LET ME begin with this lesser-known realm of China, which lies west of the country’s magnificent coastal cities that we are achingly familiar with—away from the modern spires of Shanghai, the grand history of Beijing and the non-stop spinning factories of Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
LET ME begin with this lesser-known realm of China, which lies west of the country’s magnificent coastal cities that we are achingly familiar with—away from the modern spires of Shanghai, the grand history of Beijing and the non-stop spinning factories of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Of them, Xinjiang—an “autonomous region” farthest away from Beijing on China’s fringe—is practically terra incognita as far as much of the outside world is concerned.
One-sixth of China’s landmass and three times the size of France, Xinjiang is huge. Its massive girth sits at the crossroads of China and Central Asia, at China’s extreme western periphery, the confluence being nothing short of a knot of spectacular diversity of ethnic groups and landscape. From Mongols to Kazakhs, Russians to Kyrgyz to Uyghurs, all on a diverse terrain ranging from windswept steppes to towering mountains and icy lakes to the unrelenting expanse of the desert sands.
For me, Xinjiang had always seemed the ultimate magical destination. I had read about its lush, rolling apple and peach valleys, Turpan’s grape trellis vineyards, and Hami’s plump golden-hued, sweet-smelling melons. Then there were stories about legendary oases towns like Kashgar and flashes of its rich musical heritage, of elegant compositions and vibrant melodies played out on stringed lutes such as the dutar, tambur and rewap.
For the average Indian, Xinjiang may ring all too familiar a bell. The seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang crossed Xinjiang’s famed Flaming Mountains (the Tianshan mountain range, where the red sandstone mountains are indeed flaming red in colour) to come to India in search of “true scriptures”. Based on Xuanzang’s travels was the fascinating record of real geography, Record of the Western Regions, of regions that lay “west” of China—particularly India with vignettes of its social mores, its profound religiosity and its landscape fraught with dangers. So enigmatic and appealing was Xuanzang’s account that it became a part of China’s folklore in the form of the sixteenth-century novel, Journey to the West (attributed to Wu Cheng’en). In this story, the Monkey King Sun Wukong—China’s version of Hanuman who takes after the Indian Monkey God from the Hindu epic Ramayana—accompanies the monk to the “West” (India) in the search for “true scriptures”, meeting with all sorts of delightful (and not-so-delightful) adventures, an allegory of an individual in search of enlightenment.
Later explorers—“foreign devils on the silk road”—discovered more links with India. In the twentieth century, the Hungarian archaeologist, explorer and geographer Sir Marc Auriel Stein, who began his career with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), travelled to Xinjiang “using Xuanzang’s Records of the Western Regions as a guide” and later went on to provide “conclusive evidence of Classical, Iranian, and Indian influences linking up with those of China.” French archaeologists, including the famous archeologist Alfred Foucher, indicated that the Kushan civilisation (1st century BC–4th century AD) encompassed Xinjiang, Afghanistan, right down to the plains of North India. This expanse on the map was an area where poetically and literally, vastly different civilisations met, which seem to qualify the poet and writer Rudyard Kipling’s lines from the “Ballad of East and West”:
But there is neither East nor
Nor Breed nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face
Though they come from the ends
Certainly, Xinjiang became familiar with Vikram Seth’s incredible travels recounted in From Heaven Lake in 1983, but it was of a place not “Chinese” by any width of imagination. As for Indian influences, the region is famous for the death-defying tight-rope dawaz performers, equally at home in the nooks and corners of India. Aficionados of Sufyana Kalam, the “classical music” of Kashmir, may find the lilting poetry and rhythm of Xinjiang’s muqamchi uplifting; both forms are vocal choral music performed by an ensemble of musicians, sometimes accompanied by dancers. These are usually “large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes and instrumental sections”—the most prestigious in Xinjiang being the Twelve Muqam of the Kashgar-Yarkand region. Every child in India is aware of the stories of many star-crossed lovers such as Laila-Majnu (Leila and Meznun in Xinjiang), among other tales; these dastan stories are as popular in Xinjiang as in India, brought to life in music by singers called the dastanchi. Among other commonalities, Indians may recollect the incredibly talented Indian theatre veteran Raghubir Yadav’s delightful rendition of Mullah Nasiruddin on Indian television in the 1990s. Indeed, the local ethnic population of Xinjiang—the Uyghurs, who are Turkic Muslims—claim that Mullah Nasiruddin was from Xinjiang.
Yet I found that the obstacles to reaching Xinjiang (inside China) in the 2000s were almost the obstacles that stood between Delhi and Kashmir in the 1980s and 1990s. Xinjiang can almost be seen as China’s Kashmir, a “troubled” province beset with violence and adrift with rivers of blood. For long years, Kashmir’s beautiful houseboats, the gorgeous Dal lake and rolling hills of cherry orchards were off the tourist map, just like the riotous Sunday bazaars, shrines and apple orchards of Xinjiang.
It will not take long for a layperson to figure out that Xinjiang is colloquially referred to as China’s “Wild West”, uncomfortably beyond the calling of the ironfisted mandarins of Beijing. It seems that centuries ago, the famous eighth-century Tang dynasty poet Cen Shen described it as a place where “no birds from a thousand miles dare fly”—partly because of Xinjiang’s great distance from Beijing and partly because of the different religion and culture. Despite the passage of centuries, Xinjiang remains a thorny issue.
Bollywood encounters with Uyghurs in Shanghai
My first encounter with Uyghurs in China was in the early 2000s, in cosmopolitan Shanghai of all places. One ramshackle alley squeezed between two rows of squat old socialist blocks was colloquially called “Stinky Alley” thanks to the stench of offal and carcass, with the litter of paws (of dogs) and the fishy smell of bunched up thin brown snakes (apparently very delicious) in the air. Near where the alley met the main street, a boisterous crew of teenagers on the threshold of manhood hung around as if they had all the time in the world. They stuck out like a sore thumb: not only were they fez-capped but they also looked markedly different, what with large eyes and strong aquiline noses. They were the helping hands of an elderly lot who looked and dressed similar inside, I discovered. Together, they ran the hole-in-the-wall restaurant sidled at the corner. The elderly lot wore mustaches or beards—quite an aberration for the average Han Chinese.
I was taken aback by their sheer exuberance as they stopped to screech “Kajol” and “Shahrukh” (both Bollywood superstars), and even more amazed as I found myself answering “Alaikum salaam!” in return. Soon I began to patronise their restaurant not because they played songs from “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” (“The Brave-Hearted Will Take the Bride”)—starring Kajol and Shahrukh, a 1995 runaway box office success that had reached the shores of Shanghai—or sold a neat stash of hash (which explained the frequent presence of police in the restaurant, apparently there for their “cut”), but because their version of a particular chicken dish was particularly flavourful, with chunks of potatoes, green peppers and star anise—the closest that came to curry.
Excerpted with permission from Chindia Publishing, Singapore