Far away from the semblances of anything “Chinese,” Xinjiang literally translates to “Western Frontier” and in this land of rugged camel treks, lively bazaars, crumbling ancient desert cities and the footprints of the Silk Road, a soaring feeling of freedom takes hold as you realize you are at the proverbial ends of the earth. But in reality, the vast Taklamakan Desert is only the beginning of things here. As you venture further into province, Uighur markets with roasting kebabs, the scent of spices against the chants from a local mosque, and the crystal clear waters of Heaven Lake remind you that the continent’s ancient superhighway still leads to the forgotten lands of Central Asia. Welcome to Chinese Turkestan.
Xinjiang became a key area of interest for China 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty, when trade along the Silk Road flourished. With bandit attacks on caravans disrupting the lucrative trade between the East and the West, the Han court took control of the northwestern frontier in Xinjiang to protect their own business interests, planting the seeds for a long and turbulent relationship between the Uighurs (the Turkic natives of the region) and the Han courts.
During the early centuries of the first millennium, Buddhism spread from India northward into Central Asia, and the Silk Road helped extend this new belief into China through the corridors of Xinjiang. The religious makeup soon changed, however, with the rapid rise of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. Like Buddhism and countless other ideologies, philosophies and inventions, Islam first arrived in Xinjiang via the Silk Road, and it wasn’t long before the people here converted to the faith.
Following the rise of Islam, Xinjiang fell in and out of the hands of the Chinese, and it even experienced brief spells of independence. In 1933, the Uighurs declared independence under the East Turkestan Republic, but the rebellion was swiftly crushed by the Kuomintang and brought back under Chinese authority. From 1944-1949, the Uighurs tried again for independence, but they were defeated this time by the People’s Liberation Army. Since then, Xinjiang has been part of the People’s Republic of China.
Today, as Beijing continues to tighten its grip over Xinjiang, more and more Han immigrants move into Xinjiang each day, and ethnic tensions have risen sharply during the past several years. For the time being, however, Xinjiang is safe and open for travel.
Xinjiang sits in the crossroads of Russia, Mongolia, Tibet and Central Asia, and is therefore an extremely diverse place with an array of peoples. At one time composing 90% of the provincial population, the Uighur ethnicity has seen its percentage fall to less than 50% as Beijing has pushed for an increase of Han settlers to the region (a phenomenon known as Hanification). The Uighurs are a Turkic people, but there are several other prominent Turkic ethnic groups as well, most notably Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tartars and Kazakhs. There are also a number of Hui Muslims, Mongolians and Manchus.
In regards to Islamic traditions in Xinjiang, there are no laws banning the consumption of alcohol, but public drunkenness, showing too much skin, disrupting prayer or insulting the Prophet Muhammad will certainly not win you any friends.
During the holy month of Ramadan (which changes every year and is based off the lunar calendar), most devoted Muslims will fast during the day and feast at night. Some Uighurs fast during Ramadan, but most shops, especially those owned by Han, stay open. Actually, if you can travel to Xinjiang during Ramadan, you will be rewarded with lively bazaars that are open after sunset and particularly energetic during the holiday festivities.
Those with any knowledge of Turkish, Kazakh, Kyrgyz or any other Turkic language will have an easy time picking up and understanding Uighur, since it’s part of the same language family. Uighurs use the Arabic alphabet (unlike other Turkish languages) for their official written script, and have incorporated many Arabic words into their language. For example, “hello” in both Arabic and Uighur are pronounced nearly the same: assalumu laykum.
Even though Mandarin is the official language for all of China, many Uighurs do not have a firm grasp of it or, frankly, don’t wish to speak it. In big cities or in the Han neighborhoods, however your Mandarin skills will come in handy.
Due to its unique geography, centered between East and Central Asia, Uighur cuisine has developed a special taste that’s made its way into mainstream Chinese restaurants across the country. Since most Uighurs are Muslim, Uighur food follows halal cooking preparation (no pork), and sometimes it can be eaten with chopsticks, your hands or with a fork and knife. Listed below are some of Xinjiang’s most popular treats.
Lamb (yángròu; 羊肉)
Lamb and mutton is without question the number one favorite in Xinjiang. In the rest of China, when a dish is said to contain meat (in a general sense), it typically refers to pork. In Xinjiang, “meat” refers to lamb or mutton. However, the most famous preparation of lamb comes in the form of shish kebabs (串儿; chuàn’er) grilled to perfection right on the street. These lamb skewers are usually dashed with cumin and chili pepper and are so tasty they are wildly popular across the entire country.
