Abdu Rahim Osman sat by his pile of melons and tried to catch the eye of prospective buyers. Now and then, someone would buy one for 35 cents. But in the middle of winter, demand for hami melons was not high.
Not to worry, the 60-year-old peasant said. He had carted his goods to the Sunday bazaar before. He had always found ready customers for the sweet, succulent melons, one of the best-known products of China's northwestern Xinjiang region.
"This is a good bazaar," he said with a smile.
The open-air market, on the outskirts of Kashgar, is indeed a good bazaar. Stretched out over 70 acres of land, it attracts 40,000 to 50,000 people each Sunday, officials said.
It is probably the largest of the 44,000 free markets in the country that now flourish as a result of the agricultural changes initiated under China's leader Deng Xiaoping five years ago. Under these changes, peasants were allowed to sell anything they produce in surplus of state quotas on the free market. Chinese officials say productivity in the countryside has increased since the system of free markets was initiated.
On Sunday, Peking broadened the reforms, announcing that the state would no longer have a monopoly on the purchase and sale of major farm products as it has had for 30 years.
Local residents are proud of Kashgar's long history of trade and bazaars. They say the revival of the bazaars, in particular, has made life much better for them.
The bazaars were closed or only allowed to operate on a limited basis during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 because Maoist radicals said such practices smacked of capitalism.
But over the past six to seven years, they have been revived and are thriving. Although these markets are supposed to be an outlet for surplus crops and livestock, they have become a major source of food and consumer items.
By the time the cock crows, tens of thousands of buyers and sellers, their children in tow, have already begun streaming into Kashgar, the dusty capital of a rich agricultural district. They come on bicycles, by foot, on camel and horseback, but mostly on donkey carts laden with goods for the bazaar.
Throughout the day, the narrow, sandy roads fill with the sound of jingling donkey bells and shouts of poosh, poosh, or "make way" in the language spoken by the Uighurs. They are an ethnic minority in China, but here in Xinjiang's western city of Kashgar, the Uighurs, a Turkic people of Moslem faith, make up 80 percent of the population.
The bazaar is a way of life here in Kashgar, once a stop on the ancient silk route that stretched from China through central Asia to the Mediterranean. Caravans of camels, loaded with silk, gold, ivory and spices, traveled through here on their way from the mountain passes of the Pamir on the west and the treacherous Taklamakan desert (which means "Once you get in you don't come out") on the east.
Caravans still come over the mountain passes following the footsteps of Marco Polo seven centuries ago. But these days, they are the twice-yearly caravans of covered trucks from Pakistan that conduct barter trade with China.
On one recent Sunday, a nine-truck caravan was unloading dried fruit, medicine, leather shoes and ground nuts. In exchange, the drivers were preparing to load on Chinese light industrial goods, such as generators and motors, green tea, ceramics, and silk.
Many of the men here, especially the older ones, have long white goatees and wear long black coats and skullcaps or fur-lined hats. The women wear brightly flowered skirts under short coats and the older women cover their heads with shawls according to the Islamic custom.
The bazaar boasts a range of goods wider than that found in any of the state-owned department stores. There are scarves and bolts of silk, copper bells, red braided bridles, and green mokha tobacco for the cigarettes the Uighur men like to roll by hand, a practice they say they learned from the Russians.
Livestock has a prominent presence near the center of the bazaar. Two-humped camels range in price from about $100 to $360 each.
Nearby, peasants with their sheep, donkeys and horses wait for interested parties to examine the merchandise.
In buying a sheep, they say, it is best to feel the rump to determine how fat the animal is. The bigger the rump, the fatter the animal, and the tastier will be the mutton.
For donkeys, the telling factor is the condition of the back teeth. In one corner, a man was trying to talk down the price of a donkey from $145 to about $90 because he claimed its teeth showed it to be 5 years old.
In some transactions, a middleman could be seen joining in, pulling at the sleeves of the two parties for a handshake to cement the deal and guarantee him a fee.