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Pearl of the Silk Road
With its well-preserved ethnic culture, Xinjiang, the most western region in China, is drawing the eyes of the world
By Zan Jifang | NO. 33 AUGUST 13, 2015

The front entrance to Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar’s largest place of worship (ZOU YI)

Many visitors to Kashgar, the westernmost city in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, may well be lured by a widespread saying that "you'll not know the true face of Xinjiang if you don't go to Kashgar."

With Uygur people accounting for around 90 percent of its population, the oasis city west of the Taklamakan Desert is called a living museum of Uygur culture owing to its preservation of ethnic lifestyles amid modern trappings.

The scene that initially meets one in Kashgar certainly holds the imagination hostage--women, sporting colorful headscarves and Uygur-style long skirts in bright colors, ride motorbikes along city streets and even roads in suburban areas. It gives one a strong sense of the merging of tradition and modern life.

The whole city of Kashgar is divided roughly into two parts, the old town and a new developmental zone. Now the latter has been accorded the status of special economic development zone, the only one of its kind in west China and established with the intent of upgrading the local economy through modernization of industry. The ancient part of the city, meanwhile, is subject to protections designed to keep the living environment of Uygur people in the region intact.

Maintaining tradition

With a history of more than 2,000 years, the old town of Kashgar is acknowledged as being the homeland of the Uygur people in China. In history, Kashgar was the largest city in south Xinjiang. It was a transportation hub on the ancient Silk Road, a network of trade routes linking the East and the West, and a center of trading for Eurasian countries owing to its geographic advantages. Today, it stands as a monument to the authentic culture and life of Chinese Muslims.

The old town is one of the largest remaining earthen construction sites in the world. Covering 8 square km, it is home to a population of over 220,000.

Since 2010, the local government has carried out a project to renovate old buildings in the area based on the principle that maintaining the original facade of the houses while modernizing the facilities contained within, which will improve living conditions for people inhabiting the area.

According to Anwar Tursun, Mayor of Kashgar, all of the houses in the old town were originally built with raw soil and wood, and were not secure enough to withstand earthquakes. There was also a lack of public infrastructural facilities such as fire escapes, water pipelines and sewage systems in the area, making life inconvenient for residents.

"Post renovation, all of the buildings have preserved the architectural style of the Uygur ethnic group while being modernized within, continuing the folk culture and providing people with a cleaner environment," said the mayor.

Through renovation, the local government hopes to attract more tourists to the ancient city and to create more job opportunities for local people, granting them a higher income and a better life, he said.

In July, Kashgar's old town was ranked among China's national-level five-star scenic sites, a development that is expected to draw more tourists here.

Wandering the streets of the old town, visitors will find it difficult to pry their camera lens away from the unique Uygur-style decorations on the buildings, beautiful Uygur women in traditional dresses made from Ide Rice silk and various local snack stands touting delicacies such as naan, a kind of crusty pancake that represents the staple food of the Uygur people, and zhuafan , a type of fried rice. A network of tiny lanes house shops trading in folk handicraft products, such as traditional handmade Uygur hats, metal work, pottery, musical instruments and flowerpots.

Tea houses are encountered here and there across the old town, where locals can be seen eating naans, tasting teas and chatting with one another, all longstanding traditions for the Uygur people. A two-story tea house in the downtown area is the only one in Kashgar with a history dating back over 100 years. The outer wall of the establishment is painted green, with Uygur-style decorations adorning its door and windows. Inside the building, about a dozen elderly Uygur men sit leisurely on carpets drinking tea and talking slowly in hushed tones. The yellow-and-green curtains on the balcony of the second floor flutter in the wind, adding a strong ethnic atmosphere to the building. Because of its quintessentially Muslim nature, the tea house was selected as one of the shooting locations for the 2007 Hollywood film The Kite Runner .

The tea served in the tea house is relatively inexpensive--the lowest price being 1.5 yuan ($0.24) for one pot, which is more than affordable for local residents. "I maintain this business mainly to provide local people with a place to meet and communicate with each other, and money is not the major consideration," said Mamat Osman, owner of the tea house.

Ablat, 70, a retired public servant, is a regular of the establishment. "I come here every day, and these days because of the summer heat, I might even come twice a day," he said. Ablat enjoys meeting and chatting with his old friends here and considers it a good way to spend his retirement.

From the tea house, visitor can view Id Kah Mosque, a grand structure lying not too far away. The mosque is the most important in Xinjiang and is also the largest one in China. Nearly 3,000 Muslims pray here every day, and on Friday the number of worshippers may exceed 5,000. During Eid al-Adha, one of the important festivals on the Islamic calendar, tens of thousands of Muslims will routinely gather here to pray.

Passing down folk art

In the southeast of the old town of Kashgar, there is a Uygur residential area built on an earthen hathpace that is around 40 meters high and 800 meters long. Nearly 600 Uygur families making up in total around 4,000 people live there. This Uygur residential area can be seen as encapsulating the essence of this ancient part of Kashgar.

The houses in the residential area are made of raw mud and each family has a small courtyard and a two- or three-story building. The whole neighborhood is divided by several small lanes, and all the lanes are connected, just like a maze. Home is cherished by Uygur people, and so it is a custom that a new family will build their own house on the top of their parents' home. Through generations, their houses have been built higher and higher along the terrain, expanding randomly, forming a unique architectural style that is a must-see for tourists to Kashgar.

