The Uighur people of western China have retained their traditions and distinct identity in places such as Kazanqi, an enclave near the centre of Yining city.
Four days after arriving in Xinjiang, I finally discover something that I had assumed would have been all around me — historical traces of the old China. The China that existed since time immemorial, before the Middle Kingdom’s rush to modernity and its urge to banish backwardness became irresistible.
This little time capsule is Kazanqi, a historical enclave not far from the centre of Yining in Xinjiang’s Yili region. Here the Muslim Uighur people have retained their traditional neighbourhood of narrow streets and single-storey homes concealed behind high painted walls.
Each home announces its presence with a timber double gate on to the street, usually topped by a fancy portico. Blue and white is the usual colour scheme — blue for the sky and white for purity, according to Uighur custom — but there are greens, ochres and oranges, too.
Each suggests a secret and private world lurking within and I cannot help but look out for half-open gates that offer a glimpse inside.
Of course, there is no need to be intrusive.
My tour group has been picked up from a nearby cultural centre by a procession of horse-drawn sulkies with Uighur men behind the reins. We had no idea where we were being led. One minute we were holding up the traffic in the city centre, the next we ducked off the main road and were being transported into a different era.
Old men, sitting and smoking on benches on the footpath, watched casually as our convoy passed by. Children walking home from school, wearing familiar-looking tracksuit uniforms, impatiently wove their way through the carriages.
We stop for ice-cream at the house of Erken Mamade, who has been living in Kazanqi for more than 60 years. His front gate opens and we are led down a narrow, private alley which opens on to a courtyard shaded by an unruly grapevine that is just starting to bud.
The house, raised about a metre above the ground, sits behind a veranda, decorated with fancy latticework. We are invited up the steps, take off our shoes and have a stickybeak inside.
The front rooms are dark and cool. The floors and sometimes even the walls are covered in overlapping Persian-style rugs. In one, a low table is laid out with trays of nuts, dried fruit and chocolate. Perhaps he knew we were coming.
Erken tells us he built his home himself more than 30 years ago. Although rudimentary, it’s possible to imagine places like these in future being snapped up and renovated by professional Chinese couples, kickstarting the familiar pattern of gentrification of inner-city neighbourhoods.
He lives here with three generations of his family, including his eldest
granddaughter Nafisa whom
he held in his arms for most of our visit. Through an interpreter, Erken explained he loved living here because he
liked being around people and having lots of people to talk to. “It makes me
happy,” he said.
The government has recognised the historical value of the area by covering much of the cost of home rebuilding and renovation, provided conditions such as the installation of mod-cons including indoor toilets are met.
After finishing our ice-creams and farewelling Erken and his family, we complete our horse-drawn jaunt through the backstreets and head back into the afternoon traffic of the modern, shiny China.
DisclaimerMark Mallabone was a guest of the Chinese Government.
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