Gaochang Ruins

The Gaochang Ruins were once the site of an ancient oasis city built on the northern edge of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert. They are located at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, about 46 kilometres (29 mi) southeast of Turpan, and have miraculously survived for over 2,000 years. They were incorporated into the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 and, thanks to renovations and preservation projects, have since enjoyed a much deserved facelift! Though they may not be in as good a condition as the Jiaohe Ruins, which are about 40 kilometres (25 mi) to their west, they still maintain a certain inimitable charm.

The city was built during the 1st century BC and was ruled by the Cheshi (Jushi) Kingdom, until they surrendered control of the area to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) around about 50 BC. It played a focal role as one of the main trade hubs and oasis towns along the Silk Road, making it a prized asset that the Han court was keen to protect. It became the capital of the Gaochang Kingdom (531-640) during the 6th century but returned to Chinese control in 640, when it was conquered by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, this would prove to be short-lived as the Tang court was forced to withdraw its military forces from the area in 755. Like a property in Central London, Gaochang’s prime location meant it was incredibly valuable and hotly contested!

By 803, the Uyghur ethnic group had taken control of the city and it became part of the Kingdom of Qocho (856-1335). In 1209 this kingdom came under the suzerainty of Genghis Khan and eventually became part of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but was seized by a rival Mongolian kingdom known as the Chatagai Khanate from 1275 to 1318. When the Yuan Dynasty eventually collapsed, the trade route that ran through Gaochang was disrupted and war broke out between the Mongolians and the Uyghurs. This warfare greatly damaged the city and this, coupled with the disruption of trade, led to the city being gradually abandoned.

Although the city was left in bad shape, much of the additional destruction happened long after it was deserted. Initially Muslims from outlying areas destroyed many of the Buddhist frescos within the city that depicted human or animal forms, believing them to be blasphemous. Then, over a period of time, local farmers took wall paintings from the temples and soil from the walls of the earthen buildings, as they made good fertiliser. So remember, if you happen to sample any of the locally grown vegetables, you’re quite literally enjoying the taste of Gaochang!

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the archaeological value of the region was discovered, and soon archaeologists from across the globe flocked to the area to marvel at the ruins. Many of the relics excavated in Gaochang are now scattered throughout museums in London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and other far-flung cities, but many more still remain within the city’s dilapidated walls.

In its heyday, the city boasted an impressive population of approximately 30,000 people and was undoubtedly one of the livelier towns along the Silk Road. Its colossal earthen walls once towered in at over 11 metres (38 ft.) in height and it was separated into three parts: the outer city, the inner city, and the palace city. The inner city was protected by a secondary inner wall, which has since vanished, but large portions of the outer wall still remain. The palace city at Gaochang’s northernmost point was once arguably its most magnificent edifice, but now contains only the massive cornerstones of the ruined imperial palace.

On top of being a centre for trade, it was once an important religious site and, during the Tang Dynasty, it became one of the foremost Buddhist cities. In 630, while on his pilgrimage to India, the renowned monk Xuanzang even gave lectures there. At one time, the city was host to numerous monasteries, including a Confucian college and a Nestorian church, and over 3,000 monks made a home within its walls. Nowadays all that remains of this illustrious heritage are the ruins of two major temples in the southern part of the outer city. The temple in the southwest still has remnants of a gate, a courtyard, a sermon hall, a sutra[1] depository, and the monks’ living quarters, while the temple in the southeast only consists of a tower and a series of well-preserved murals.

Mummies recovered from the Astana Tombs, just 4 kilometres to the north of the ruins, were discovered to be of both Caucasian and Mongolian descent, which suggests that Gaochang may have been one of the oldest multi-ethnic and multi-religious cities in China. Murals in the nearby Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves also depict both Central Asian and Chinese monks. So who knows, you might recognise your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather in one of the frescos!

