Kashgar, China, just south of Kyrgyzstan, west of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, near the Pamir Plateau, is a beautiful, dusty desert oasis town. And it’s old. Older than Paris. Maybe as old as Athens and Rome. The first recorded mention of it is in Han Dynasty records from the 2nd or 3rd C BCE. Ptolemy talks about it in his writings of the 2nd C CE, and Marco Polo wrote about the city in his Silk Road travels.
A visit to the markets there takes you to the earliest roots of the human trading habit, and feels so timeless that scenes from Firefly or Star Wars could be filmed there. Some of my favorite places on Earth are markets like these, and the best tend to be in places that don’t have Tesco, Walmart, Target, Carrefour and the like.
I shot the photos for this essay in 2005 on a Sunday in May, using Ilford Delta 100 in my Hasselblad 501CM.The tuk-tuk drops you off outside the Animal Market, and for those to whom this isn’t daily life, the senses are immediately overwhelmed. The the air is redolent with a soup of of sheep, camel, horse, donkey, and cow aromas. The noise of hundreds of people buying and selling animals, animal parts, food, haircuts, videos and who-knows-what-else is a loud buzz. And there’s so much motion and color that your eyes don’t know where to look. It’s a lot like going into a suburban shopping mall in the US, though with a lot of dust, and aromas that have never been near a Sephora store. I don’t remember taking these pictures of the boys watching the flocks, but looking at them now, it’s interesting. These two kids look likable (the one guy blinked right when I shot)… …while these two look like thugs-in-training. “Goat Trio” is one of my favorite photos. Despite their freaky, alien-looking eyes, I felt a connection with these guys, and I always want to reach out and scratch their chins. Do you know about the fat-tailed (or fat-butt) sheep? The legend is that the nomads would slice off a hunk of fat from a live sheep while herding (flocking?) for a quick, easy meal that required no cooking and provided a lot of energy. I’m not sure I completely believe that, but I can say that having a lamb stew made with strips of the fat lining the cauldron was one of my favorite experiences in Kazakhstan.
My friend Iskak, who trusted me with the key to his photo lab, so I could spend long Sundays in the darkroom without disrupting his regular business, invited me out to a picnic with his family. “Picnic” turned out to mean an all-day cooking, eating, and vodka-drinking affair in the mountains, and “family” meant lots of brothers and sisters and their kids. They started with a cauldron (there really is no other word for a 10-gallon/40 liter pot) that they set over a fire pit they’d built up with granite stones that were lying around. The cauldron was lined from the bottom to about 2/3 up the sides with strips of fat-butt sheep fat, just stuck to the sides, completely covering the surface, and serving as both flavoring agent and non-stick coating. Then, oh yeah, then the magic began – a big layer of potatoes, followed by a layer of mutton – bones and all, a layer of peppers and onions, repeat. It was about three of these stacks high. And then the fire was lit underneath, the lid put on and secured with more stones. And the drinking, philosophy and poetry discussions, and questions about life in the US began.
After some hours…three, four?…the lid came off, and we drunkenly set about demolishing the lamb stew. The difference between people who are used to not having easy access to pretty much everything, and those who do, became quickly apparent. Iskak and family *cleaned* the bones, not a bit of stray meat or tendon was left, while I was not nearly as thorough in my work on the bones, leaving stray bits of meat and gristle and so forth. After I realized this, I redoubled my efforts, but just couldn’t keep up, leaving an embarrassing amount of material on the bones. The potatoes, peppers, and onions, stewed in all that fat and juice, were beautiful, unctuous, rich and amazing.This guy reminds me of Michael Palin as the Catholic father in The Meaning of Life, telling his children he’s had to sell them off to indentured servitude, because he just can’t feed 40 mouths. Watching these women shearing the sheep with scissors was pretty impressive. The evolution of farm equipment, right here.
I debated greatly with myself about giving a warning for these next two. There is meat in the next two pictures. And as the Swiss guy I was standing next to while we shot these pictures said, “We’re so used to seeing meat wrapped in plastic, in a refrigerator, we forget where it comes from.” This is where it comes from.What I really like about this first one is the pair of men eating in the café right by where the meat for their noodles came from. Hearts and lungs and kidneys and livers and stomachs! Not my favorite animal parts, but I know a few people who would make a serious dent in this pile.