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.
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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.
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.
Uyghur food, unsurprisingly, has far more of a Central Asian than a Chinese flavour. The most basic staple – which often seems to be the only food available – is laghman, known in Chinese as lamian, literally “pulled noodles”. Watching these being made to order is greatly entertaining: the cook grabs both ends of a roll of elastic dough and pulls it into a long ribbon by stretching his arms apart; he then slaps it down onto a floured counter, and brings his hands together to join the ends of the dough, so forming two ribbons. These are slapped again, pulled again, the cook once more rejoins his hands to make four ribbons; and the process is repeated, doubling the number of ribbons each time, until a mass of thin, metre-long noodles is strung between the cook’s hands. The “handles” of surplus dough are torn off either end, and the noodles dropped into boiling water to cook for a couple of minutes. The speed at which a skilled cook transforms the raw dough into a bowlful of noodles, banging, pulling, and managing to keep all the strands separate, is incredible.
In Xinjiang, laghman is served with a stew of mutton, tomatoes, chilli and other vegetables; rather different from the more soupy version sold elsewhere in China. For the same spicy sauce but without the noodles, try tohogish (known in Chinese as dapan ji), a chicken served chopped up in its entirety, head, feet and all; or jerkob, a beef stew - both are served in smarter restaurants. Coriander leaf is used as a garnish on everything.
In summer, apart from laghman, street vendors also offer endless cold noodle soup dishes, usually very spicy. Rice is rare in Xinjiang, though it does appear in the saffron-coloured pilau, comprising fried rice and hunks of mutton. More familiar to foreigners are the skewers of grilled mutton kebabs, dusted with chilli and cumin powder – buy several of them at once, as one skewer does not make much more than a mouthful. They are often eaten with delicious glasses of ice-cold yoghurt (known in Chinese as suannai), which are available everywhere in Xinjiang. Tea often comes flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and rose hips.
Oven-baked breads are also popular in markets: you’ll see bakers apparently plunging their hands into live furnaces, to stick balls of dough on to the brick-lined walls; these are then withdrawn minutes later as bagel-like bread rolls, and naan flat breads, or sometimes permuda (known in Chinese as kaobao), tasty baked dough packets of mutton and onions, which can also be fried – as samsa – rather than baked. The steamed version, manta, recalls Chinese dumplings or mantou.
A couple of other specialities are worth trying: madang is nougat thick with walnuts, raisins, and dried fruit, sold by pedlars who carve the amount you want (or usually, more than you want – it’s sold by weight) off massive slabs of the stuff. More refreshing is that characteristic Central Asian fruit, the pomegranate, known as shiliu in Chinese; they’re about the size of an apple, with leathery yellow and red skin, and packed with hundreds of juicy, ruby-red seeds. You can find them whole at markets, or buy the juice off street vendors – look for the piles of skins and the juicing machines, which resemble a large, spiky torture implement.
Uyghur music – Muqam
Song and dance is at the core of Uyghur cultural identity and is commonly presented at all social gatherings. The most established form of Uyghur music, muqam, has developed since the sixth century into a unique collection of songs and instrumentals, quite separate from Arabic and Persian influence. A muqam must open with a flowing rhythm that complies with strict modal constraints, followed by a suite of pieces that tie into this opening. In the late sixteenth century scholars and folk musicians gathered to collate this music into a definitive collection of twelve muqams. The entire collection takes 24 hours to play and involves around fifteen traditional instruments such as the plucked mandolin-like rawap, metal-stringed dutah and large dumbak drums. Sadly, few people can play muqam nowadays, but recordings are popular and sold on CD and DVD throughout Xinjiang.
For travellers, the classic illustration of Xinjiang’s remoteness from the rest of the country is in the fact that all parts of China set their clocks to Beijing time. The absurdity of this is at its most acute in Xinjiang, 3000–4000km from the capital – which means that in Kashgar, in the far west of the region, the summer sun rises at 9am or 10am and sets around midnight. Locally, unofficial “Xinjiang time” (新疆时间, xīnjiāng shíjiān), two hours behind Beijing time, is used more frequently the further west you travel; when buying bus, train or plane tickets, you should be absolutely clear about which time is being used. In general, Uyghurs are more likely to use Xinjiang time, while Han Chinese prefer Beijing time.