The last of the Ashiqs: the Sufi troubadours of Xinjiang

Yengisar-streetLAST WEEK I was fortunate to attend a seminar at the Monash Asia Institute focusing on the influence and persistence of Sufism and shamanism in modern Xinjiang. For this event two visitors from Xinjiang Normal University in Urumqi, Liu Xiangchen, Professor of Visual Anthropology, and Dilmurat Omar, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology, came to Monash to discuss their work.

The Monash Asia Institute has for several years been running a project to document the significant cultural sites and spaces of Kashgar, the spiritutal capital for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, so to have experts visiting from Xinjiang was a great thrill. All the more so for me because I got to meet both professors beforehand and to impress (!?!) them with my few words of Uyghur (and some perhaps not entirely relevant Turkish…)

Incidentally, the Monash Kashgar project has resulted in a fabulous book, published by Frances Lincoln.

Discussions at the seminar highlighted Xinjiang as a realm of overlapping and intersecting cultural traditions and practices, perfect grist for the mill for this blog. In the first session of the seminar, Professor Dilmurat outlined the persistence in Xinjiang of shamanistic practices amongst the Kirghiz minority, an ostensibly Muslim people; the second session included a screening of Ashiq: the Last Troubadours, a documentary detailing the life of Sufi musicians/mystics on the south-western fringes of the Taklamakan Desert.

Aside from the day-to-day rhythm of the life of the ashiq, the film presented a compelling portrait – in miniature – of oasis towns and cities including Kashgar, Yarkand, Yengisar and Hotan. The incidental detail – distinctive Xinjiang vernacular architecture, remote mazars (tombs), pencil-slim poplar trees rippling in the breeze, the curious melding of Chinese design motifs with Turkic (or Persianate), the gregariousness and endless good cheer of the Uyghurs, the great comings-together of people, sitting cross legged on carpeted floors – were so redolent of my brief time in Xinjiang that I could almost smell mutton kebabs and feel talcumy dust on my fingers.

Uighur-homeThe film detailed the role that the ashiq play in the spiritual life of the Uyghurs and how that may be diminishing in the face of the modernity and other forces that are brought to bear in western China. The ashiq tradition stretches back into the mists of time, with its origin somewhere amongst Turkic and/or Central Asian peoples. It has had a pervasive influence. Moving westward with the great Turkic migrations it was notable amongst Turkish and Azerbaijanis dynasties (distant, Muslim, cousins of the Uyghurs). It continues to be popular in modern Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijan, and, as aşıklık, it is deemed by UNESCO to be part of Turkey’s intangible cultural heritage.

It also appeared amongst Christian peoples. As the Turks encountered the Armenians and Georgians of the Caucasus so the tradition was adopted by them. Armenian poets and minstrels from around the 16th century assumed the title of ashuq, the most famous, Sayat Nova, is Armenia’s favourite bard and is sometimes said to be the greatest ashiq of the Caucasus. Apparently the tradition also made it to Greece (ασίκης), and it is tempting to draw parallels between recurring themes in the ashiq canon and notions of courtly love that were popular amongst the bards and minstrels of Medieval Europe.

In fact, at its most basic the message conveyed by the ashiq is all about love. It seems clear that the very terminology comes from “eshq” (عشق ), the Persian word for love, from which we get the Turkish (aşk). In the Christian milieu, medieval bards (certainly in the case of Sayat Nova) sang of romantic love (often of a star-crossed, unrequited, doomed-to-tragedy variety), but in the Islamic ashiq tradition love was spiritual, desire not for a worldly coupling but for union with the Divine.

This is the case in the performances of the ashiq and lay people in Liu Xiangchen’s film showing modern practice in Xinjiang. The songs, chants and genuflections were an aspiration to some sort of heavenly consummation, although that is not to say that they were without elements of aforementioned star-crossedness or the torment of unrequitedness. It was not unusual to see Uyghur singers and observers, their hands upturned in an attitude of prayer, moved to tears.

Liu Xiangchen, from Xinjiang Normal University, has made a string of films about the peoples and cultures of Xinjiang. At the Monash seminar he explained how his interest in the ashiq was aroused when he was appointed by the Chinese government to film muqam performances in Xinjiang as part of an application to install the Uyghur musical form on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. (Muqam itself dates back into the early history of the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang, although Ammanisa Khan is credited with formalising the musical form in 16th century Yarkand. Much of the poetry that accompanies muqam shares imagery and themes with Sufi poetry, particularly themes of spiritual longing for the Divine.)