 

1. Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

 

 

 

Other Customs of Uyghur Ethnic Minority

The customs and taboos of the Uyghur ethnic minority have been informed primarily by their rich history and their pious belief in Islam. When receiving guests, the host will typically offer them the best seats, treat them to some tea or milk, and then provide them with some small snacks, such as dried fruit or sweetmeats. If you are offered a drink, be sure to take the cup with both hands as this is a sign of courtesy. The same applies if you are being offered a gift.

When dinner is ready to be served, the host will bring a kettle of water and invite the guests to wash their hands. This is because many Uyghur signature dishes, such as zhuafan or “hand rice”, are eaten with the hands or using a piece of naan bread rather than with cutlery. It is important to note that you should never place the naan bread upside down while eating it. According to their Islamic faith, Uyghurs are forbidden from eating pork and they also cannot eat any animal that has not been killed by a butcher in the traditional halal way.

When it comes to dining etiquette, it is considered extremely rude for a guest to fiddle with the food in their dish, put back any food that they’ve taken, or leave some food in their bowl. If any food is dropped during the meal, the guest should quietly pick it up and wrap it in a tissue. Once the meal is finished, the elderly members of the household will lead the group in a profound act of worship known as a Dua[1]. Guests should remain in their seats and try to stay as still as possible during the Dua.

 

[1]Dua: The term “dua” is an Arabic word that roughly translates to mean “supplication” or “invocation”. Within the Islamic faith, it is an act of worship whereby the worshipper calls out to Allah and expresses their devotedness to him.

 

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The Spirituality of Uyghur Ethnic Minority

Throughout their long and illustrious history, the Uyghur people have adopted numerous religions, including shamanism[1], Tengrism[2], Manichaeism, and Buddhism. However, by the 17th century, the vast majority of Uyghurs had converted to Islam. This means that they pray in mosques, follow priests known as imams, and worship the holy book known as the Quran. They rank as the second largest Muslim group in China, directly after the Hui people. That being said, Uyghurs and Hui people rarely worship in the same mosques.

Nowadays, the majority of Uyghur people follow the Sunni branch of Islam, although there are existing conflicts between those who subscribe to the mystical tradition of Sufism and those who do not. Generally speaking, Uyghurs living in the southern regions of Xinjiang, particularly surrounding the city of Kashgar, are much more conservative. In these regions, women will most likely wear the full veil, which is uncommon in other parts of Xinjiang. In less conservative areas, many people will still drink alcohol, will not object to women working, and will allow young women to wear Western clothes.

In rural parts of Xinjiang, many shamanistic and animistic[3] traditions endure. These traditions appear to have intertwined with Islam, as shamans will chant passages of the Quran to heal the sick and people will wear amulets inscribed with Arabic script to ward off evil spirits. In Gansu province, there is a small pocket of people known as the Yugurs or “Yellow Uyghurs” who still practice Tibetan Buddhism. It is thought that they share a common ancestry with the Uyghur people, although they are a distinctly different ethnic group.

 

 

[1] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

[2] Tengrism: This is a Central Asian polytheistic religion that incorporates features of shamanism, animism, totemism, and ancestor worship. The religion is founded on the belief that the meaning of life is to live in harmony with the natural world. Historically, it was of great significance to the Turks, the Mongols, and the Hungarians.

[3] Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.

 

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The Craftwork of Uyghur Ethnic Minority

 

Yengisar knif

The Uyghur people are renowned for their skill at processing gold, gemstones, silk, and leather wares. Among all of these glittering jewels, the most prized are the knives of Yengisar. Yengisar is a small town in Yengisar County of Xinjiang that has been manufacturing handcrafted knives for over 400 years. There are over 20 different types of Yengisar knife that come in around 40 diverse designs. They can range from small pocket knives to formidably large swords. In short, they’re not the kind of knife you’d keep in a kitchen drawer! The hilt is typically carved with a myriad of intricate patterns, while the blade is made of stainless steel and the cutting edge is notoriously sharp. For men, carrying a knife is a major part of Uyghur culture and these spectacular knives are a symbol of the wearer’s masculinity.

