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.

They 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

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.

Although 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!

On 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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The Kunlun Mountains

The snowy Kunlun Mountains stretch 2,000 kilometres (1,250 mi) from the far reaches of the Pamirs in Tajikistan through to the centre of Qinghai province in China and represent one of the longest mountain chains in Asia. They tower along the border between Xinjiang and the Tibet Autonomous Region and, at their westernmost point, form the Inner Asian rampart between the Tibetan Plateau and the Tarim Basin. At the southern edge of the Takla Makan Desert, these snowy mountains form a protective barrier against the icy expanses of Tibet and appear strangely beautiful surrounded by the soft golden sands. This range is so colossal that it branches off into several other mountain ranges, including the Altun Mountains and the Qilian Mountains. Unsurprisingly this has earned it the nickname the “Forefather of Mountains”.

The highest peak of the range, Mount Keriya, can be found in Yutian County of Xinjiang and sits at a staggering elevation of 7,120 metres (23,300 ft.), making it over 1,000 metres (3,300 ft.) higher than Mount Kilimanjaro! Unfortunately this high altitude and the desert conditions that prevail throughout the range largely inhibit the growth of vegetation and make the area virtually uninhabitable. Or so it would seem!

Much of the terrain consists of rock deserts, punctuated only by the occasional stagnant pool of water. Not exactly the most welcoming sounding place! Yet a number of rare animal species still manage to scrape a living in these barren wastes, including the Tibetan gazelle, Tibetan antelope, and wild yak. In the more humid and hospitable western portion of the mountains, argali sheep graze on the high grasslands and the upper crags are home to blue sheep and ibex. The willow thickets provide the perfect habitat for brown bears, wolves, and the occasional snow leopard, so don’t tread through them lightly!

In fact, the animals aren’t the only ones making a home out of this seemingly desolate place. The mountain range supports both permanent and migratory populations of people from the Uighur, Mongol, Tibetan, Tajik, and Kyrgyz ethnic minorities, as well as large constituencies of Han people. This is evidenced by settlements around the Kunlun Mountain Pass, just 160 kilometres south of Golmud City, which once made up part of the Silk Road.

It is an obligatory section on the route between Qinghai and Tibet and represents a sudden rise in altitude from 2,800 metres to 4,700 metres (9,200-15,400 ft.). The temperature and air pressure drop rapidly as you ascend, so this hike isn’t for the faint of heart. It has also enjoyed great fame for the stunning Kunlun Jade, which is predominantly mined here.

The mysticism surrounding this mountain range is undeniable and it has featured in numerous Chinese folk legends, including those of Chang’e (the goddess of the moon), Journey to the West, and The Legend of the White Snake. In other legends, it was believed to be the origin or father of all mountains. That being said, it is unclear whether the Kunlun Mountains were named after the legendary Kunlun Mountain of Chinese mythology or whether they are believed to be the site of the Kunlun Mountain itself.

In terms of the Taoist faith, these mountains are incredibly sacred and, according to legend, were first visited by King Mu (976-922 BC) of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 B.C). It was here that he supposedly discovered the location of the Jade Palace, where the mythical Huang Di or “Yellow Emperor” lived, and met the Queen Mother of the West, who was the focal figure of an ancient religious cult that peaked during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).

The Taoist connection to the mountains has led to a style of kung-fu known as Kunlun Mountain Fist being associated with it, although it bears great similarity to another style called Kunlunquan that originated from Kunlun Mountain in Shandong province. Its history can be traced all the way back to the Zhou Dynasty and it is one of the few Taoist sects of martial arts where students of both genders are accepted and members are allowed to marry. So in short, don’t mess with any of the married couples around the Kunlun Mountains!

Baihaba Village

With titles like “Number One Village of Northwest China” and the “First Village in the Northwest”, there are no prizes for guessing where Baihaba Village might be! It rests on the natural border between China and Kazakhstan, at the very northwesternmost corner of China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Since it is only 3 kilometres (2 mi) from this border, tourists must get permission before travelling to the village. Its location just 31 kilometres (19 mi) west of Kanas Lake makes it a popular stop on any tour of the Kanas region, but this bucolic paradise is more than just a glorified rest-stop! Flanked by the misty Altai Mountains and split by the shimmering Baihaba River, it’s a veritable utopia for nature lovers.

The nearby forests are full of pines, white birches, and poplar trees, meaning the landscape is awash with luscious greens, pearl whites, and deep chestnut browns. Temperatures in this virtually Siberian region regularly plummet to below 0 °C (32 °F) in autumn, yet photographers annually brave the cold to enjoy this most picturesque of seasons. When the leaves turn, the forests are flecked with reds, golds, and yellows that perfectly complement the dark green pines. The village’s characteristic log cabins blend seamlessly into their natural surroundings, with only the faint wisp of smoke from their chimneys indicating that they are still inhabited. No matter what the season, the scenery in Baihaba looks like it has just leapt out of a pastoral oil painting!

