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 Tian Shan Mountains

In Chinese, “Tian Shan” literally translates to mean “Heavenly Mountain” or “Mountain of Heaven”. With its glittering snow-capped peaks, sparkling lakes, and emerald-hued forests, this mountain range certainly lives up to its name! Stretching for over 2,500 kilometres (1,500 mi) across Central Asia, it crosses the countries of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Its diverse landscape, rich biodiversity, and cultural significance meant it was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2013.

According to the folk religion of Tengrism, the mountain range is a profoundly sacred place and its second highest peak, the 7,010-metre (23,000 ft.) high Khan Tengri, literally means “King of the Heavens”. Its highest point, known as Jengish Chokusu or “Victory Peak”, towers in at a height of 7,439 metres (24,406 ft.), meaning it is just 1,406 metres (4,613 ft.) shy of Mount Everest and the 60th tallest mountain the world. Together they are classed as the two most northerly peaks over 7,000 metres (23,000 ft.) in the world. It might not be the greatest claim to fame, but they will forever be the Kings in the North!

Since the mountain range is one of the longest in Central Asia, it is often separated into a number of smaller ranges for the purpose of ease, including the Barkol Mountains near the city of Hami and the Borohoro Mountains just south of Ürümqi. Within China, it is bounded by the Dzungarian Basin to the north and the Tarim Basin to the south, meaning it forms a natural dividing line within the region of Xinjiang. The mountain range is home to one of Xinjiang’s most popular and celebrated attractions: Tianchi or Heavenly Lake. Resting within a valley on the northern slope of Bogda Peak, this alpine lake is formed from melted snow trickling down from the icy tips of the mountains. Its crystal clear waters reflect the snow-capped peaks above it and the emerald-hued spruces that surround it, creating a breath-taking tableau.

The mountain range’s ethereal beauty is reflected in the many legends about it, as it is rumoured to be the home of the peach tree of immortality, which is fiercely guarded by the Chinese folk deity Xiwangmu or “Queen Mother of the West”. Magical peaches may be the stuff of myth, but the lower slopes are blanked in ancient forests formed of wild walnut, pistachio, apricot, and apple trees. While you may not discover the secret to everlasting life, a trip to the Tian Shan Mountains is sure to be fruitful!

Depending on the altitude, the forests alternate between hardy steppes and lush meadows, with dense clutches of maple trees, junipers, aspens, birches, poplars, and numerous other species. Mixed grasses and wildflowers blanket the alpine meadows on the northern slopes, while the southern slopes are characterised by much sparser vegetation. Wolves, bears, wild boars, foxes, ermines, badgers, mountain goats, deer, and mountain sheep all roam these forests, but the range’s prized inhabitant is far more elusive: the rare and critically endangered snow leopard. Mountaineers who work as guides on the mountain range say they’re lucky to catch a glimpse of this mysterious creature even once in a lifetime!

A myriad of China’s ethnic minorities inhabit the region surrounding the Tian Shan Mountains, including the Uyghurs, the Kyrgyz, the Kazakhs, the Mongols, and the Uzbeks. Alongside the majesty of the mountains, many of the Uyghur, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh settlements have become tourist attractions in of themselves, with crowds of visitors flocking there every year to witness traditional festivals, sample local cuisine, and enjoy their unique cultures. From lively horse races to outdoor lamb roasts, a trip to the Tian Shan Mountains would be simply incomplete without a stay in one of these vibrant settlements.

 

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Hami

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Alternately known as Kumul and historically as Yiwu, Hami is a city of many names! Not only was it once a major trading hub along the northern branch of the Silk Road, it represented the main gateway from which one would leave China and enter the western regions (modern-day Xinjiang). Its strategic importance meant that it was frequently fought over by warring dynasties, and its location at the confluence between ancient China and Central Asia saw it develop under the combined influence of Han Chinese and Uyghur Muslim culture.

The oldest known reference to Hami dates back to the 1st millennium BC, when the city was named Cumuḍa and was occupied by the Yuezhi people. Realising its potential as an oasis and trade hub, the Han Chinese swiftly occupied it and the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) transformed it into a military stronghold named Yiwu in 73 AD. The Han Chinese ran a lucrative business from the city, using the fertile land to grow food to supply nearby troops and passing trade caravans. Its value was soon recognised by others and, throughout the late Han Dynasty, it would frequently change hands between the Han Chinese and the nomadic Xiongnu people. Relics from this ancient time, including several well-preserved mummies, are currently exhibited at Hami Museum.

During the 9th century, it came under the control of the Uyghur people, but was in turn conquered by the Mongolians during the 13th century. It was during this time that the city was visited by the famous Italian explorer Marco Polo, who knew it under the name Camul. When the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) fell to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it was annexed by Gunashiri, a descendant of Chagatai Khan, who founded his own small kingdom called Qara Del but who ultimately answered to the Ming imperials as a vassal state. By the late 17th century, it had been conquered by the Kumul Khanate (1696–1930), although it remained a vassal of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and eventually the Republic of China (1912-1949). In short, Hami was passed around more often than a hot potato!

