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Travel Journals: Xinjiang

Xinjiang, meaning “new frontier” in Chinese, lives up to its as a melting pot of ethnicities, languages and traditions.

Malika Shahid
14 May 2024, MVT 13:54
The Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar in Ürümqi, Xinjiang -- Photo: Malika Shahid
Malika Shahid
14 May 2024, MVT 13:54

Nestled in the heart of Central Asia, Xinjiang Autonomous Region stands as a testament to the vibrant tapestry of cultures, histories and landscapes that define China’s western frontier. Spanning deserts, mountains and large freshwater lakes, this vast region is home to a diverse array of people- each contributing to its rich mosaic of traditions, languages and customs.

A land of diversity

Xinjiang, meaning “new frontier” in Chinese, lives up to its name as a melting pot of ethnicities, languages and traditions. With a population comprising predominantly of Uyghurs, Han Chinese and Kazakhs among other ethnic groups, Xinjiang boasts a cultural mosaic that reflects centuries of interactions and exchanges along the ancient silk road.

The Uyghurs, an ethnic minority forming the largest indigenous group in Xinjiang, contributes significantly to the region’s cultural fabric. Their vibrant music, intricate craftsmanship and delectable cuisine, infused with flavors from Central Asia and the Middle East, add zest to Xinjiang’s diverse culture.

The Xinjiang Muqam Art Theatre was one such place where The Edition witnessed the magnificence of the Uyghur culture performed by the Xinjiang Ethnic Orchestra. A Muqam is the type of melody used in the composition of music of the Uyghur people. While there is a total of 12 Muqams performed, the rhythmic pattern of each piece increase in speed and tempo. While each Muqam is about two hours long, it will take about 24 hours to perform all pieces of 12 Muqams consisting of approximately 20 to 30 pieces of music.

A Muqam performance by the Xinjiang Ethnic Orchestra at the Xinjiang Muqam Art Theatre -- Photo: Malika Shahid

Xingjiang is a land of contrasts, where the expanse of Taklamakan Desert meets the snow-capped peaks of the Tianshan Mountains. In this vast region, inhabited by 56 ethnic groups, diversity is not just a concept, but a way of life. Each community brings its own unique traditions, music, dance and cuisine, creating a vibrant cultural tapestry that is as captivating as is unique.

Rich cultural heritage

Xinjiang’s history dates back a millennia, marked by the rise and fall of empires, with traces of human settlement dating back to ancient times. The region serves as a crucial hub along the Silk Road, facilitating trade and cultural exchange between the East and the West. From the time of the Han dynasty to the heights of the Tang and Yuan dynasties, Xinjiang served as a crossroad of civilizations where cultures mingled and flourished.

Display of the infrastructure and how people lived prior to restorative initiatives at the Memorial Hall for the Old City Protection in Kashi -- Photo: Malika Shahid

Xinjiang is home to a wealth of cultural treasures. The Ancient City of Kashgar, with its labyrinthine bazaars and well-preserved old town, offers a glimpse into Xinjiang's past. With a history of over 2,000 years, the city spans an area of 4.25 kilometers housing century old sites including the Id Ka Mosque, a place of worship for Muslims built in 1442 and the Kashgar Century Old Teahouse, lined with intricately designed carpets, never-ending tunes of folk music and stories of the silk road told by the city’s elderly while snacking on a variety of delicious bread and tea.

Id Ka Mosque entrance located in Kashgar, Xinjiang -- Photo: Malika Shahid

Xinjiang's historical landmarks bear witness to the passage of time and the enduring legacy of its inhabitants.

Its museums, such as the Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumqi, offer insights into the region's rich history, displaying artifacts spanning thousands of years, from ancient pottery to intricately woven textiles. Out of over 31,000 artefacts displayed in the museum including fabrics and clothing, ancient scriptures, sculptures and figurines, what resonated most was the small collection of cowrie shells on display. Especially due to its historical significance to the Maldives, being used as a form of currency at different points in history.

Cowrie shells on display at the Xinjiang Historical Relics Exhibition -- Photo: Malika Shahid

The silk road legacy

Central to Xinjiang's historical significance is its role as a key node on the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes that connected China with the Mediterranean. The trade route bringing prosperity and cultural exchange to the region. Today, the remnants of this legacy can be seen in the ancient cities of Kashgar and Turpan, with their bustling bazaars, magnificent mosques, and intricately carved wooden architecture.

Preserving cultural Identity

Amidst the geopolitical complexities, there are efforts underway to preserve Xinjiang's cultural heritage and promote inter-ethnic harmony. Initiatives such as cultural festivals, language revitalization programs, and restoration of historical sites seek to safeguard Xinjiang's cultural heritage while fostering understanding and dialogue among its diverse communities to strengthen inter-ethnic harmony.

Through art exhibitions, academic exchanges, and cultural festivals, individuals and organizations are striving to amplify the voices of Xinjiang's residents and shed light on their experiences.

An ancient book of poetry; Poems of Guan Suanzhai (Yuan Dynasty, 1206-1368) --Photo: Malika Shahid

As Xinjiang navigates the complexities of the 21st century, it stands at a crossroads between tradition and modernity, unity and diversity, stability and change. The region's strategic significance, abundant natural resources, and burgeoning economic potential position it as a linchpin in China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

Geopolitical dynamics

The geopolitical significance of Xinjiang cannot be overstated, as it borders several countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan. Its strategic location, abundant natural resources, and infrastructure projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, have contributed towards emphasizing the key role played by China in the geopolitical and socio-economic development across Eurasia.

Xinjiang's story is one of resilience, diversity, and complexity, reflecting the broader dynamics shaping our interconnected world. By understanding and appreciating its cultural treasures, historical legacies, and contemporary challenges, we can gain insights into the forces that shape our shared humanity and work towards a future of peace, tolerance, and mutual respect.

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