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Silk Route in Xinjiang before modernity arrived

I climb silently, almost breathless, the rubble crunching under my feet; behind me is a trail of weary climbers, eager to get to the top. I turn a bend and a colossal stone arch comes into view — Tushuk Tash; literally, the mountain with a hole in the local Uyghur language and arguably the largest natural arch in the world. Located near the Karakoram pass in Kashgar, it is my window to the incredible landscape and the enigma that is Xinjiang.

Xinjiang in China’s far West is often in the news for the Uyghurs, the ethnic minority that lives there. But very little is known of the varied topography — it is huge, almost half the size of India —, extensive history, and unique confluence of cultures that form this extraordinary land. I had to go. I wanted to retrace the ancient Silk Route that once passed through it, connecting Xi’an in the East to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the West.

I began in Urumqi, now the capital of Xinjiang, but once positioned along the ancient Silk Road. The dull grey and modern architecture of the Xinjiang museum belies the sheer richness of the artefacts inside. Among other highlights are corpses, naturally preserved in the unique climatic conditions of South Xinjiang, some of them dating back almost 4,000 years.

Xinjiang has an extensive history

Xinjiang has an extensive history  

Outside, the lilting folk music of the locals drew me to the square of the grand bazaar where performers were getting ready for their daily show of dance and music. It is pretty touristy, but it does showcase the multi-ethnic heritage of this region. The bazaar itself is a delightful mélange of shops selling everything from dry fruit, and freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice, to local musical instruments and traditional clothes.

Factfile

  • Urumqi and Kashgar are well connected through multiple flight routes from Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai through Air China, China Southern Airlines and SriLankan Airlines respectively. Most of these flights first connect to Beijing and thereon to Urumqi and Kashgar.
  • Indians do not need a special travel permit to visit most places in Xinjiang. They can travel on a Chinese tourist visa. Turpan, Korla, Aksu and Hotan are the other cities along the Silk Route in Xinjiang and are accessible by rail or land from Urumqi.
  • Urumqi and Kashgar have many international hotel chains as well as local hotels of all categories. Xinjiang food is largely lamb-based. Freshly-baked nang bread and vegetables are delectable options for vegetarians. Xinjiang is known for fresh fruit like grapes, melons, pears and pomegranates.

Confluence of cultures

The following morning, I travelled 200 kilometres east to Turpan. An ultra-modern high-speed train now comfortably connects what was once an arduous traverse for a caravan of camels and horses. Turpan offers a unique confluence of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. The ancient city of Gaochang is here, as are the Bezeklik Buddhist caves. I climbed down the stairs of the Astana tombs, drawn by the darkness and found myself lost in the history of the Chinese settlers that once lived in this area thousands of years ago.

It was lunchtime and under the inviting shade of an apricot tree in the village I shared a simple meal of vegetables, rice and succulent honeydew melons with the locals. They smiled at me but said very little.

The city of Kashgar, once a strategic centre of trade between the West and the East, was my final destination. Today, it is the heartland of the Uyghur Muslim community of China. The walled city, now restored, is a labyrinth of charming houses, shops selling musical instruments, wooden toys, and woollen caps. The ancient city reverberates with the soulful music of the tambul, dutar, and rawap — lute-like string instruments that are strikingly similar to the tanpura, sitar, and the sarangi.

Humans of Xinjiang

Humans of Xinjiang  

The mouthwatering aroma of freshly-baked nang bread and steaming hot lamb samsas wafting through the lanes whetted my appetite as I made my way into the ‘100-year-old tea-house’, a quaint shop selling local teas. I sipped local saffron and herbal tea and looked out at the busy street.

The bright yellow Id Kah mosque is the centrepiece of the walled city. Built in the 15th Century, though some parts are older, the mosque is surrounded by courtyards and soaring poplar trees. The prayer hall was empty but for a few tourists who walked by. A dove rested on one of the minarets. Next to it, the Chinese flag fluttered in the mild afternoon breeze.

Xinjiang’s topography

Xinjiang’s topography
 

I set out early the next morning to witness the hectic trading of the Sunday livestock market, one of the largest markets of Central Asia. Herders and traders throng here from nearby villages and towns. The grounds were packed with row after row of goats, cattle, camels, horses, and sheep. The traders were swift and noisy. The animals on the other hand, were eerily quiet, huddled together in silent submission.

On my last day, I drove out of Kashgar on the historic Karakoram highway, near the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the breathtaking Karakul lake and the Muztagh mountains. There were road signs in Chinese, English, Uyghur (Arabic script) and even Kyrgyz (Cyrillic script). The spoken language is Mandarin, the official language of China.

A palette of myriad colours, once bright, now faded; brushed over with one uniform colour, a resplendent shade of red; indelible and permanent. I had nothing to trade other than deep gratitude for this amazing journey. But I had so much to receive: the welcoming smiles of the local people, the serenity of the Id Kah mosque, the folk dances and music of Kashgar, vibrant but poignant. The people here are silent. It is their music and dances that speak.


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