 

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The Festivals of the Uyghur Ethnic Minority

Eid al-Adha

Since the Uyghur people are predominantly Muslim, they mainly observe Islamic festivals and follow the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar that has 12 months and 354 days in each year. Therefore one year in the Islamic calendar is 11 days shorter than in our Gregorian calendar, meaning they have to wait less time between festivals! The two main religious festivals observed by the Uyghur people are known as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

Eid al-Fitr

During the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the Uyghur people observe a religious practice known as Ramadan. Throughout Ramadan, men older than 12 and women older than 9 must fast during daylight hours and can only eat and drink once it is dark (i.e. before sunrise and after sunset). It is practised during the ninth month because, according to the Quran, this is when Allah bestowed his teachings upon the prophet Mohammed, meaning this is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar.

Eid al-Fitr01Muslims fast during Ramadan in order to experience starvation and thus empathise with those less fortunate. Once the fasting has ended, they celebrate a festival known as Eid al-Fitr, which takes place on the 1st day of the 10th month. To begin, people get up early in the morning, take a bath, and thoroughly clean their house and surrounding streets. They then light incense and head to the mosque in their formal clothes, where they will attend a religious service and listen respectfully to the imams giving lectures and sermons.

Once these are completed, they must go to their family’s cemetery and hold activities in honour of their ancestors. The family will then gather together and cook up a grand feast. After a month of fasting, it’s a small wonder that anyone has the patience to prepare food and not just wolf down the raw ingredients! This food will usually be shared with relatives, friends, and neighbours as a sign of goodwill.

Eid al-Adha

The term “Eid al-Adha” means “sacrifice and self-devotion” in Arabic, so it is unsurprisingly also known as the Feast of Sacrifice, and the Festival of Fidelity and Filial Piety. It is a four-day festival that begins on the 10th day of the 12th month according to the Islamic calendar and revolves around the sacrifice of an animal, usually an ox, which people will divide into three portions. The first portion of meat is given to family members, the second is gifted to relatives, friends, and neighbours, and the final portion will be used as alms to help the poor. The older family members boil the meat and inform the children that, after they have finished eating, they must bury the bones underground and cover them with yellow earth instead of giving them to dogs.

Eid al-Adha02They traditionally sacrifice animals during this festival in homage to the ancient prophet Ibrahim. According to the Quran, Allah spoke to Ibrahim and ordered him to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Ibrahim sharpened his knife and approached his son, but relented and begged his son to leave. However, Ishmael told his father that, if it was the will of Allah, then he must be sacrificed.

Ishmael lay down in acceptance of his death and Ibrahim felt tears stream down his cheeks as he placed the knife on his son’s throat. At that moment, Allah stopped Ibrahim and provided him with a “greater sacrifice” than Ishmael, although it is never explicitly mentioned what this sacrifice was. This festival honours both Ibrahim’s devotion to Allah and Ishmael’s filial piety in obeying his father without hesitation.

During the festival, most families will host a gathering and share a feast of beef, mutton, fruit, fried cakes, and other delicious dishes with their relatives, friends, neighbours, and sometimes local imams. This feast will be followed by vibrant performances of folk song and dance, such as the Twelve Muqam or the Sanam Dance.

 

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The Performance of Uyghur Ethnic Minority

 

Muqam02

The Uyghur people are renowned throughout China for their excellent dancing skills, particularly in reference to a type of performance art known as the Twelve Muqam. This classical epic is comprised of 340 folk songs and dances that are separated into twelve parts called Rak, Čäbbiyat, Segah, Čahargah, Pänjigah, Özhal, Äjäm, Uššaq, Bayat, Nava, Mušavräk, and Iraq. If you were to play them all back-to-back in full, it would take an average of 24 hours to complete! In 2005, UNESCO designated this incredible folk art as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Historically speaking, the precursor to the muqam was a type of music called the “Great Western Region Melody”, which originated from Central Asia and appeared in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). It became particularly popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when it was developed as an art form and greatly enjoyed at court. The Uyghur people masterminded several local muqam systems and named them after oasis towns in Xinjiang, including Dolan, Ili, Kumul, and Turpan. Many of these regional varieties of muqam still exist and are widely popular today. However, arguably the most magnificent of these systems is the Twelve Muqam. They represent a body of folk art and dance that was edited and systemised during the 1950s by celebrated performers such as Turdi Akhun and Omar Akhun.

