From first light on Sunday, women in thick brown veils, families on donkey carts and men dangling chickens from bicycle handlebars throng the streets. A riot of headgear—Mao caps, white Kyrgyz ak-kalpaks, woolly Turkmen telpeks and the black-velvet hats of local Uighurs—reveals the diversity of the traders. Behind food stands, cooks dish out noodles; grinning barbers with wicked blades offer death-defying shaves. This is the place to buy a fur coat or an intricately inlaid knife. Or, less exotic but well traveled, a bottle of Head & Shoulders shampoo.
The really serious action takes place in the livestock pavilion, where young boys take horses for test rides while men huddle, endlessly debating the value of fat-bottomed sheep. Some unlucky beasts go straight to nearby teahouses to be made into kebabs.
For would-be Marco Polos, the road from Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar, which passes through some of the world's wildest mountain scenery, provides yet another incentive. The trip used to cost several hundred dollars and require special permission to traverse the Torugart Pass. This year, the Irkeshtam Pass was opened, which is cheaper and requires less paperwork. Both the budget-oriented Edelweiss Travel, tel: (996-312) 280 788, and the more upmarket Celestial Mountains, tel: (996-312) 212 562, will haul you from Bishkek to the bazaar in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Unless, of course, you'd rather spend a few weeks on a camel.