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Scarred but Resilient, an Ancient Uighur Town Clings to Its Cultural Past

The Juma Mosque in Yarkand, in the Xinjiang region of China, on August 5, 2019. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)

The Juma Mosque in Yarkand, in the Xinjiang region of China, on August 5, 2019. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)

The ancient Muslim town of Yarkand is a cultural cradle for the Uighurs, who have experienced mass detentions. A rare visit revealed how people there have endured the upheavals.

The winding, crowded lanes of old Yarkand, an ancient Silk Road town, preserve patterns of life that go back centuries.

On a recent morning, smoke wafted from sputtering grills of lamb and ovens lined with baking flatbread. Clangs rang from a coppersmith shaping bowls with a hammer. Twangs from a dutar, a two-stringed lute, floated from a store selling traditional musical instruments. In a dimly lit teahouse, old men in Muslim head caps murmured in conversation.

Sitting on the fringe of the Taklamakan Desert, Yarkand remains a cultural cradle for Uighurs, a mostly Muslim minority in China’s far western Xinjiang region. But their way of life is under intense pressure.

Uighurs have for three years endured a sweeping campaign to turn them into obedient followers of the Communist Party, to weaken their commitment to Islam and to shift them from farms to factories. Towns and cities across Xinjiang are surrounded by big police checkpoints that use facial recognition scanners to record people coming and going.

A million or more Uighurs have been sent to indoctrination camps since 2017. Yarkand was decimated by these detentions.

In 2018, this city of approximately 200,000 people was effectively closed off to foreign journalists, with police checkpoints blocking entry by car. Since last year, though, the authorities in Xinjiang have eased up enough that we were allowed in.

Our visit revealed a town scarred by recent upheavals. Bulldozers are encroaching on houses in the old town, condemned as “slums,” to make way for new neighborhoods.

Yet the Uighurs there also appeared resilient. They hold onto customs woven from their history as farmers, merchants and Muslims living on the edge of deserts.

We arrived in Yarkand by a morning train from Hotan, a small city 175 miles to the southeast. After some negotiations and hushed phone calls, a police officer and a propaganda official who had hurried to the station allowed us to visit as long we agreed to be on a train that night to Kashgar, the next city on our journey to see how the Xinjiang region was changing.

A brief taxi ride took us to old Yarkand as stores and restaurants began to stir to life. We were watched constantly by plainclothes officers, and we limited conversations with residents to brief chats, for fear of bringing them trouble.

Yarkand still offers glimpses of its ancient splendors. The main lane in the old commercial area is dotted with the two-story homes of merchants, faded and cracked. Their wooden balustrades and plaster ceilings are decorated with swirling floral patterns, recalling Yarkand’s history as a stop on trade routes crisscrossing China, Central Asia and beyond.

Yarkand was the capital of an Islamic dynasty, the Yarkand Khanate, which lasted two centuries from 1514. Uighurs credit the Khanate with collecting and refining a revered set of musical performances, the Twelve Muqam. Tombs of the khans lie in a sprawling cemetery here.

On the chief shopping street, knots of women in bright dresses wandered into shops selling children’s clothes, or debated over sparkling trays of necklaces and rings at jewelry stalls. Portly stall holders laid out piles of dried dates and raisins, or sanzi, a snack of fried dough.

On this journey through southern Xinjiang, places we had visited in the depths of the crackdown in 2017 and 2018 seemed busier and more crowded now, suggesting that restrictions on residents had eased a bit.

Police checkpoints throughout towns and cities have become less stringent in the past year, and it is easier to move around. In the bazaars, more faces had the weather-hardened features of farmers, suggesting it was easier to travel from villages.

The reasons for these changes weren’t clear; officials have not offered explanations. The government may have felt more confident after detaining so many people. Or it may have felt it had to ease up a little because the restrictions were suffocating the local economy and tourism, and drawing international condemnation.

Even so, Yarkand remains girded by security. Protective metal grates encased many shops. Cooks’ cleavers were chained to benches, as police rules demand, to prevent potential stabbings.

The government hopes the security will bring back tourists, and Yarkand has converted a gracefully reconstructed palace of the khans into a gaudy attraction, which doubles as a film and television set.

“Chinese culture, Chinese expression,” says a sign at the entrance to the building. Inside, visitors are greeted by a billboard portrait of Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader, waving against a background showing modern apartment buildings.

Some signs of change in Yarkand since the crackdown are subtle. In a dusty park, six barbers wielded razors, scraping whiskers from men’s faces, occasionally grunting to a customer to stay still or tilt his head.

Not long ago, barbers were in less demand. Beginning in the 1990s, southern Xinjiang experienced an Islamic resurgence. More younger men wore Muslim skull caps and grew beards, while more women took to wearing the heavy headdresses and long dresses common in the Middle East to display their Islamic piety.

The government blamed this resurgence of religion for growing ethnic resistance and violence, including a clash in Yarkand in 2014, when Uighurs with axes and knives attacked a government office and police station and killed 37 people, according to government reports.

Now displays of Islamic faith have virtually all disappeared from Yarkand, and across all Xinjiang, in the wake of the mass detentions and a wave of prohibitions. Most women wore modest headscarves or none at all; only a few old men had beards. Mosques appeared closed or largely empty, even at prayer times. Observing Ramadan is officially discouraged. When we stopped outside the Juma Mosque, a man scurried out and shooed us away.

“Love the Party, Love the Country,” the banner above the entrance said. That message was repeated outside other Xinjiang mosques.

Not all traditions have disappeared.

Amid the rubble of a demolished lot, residents bought sheep for Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, called Corban by Uighurs. They stared intensely over the local variety of sheep with their extravagantly fat rumps and pried open their jaws to check their mouths. The sheep would be killed and shared for days of feasting.

Restaurants in old Yarkand were a hubbub of multigenerational families gathered around servings of noodles, samsa — baked pastry pockets of mince — and mutton soup. Signs on the restaurant walls repeated the government’s call for ethnic unity.

“All ethnic groups must bind together as tightly as pomegranate seeds,” said a sign seen in most stores.

In a basement-level cafe, Uighur women in their 20s in sunglasses, jeans and bright skirts chattered over sweet drinks. One woman sat beside a small, old man with a white beard, perhaps her grandfather, offering him spoonfuls of ice cream.

Members of China’s Han majority were an uncommon sight. Yarkand is over 90% Uighur, although Chinese culture and language are spreading. A young girl passed by on the back of an electric cycle, clutching a textbook for learning Chinese — the language at school for Uighur children now.

As we walked around, we wondered if passersby might be former detainees of indoctrination camps or prisons. We watched young men absorbed in a streetside lucky draw game, shouting or grimacing at the results. We could only guess how many more men would have been around before the wave of detentions.

Government records from six villages in rural areas of Yarkand in 2018 showed nearly 16% of 3,249 adults listed were held in indoctrination camps, prisons or criminal detention centers, Adrian Zenz, a German researcher who has closely studied Xinjiang, said in a recent report.

Near the train station in Yarkand, one indoctrination camp appeared empty; the usual cordon of guards had gone. The government has said the camps across Xinjiang are shrinking. But other, bigger ones we tried to visit across southern Xinjiang were still under heavy guard, suggesting they stayed in operation.

Old Yarkand may not survive much longer.

“Take reform all the way,” said a slogan painted on gutted homes waiting to be pulled down.

Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers c.2020 The New York Times Company

first published:January 19, 2020, 17:07 IST