Muqam01Although the Twelve Muqam are grouped together, they each differ in musical style, dance choreography, and type of instruments used. Some are performed solo, while others are group pieces. Each muqam begins with a long free rhythm introduction, which is followed by characteristic rhythmic patterns that gradually increase in speed. The overall structure can be separated into three parts: the naghma, the dastan, and the mashrap. This can be further subdivided into smaller pieces known as täzä, nuskha, small säliqä, jula, sänäm, large säliqä, päshru, and täkit.

The content of the pieces ranges from folk ballads right through to poems written by classical Uyghur poets, giving a broad spectrum of Uyghur history and culture. In-keeping with this local aesthetic, many of the dance moves are based on everyday tasks or scenes, such as flower picking, carrying the bowl on the head, and imitation of various animals. When it comes to musical accompaniment, there are over 62 types of instrument used by the Uyghur people, including a type of long-necked lute called the dutar, a sheep skin tambourine with small iron rings attached to the rim known as the dap, and a smaller stringed instrument called a rawap.

Muqam03The Twelve Muqam are commonly performed at a traditional type of Uyghur gathering known as a meshrep. This is an all-male event that is held within the courtyard of a participant’s family home. Traditionally they were only held on special occasions, such as the harvest, wedding days, and coming-of-age ceremonies. Each meshrep consists of a leader, who is typically the elder, a disciplinarian, and a group of 30 or so younger men. They all sit on a carpet together in sequence according to seniority. The women and children of the host’s family are not permitted to join in, and are instead relegated to the task of serving the guests food. Talk about getting the raw end of the deal!

Meshreps are primarily male bonding events, where the men will play muqam melodies, perform whirling circular dances, sing songs, act out comedic skits, and recite lectures from religious leaders. However, there is a darker side to this noble pastime. A substantial portion of the meshrep is sometimes dedicated to scolding the attendees for their moral transgressions, such as the drinking of alcohol or the taking of a second wife. Generally speaking, however, the meshrep is a time for entertainment and, in some parts of Xinjiang, they can last the whole night!

MeshrepOn other special occasions, such as weddings, parties, or festivals, the Sanam Dance is usually performed. This popular folk dance has a lively musical accompaniment and is characterised by an increase of pace, starting slowly and gradually becoming faster. The style of dance varies from region to region, and dancers may even improvise in the midst of the festivities. After all, it never hurts to get a little lost in the music!

 

Uyghur Marriage Customs

 

Uyghur wedding01

Although Uyghur men were polygamists in the past, nowadays they are firmly monogamous and must follow a strict ritual before winning over the woman of their dreams! Courtship begins with what is known as a marriage interview, which is a necessary step if a young man wishes to marry a woman or if the family wants to arrange a marriage for their son. Before the interview, the prospective groom must learn everything about his lady love’s background, including her age, appearance, personality, and family history. If you thought first dates were hard, imagine having a full-blown interview first!

Only once he feels that he is ready will he propose the idea of marriage, although the man and woman may have previously been courting one another long before the marriage interview. In this instance, they would first agree to marry each other and then ask the woman’s family members to conduct the marriage interview, so as to publicise their relationship and make it legitimate. Once the intention to marry has been announced, the groom’s family will hire a go-between to make the marriage arrangements.

