National Geographic : 2009 Dec
• she had shaved into phantasmagoric designs, a pre-Islamic shamanistic practice to frighten away baby-stealing evil spirits. Xinjiang s his- tory 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 sweet- ened ice shaved from chunks that oat 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 occasion- al sign of technology: Knifemakers sit in long rows on ancient bicycles they ve recon gured 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 a erward 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 play- ing," 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 ngerpick from a piece of wire and some twine, icked his ngers across the ve strings of a tambur, and launched into a series of complex songs with roots that reach back at least ve centuries. Those patchwork elements of Uygur life underscore something crucial about the Uygurs as a whole: Centuries of living at a great Eur- asian way station have made them a compli- cated people who defy careless classi cation. But in time the world forgot this, with disas- trous results.