Water trickling down from the melted ice-caps of the mountains runs through the village’s centre and forms the Baihaba River, separating the community of Tuvan people on one bank from the Kazakh people on the other. Although they come from distinctly different cultures, these two ethnic groups have shared this fertile land and enjoyed a peaceful rural life for decades. The Tuvans are a Siberian people who have Mongolian, Turkic, and Samoyedic roots, while the Kazakhs are a Turkic people who mainly live throughout Central Asia.

The Tuvan people believe that they are descended from the legendary soldiers who served under Genghis Khan, so many Tuvan homes boast a portrait of the great Mongolian warlord above their fireplace. Similarly, the Kazakh’s trace their ancestry back to several medieval Mongolian tribes, including the Argyns and the Huns, as well as ancient Iranian nomads such as the Sarmatians and the Scythians. Although both groups speak their own language, the Tuvan’s Turkic language has been heavily influenced by and bears great similarity to the Kazakh language. So it seems these two diverse ethnicities have more in common than meets the eye. And they both certainly have impeccable taste when it comes to their choice of location!

Thanks to their relative isolation and remoteness, the villagers have managed to preserve their unique traditions and customs. Their homes are lavishly decorated with hand-embroidered tapestries, which add a smattering of colour to their modest furnishings. They cook their meals over quaint woodstoves and sleep on heated brick beds, living a life of humble simplicity. Although tourism now plays an important part in supplementing their income, many families still rely on hunting and raising animals for their livelihood. Every day, farmers graze their sheep and cattle on the verdant pastures, while women wash vegetables in the river and youths ride their horses deep into the mountain valley.

Some of the locals run horse rental businesses, offering guided tours of the countryside for those visitors adventurous enough to take the reins! A handful of Tuvan families have even opened small hotels or restaurants, where tourists can indulge in a brief taste of their rich culture. And the good news is most Tuvan people greet their guests by giving them snacks! Normally they will receive guests with an array of delicious home-made dairy products, such as yogurt, milk wine, milk tea, and freshly baked cakes. Generally speaking, it is not considered impolite to refuse the food, but some B&Bs will welcome visitors with a Tuvan tradition involving two compulsory bowls of milk tea. The host will pour the first bowl and offer the drinker butter, which they can add to taste. As soon as the first bowl is finished, the host will fill it again. According to local belief, it is this second bowl that will grant the drinker good luck. That is, unless you’re lactose intolerant!

Hemu Village

Hemu xinjiang 01

Nestled within the Altay Mountains of northern Burqin County lies the small and tranquil village of Hemu. It is heralded as one of the six most beautiful villages in China and, once you catch a glimpse of it, you’ll soon see why. As the sun rises over the grasslands and illuminates the bright white birch forests nearby, smoke curls up from the chimneys of the village’s quaint log cabins, marking the beginning of a new day. The hundred or so families who live here will while away these daylight hours by grazing their sheep and cattle on the jade green pastures, washing their vegetables in the shimmering Hemu River, or simply taking a long horse-ride through the misty mountains. In summer, the place is awash with the lushest greens, while in autumn accents of gold, red, and purple fleck the landscape.

This rustic paradise, also known as Horm Village, has been home to the native Tuvan people for over a thousand years. Along with Baihaba Village, it is one of the largest Tuvan villages in China, although it also boasts small communities of Mongolian and Kazakh people. The Tuvans are a Siberian people who have Mongolian, Turkic, and Samoyedic roots. Although tourism has now become an important part of their annual income, many of them continue to make a living by hunting and raising animals. In fact, they farm anything from sheep and cows to yaks and even reindeer! They build their log cabins by hand using wood harvested from the nearby forests, which means the village seamlessly blends in with its natural surroundings. Many of the homes have a portrait of Genghis Khan hanging over their fireplace, as the Tuvans believe that they are descended from the soldiers of his ancient and mighty army. So it goes without saying that you shouldn’t get on their bad side!

Hemu in xinjiang02That being said, the villagers are well-known for their incredible hospitality and will happily welcome visitors into their humble homes. And what better way to greet guests than with snacks! Normally they will receive guests with an array of delicious home-made dairy products, such as yogurt, milk wine, milk tea, and freshly baked cakes. Generally speaking, it is not considered impolite to refuse the food, but some B&Bs will welcome visitors with a Tuvan tradition involving two compulsory bowls of milk tea. The host will pour the first bowl and offer the drinker butter, which they can add to taste. As soon as the first bowl is finished, the host will fill it again. According to local belief, it is this second bowl that will grant the drinker good luck. That is, unless you’re lactose intolerant!