This go-between will first visit the woman’s family with a number of gifts. If the family accepts the gifts, this is a sure sign that they will allow the marriage to take place. If the gifts are rejected, then the suitor’s success is doubtful. It is after the gift-giving stage that the nerve-wracking marriage interview must take place. The prospective groom will visit the woman’s family and be asked a series of questions about his plans for their future, such as where they will live and how often they will visit. If he answers these questions to their satisfaction, then they will begin discussing the cost of the wedding and what sort of dowry they intend to provide. Finally, they arrange a third meeting where they will fix the date for the marriage ceremony.

Uyghur wedding02On the day of the wedding, the groom will travel to the bride’s house with a group of musicians. She will wait for him wearing a traditional red wedding dress, although nowadays some women opt for a white dress instead. The groom and his party must enter her home presenting gifts and singing lively songs. The ceremony itself is overseen by an akhoond, a type of Islamic cleric who is responsible for leading religious ceremonies. The akhoond will first ask if both the bride and groom wish to marry each other. After they have both agreed to the marriage, the akhoond will take a piece of naan bread, break it into two pieces, dip it in salt water, hand one piece to the bride, and hand the other to the groom. This act is meant to symbolise that the couple will spend the rest of their life together both in wealth, as represented by the bread, and in sorrow, as signified by the salt water.

The bride is then carried to the groom’s house, where the couple will be blessed by the oldest female member of his family. This female relative is also the one who lifts the bride’s veil, allowing the groom to see and kiss his new wife, potentially for the first time! After the formal ceremony is over, the young guests will party, drink, and dance late into the night. Throughout the following week, both the groom’s and bride’s families will host large banquets for friends and relatives.

 

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Traditional Dress of Uyghur Minority

 

Uyghur dress

The traditional dress of the Uyghur people is deeply intertwined with both their history as traders along the Silk Road and their devout belief in Islam. In particular, two pieces of clothing have become symbolic of the Uyghur ethnic minority: the chapan and the doppa. The chapan, a variant of the caftan, is a long coat that is worn over the clothes during the winter months. It is typically worn by men and comes in a variety of colours, from muted blues to fiery reds. Intricate patterns are embroidered on the exterior and, instead of buttons, the chapan is bound by a large cloth band around the waist.

The doppa is a square or round skullcap that is worn not only by the Uyghurs but also by the Kazan Tartars, the Uzbeks, and the Tajiks. The cap itself is usually black or white, although other colour variants do exist, and it is traditionally embroidered with vibrantly colourful patterns, much like the chapan. Older Uyghur men are known to grow long beards and wear a much taller version of the doppa, which is fringed with fur at the bottom.

While men sport the chapan, women wear exquisitely embroidered long-sleeved dresses that billow out at the waist. Popular embroidery motifs include vines, pomegranates, moons, arabesques, and geometric patterns. Golds, reds, and blacks are the most popular colour combinations, although pinks, greens, blues, purples, and even tie-dyes also feature. To complement these luxurious dresses, Uyghur women don plenty of jewellery, including large earrings, bracelets, and necklaces.

Young girls tend to braid their hair in a number of long plaits, as this is regarded as a symbol of feminine beauty, while married women usually wear two plaited pigtails affixed to the head with a crescent-shaped comb. Although it is still reasonably uncommon, some women will wear the veil in-keeping with their Islamic faith. Both men and women wear silk slippers or leather boots, depending on the season and the occasion. From shimmering satins to rich silk threads, the opulence of the Uyghurs’ traditional dress is undeniable!

 

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Xinjiang Local Snacks

Much like the region’s cuisine, the local snacks in Xinjiang have a certain undeniable Central Asian flair that sets them apart from other delicacies in China. Since many of its cities were once powerful oasis towns along the Silk Road, the region has played host to a plethora of different ethnic groups and borrowed all of the finest features from their cooking styles. Thanks to bustling livestock markets and vibrant bazaars, the trading culture in Xinjiang’s cities is still palpable today and provides a unique insight into what the Silk Road may have been like. Vendors hawk anything from olives and freshly baked-bread to honey and some of the sweetest raisins you’ll ever taste. With the thick aroma of crushed spices and freshly roasted mutton wafting through the air, these markets are a veritable paradise for the senses.

