Deep within the Kunlun mountains (昆仑山 Kūnlún shān) lie enormous reserves of jade. Thick veins of nephrite – from opaque, milky-white stone to the more typical deep green type – run through the mountains from Xining in the east to Khotan in the west. Sometimes the jade is found by nomads who share the location with a lucky contact who knows how to mine it and sell it. Sometimes the jade is lying on the surface, waiting for a sharp-eyed passerby to find it.
Khotan is a city of part-time jade hunters. The precious stones regularly wash down the Kashgar Jade Dragon River from the western reaches of the Kunlun Shan. The wide banks of the river are pitted with holes and ditches where they’ve been excavated by the locals who flock here during winter and spring, the only seasons when the waters run low enough to leave the banks exposed. Everyone in the city knows someone who made his fortune from a single find – a neighbour of my friend, Ablikim, found a seventy-kilo slab of ‘lamb fat’ nephrite (a cloudy white jade, occasionally mottled with red veins) and sold it for millions.
However, Khotan’s position in a remote corner of Xinjiang, at the very end of Xinjiang’s railway system, render it an impractical place to trade with the rest of China – the largest market for any type of jade. Instead, Kunlun Shan jade filters east towards Golmud where Hui Muslims (the same indomitable traders who dominate Hezuo’s caterpillar fungus market) operate small workshops carving and polishing the stone before selling it on to middlemen further east.
At first glance, Golmud’s wholesale jade market looks like a very standard row of shops selling jade bracelets and pendants. Negotiate your way around these, however, and you’ll discover a wide dirt alleyway and a yard filled with identically-dressed traders. Their wares – enormous lumps of jade, still covered in the layer of earth they were discovered in – are laid out on rough wooden carts along the length of the alley.
Even this close to the source, the stone trades for millions of yuan. Traders use a system of hand gestures to agree at a price – the buyer and seller hide their hands and, while hidden, make a gesture for how much they’re prepared to bid or offer for the stone. Then – 1, 2, 3 – they uncover their hands and see how close they are. I first visited the market with a guest from Hong Kong who spotted and worked out how the system works. Apparently old-time jade traders three thousand kilometers away in Hong Kong used very much the same way of trading.
On my latest visit, I wandered through the market alone, and swiftly found myself surrounded with curious men. Just as I found at Kashgar’s fat-bottomed sheep livestock market, women are few and far between in the jade market as well. I walked through the crowds answering long-familiar questions (“Are you alone? Where is your husband?” and “How tall are you?” are the universal favourites), and saw a wide variety of jade on sale, from a handful of carefully polished chips pulled out of a grubby pocket, to the enormous lumps that I’d come looking for again.
Now in a hurry to catch my bus to Xinjiang, I spotted a great place for my last few shots – a balcony overlooking the street. I asked in the shop beneath it whether I could go upstairs, the boss said “Of course!” and obligingly led me through his back room. I found myself in an unexpected workshop behind the shop. In the darkness of the room, young men wearing dust masks worked with total concentration on their jade, which was bathed in little pools of bright light from desk lamps above each worker. They barely noticed as I walked through the room and back into the bright sunshine outside.
Once in the courtyard, the boss indicated that I should go upstairs. As I did so a lady in a headscarf looked out of the upstairs apartment. I explained what I wanted and she showed me through her immaculate living room to the balcony I’d seen. I took a few (sadly unremarkable) photographs, and then turned to go. “But won’t you stay for tea?” the householder asked. I was amazed at her hospitality – I had walked in, uninvited and dusty from the street, and she was prepared to have me stick around for tea – but sadly declined and ran for my bus. Xinjiang beckoned.