[In Xinjiang, a region larger than
, France and Germany combined, pigeon predilections vary greatly. Northerners favor the racing varieties, while showy breeds are popular here in the south. The market, one of the biggest in China, offers the full range, including gray racing homers that closely resemble the denizens of Manhattan sidewalks; Jacobins with impossibly chic feathery ruffs; brown peacocklike fantails; and black reversewing pouters, their feet concealed by flowing plumage.] Spain
The pigeon market in Kashgar is one of the biggest in
claims he once sold a pair of pedigree chicks there for $22,000. “Pigeons are like cars if
they’re rare enough,” he said. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times
— In many parts of the world,
pigeons are an urban pest or, at best, a tasty meal. But here in this storied,
ancient outpost nearChina’s
border with China , they are much more: a hobby,
an investment and, for some, an addiction. Kyrgyzstan
On Sundays, an outdoor market in the center of the city fills with ethnic Uighur men and boys engaged in a frenzied, mercantile display of traditional male bonding. The objects of their attention — many outrageously adorned in multihued and frilly plumage — appeared largely unfazed by the prodding appraisals of crown, beak, wing and tail.
“You get kind of addicted,” said Azizjam Mamat, 27, a cellphone company manager who started coming to the market when he was 8 and now owns 300 birds. “One pigeon gives the love of 10 women.”
The passion for pigeons sustained the Uighurs, a largely Muslim Turkic-speaking minority, long before
took control of their
traditional homeland more than 60 years ago and named it Xinjiang, or “new
frontier” in Mandarin. China
Despite a harrowing cycle of government repression and bloodshed, the pastime has continued to thrive. It is also popular, to some extent, among the ethnic Han Chinese migrants who have flowed into Xinjiang by the millions, lured by generous state subsidies and economic opportunities that stem from
’s efforts to resurrect Kashgar
as a hub on a new Beijing Silk Road trading route to and beyond. Pakistan
But the scene at the Kashgar pigeon market, with its predominantly Uighur patronage, highlights the entrenched divisions between the city’s Uighur majority and the Han newcomers, most of whom live in separate, recently developed neighborhoods across town.
Not a word of Mandarin was heard amid the din of negotiations, interrupted by cooing from metal cages and the occasional flapping of wings. On the roof of one stall, a man clutching a butterfly net in one hand crept gingerly on all fours toward a perched escapee. Overheard, a flock of pigeons wheeled across the hazy sky in balletic synchronicity.
In Xinjiang, a region larger than
, France and Germany combined, pigeon predilections
vary greatly. Northerners favor the racing varieties, while showy breeds are
popular here in the south. The market, one of the biggest in China, offers the
full range, including gray racing homers that closely resemble the denizens of
Manhattan sidewalks; white Jacobins with impossibly chic feathery ruffs; brown
peacocklike fantails; and black reversewing pouters, their feet concealed by
flowing plumage. Spain
“Northern people don’t care about color, just how many flips a pigeon can do,” Amrula Abdula, 30, a blanket salesman, said dismissively. “In the south, we require both.”
Surrounded by green cages containing dozens of fancy pigeons, Miradijan Matalip, 35, a postal worker, had no problem parting with members of his menagerie — for the right price.
“This is a hobby that can make money,” he said, holding a black-headed specimen worth $60 firmly behind the wings as he inspected the inside of its beak. Mr. Matalip has kept pigeons since he was 6 and owns more than 600, including four he said were worth over $15,000 a pair. “I keep those at home,” he said.
The popularity of certain breeds can be fleeting. Pidayi Odikim, 66, a retired teacher, has seen countless pigeon fads come and go in his five decades of keeping the birds. Still, many Uighurs see the costly and laborious hobby as a rite of passage, one vital for teaching responsibility. “It keeps boys off the streets and brings them to the roof,” he said.
Devotees claim Uighurs have been keeping pigeons for more than a thousand years, though some say the special bond between man and bird has biblical origins, with Noah and his faithful dove. “The pigeon has been a valuable pet ever since,” said Muradil Sidik, 22, a construction worker and collector who spends up to $50 each week buying birds.
Market forces have played an increasingly important role among
’s pigeon enthusiasts, who are
said to number at least 300,000, according to state news reports. In 2013, a Han Chinese businessman paid a record $400,000 for a Belgian racing pigeon, a savvy
investment considering that prestigious races offer prizes worth millions of
Such extravagantly priced specimens were absent from the Kashgar market, but that does not mean Uighurs are reluctant to pay handsomely. Yusanjan Abdur Rahim, 15, claims he once sold a pair of pedigree chicks for $22,000. “Pigeons are like cars if they’re rare enough,” he said.
If the scene felt far removed from the rest of
, closer inspection revealed a
flurry of modern influences. Counterfeit bags of “Purina” pigeon food,
mysteriously labeled “Biot Eounader” in the Latin alphabet, were for sale
alongside fake versions of the numbered leg rings used globally to identify a
bird’s age and the organizations with which it is registered. China
Azizjam Azizdawut, 43, an employee of the state-run electric company, said he has kept pigeons for decades, including in his university dorm room. A member of a local pigeon association, he remembers when the hobby became a sport in the 1990s. Back then, racing distances in Xinjiang stretched up to 60 miles. These days, thanks to decades of strategic breeding and rigorous training, the contests span more than 300 miles over vast deserts and jagged mountains.
In 2013, several of Mr. Azizdawut’s pigeons won racing prizes, a point of pride tinged with resignation. “Winning is an honor, but it was too much work,” he said with a sigh.
As the sun rose higher, the crowd grew more frenetic. Sun-creased men wearing blazers and doppas, traditional embroidered Uighur caps, huddled around freewheeling negotiating sessions, occasionally offering their opinions.
“He’s giving a good price,” said a spectator, intruding into a knot of two haggling men.
“They’re very thin,” the prospective buyer replied, lightly rubbing a gray wing.
After a pause, he took out a wad of cash and proffered the equivalent of $60, which the seller firmly rejected.
The buyer walked away.
Jostling his way through the throng, Mehmet Torgun, 27, a builder, had come to the market looking for a specific breed. Asked if he had found it, he nodded toward a brown-and-white purchase that he had stuck headfirst in the pocket of his suit jacket. Then he shifted to reveal another bird stashed in the opposite pocket. The pair had cost him about $14.
“Business is good, so I’ve got more money to spend on pigeons,” he said. “But sometimes two is enough.”