Stories from the Silk Road: Sunday Markets

Added over 8 years ago

Sunday Markets

Silk Road

The Middle East has its great bazaars and China has it's night markets but in Central Asia the nomadic way of life gave rise to huge weekly and monthly markets where shepherds, goat-herders, horse-herders and their families would gather to trade, talk and generally take a break from it all. They may have inhabited some of the harshest terrain in the world but that didn't stop them producing some of the most beautiful handicrafts on the Silk Road - and there was always an avid market for their goods in the region's major trade centres.

Over the years the markets have periodically morphed to suit the styles and the tastes of the time but their vastness has never been called into question. Traditionally the markets were held on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays but these days Sunday is the firm favourite and most take place weekly. Similarly, they have stocked everything from live animals to Soviet kitsch but the traditional arts and crafts peculiar to the nomad tribes of what was historically known as ‘Turkestan' (now Turkmenistan) have remained a staple: carpets, cloth, hats and jewellery are high on most market visitors' lists.  

Nearly every town has at least one market to choose from but these are probably my five favourites:


Kashgar  (Xinjiang)

Uighurs at the Sunday Kashgar market

This is not simply ‘another' market. It is superior in every way - the hottest, most crowded, most colourful and biggest - and a real assault on the senses. People and their wares come from all over Xinjiang, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, so you can buy almost anything here. What makes it unique, however, is the animal market where you can spend hours watching Uighurs inspect the sheep, donkeys, cows and camels they have come to buy (often taking them for test runs through the market streets). Take heed though: it's hard work fighting your way through the crowds, especially during August and September when the countryside is seen at it's best and two of the most popular local festivals (Corban Festival and Lesser Bairam) take place.


Khotan (Xinjiang)

Locals say that Khotan has managed to keep that old world charm which Kashgar is arguably in danger of losing. Few Han Chinese have ventured this far into the Taklamakan Desert so you are likely to meet only Uighurs and their goods: primarily carpets and jade, although silver daggers are also a specialty.


Osh (Kyrgyzstan)

Uigur Ladies selling sheep pelts

Despite being in Kyrgyzstan, Osh is and always has been an Uzbek city - it was only thanks to Stalin's gerrymandering that these Uzbeks were cut off from their brothers and sisters next door. This market takes over the Jayma district every Sunday and the stalls stretch for well over a mile along the banks of the Ak Buura River. Osh as a town/city dates back over two thousand years and local shepherds have been coming to market for almost as long. Look out for the felt hats, a specialty of the region!


Tashkent (Uzbekistan)

Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the old USSR so it should come as no surprise that it had some of the largest markets - or that for many years it was a rival to Moscow as the best place to source surplus Red Army supplies. These days Sundays see flea-market aficionados heading to Tezykovka market a few miles out of town while old-school bargain hunters seek out Chorsu in the heart of the Old Town.


Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)

A market meeting

The burning Karakum Desert plays backdrop to Tolchuka market, trading post of the fierce Turkmen nomads. The surrounding tribes are famous for rearing horses and camels so sheep's wool is often replaced with horse and camel hair in the local carpets. Turkmeni designs are held up to be the most elegant in the region and this is probably the best place to buy a ‘Bukhara' carpet (Bukhara is actually in Uzbekistan but in these carpets were always traditionally made by Turkmen).    


Next: The Hindu God Hanuman - Monkey God and Hero of the Ramayana

Previous: Spirit Locks: Spiritual Beliefs of the Hmong Hilltribe People of Northern Thailand