YARKAND IS a city on the southern Silk Road in Xinjiang, China. Earlier this week, Today’s Zaman, the English-language daily in Turkey, ran a piece of mine on Yarkand (Yarkent in Turkish). You can read the story here.
Compared to other Silk Road cities like Kashgar or Samarkand and Bukhara, Yarkand lacks buildings of architectural note and is not particularly well known. Nonetheless, like countless other places across the expanse of Eurasia it has a lively history.
Marco Polo passed through in the late 13th century, apparently claiming that Yarkand locals suffered inordinately from goitres and had one foot bigger than the other, but noting that they could still walk perfectly well. At the time Yarkand was controlled by the Chagatai (Çağatay) khans, being the descendants of Genghis Khan. In 1514 Said Khan came to power, establishing the Saidiye line that ruled Yarkand as part of the Altışehir confederacy (literally “Six Cities”, also including Kashgar, Hotan, Uç Turpan, Yengisar and Aksu), lasting until 1680.
The Saidiye khans are interred in the royal cemetery in the old town of Yarkand. Honey-coloured, decorated with elaborate floral motifs and Arabic script, the tombs don’t appear as old as you’d expect of something created in the 16th century, yet they attract solemn family groups of Uyghurs coming to pay their respects, and to take photographs of one another doing so. Clearly this is an attempt at some form of pilgrimage, to pay heed to a Uyghur historical legacy, which links back through various dynasties and eras, all with a Turkic blush.
Peter Fleming passed through in the 1930s while writing his fabulous News from Tartary. He noted that the city had been the scene of intense fighting during the civil war. He encountered parts of the bazaar in ruins and the bastion of the new city pockmarked with bullet holes. In a glimpse of the Silk Road of old he saw a professional story teller in the bazaar attracting a sizable crowd.
Today, aside from the royal cemetery there is very little of historical significance left in the city. Apparently, much of the old town was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Today the historical core, or what’s left of it, is surrounded by sprawling developments populated by Han Chinese. The bazaar bullet-riddled in the 1930s now appears quite dishevelled. Looking carefully in several streets of the old town you can spy some examples of traditional Uyghur urban architecture, distinctive with their balconies, ornate balustrades and carved pillars, but these are few and far between and those that remain are looking dust-blown and neglected.
Colin Thubron in his similarly fabulous Shadow of the Silk Road remarked that in Yarkand he felt “drowned in Uyghur boisterousness”, but then after a momentary encounter with abrupt Chinese traders felt himself longing again for the Uyghurs’ “warmth and generosity”. During my visit to Yarkand I saw no goitres and no individuals with one foot bigger than the other, nor was I subjected to any “boisterousness”. My own experience was of a Uyghur people being welcoming in an unprepossessing way, much like the Turks with whom, to my eye they share so many characteristics, uncannily so considering that the two populations became separated during the great Turkic westward lilt that began over 1000 years ago. Now there’s a subject I could return to…
One thing that didn’t make it into my Today’s Zaman story is a local culinary delight: pigeon kebabs. These can be procured at a specialty restaurant on the main street along from the royal cemetery. Local Uyghurs (although no Chinese that I spied) line up for dismembered pigeons on long skewers, or pigeon meat cooked with vegetables and pulled noodles. It’s a lucrative business. The Uyghur fellow I was travelling with chastised me for tipping the restaurant owner saying that he had grown rich serving up pigeons to all comers and didn’t need further cash injections from well-meaning Western travellers.