The Tibetan struggle for independence from China has long captivated the West. Fewer people are familiar with an arguably more critical struggle in a neighboring hinterland: that of the Uygurs. Their anonymity is ironic because the West has played an unwitting role in their current crisis—and because the Uygurs, whose culture is fading toward obscurity, once occupied the center of the known world.
Xinjiang sits in the middle of Asia, encircled by some of Earth's highest mountains, as though a drawstring had cinched the top of the world like a coin purse. Passes through those snowy mountains funneled ancient traders and travelers along paths that became the renowned Silk Road. "They say it is the highest place in the world," Marco Polo wrote of climbing the Pamir mountains from the Afghanistan side. When he emerged from the pass, he found the Uygur homeland and marveled: "From this country, many merchants go forth about the world."
The territory became the fulcrum on which Asia and Europe balanced. Turkic raiders and later Genghis Khan, Buddhists and then Muslims, traders and tribesmen, missionaries and monks—all passed through this hemispheric crossroads, and each group left something of itself. I saw a Uygur woman wearing a Muslim head cover and holding her baby, whose head she had shaved into phantasmagoric designs, a pre-Islamic shamanistic practice to frighten away baby-stealing evil spirits. Xinjiang's history is also written in the faces of its people: dark faces with oval eyes. Also fair faces with narrow, jet eyes. And sometimes blue eyes with blond hair.
Geography itself protects the mosaic of Uygur culture in Hotan, in far southwestern Xinjiang. A range of snowcapped mountains rises at the town's back, and before it lies the Taklimakan, a desert larger than Poland, which people sometimes call the Sea of Death. Hotan's inhabitants are mostly farmers, and many of them come together each Sunday outside the town for a bazaar where children eat sweetened ice shaved from chunks that float down the Karakax (Black Jade) River, women browse tents full of silk, and men gather to have their beards trimmed while they tell jokes.
It's an old scene, although there is an occasional sign of technology: Knifemakers sit in long rows on ancient bicycles they've reconfigured to spin grindstones, looking like an invading horde of spark-spitting cyclists. A young Uygur man named Otkur (the names of Uygurs in Xinjiang have been changed for their protection) shared his bowl of sheep's lung with me, and afterward we approached an astonishing device: a two-story-high swing set with a seat big enough for two people to stand on. Otkur smiled. "For playing," he said. Two women climbed onto the ends of the seat and swung so high they disappeared into tree branches.
In town I met Dawud, a music master who teaches a small group of students. In his school a large mural showed a mashrap, a traditional all-male gathering—now closely regulated by the Chinese—where Uygurs convene to play music, recite poetry, and socialize. Dawud fashioned a fingerpick from a piece of wire and some twine, flicked his fingers across the five strings of a tambur, and launched into a series of complex songs with roots that reach back at least five centuries.