For Ashiq, Liu spent around 400 days filming, having met with and won the confidences of his subjects in locations on the southern fringe of the Taklamakan. He remarked that he found it extremely hard to edit the film as he had to leave so much valuable footage on the cutting-room floor. As it turns out the film now stands at around 122 minutes, but he has a longer, director’s cut version at around four hours.

Uighur-girlsLiu explained that the ashiq see themselves as marginalised, both by the forces of modernisation and by the wider Uyghur community. The ashiqs and their Sufi followers captured in the movie appeared to be on the fringes of society, both physically and figuratively. They tended to be blacksmiths, barbers and beggars living in cramped and humble surrounds. One memorable quote describes the tradition as “700 years of marginalisation and vagabond life”. In some regards, this is a source of strength and may be a part of its appeal. Underdog status may well be a point of pride from some ashiq, tenacity in the face of adversity may be seen as a noble quality and even the fact that Divine spiritual union must remain unconsummated (at least until death, hypothetically) lends a degree of delicious longing to the life of the ashiq and to Sufis of all stripes.

The film revealed the diversity and intensity of the Sufi experience. Communal practice at times was shown to be hypnotic and intoxicating, hordes of men bobbing together in unison and chanting. Individual devotions could be powerfully moving. Sitting at a mazar on a windswept dune, a circle of women, their cheeks streaked with tears.

For all the material poverty and gritty circumstances that were on show, it was evident that ashiq performance and Sufi ritual is hugely enriching for the participants. It put me in mind of a memorable description from The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s wonderful account of a walk into Dolpo, on the Tibetan plateau. Matthiessen recounts happening on a local acquaintance who appears “as enchanted as ever with his meagre life”. And so it is with the Uyghur Sufis: despite a difficult existence on the fringes of the severe Taklamakan, despite marginalisation, despite lack of material comforts, for them life is a fulfilling journey, one that may promise rewards in the hereafter, but also one in which every step is acknowledged, appreciated and relished in that very moment.


Twilight in Kashgar

A shortened version of this feature first appeared in the Travel & Indulgence pages of The Weekend Australian on September 7-8. 

Evening is a drawn out affair in Kashgar, the great Silk Road entrepôt in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. Official time is in sync with Beijing, so in this city four hours’ flying time west of the capital the working day effectively ends in the mid-afternoon and darkness doesn’t descend until 9:00pm. I learn quickly that when making arrangements it’s vital to specify whether a rendezvous is at “Beijing time” or “Kashgar time”.

In October, as summer has faded and the clear skies of autumn hover, sticking to “Beijing time” lends an unhurried  quality to the gloaming. In and around Kashgar’s Old Town this just gives the locals longer to congregate outdoors.

old-town-pedlar-kashgarAs elsewhere in Asia, life is lived on the streets here. Walking along Seman Lu I encounter a lively poker game on the broad pavement. Women congregate to chat. Market gardeners sell grapes, weighed out on balancing scales. Passers-by gather for snacks at roadside stalls.

It’s my first time in China but I can’t overcome a sense of familiarity. It feels uncannily like Turkey, where I have travelled many times before. The card players on Seman Lu wear embroidered Islamic prayer caps, the gossiping mothers sport unruly headscarfs and flowing dresses, the snacks are sunflower seeds shared from newspaper cones. All of this echoes streetlife in Turkey. But of course, the local population are Uyghurs, a Muslim people who are culturally and linguistically related to the Turks.

In fact the Uyghurs are the ones who stayed behind when the nomadic Turkic peoples started their long westward migration across Eurasia in the tenth century. Yet while 1000 years may separate the residents of modern Turkey and the Uyghurs who mill around me, the similarities between the two peoples are overwhelming.

The conviviality of life in the street, the tendency to clutch the forearm of the person being spoken to, even the way pedestrians blithely step across major roads unconcerned at oncoming mopeds and taxis are so familiar it’s as if I’ve found myself in a Turkish outpost squeezed into a corner of China. The language, too, is similar. When I enter a shop and use my halting traveller’s Turkish to buy bottled water I am gifted an array of smiles.