Hami melonNowadays it is famed for the sweetness and quality of its locally grown fruit. In fact, the muskmelons that come from Hami are held in such high esteem that the Chinese name for this type of melon is simply “hamigua (哈密瓜) or “Hami melon”. To the city’s north lie the Tian Shan Mountains, while its east and west are flanked by hostile desert. Like a flower blooming in the barren sands, this is what makes Hami and its fertile terrain so special.

The region is served by an arid continental climate, with extreme differences between summer and winter. July temperatures can easily exceed 26 °C (80 °F), but plummet to around −10 °C (13 °F) in January. Vast differences in even daytime and night-time temperatures have given rise to the local saying: “People in Hami wear a fur-lined jacket in the morning and very thin clothes at noon, while at night they eat melons around a warm stove”. In this city, the locals are always blowing hot and cold!

Tombs of the Uyghur Kings of HamiThe ancient Tombs of the Uyghur Kings of Hami lie approximately 2 kilometres (1 mi) south of the city proper. This grand mausoleum was built in 1840 and honours the Uyghur kings who ruled over the region during the Qing Dynasty, along with members of their royal families. The tombs are largely constructed in a traditional Islamic style, although they retain some uniquely Chinese features. The most prominent is the tomb of King Boxier, the 7th King of Hami, which towers in at 18 metres (59 ft.) in height.

From spooky tombs to singing sands, Hami is located just 70 kilometres (43 mi) from Mingsha Hill. “Mingsha” or “Singing Sands” Hill is actually a collection of tall sand dunes that boast a fascinating natural phenomenon. When people slide down from the hilltop, the reverberation of the shifting sands produces a strange sound that makes it seem as though the dunes are singing. According to one rather morbid legend, these sounds are the plaintive wails of the female military general Fan Lihua and her 72 soldiers, whose corpses were buried under the sand. So be sure to watch where you step, or the singing sand dunes might have you screaming!

 

The Tarim Basin

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The Tarim Basin may seem like a simple geographical phenomenon, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Covering an area of approximately 1,020,000 square kilometres (390,000 sq. mi), it stretches over more than half of Xinjiang’s territory and is often referred to as Nanjiang or “Southern Xinjiang”, with the northern half of the region being known as Dzungaria or Beijiang. To put that into perspective, it is nearly twice the size of Spain and three times the size of Germany! Its northern boundary is marked by the Tian Shan Mountains, its southern boundary is skirted by the Kunlun Mountains, and its centre is dominated by the hostile Taklamakan Desert.

Historically, the region was known as Altishahr, which translates to “Six Cities” in the language of the Uyghur people. This was in reference to ancient oasis cities such as Kashgar and Turpan, which rested on the outskirts of the Tarim Basin and played a focal role as trading hubs along the Silk Road. The area may seem inhospitable now, but a startling archaeological discovery proved that it was once a cradle of civilisation. At the beginning of the 20th century, famed explorers such as Sven Hedin, Albert von Le Coq, and Aurel Stein ventured into the basin and recounted how, in their quest to unearth historical relics, they’d uncovered a number of desiccated bodies. They would soon come to be known as the Tarim Mummies, and would play an invaluable role in discovering the history of the region.

tarim xiaoheThe vast majority of the mummies were found either on the eastern end or the southern edge of the Tarim Basin. The oldest date back to approximately 1800 BC and, more fascinating still, they are of Caucasoid origin. The extremely arid climate of the desert means the bodies have been beautifully preserved. For example, the famed “Cherchen Man” still boasts his locks of luscious red hair, in spite of having died over 3,000 years ago; the “Witches of Subeshi”, who passed away sometime between the 4th or 3rd century BC, can still be seen with their black felt conical hats; another body found in Subeshi betrays the first potential signs of surgery, as an incision in his abdomen has been sewn up with horsehair; and several bodies have clearly visible tattoos.

The mummies share a number of physical features, including elongated bodies, angular faces, recessed eyes, and blond, brown, or red hair, which are all associated with the Caucasian ethnic group. Modern-day genetic testing appears to confirm this conclusion, since many of the ethnic groups that are native to Xinjiang, such as the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, exhibit both East Asian and Caucasian DNA. Many researchers have speculated that the Tarim Mummies may belong to the Tocharian ethnic group, which were described as having full beards, red or blond hair, deep-set blue or green eyes, and long, aquiline noses. While many of the mummies are now displayed in museums throughout Xinjiang, the mystery they leave behind continues to both plague and delight historians.

