The Uyghur are the easternmost branch of the extended family of Turkic peoples who inhabit most of Central Asia. Around ten million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang with another 300,000 in Kazakhstan. Despite centuries of domination by China and some racial mingling along the way, the Uyghur remain culturally distinct from the Han Chinese, and many Uyghurs look decidedly un-Chinese – stockily built, bearded, with brown hair and round eyes. Although originally Buddhists, Uyghurs have been Muslim for at least a thousand years and Islam remains the focus of their identity in the face of relentless Han penetration.

For the most part Uyghurs are unable to speak fluent Chinese, and have difficulty finding well-paid work – their prospects for self-improvement within China are generally bleak. Many Han Chinese look down on Uyghurs as unsophisticated ruffians, and are wary of their supposedly short tempers and love of knives. Perhaps as a consequence of this, at times Uyghurs seem to extend their mistrust of Han Chinese to all foreigners, tourists included. Nevertheless, gestures such as trying a few words of their language or drinking tea with them will help to break down the barriers, and invitations to Uyghur homes frequently follow.

Travellers’ Uyghur

The Uyghur language is essentially an Eastern Turkish dialect (spoken Uyghur can be understood by Uzbek-, Kazakh- and Kyrgyz-speakers). There are several dialects, of which the Central Uyghur (spoken from Ürümqi to Kashgar) is the most popular and hence given here, including commonly used alternatives. Unlike Chinese, Uyghur is not a tonal language. It involves eight vowels and 24 consonants and uses a modified Arabic script. The only pronunciations you are likely to have difficulties with are gh and kh, but you can get away by rendering them as g and k with a light h at the end. X is pronounced “ksh”, while q is a “ch” sound.

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