A favourite spot for both tourists and locals is the venerable Uyghur Teahouse.  On the edge of the Old Town, the teahouse, reached via rickety stairs, offers a view of the comings and goings on Handicrafts Street. Here Uyghur elders congregate at length over pots of tea – another penchant they share with the Turks – stroking their beards, flicking prayer beads and discussing the affairs of the day.

At street level , plumes of tangy smoke rise from the grills of the kebab makers. Decorated rounds of nun  bread are on sale outside the baker’s tandir. When I visit in the afternoon, I spy several barber shops that also offer dental services, a vocational coupling that doesn’t strike me as the most obvious.

music-factory-kashgarOn Handicrafts Street, Uyghur artisans hammer at copper tea pots or sharpen knives while maintaining conversations with passing friends. At the Uyghur Musical Instrument Factory, a shop reeking of resin and wood shavings, collected traditional instruments are on sale. After buying a souvenir  tambourine I am treated to the plaintive vocals and shimmering dutar (long-necked lute) performance of local muqam musicians. Outside sassy Uyghur teenagers check their mobile phones while scooting around on mopeds adorned with woven saddle bags.

This oasis city on the fringe of the Taklamakan Desert has seen the comings and goings of peoples over millennia. Through here came Silk Road traffic moving both ways between China and the Mediterranean.  Different faiths and all manner of trade goods passed through Kashgar, a plethora of cargoes on the backs of mightily laden camels.

Marco Polo once passed through making dismissive comments about the local “Turkis”. During the height of the Great Game in the 19th century the city was prone to “international melodrama” as the spies of the British and Russian empires sort to outpoint each other. And at intervals came Chinese dynastic armies expanding out of the east, seeking to subdue and envelope a vast frontier territory of which Kashgar was the focal point.

Most recently, in 1949, the People’s Republican Army marched in. The Chinese claim Xinjiang as an integral part of China, citing Han Dynasty control in the 1st century BC and episodes of central rule since. The Uyghurs largely see it otherwise, pointing to long intervals when Turkic sultans and khans or local warlords held sway. Some draw parallels to the situation in Tibet and maintain demands for autonomy or independence.

For now, Beijing is firmly in control, marshalling the Xinjiang region (fully one-sixth of the Chinese landmass) for redevelopment and modernisation. Redevelopment in Kashgar centres on the Old Town, much of which is being demolished to allow ranks of apartment buildings to be constructed. Winding alleys, shaded courtyards and centuries-old stucco houses adorned with carved wooden embellishments are being bulldozed in the name of progress.

Authorities claim that the Old Town is an earthquake risk and new housing is necessary. Local opinion is divided. One local, Khadija, tells me it is “good and bad”. She likes the idea of modern conveniences but fears the dispersal of her neighbourhood community. Another, Mustafa, tells me, “Some Uyghurs say that [existing] buildings are old and small. But mostly they say ‘no, no, no…’”

Parts of the Old Town are being preserved, however, as a “living museum”. I buy an entrance ticket and wander several streets. Here, life is lived at close quarters. Little girls play on doorsteps. Boys kick footballs in alleyways that have coded paving stones, hexagonal for throughways, rectangular for dead ends. There are no cars, just the odd pedlar arriving on a three-wheeled motorbike to deliver vegetables. Conversations echo in enclosed spaces. Hearing the Turkic lilt of Uyghur voices, I could be in old Istanbul.

livestock-market-3-kashgarSome see the pulling down of the Old Town as a move towards smothering Uyghur identity. Others claim the Chinese government’s action, whether done with good intentions or otherwise, will ultimately lead to the assimilation of the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs and the Han Chinese already share many characteristics: a flare for communal storytelling, gregariousness, a predilection for round-the-clock cups of tea, eating breakfast with chopsticks. Will Uyghur distinctiveness eventually be lost?

I prefer to think that a culture and lifestyle as vibrant and boisterous as that of the Uyghurs will not be so easily overcome. I think of the sassy moped pilots, the noisy pavement poker players. At the Sunday livestock market I watch burly Uyghur farmers wrestling yaks onto trucks, man-handling sheep and taking donkeys for “test drives”. These dignified men, with calloused hands and buttoned waistcoats, are no push-overs.

This region has long been a melting pot. Cultures and creeds have intermingled and overlapped here since time immemorial. Chinese and Uyghur cohabitation need not be a zero sum game. My last meal in Kashgar is evidence of this. Surrounded by Chinese and Uyghur chatter, I eat chilli-encrusted lamb with pulled noodles and braised cabbage.