In its time, the Tarim Basin has fostered the growth of numerous ancient kingdoms, including the Loulan, the Kucha, and the Khotan. Alongside the Silk Road, it was these multifarious kingdoms that facilitated the dissemination of culture from Central Asia and India into China, most notably the introduction of Buddhism and Islam. Unfortunately the native rivers were deeply temperamental and changes to their course would cause lakes to move, which in turn would necessitate alterations in the routes of the Silk Road. Imagine trying to navigate all of those road closures without a satnav!

tarim loulanThe greatest example of this was the desertion of the middle route, which was established during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and ran through the centre of the Tarim Basin towards the lake of Lop Nur. The gradual desiccation of the lake led to the decline of the oasis city Loulan and the collapse of the Loulan Kingdom, which in turn forced travellers to abandon this route from the 6th century onwards. The Tarim Basin was a place of blessing and curse, simultaneously welcoming certain ethnic groups and causing devastation to others.

From the 7th century until the late 8th century, it was a hotly contested region, frequently changing hands between the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the rival Tibetan Empire (618–842). With so many valuable trade routes, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of the Tarim Basin! By the 9th century, the collapse of the Uyghur Khaganate (744–840) resulted in hundreds of Uyghur immigrants flooding into the region. While researchers believe the Uyghurs were still predominantly Buddhist at this point, Islam was introduced and became the dominant religion when the Muslim Turkic peoples of the Kara-Khanid Khanate (840–1212) conquered the western Tarim Basin at the start of the 11th century. It wasn’t until 1884, under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), that Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin were finally combined to form Xinjiang. To this day, they remain two distinct regions with their own cultures, histories, and unique personalities!

 

The Gurbantünggüt Desert

Gurbantünggüt Desert

Ranking behind the expansive Taklamakan Desert, the Gurbantünggüt Desert is the second largest desert in China. It spreads over a colossal area of 50,000 square kilometres (19,000 sq. mi), making it nearly four times the size of Death Valley in the USA! Resting within the Dzungarian Basin in the northern reaches of Xinjiang, it is located to the east of the Manasi River and to the south of the Ulungur River. Throughout the barren sands are interspersed deep oases where over 100 different desert plant species flourish, including magnificent virgin forests made up of desert poplars and saxaul trees. These hardy plants are only provided with rainwater once per year, when the annual snow falls in winter and melts in spring. They add a touch of greenery to the hostile landscape and provide grazing for the wild Mongolian gazelles.

A chain of cities, the largest of which is Xinjiang’s capital of Ürümqi, forms a well-populated strip along the southern edge of the desert. These cities were once major trading hubs along the ancient Silk Road and were able to survive thanks to glacier-fed streams flowing down from the Tian Shan Mountains. At its northwestern edge, the desert is skirted by the Irtysh–Karamay–Ürümqi Canal, an ingenious system that is currently being constructed with the aim of transferring water from the Irtysh River to the arid regions of northern and central Xinjiang. The eastern branch of the canal runs directly across the centre of the desert until it finally reaches the Tian Shan Mountains.

Gurbantünggüt Desert02The western part of the desert was once dominated by salt lakes, although tragically many have disappeared due to the impact of human activities. While the Ailik Lake remains, the Manas Lake dried up long ago. Water is of paramount importance in this scorched desert, particularly when you consider that it is the remotest point of land from any sea or ocean on earth! At its centremost point, it is over 2,600 kilometres (1,600 mi) from the nearest coastline. To put that into perspective, that is nearly twice the length of the United Kingdom!

In spite of its location, the climate of the desert is markedly temperate compared to China’s other sandy behemoths, such as the inhospitable Taklamakan Desert. It is mainly made up of fixed and semi-fixed sand ridges but, unlike other deserts in the region, it does not boast any mega-dunes or dunes of notable height. Instead, it stretches out endlessly towards the horizon, the sands rippling and undulating like some great heaving beast in the sweltering sun.

 

The Kumtag Desert (Shanshan)

The Kumtag Desert (Shanshan) 02

Located just one kilometre (0.6 mi) from the city of Shanshan, the Kumtag Desert is the closest desert to any city in the world. In spite of widespread desertification across northwestern China, this city has miraculously been spared, as it does not lie in the path of the powerful winds that shift the ever-encroaching sand onto the plains. In 2002, it was established as a national park, making it the ideal place for any visitor who’s ever dreamt of adventuring out into the wilderness like Indiana Jones! It originally covered just 1,880 square kilometres (726 sq. mi), but was expanded to include the 1,000-square kilometre (386 sq. mi) Kanas Geological Park in 2007.

Scientific exploration and sight-seeing may be the park’s main draws, but it is also renowned as a place of healing. Sand treatment, which involves burying affected body parts in warm sand for extended periods of time, is rumoured to cure rheumatism, pelvic problems, backaches, and a variety of other disorders. The sands of time may bring the ailments of old age, but the sands of the Kumtag Desert are sure to heal them!