Omar Ali's family has lived here for generations. From his ancestors, he has not only inherited the houses but also a traditional craftsmanship, pottery art. He is the sixth-generation successor of this family craft and now the 48-year-old handicraftsman is also the principle proponent of the intangible cultural heritage of this traditional Uygur folk art in Kashgar Prefecture.

Omar began to learn his craft at the age of 7 and his workshop is located in his courtyard. Now he works 5-10 hours a day, and can produce around 100 pieces daily. His wares include unglazed and glazed products. Building on the set of skills inherited, he has added his own creative flourishes, such as varying the shape, color or designs of his pieces. His level of craftsmanship is one of the highest among his peers and his pieces have proved popular among tourists.

Omar's brother shares the courtyard passed down to the siblings by their father, and he is also a skilled potter. But to the disappointment of Omar, his children do not wish to learn this skill, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for him to find apprentices. He is concerned that his family skill may soon be lost to the ages.

"Young people think this is hard work, and they want to engage in other businesses. I cannot force them to learn, not even my own children," said Omar.

 

Rahman Abdulla plays a musical instrument produced in his workshop (ZOU YI)

In contrast to Omar, Rahman Abdulla, a 62-year-old Uygur musical instrument maker in Shufu County, Kashgar Prefecture, is satisfied with the status quo of handing down the family skill, a craftsmanship that has lasted for more than a century. His four sons have all learned to make instruments from him, and he presently has more than 30 students.

Rahman is ranked among the national-level successors of intangible cultural heritage. He receives 10,000 yuan ($1,600) in subsidies from the government for his contribution to the inheritance and passing down of folk craftsmanship.

Rahman's oldest son has opened an instrument shop in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, to sell his family's products. His other sons stay at home to make instruments including the rawap , the dutar  and the sitar, all staples of the Uygur traditional musical scene.

It has been over 50 years since Rahman first started to make traditional instruments. Over the past few decades, his products have evolved substantially in terms of the artisan skills involved and their appearance, which have changed with the passage of time and shifts in people's tastes.

"In our Uygur population, every family has at least one instrument, and thus the demand for folk instruments is high," Rahman said.

Rahman and his sons have had to work hard to meet the increasing demand. Normally, an average rawap takes two to three days to make, but some instruments of higher quality and superior design require one or two weeks. A good-quality instrument may sell between 5,000 yuan ($800) and 6,000 yuan ($960). To master the art of making instruments, it takes roughly three to five years. But Rahman still thinks none of his sons have yet surpassed him in terms of raw skill. Many of his students have opened their own workshops across Kashgar Prefecture and even in other locations in Xinjiang. At present, Rahman is providing tutelage to the young children of his relatives.

In Rahman's village, famous for its tradition of producing instruments, there are around 270 families involved in instrument-making businesses.

Tourist attractions

The large-scale historical ruins along the ancient Silk Road have borne witness to the rich history of the western region of China, and the exotic culture influenced by a mix of 13 ethnic groups in the autonomous region has long proved appealing to people outside.

Joshua Porat, an Israeli retiree, is one of those fascinated by the unique culture of Xinjiang.

He is a member of a tour group of 25 people who have just undertaken a Silk Road trip. They have traveled across China for more than two weeks and Xinjiang represents their final port of call in the country.

"We like very much all the parts along the Silk Road, the mountains, valleys and animals," he said.

Porat's group spent a total of two days in Kashgar. They visited the old town, Id Kah Mosque and even went to the home of a Uygur family where together they ate, sang and danced with local people. He also celebrated his 77th birthday there, an unforgettable experience for him.

But Porat also expressed disappointment at the dearth of English-language signs in Kashgar. "It was not convenient for tourists," he said.

But even the language barrier cannot suppress visitors' passion for Xinjiang, especially when those foreigners are China scholars. Marco Perusi, a sinologist from Verona in north Italy, came to Xinjiang primarily to explore the culture of the Silk Road.

He is a leader of a visiting group that comprises members of a Confucius Institute class in Verona that teaches Chinese language and culture.

"Our group have 23 people. We all study Chinese language, Chinese history and Chinese culture, and so we are very interested in every part, every aspect of China," Perusi said.

They came to China three weeks ago and spent two weeks in Xinjiang. Kashgar represents the last leg of their trip in Xinjiang, following Turpan in north Xinjiang and Urumqi.

"Before we came here, we studied many materials about Xinjiang and the Silk Road, and from the beginning, we feel very safe, although it was a little bit difficult if without the help of travel agencies, as Xinjiang is too big," he said.

Graziella Andreoli, a member of the Italian group, agreed that although the trip across Xinjiang was exhausting, it was worthwhile.

"I am studying Chinese, and our teacher organized this trip. Xinjiang is so beautiful, and we are impressed very much. The trip is fantastic," said Andreoli, although she was momentarily unable to remember all the names of the places her group had visited.

According to a member of staff at the hotel where Perusi lived in Kashgar, this summer, it has not been uncommon for the hotel to receive up to five foreign tour groups a day.

Kashgar, however, is but one jewel in Xinjiang's crown. Different parts of the westernmost region of China possess their own unique charm. The region borders eight countries, more than any other provincial-level region in China. Ethnic groups make up 60 percent of Xinjiang's total population of 22 million. It is also a place where many different religions converge. Though it may have seemed mysterious to outsiders in the past, today more and more people are stepping onto the soil of Xinjiang to appreciate the beauty of this, the pearl of the Silk Road.

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to zanjifang@bjreview.com

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