LAST WEEK, my piece about Hotan appeared in the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman. Hotan was the furthest I managed to venture into the Taklamakan Desert, which dominates the Tarim Basin in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Roaring eastward along the highway from Yarkand, you get a feel for the mighty desert, seemingly unending expanses of sand rippled into undulating dunes, like the floor of the sea. In fact, as described in Christian Tyler’s thought-provoking Wild West China, the Tarim Basin was once the floor of a sea, one that was pushed upwards by the same mighty forces that threw up the Himalayas, which lie to the south of Xinjiang.
The desert has its own appeal. It has seen people come and go for millennia, notably along the Silk Road, linking east Asia with the Persian and Mediterranean worlds, but – even more intriguingly – it was the domain of the Tokharians. A historical oddity, if ever there was one, the Tokharians were a Caucasian people, professing Buddhism, dressed in a Persian fashion, with ginger hair, the remains of whom have been found mummified in many sites in the arid interior of the desert.
Until about the 10th century, the Tokharians wandered an apparently more fertile realm than the desert is currently. It was about this time that the Tocharians encountered Turkic groups who were moving westward. The Tokharians are claimed as ancestors by the modern (Turkic) Uyghurs who have comprised the majority of the population of the Taklamakan until the last century. Genetic analysis show that the Uyghurs are 50 percent Caucasian, lending credence to their claim of Tokharian descent; the other 50 percent is presumably Turkic, with some Chinese admixture.
This region has seen intense comingling of peoples over long periods of time. As well as the peripatetic Tokharians, who apparently arrived in around 2000 BC, Iranic groups entered the region around 1200 BC. Hotan became the centre of a Buddhist kingdom, Buddhism arriving from northern India. During the 8th and 9th centuries the Tibetans passed through the Tarim Basin in the process of establishing – through conquest, no less – a Central Asian kingdom. Colin Thubron, in his majestic, Shadows of the Silk Road, notes that Chinese visitors to Buddhist Hotan were horrified at the sight of Hotanese women wearing trousers and riding horses. The city became known for its silk production and for jade. A Chinese legend says that when a tiger died its eyes became jade under the desert sands.
Some time in the mid-10th century, Satuk Bughra Khan, a Turkic Karahanlı leader, converted to Islam, thus beginning the eventual Islamisation of the entire Tarim Basin. It was a slow process, taking centuries, with the Muslim Karahanlı dominating the west and Buddhist Uyghurs in the east. Around 1000 a Sufi mystic and Muslim general, Imam Asim, conquered Hotan, bringing an end to the city’s Buddhist history.
The tomb of Imam Asim, on the fringes of the vast desert, is still a pilgrimage site for the Uyghurs of Hotan. In his book Thubron recounts local police loitering at the site, keeping a suspicious eye out for ‘Wahhabis’, a catch-all phrase for Muslim fundamentalists. But Thubron himself was told by locals that they had ‘never felt anything about Al Qaeda’, beyond which, few if any Uyghurs speak Arabic so few would have any direct exposure to radical Islamic ideas. They may recite prayers in Arabic, but without understanding the words, so that their prayers, as Thubron puts it, take on an ‘incantatory magic’.
When I made the journey out to the mazar (tomb) of Imam Asim, a family group of Uyghurs arrived with a chicken for sacrifice (and a bag of grapes: presumably for eating). An animal sacrifice at the tomb of a Sufi mystic (albeit one who was a general) is hardly a practice that would be tolerated by ‘Wahhabis’. Rather it is evidence of a melange of cultural and spiritual practices.
It is commonly thought that the very tomb of Imam Asim was established on the site of an earlier Buddhist pilgrimage site. The tomb itself, a mound topped with a mass of coloured flags rippling in the desert wind, reminded me of nothing so much as a Buddhist tomb. As I watched the Uyghurs reciting their ‘incantatory magic’, at this the most distant point of the Taklamakan that I am ever likely to reach, nothing could have made me happier.