 

The Kumtag Desert (Taklamakan)

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Covering a colossal area of 22,900 square kilometres (8,842 sq. mi), the Kumtag Desert spans from Ruoqiang County in Xinjiang to the city of Dunhuang in Gansu province, and forms the eastern section of the much larger Taklamakan Desert. In the language of the Uyghur people, the word “kum-tag” means “sand-mountain” and refers to the looming dunes that populate this barren expanse. The desert itself was formed over a period of centuries, as a result of strong winds colliding and depositing the masses of sand they were carrying in unusual formations.

Sand dunes within the desert can rise to heights of up to 76 metres (250 ft.), making them taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! While the region is resplendent with these natural monoliths, it’s also home to a number of magnificent sand statues that have been crafted by local artisans. Lifelike figures, towering fortresses, and miniature sand cities rise up in its barren expanse, creating a dazzling fairy-tale world. Riding camels through the baking hot desert, you’ll be transported back to life as a traveling merchant on the ancient Silk Road.

 

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Jiaohe Ruins

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Nestled within the Yarnaz Valley just 10 kilometres (6 mi) west of Turpan, the Jiaohe Ruins will transport you back to the heart of the Silk Road. The history of this ancient city stretches back over some 2,300 years, making it one of the oldest earthen cities still in existence, and it was unsurprisingly incorporated into the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. After all, at the grand old age of 2,300, you’d expect to finally be able to retire!

It was once the capital of the Jushi or Cheshi Kingdom, which ruled the area throughout most of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), but the city was captured by the Han court during the 1st century BC. It soon became a focal trade hub along the Silk Road and, as an oasis town, it was considered invaluable. The entire region, including Jiaohe, was annexed by the Gaochang Kingdom (531-640) during the 6th century but returned to Chinese control in 640, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when it was conquered by Emperor Taizong. It was during this period that the city flourished as a centre of trade between China and Central Asia.

day16 07At the beginning of the 9th century, the area came under the control of the Uyghur people and was part of a kingdom known as the Uyghur Khaganate (744–840), until their territory was eventually conquered by the Kyrgyz people in 840. Though the city continued to thrive under Uyghur and Kyrgyz rule, it was destroyed during warfare towards the end of the 13th century when the Mongolian warlord Kaidu rebelled against his cousin Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It remained a ghost town for many hundreds of years, until it was finally rediscovered and partially excavated during the 1950s. Since then, Jiaohe has gone from deserted spectre to adored superstar!

The city was built on a large islet nestled between two deep river valleys and was thus named Jiaohe, which translates to mean “where two rivers meet”. Yarkhoto, the alternative name for the city, may be derived from the Turkic word “yar”, meaning “ravine”, and the Mongolian word “khoto”, meaning “town”. The steep cliffs on all sides tower in at over 30 metres (98 ft.) in height and once served as a natural protective barrier, so city walls were never constructed. There were originally only two gates leading into the city, but the South Gate has since vanished and only fragments of the East Gate remain.

jiaohe relicsThe city is separated into three districts: eastern, western, and northern. The eastern and western districts were residential, with the east largely inhabited by aristocrats and the west belonging mainly to commoners. The northern district was reserved entirely for religious sites, such as Buddhist temples and stupas[1]. Towards the centre of the city, there are a number of governmental buildings that have been exceptionally well-preserved.

According to Tang imperial records, in its heyday the city was home to 6,500 residents, 700 households, and 865 soldiers, and many of its surviving buildings date back to the Tang Dynasty. The doors and windows of the buildings do not face the street, which is a peculiarity of Tang-style architecture, and several of the courtyards have been physically dug out from the earth like a pit, which is a rare phenomenon found mainly in northwest China. All of the buildings are made from packed-earth and they have managed to remain in such good condition thanks to the extremely dry climate in the region.

jiaohe ruins02A stroll down Jiaohe’s central avenue rewards visitors with the greatest views, as it cuts through the city and provides access to all three districts. At the end, there is a stunning Buddhist temple known as Jiaohe Temple or the Great Monastery and, in the northernmost part of the city, there are a group of 101 stupas that date back to between the 5th and 7th centuries, known as Stupa Grove.

Many of the relics that were excavated from the city are now housed in either the Turpan Museum in Turpan or the Xinjiang Museum in Ürümqi. However, near the ruins there is a museum dedicated to the Cheshi (Jushi) people, who were Jiaohe’s original inhabitants. Bizarrely these people were of Caucasian descent and had light hair and blue eyes, unlike the Han and Uyghur ethnic groups that populate the area now. They have enjoyed some fame recently as evidence suggests they were probably the first cultivators of cannabis (marijuana). We’re sure this discovery must have given the researchers a real high!

 

[1] Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

 

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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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