location before you go.

Travels on the Silk Road

Kashgar: The Sunday Market, The Old City – A Dream Realized

I have a little story to tell you about Kashgar and how pivotal it was in my eventual move to China.

Kashgar, market town smack in the middle of the Silk Road, with hundreds of years of traveller and trader history. I don’t think I was even consciously aware that it was in China. Four years ago my husband began coming to China for work, visits that became more frequent and more prolonged. He could obviously see the writing on the wall that I couldn’t – our whole family was going to need to relocate to China within the year. I had listened with rapt attention to his stories about Shanghai, but China was a huge unknown quantity, and only the previous year I had turned down a trip to the Beijing Olympics on ‘ethical humanitarian grounds’. I was so full of shit.

Realising I may need a bit more convincing before a relocation was proposed, after one particular trip he bought a book for me called ‘Kashgar – Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road’. It was full of incredible photographs of a city that had lived only in my imagination – dusty adobe houses, cool courtyards shaded by trellised grapevines, mosques, deserts, camels, brass and copper  (you can read an interview with the photographer John Gollings here).

In particular the images of the Sunday Market in Kashgar captured me completely. The men in embroidered caps, faces like oiled walnuts, surrounded by richly coloured carpets and donkey carts. The rows of brass teapots and oil lamps. It became a burning obsession.
“Kashgar’s in China you know” my husband said. “We might get to visit if we lived there.”
So there you have it. A promise to visit Kashgar became part of the decision to move to China, all based on a book of photographs of a place I’d never been but longed to see. Once here, I was in no rush – Kashgar wasn’t going anywhere. Then I heard about the attempted destruction of the Old City, narrow lanes full of traditional adobe houses, quiet and mysterious, and I knew the time had come to see before it was too late.

Kashgar didn’t disappoint. It’s all you imagine of an ancient silk road city and more. I think I won’t write any more, and let you see for yourself the beauty of fascination of the place. Smell the spices, taste the juicy pomegranates and the char-grilled meats, feel the smooth cool dusty adobe walls of the quiet alleys of the old city and hear the hawker cries of the busy, bustling Sunday Market. You must go.

Tashkorgan Tajik Celebration!

There’s nothing like an all day party to help you over a bout of altitude sickness. Heading southwest from Lake Karakul, up and over a 4000m mountain pass, we arrive in the heartland of the mountain-dwelling Tajik people smack in the middle of a colourful annual festival. What good luck!
Tashkorgan  تاشقورغان بازىرى‎ was an important stop along the Silk Road from China through the mountainous Khunjerab Pass to Pakistan, about an hour away. A scant few kilometres to the southwest is Afghanistan, and directly west, along a broad front of the Pamir Mountains is Tajikistan, a country I am pretty sure I had never heard of until now. Yet here I am in in Tashkorgan, a town full of mountain Tajiks who settled here in this fertile mountain valley of the Pamir Plateau, herding sheep and growing wheat and fruit. 
The celebration is in full swing when we arrive, centred around a huge grassy field north of town and the adjacent dirt racetrack. Colourfully dressed Tajik women are arriving from every direction, wearing their party best – patterned red dresses, embroidered velvet caps covered with a brightly coloured scarf for the young women, and a white scarf for the older ones. In keeping with the modesty of their Muslim faith, the women’s skirts ae all below the knee, under which are worn skin coloured leggings, and over these shiny skin-coloured stockings. High heels are permitted.
The men dress more modestly in navy blue or black, all with covered heads and many wearing flat caps. According to a Chinese Government website about China’s Tajiks, 
“It would be a breach of etiquette to take off the hat while talking to others, unless an extremely grave problem is being discussed.”

The festivities, many and various centre in the broad flat field with people watching Tajik singing and dancing from behind a barricade of coloured bunting. 
Starving, we give the cattle and sheep judging a miss in favour of the food tents. A long avenue of bunting is lined with food stalls on both sides, smoking from grilled kebabs. Nearby yurts have been assembled so friends can gather, drink tea, and eat lunch. The local foods are simple and hearty – mutton polo, a rice dish cooked with tasty chunks of meat, shreds of carrot and occasionaly dried fruits; breads, shallow dishes of yoghurt, and small tin bowls of fresh cream eaten with torn chunks of soft bread.
I try an interestingly texture corn bread, served with a paper cup full of lightly pickled mung beans topped with chili, all washed down with salted yak milk tea. I’m getting to quite like the stuff. 