Naan (馕)

naanAlternatively known as nan or nang, this delicious type of flatbread is popular throughout Central Asia and really attests to the region’s ethnic diversity. In Xinjiang, the Uyghur ethnic minority have become particularly dextrous at developing and cooking their own unique varieties of naan bread. The dough is first flattened by hand, curled at the edges, and then stamped with a spiked tool, which creates a laced pattern of holes and helps the bread to cook evenly. It is then sprinkled with a mixture of black onion seeds, sesame seeds, and chopped garlic to give the naan its characteristic flavour.

They are traditionally baked in a special clay oven known as a tandoor and watching them being cooked is a spectacle in of itself, as vendors reach deep into the fiery pit and literally slap the dough onto the walls of the oven! After just a few minutes of baking, the flatbread has turned a rich golden brown and is ready to eat. The size, shape, and seasoning of the naan may differ between cities and even vendors, but the result is always a soft, warm flatbread that tastes great as an accompaniment to a meal or simply as a hearty snack on the go.

Samsas (烤包子)

SamsasThese little parcels of spicy goodness are known throughout most of Central Asia as samosas, but are called samsas in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Xinjiang. Unlike other styles of samosa, Xinjiang samsas are traditionally baked rather than fried, giving them a much fluffier texture. The dough used can be simple bread dough or layered pastry dough, which is then stuffed full of delicious filling.

Minced lamb and onions is the most popular combination, although variations include chicken, minced beef, cheese, potato, and pumpkin. The filling, as well as the general shape of the samsa, differs from vendor to vendor, so you’ll be spoilt for choice! They are traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven and are sold on the streets as a scrumptious snack. If you can’t get enough of these tasty little parcels, there are also larger versions available known as kumach, which are considered a meal in of themselves. Just try not to eat too many, or you’ll end up as round as the samsas!

Matang (麻糖)

matangMatang is another speciality of the Uyghur ethnic minority and comes in many incarnations, each one more delightful than the last! This sugary snack is said to have originated from the town of Hotan in southwest Xinjiang, which is famous for its thinly shelled walnuts. The traditional cooking process has been passed down in this region from generation to generation and utilises only the finest locally grown grapes. These grapes are boiled down into a sugary syrup, which is then mixed with crushed walnuts and left to boil for even longer. Once the mixture has achieved the right density, it is pressed into a mould, left to set, and then elaborately decorated with candied fruit. The result is a devilishly sweet and sticky treat that you’ll be happy to get stuck in your teeth!

Nowadays other varieties of matang use different types of nuts, including almonds and cashews, and honey instead of grape syrup. They range in flavour and texture from ones that are as soft and creamy as nougat to ones with a real toffee-like crunchiness. After you’ve asked the vendor how much you’d like, he’ll deftly cut off a sizeable chunk using his knife, chop it into bite-sized pieces, and weigh it on his scales before handing it over. Once you’ve had your first taste of this chewy treat, we’re sure you’ll go nuts for it!

Museles (穆塞莱斯酒)

MuselesSince grapes are abundant in Xinjiang, it goes without saying that wine is too! In fact, wine production has been an important part of the local economy in the city of Turpan since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and was celebrated by ancient Chinese poets as “Western nectar”. This type of wine, known as museles, was masterminded by the Uyghur ethnic minority and, although their Muslim faith prohibits them from drinking alcohol, they view this beverage more as a kind of medicine. With its pungent aroma and sweetly sour flavour, it’s sure to cure what ails you! Although nowadays many contemporary winemakers in China follow French methods of production, the Uyghur people have held on to their traditional wine-making process for centuries. In many villages throughout Xinjiang, the brewing of museles is a communal activity and usually marks the end of the grape harvest.