In terms of spiritual belief, the Tuvan are firm followers of both Tibetan Buddhism and a folk religion known as Tengrism. This Central Asian faith borrows features from shamanism[1], animism[2], and ancestor worship, and was once the prevailing religion of the Turks, Mongolians, and Hungarians. The rich tapestry of customs and beliefs that the Tuvan subscribe to can be felt most palpably in their lively religious festivals, so plan your visit carefully if you want to experience one.

hemu in xinjiangThe village itself is only 70 kilometres (43 mi) away from Kanas Lake, so it’s a popular stop for tourists on their way to the Kanas Lake Nature Reserve. If you’re a fan of hiking, then there is a short hike that leads to a nearby observation platform, which yields stunning panoramic views of the village and the surrounding countryside. For the more adventurous hikers, we recommend venturing out onto the Hemu Grassland, although we strongly advise that you take a local guide with you as the routes are quite treacherous and the local wild boar can be dangerous if encountered. If you’re lucky, you may even come across a cluster of pearl white yurts. Some of these belong to the local Tuvan people, but others are the temporary homes of the Kazakh ethnic minority. Like the Tuvans, the Kazakhs are exceptionally friendly and will happily welcome visitors into their yurt. Just be sure to ask for permission first!

 

 

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

The Kanas Lake Nature Reserve

kanas lake

The remote Kanas Lake Nature Reserve rests in the northernmost reaches of Xinjiang and is over 180 kilometres (112 mi) away from the nearest town, making it an area resplendent with virtually untouched natural beauty. It is situated close to the borders between Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia, and it contains the aptly named Youyi or “Friendship” Peak, which is the landmark where China, Russia, and Mongolia approximately meet. The word “Kanas” means “beautiful, rich, and mysterious” in the Mongolian language and, with its towering snowy peaks, thick green forests, and turquoise hued waters, it certainly lives up to the title!

Its primary attraction is the expansive Kanas Lake, which rests deep within a valley of the Altay Mountains. Its crystal clear waters originate from the Kanas Glacier and run for over 125 kilometres (77 mi) along the Kanas River before finally joining the lake itself. It was formed over 200,000 years ago as a result of glacier movement and is the deepest freshwater lake in China, plunging in at depths of up to 120 metres (394 ft.). Stretching out over an area of 45 square kilometres (17 sq. mi), it is over three times the size of Lake Windermere!

kanas villageSeasonal changes and weather conditions endow the lake with a constantly changing appearance. In May, melted snow from the surrounding peaks turns the water a greyish blue colour; in July, it turns a bright aquamarine; in August, the algae turns the water a deep green; and from September onwards it goes a rich turquoise. As if in tandem with these watery wardrobe changes, the surrounding alpine forests also evolve, with dense greens in spring, thick multi-coloured blankets of flowers in summer, and lush golds, reds, and yellows in autumn.

Yet don’t let Kanas’ idyllic appearance fool you; it’s not like your typical lakeside retreat. Temperatures here can plummet to -24°C (-11°F) in winter and rest at an average of about -4°C (39°F), reaching heights of just 18°C (66°F) in July. So if you’re taking a trip to this natural paradise, be sure to wrap up warm! The low temperatures mean it is the only region in China that is home to Siberian animal species and, with over 117 different species of bird regularly nesting here, it’s also a haven for bird-watchers.

But these aren’t the only strange creatures prowling the area, or at least that’s what paranormal researchers would have you believe. Since the 1980s, rumours of the Kanas Lake Monster have enthralled visitors and nowadays sightings of it occur once or twice every year. It is even said that, on the odd occasion, it drags local livestock into the lake’s murky depths! Scientists believe the most likely culprit to be a large taimen or Siberian salmon, which people have mistaken for an otherworldly creature. These freaky fish can reach lengths of nearly 2 metres, so it’s no wonder people might be horrified at the sight of them! Another bizarre phenomenon is that the sixth bay, which rests at the end of the lake, is flanked by a 2,000-metre-long (6,500 ft.) bank of dead trees. No one knows exactly what is stopping the trees from floating downriver, but locals will tell you it’s because they’re reluctant to leave the beautiful lake!

Kanas mountainsThese days the lake is a popular destination for hiking, rafting, rock climbing, paragliding, and boating, with the most popular hike being the one to Guangyu Pavilion. This scenic spot offers a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and grasslands. In terms of accommodation, Burqin is the closest town and the best option if you want easy access to the lake. From there you can also visit the nearby village of Hemu, which is a popular site for tourists as its home to people from the Tuvan ethnic group, a Siberian people who have Mongolian, Turkic, and Samoyedic roots. The village rests on the Hemu Grasslands and visitors have the choice of either staying with a Tuvan family or venturing onto the plains and staying in a yurt with people of the Kazakh ethnic minority. It’s a wonderful way to connect with other cultures, sample their delicious local dishes, witness their centuries-old customs, and experience their unique way of life. That being said, bear in mind that the Tuvan people trace their ancestry back to the legendary troops of Genghis Khan, so be sure not to get on their bad side!

 

 

 

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.

 

Taste some Xinjiang Local Snacks on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China