Baked Baozi (kǎobāozi; 烤包子)
A Uighur meat pie similar to Chinese style stuffed buns, local baked baozi have a crispier, crunchier, outer bread crust and are heartier than the ones you’ll find elsewhere in the Mainland.
Goat Head Stew (qīngdùn yángtóu;清炖羊头)
This delicacy really freaks many travelers out, but it’s a classic that can be found at night markets all over the province. Basically, the severed head of a goat is dipped into a thick, boiling, seasoned stew and slow roasted for hours. It’s then served on a plate with the meat of the cheek sliding right off the bone and the eyeballs – the best part, according to the locals – still intact.
Naan (náng; 馕)
For Chinese, the go-to staple is either a bowl of rice (in the south) or noodles (north). For Uighurs, it’s a hot, round loaf of seasoned naan flat bread. It comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors, but the most common variety is plain. Others may have an onion zing, a sweet seasoning or even a zesty punch.
Xinjiang Baked Cakes (kǎonáng; 烤馕)
Uncommon in China but very popular throughout the Muslim world, baked cakes, along with syrupy pastries and other delicious sweets, are found in artisan shops throughout the region. They’re much sweeter than standard Chinese deserts, and believe us when we say that they’re scrumptious!
Pilaf (shǒuzhuāfàn; 手抓饭)
An oily, fluffy, colorful rice spotted with meat (usually mutton) and veggies, this common Central Asian dish is extremely popular throughout the Stans, especially in Uzbekistan, and it’s literally finger-lickin’ good (pilaf is usually eaten with the hands).
Big Plate Chicken (dàpánjī; 大盘鸡)
How big is the big plate chicken? Well, it’s often an entire chicken sizzled in herbs and spices and accompanied by a few potatoes for good measure. Once the chicken has been cooked and the juices are flowing, hand-pulled noodles are added to the pot to absorb the succulent flavor. This one is a little spicier than other traditional Uighur dishes and one of our recommended favorites.
Roast Whole Sheep (kǎoquányáng; 烤全羊)
For special occasions, feasts and banquets, Uighurs like to head to the livestock market to pick out a meaty sheep, then fire it up over an open spit. Ribs are the most popular meat of the animal (though they’re a bit fatty and chewy), and the dish is usually served over a large bed of rice and eaten with the hands.
Hand-pulled Noodles (lāmiàn; 拉面)
This time-honored Uighur classic consists of a doughy ball of flower, water and salt rolled up and then stretched by hand into long, stringy noodles. They’re then boiled in water and topped with stir-fried meat and vegetables. This style can be found all over the country.
Cold Salads (liángbàncài; 凉拌菜)
A cross between Western salads and Chinese salads, this Uighur preparation comes in a variety of tastes, textures and styles and makes use of an eclectic array of ingredients. Most will have cucumbers and chickpeas with a little bit of oil and vinegar, and some will also have cold noodles mixed in.
Deep Fried Dough Twists (sǎnzi; 馓子)
The perfect way to get your sweet fix, eating these flowery sticks of braided and twisted dough is sure to spike your blood sugar levels since sweets or sugar are usually sprinkled on top of this fried creation.
Roast Fish (kǎoyú; 烤鱼)
Being so far from the coast, Xinjiang is not known for its seafood. But, believe it or not, there are some gigantic fish swimming around local rivers. You won’t spot this Uighur dish in too many cities, but it’s everywhere in Kashgar’s Old Town. They’re easily recognizable too, just look for a massive, gutted, cooked fish hanging outside a shop and ask the server to break you off a piece.
Cantaloupe (hāmìguā; 哈密瓜)
Small watermelons are juicy and delicious in this part of the world. However, the “watermelons” from the oasis town of Hami are unique and popular throughout China. In English they’re called cantaloupes, but the Chinese call them hāmìguā, named after the Uighur city Hami that is said to have the most delicious ones on the globe. Canteloupes are usually served on a stick and sold by street vendors.
Grapes (pútáo; 葡萄) & Raisins (pútáogān; 葡萄干)
Particularly sweet because of the high amount of sunlight and low amount of water where they’re grown in, Xinjiang grapes from the desert town of Turpan (see pg 1,122) are particularly good .
Walnuts (hútáo; 胡桃)
This is another regional food that you won’t find much of in the Mainland. Walnuts can be roasted, tossed in a salad, or prepared in many other ways, and work well as a snack, especially on long train or bus rides, or can serve as compliments to various meals.