The Uyghur people (Wéizú, 维族; also spelled Uighur) based in northwest China's Xinjiang Province, are the one people most different from the majority Han. Like almost all of China's minorities, the term "Uyghur" is used to describe a hodgepodge of Turkic peoples and does not reflect the true history and identity of the people who live along the southern edge of the Tarim Basin.
The modern official world has dispensed with the oasis-bound tribes and nomadic clans who are the ancestors of today's Uyghur, choosing instead to simplify matters and call most non-Han citizen of Xinjiang a Uyghur. Uyghurs themselves come from the steppes of lower Siberia, western Mongolia and the mountains of Central Asia. The Uyghur arrived in the Tarim Basin between 1,500 and 1,000 years ago, mixing with the Indo-European and Asian peoples that lived along the edges of the basin and embracing Islam when it came raging across the passes from the Middle East. Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and can be understood from Kashgar to Tashkent through Persia and Azerbaijan all the way to Istanbul. In fact, the Seljuk Turks that moved west across Asia to present-day Turkey are a much "younger" tribe than the Uyghur and it has been argued that the people of the Tarim Basin and the plains and passes that surround it are the original Turkish people.
A Massive Melting Pot
Contrary to popular belief, Uyghur are not just good at baking bread, making lamb skewers and dancing for tourists... although I have to say it doesn't get much better than hot fresh bread, juicy kebabs and a goblet drum beat. The Turkic culture that rose out of Central Asia and spilled out across China, the Middle East and Europe was influenced and in turn influenced the great neighboring civilizations of India, Persia and China.
One of the first meetings between East and West took place in the ancestral homeland of the Turkish people, when Alexander the Great married a Bactrian (Afghan) princess and gave rise to a mixture of Hellenic, Indian and Turkish cultures that can be viewed as far away the walls of Dunhuang in Gansu Province. In fact, the Uyghur Khaganate, a large and cohesive state that ruled most of the lands immediately north of China's Tang Dynasty, was an advanced civilization that passed knowledge of music, medicine, art and warfare to the nations surrounding it. The erhu is most likely a Turkish instrument and many of the herbal tinctures and techniques of Traditional Chinese Medicine are in fact Turkish adaptions of Persian and Indian practices. Chinese travelers and ambassadors to the northwest were impressed with the beauty and order of the Khaganate's oases towns—decked out in colored tiles, lined with grape and apple orchards and governed by a code of ethics that favored clan discipline and honor while tempering itself with Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism.
We like to think of ancient civilizations as monolithic, homogenous structures basically resembling a non-electric version of today's "India," Persia," and "China," but the truth is so much more beautiful and complex than that. More often than not, the monolithic empires were actually a patchwork of kingdoms, khanates, enclaves and general spheres of influence that, when mixed together over centuries, created the institutions, philosophies and innovations that modern nation states like to claim for themselves. Perhaps a step back from parochialism and enforced conformity in favor of a look at the true history of the Tarim Basin—a history of mixing and matching—could help all peoples of the region better appreciate each other.
Riding the Silk Road Tiger
Perhaps the largest contributor to the mixing of cultures in western and northwestern China was the Silk Road. The trade route linked India and Persia with China and created an impetus for military settlements, trader outposts and frontier towns where all of that mixing and matching took place. The Uyghur were perfectly situated to take advantage of the trade in silk and horses that formed the backbone of the Silk Road.
It was a symbiotic relationship that everyone (inadvertently perhaps) kept alive through attempts to control the relationship itself: Each time a band of horsemen from the north seized a border town, the Chinese sought more horses for their armies; each time the wars reduced the flow of silk to a trickle, the women of the West howled in woe, leading to a sharp increase in the price of silk and the mobilization of Western merchants and caravans. The Uyghur stood at the crossroads of this relationship—sometimes as independent kingdoms, sometimes as subjects of the Tang Dynasty and sometimes as Mongol vassals—striving to make a profit wherever they could. Even today, the as the Silk Road morphs into the Energy Road, Uyghur find themselves in the middle of a strategic economic and political part of China that brings both prosperity and hardship.
Tourism, as with any growing industry, has a chance to be the great equalizer or the great divider. The Tarim Basin is surrounded on three sides by gorgeous mountains—the Altay to the north, the Kunlun to the south and the Pamirs to the west—and peppered with beautiful oasis towns like Hotan, Turpan and Aksu. The northern half of Xinjiang is a fascinating mixture of "Uyghur" peoples such as the Tartars, the Mongols, the Kazakhs and others many centered in the capital of Urumqi, but also scattered along the borders in towns like Yining, Karamay and Aletai.
The southern half is where the famous city of Kashgar meets the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan—the point where the southern and northern Silk Roads became one before they passed over into India and Persia. There is a lot to see in Xinjiang... don't hesitate to book a ticket out to the far reaches of China and join in on the cultural melting that's been going on there for millennia!