Locally grown grapes are first crushed by hand and strained using Uyghur atlas silk. The juice is then combined with an equal amount of water and a heaping helping of sugar, and is left to boil until it has halved in volume. Thereafter it is stored in ceramic urns and combined with a dizzying number of extra ingredients. These folk recipes vary between localities and can typically include goji berries, mulberries, sea buckthorn, saffron, cloves, and even raw, plucked pheasants, pigeon’s blood, and lamb meat! These animal parts are said to enhance the flavour and endow the wine with many of its medicinal qualities. So forget about hair of the dog; it’s time for wine of the pigeon! The wine is left to brew for about two months before being filtered, bottled, and stored. The result is a deep red grape-wine with a powerful musty aroma and a spiced taste, much like vermouth.

 

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Emin Minaret

Emin Minaret 01

The Emin Minaret is located just 2 kilometres (1 mi) east of Turpan’s city centre and, towering in at 44 metres (144 ft.) in height, it is the tallest minaret in China. Surrounded by willowy trees, dusty fields, and the ancient ruins of the city, it serves as a reminder of the country’s ancient past and the vital historical connections Turpan once had with Central Asia. Those who visit the minaret tend to have mixed feelings about it, with some describing it as a unique combination of architectural styles and others saying it looks like an industrial chimney! Yet this tower’s significance lies perhaps not in its outer beauty, but in the touching story behind its construction.

During the 1750s, a subgroup of Mongolian people known as the Dzungars occupied large parts of Xinjiang and decided to openly rebel against the Qing Empire (1644-1912). The Uyghurs, who had long been at odds with the Dzungars, joined forces with the imperial government and helped defeat them. This coalition was led by a Uyghur general named Emin Khoja, who was subsequently promoted to governor inheritable of Turpan as a reward for his allegiance.

He was an illustrious figure in Turpan’s history and was one of the few local Muslims to have made a successful pilgrimage to Mecca. On his death, his son Suleman succeeded him as governor and used his own money to build the Emin Minaret in honour of his father. Construction of the tower was completed in 1778 and its Chinese name, Sugong Ta, literally means “Governor Su’s Tower”. So if you thought you were a good son remember, Suleman built his father an entire tower!

Emin Minaret 02The minaret rests at the northeast corner of a rectangular mosque, which is in turn divided into an inner and outer hall. The outer hall is for use during the warmer months and is made of thin wooden pillars that support an exposed timber frame, making it large and spacious. The inner hall is predominantly used in winter and is thus fully enclosed, meaning it is far smaller.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this minaret is the intermingling of features from different styles of architecture. Since the area surrounding Turpan was once the site of several major trading cities along the Silk Road, it also acted as a conduit between Central Asian and Chinese culture. The outer decoration of the Emin Minaret incorporates geometric patterns, which were typical of Middle Eastern Islamic architecture, but also includes floral patterns and waves, which were commonly used in Chinese architecture. The Uyghur people who built these structures had been influenced by these two cultures in equal measure, which is part of what makes their constructions so unique.

These craftsmen used locally sourced materials, so the minaret is predominantly made of wood and sundried mud-bricks. The tower visibly tapers as it rises upwards, with a diameter of just over 14 metres (46 ft.) at the base and approximately 3 metres (10 ft.) at the top. Long, narrow windows are placed at random intervals to provide light and ventilation, and there are no storeys within the structure, only a 72-step spiral staircase leading to a platform at the top. So if you thought your weekly session on the Stairmaster was bad, imagine climbing this tower every morning to perform the call to prayer!

The entrance is flanked by two steles[1]: one with an inscription in Chinese that explains the purpose of the minaret and its connection to the Qing Dynasty, and one in the Uyghur language that extols Emin Khoja and contains excerpts from the Quran. Visitors are no longer allowed to climb the minaret, but are welcome to explore the accompanying mosque.

 

 

[1] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.