Leaving the restaurant, I pause at the kerb. Twilight again. A brooding sky. Swallows zip overhead. The street lights suddenly ripple on. I abandon myself to the traffic and step out amongst the racing mopeds.


Tomb of Imam Asim: meeting point for Islam and Buddhism

EARLIER THIS WEEK the outstanding online news cooperative The Tuqay ran my story about the tomb of Imam Asim in Hotan. Hovering on the southern perimeter of the Taklamakan Desert, Hotan is perhaps most famous for its jade, something that has drawn Chinese traders for millennia. It’s also renowned as the first place outside China where silk was cultivated. According to the story, in around AD 50  a wily Chinese concubine who was married off to a Khotanese prince brought silk worm eggs out of China in her hair. Perhaps this was an act of industrial espionage, in reverse, the concubine exacting her revenge by ending China’s monopoly on silk production after she was banished to the conjugal relations on the periphery of the realm.

Modern Hotan is still known for its jade, and has a reputation for carpet making. I spent a bit of time at the jade market, a clamour of traders and shoppers on the banks of the Yurungkash river just on the edge of town. Apparently the river, which was long the source of jade, has been over exploited. Among the stalls and shops there was jade in all manner of forms – some looked like little more than tarted up river pebbles with a cheap gloss of varnish. There was nothing much that caught my eye, but I did buy some cheap costume jewellery – amethyst glass – from a weather beaten Uyghur woman with leathery palms.

hotan-carpetThe tomb of Imam Asim was far more interesting than the jade market, for mine. To get there we had to pass through the edges of town. So often it is in these little-visited corners that you get an insight into workaday life, into what makes a place tick. I remember dusty roads, corner shops, kids on bikes, irrigation canals, clusters of houses that didn’t quite constitute villages, kids swimming in the canals, stands of tall, shady poplars such a feature of the agricultural areas that ring the oasis cities of Xinjiang.

Hotan, for all of its current backwater status, played a pivotal role in various histories. This was a foothold in the region for Buddhism, which emerged out of India to the south. A Buddhist kingdom of Khotan was established here in around 200BC. It was conquered by Tibetans in the late 8th century, then the Karakhanids (or Karahanlı as they are known to the Turks), amongst whom moved Imam Asim. It was then that the Turkic languages came to replace pre-existing languages of the Taklamakan.

In 955, Karakhanid Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan was the first Turkic ruler to convert to Islam. Arabic sources say that ‘two hundred thousand tents of the Turks’ converted in 960. It’s my understanding that prior to this the Muslim presence in Central Asia was entirely Persian (indeed, a strong Persian imprint remains in Tajikistan, obviously, but also the notable cities of Uzbekistan, including Samarkand and Bukhara). Whatever the case, it would seem that Turkic groups didn’t convert on mass, but the process of Islamicisation took place over centuries. By the time Marco Polo passed through Hotan in the second half of the 13th century, all the population was Muslim; he noted that they “lived by trade and industry” and were “not at all warlike”.

The Karakhanids had become the dominant Turkic dynasty in the region following the decline of the Uyghur khaganate, which was established further east in Mongolia (in around 744) and after which the Uyghurs of the modern era are named. But the Karakhanids are significant because they mark the first instance of the westward movement of Turkic peoples under the banner of Islam that resulted in the Turkification of much of Central Asia but also saw the eventual arrival of the Turks in Europe.

Phew! That’s a lot of dynasties and eras… Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but if your interest is piqued and want more explanation (in prose a lot more appealing than this post!!) Valerie Hansen’s Silk Road: a new history is an engaging read.




Hotan: deep in the Taklamakan

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.


Karakoram highs

Last weekend, The Australian ran a travel piece of mine about trundling up the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar towards the Pakistan border. You can read it here. The Australian has recently instituted a paywall for a lot of its web content, but clearly my story isn’t deemed premium because it appears to be freely accessible.

Doing some very amateurish forensic etymology, I figure that “Karakoram” includes elements of Turkic (kara = black) and Persian (kor = ember) languages. An alternative interpretation is that the name comes from the Kirghiz (itself a Turkic language) for “black gravel”.