The women are very interested in a stall selling cross stitch patterns. Their red dress and tassels indicate they have been recently married, and they greatly admire the stallholder’s best work, a framed Tajik wedding portrait in cross stitch.
Before leaving Tashkorgan we visit its majestic adobe fort, some 1400 years old, sitting high above the town. It’s a magnificent end to our day here, the imposing and solid walls watching over the Tajik celebrations from afar – what history must have happened here! Battles fought, hearts of princesses won and lost, kingdoms gained. Only the ancient walls know the truth.
Travels on the Silk Road

Lake Karakul and the Kyrgyz Yurt-Dwellers

There is something faintly terrifying about altitude sickness – the pounding headaches, the blunted focus, the inability to make decisions. And that’s while sitting still. Walk a few paces and your chest heaves and rasps and your heart pounds heavily as you suck in cold, thin air that never seems enough. 
We had landed in Kashgar only to head immediately westwards towards the Karakoram Highway, high into the mountains and to Lake Karakul, with our newly-met Uighur guide Waheed. Foreigners travelling westwards need a guide and driver, a permit, and a detailed itinerary to avoid trouble with the local Chinese police who restrict and control movements of local Uighurs and foreigners alike.
Kashgar’s outskirts tantalised us with carts of melons and peaches, boxes of dripping red pomegranates and tables piled with rounds of bread, fresh from the oven and sprinkled with onion seeds and salt. These would have to wait, because we needed to traverse the moubtain road before nightfall, parts having become very difficult to pass with the commencement of construction for a hydro-electric powerstation. 
I hadn’t really thought through the rapid ascent to 3600m until we reached the checkpoint where we had to show ourselves, our permits and our passports. We had passed through a bare rocky landscape, through ravines and up to the base of snow-tipped mountains, with not a whisper of a blade of grass or stunted tree. Stepping out of the van in the gathering dusk the air was glacial, a frozen wind whipping our faces. It hurt to breathe. We all had headaches. 
I hoped the children and the parents-in-law would be OK, but as a precaution I had photocopied the American Wilderness Medicine Society guidelines for acute mountain sickness and brought along acetazolamide, just in case. That’s what doctors do – prepare for the worst, hope for the best. It’s a bit nerdy but it’s gotten us out of trouble many times before.

Arriving through a mountain pass the road opened out suddenly into a broad alpine pasture, now brown with frosts. A low line of yurts lay ahead on the shores of Lake Karakul, our destination for the night where Waheed had made arrangements for us to stay with a local Kyrgyz family for the night, although there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere and no smoke rose from the chimneys. 
Ringed by snowy peaks touched with last of the setting sun, the lake itself glowed steel blue in the cold evening air. A group of camels were gathering by the shores to feed, snorting and huffing at us as they passed. I felt like we were in another world entirely, certainly not in China.

At this point it bacame clear my mother-in-law was quite dreadfully ill. A bad headache had turned into nausea, vomiting and dizziness, and she was barely able to stand. Our host Kyrgyz family, with wonderful timing, returned from a nearby village where they were preparing a wedding for the following day. The father, wth a brown furred hat and long dark winter coat stepped off the bike followed by his wife in pink headscarf and coat, and his two daughters. They welcomed us into their house, a low square building next to their yurt, stoked the fire and made a comfortable bed for my mother-in-law, F.

The inside of their house, like the inside of their adjacent yurt, was a riot of colour and rich texture, every surface draped and lined with carpets, blankets, quilts and curtains in rich jewel colours and elaborate designs, in total contrast to the bare monotone landscape outside. Along a low shelf dozens of thick quilts were folded and hidden by a fringed red velvet cloth. The centre of the room was the hearth, with a wrought iron pot belly stove fired by coal and dried yak dung, topped with an enormous teapot.
The Kyrgyz mother explained that F needed to drink hot salted yak milk tea and rest, in order to get better. I added some acetazolamide, just in case the yak milk tea didn’t work, and some stemetil, just in case yak milk was a little hard on the stomach.
We sat round the hearth, warm as toast, as the dusk deepened and the wind howled outside, and all of us tasted our first salted yak milk tea, rich, creamy and hot from shallow bowls. F seemed to be getting no worse, although we did discuss descending down the same treacherous road in the dark to a lower altitude, and decided against it. 
The family made us a simple vegetable pilau for dinner, with more yak milk tea, and we were joined by a second family and their children. In all sixteen of us crammed tightly in to their crimson lined box, chatting, and watching fascinated as the mother used a pasta maker to fashion noodles for all of us. F had fallen asleep, and looked more peaceful. I began to worry less, although in the dim light of the stove I realised she had ‘moderate to severe acute mountain sickness’ according to my guidelines. But she wasn’t worsening.
We unfolded rows and rows of gold, green, sapphire blue purple quilts and fully clothed, settled down to sleep side by side like so many gloriously dressed sardines.
The morning sunlight came pale and golden, resting on the mountain tops. I walked down to the water’s edge and washed my face in the waters of Lake Karakul, glacial and bracing. The smoke rising from the chimney showed everyone was awake, including F who had rallied during the night and was ready for another cup of hot yak milk tea, feeling a little better but very pleased we would be descending today to less than 3000m. Our lovely family had taken such good care of us, and we thanked them as best we could without a single word of Kyrgyz. They posed for me, very formally, for a photograph outside their house.
And so we went, onwards and downwards.

Travels on the Silk Road