It seems to me appropriate that the mountains in this neck of the woods should have a Turko-Persian moniker, as this is a corner of the world where Turkic and Persian peoples have commingled for a very long time, although there’s nothing particularly black about the mountains, from my observations. It’s appropriate for my experience, too, having travelled from Uyghur Kashgar, into the realm of the Kirghiz and finally the Tajiks (a Persianate people thought to be the descendants of the Bactrians and the Sogdians of classical antiquity).

As with many stories, I had a rough idea of what I wanted to include – beginning in the market at Upal and continuing to the wedding in Tashkurgan and beyond – but it turned out that I had way more to say than the 1500-ish word limit would allow and I ended up paring back a lot.

I had set out along the Karakoram Highway after a couple of days in Kashgar. The trip up the highway, gaining almost 3000 metres from Kashgar to the mountain pass into the Tashkurgan district the following day, was quite exhausting considering that the bulk of the time I was just sitting in the back of a taxi. Perhaps it’s a travel thing:  moving long distances, be it by train in Europe, by bus in Turkey, or as in this case uphill in a taxi just tends to be wearying.

The altitude, too, as my article points out, knocked me for six. Karakul Lake is at 3600 metres above sea level. I was exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time. Taking a motorcycle tour with some of the local Kirghiz guys, I clung on for dear life, grimacing at every bump, of which there were many. I exchanged one word with my motorcycle chauffeur – “yak”, which I took to mean “yak”, and which of course has a very Turkic ring to it. They took us to a place which my fellow traveller, Ibrahim, described as “jennet” (heaven). The rolling hills, the serene blue skies, the brittle wind, the looming snow-topped domes were all intoxicating. I couldn’t get the refrain from REM’s Near Wild Heaven out of my head: a wussy song, but the experience felt wild and the location had a rough-around-the-edges nearly heaven feel.

There was something compelling about racing by motorbike around the lake in the late afternoon.  A lustrous sky, somehow the shade and resilience of pale-blue nacre; immaculate white mountains that seemed to draw the light in, to retain a dull pulsing radiance, a presence that was irrefutable; the earthy grey of the hillsides and roads that we travelled on. It was a million miles from home but somehow familiar.

Returning to the yurt, we gathered around the brazier, which roared and gave off a pleasing smoky tang. We ate dinner, hearing the wind – the coldness made tangible – outside, seeing the utter darkness through the window. I bedded down on a raised, carpeted platform (I’m sure these have a specific name – they appeared in a lot of houses that I saw in Xinjiang), all the while struggling with a thumping altitude headache (which I didn’t think I should highlight in my piece for The Australian).

In the morning the highway reached an elevation of 4200 metres at the entry to Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County then descended into Tashkurgan town. Tashkurgan undeniably is a Turkic name (tash/taş = stone; kurgan = fortress), although the fortress that is the centrepiece of the town, described by Peter Fleming as “excessively romantic”, is made of what appears to be mud brick. Ibrahim explained to me that it is in fact the town itself that is the stone fortress, in that it is ringed by the precipitous peaks of the Pamirs.

Interestingly “Tajik”, too, is a Turkic word, first attributed to the great 11th-century Uyghur scribe Mahmud Kashgari, who used it to refer to all of the Persian-speaking people of Central Asia. The Tajiks of Tashkurgan are Nizari Ismailis (that is, a sect within Shi’ism); their language is related to that of the Wakhis in nearby Afghanistan, and, of course, to the residents of Tajikistan.

The Tajik wedding was somehow familiar too. The way the women went about the tasks at hand, preparing food, distributing cakes and cups of tea. The way the men hovered, muttering, at ease. It was, of course, a family gathering, but it somehow called to mind family gatherings I had experienced at my grandparents’ house in Berkeley Street, Hawthorn, in the 1970s. All that was missing was the Savoury Shapes and Schweppes lime juice cordial.

It was all over quickly. We headed back down the highway, passing the turn off to Tajikistan (the border is closed to Western travellers, I believe). Then the taxi suddenly stopped, due to a leak in a radiator pipe. After Ibrahim made several unsuccessful attempts to fix it we waved down a minivan of Chinese who were heading our way. We squeezed in, and some distance on they suddenly broke into a Chinese song that sounded uncannily familiar. It turns out they were Chinese Christians and we duly rolled back down the Karakoram Highway into the gloaming singing Chinese-language versions of Amazing Grace and Song of Joy. Amazing Grace indeed!

The Golden Road to Yarkand

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.