Reveries on the Silk Road

Sherif Sonbol , Saturday 2 Mar 2019

Sherif Sonbol visits locations on the ancient and more modern Silk Road in western China with childhood dreams in mind

Dancers at the Urumqi international bazaar (All Photos by Sherif Sonbol)

Even as a child I often dreamed of travelling in a caravan by camelback on the legendary Silk Road, the greatest trade route in history which joined China to Europe across the Asian continent.

Part of my childhood dream came true in October and November 2018 when I travelled to northeast Pakistan and headed out by car on a road being built by China along the ancient Silk Road at a cost of $57 billion.

The route extends from the border of the Chinese Xinjiang province to the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea in eastern Pakistan and includes Road, bridges and tunnels that cross three mountain ranges, most famously the Himalayas.

Kashgar vocation centre
Learning different skills at Kashgar vocation centre

After this journey, I was surprised to find an invitation from China’s cultural attaché in Egypt, Shi Yuewen, when I returned to Cairo to visit Xinjiang in the west of China, one of the key posts on the ancient and newer Silk Road.

I found a stunning blend there of the liberal Arab world of the 1950s and the technology-savvy West of the 21st century.

I found towns where Muslim minorities live alongside other ethnic groups in a way similar to how people in Egypt and other countries used to live in the 1970s until groups that seemed innocuous at first began labelling others as infidels. This began with these groups’ pointing to women not wearing the hijab (veil) as heretics.

Id Kah Mosque
The Gate of Id Kah Mosque, China’s largest, in the Kashg main square

In Kashgar in Xinjiang province where the Uighur minority lives, I met a 45-year-old woman who was busy making clothes with other women at a local vocational centre.

She told me she had bought a flat in the town, and after some time her neighbour told her that she was an infidel and not a Muslim.

The woman was shocked by this deplorable and unexpected accusation and asked him why he had said it. He told her it was because she was not wearing a burqa to cover her face and body, like the women in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The woman then put on a face veil, fearing to be sent to hell, and then the man told her that all their female neighbours were also infidels and that she must join her “believer” sisters in attacking any woman not wearing a burqa.

He thus planted a seed about infidels in her head, along with subtle hints about violence and death that coincided with deadly terrorist attacks across the region and video footage similar to that put out by the Islamic State (IS) group of Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian and other victims.

Horseshoe-making, where and how it was made in the Old Kashgar Silk Road

I watched these videos and looked at various confiscated weapons in an exhibition in Urumqi which I visited next and felt sick to my stomach at the gruesome footage.

Another woman I met in a folklore class at the vocational centre in Kashgar said that as matters had got worse the Chinese authorities had intervened and said that what was taking place was illegal because calling society “apostate” could lead to violence, death, backwardness and poverty for all.

The authorities had given those calling for such things the choice between a three-year jail sentence or joining a vocational centre, and the majority had chosen the vocational centre in order to listen to different points of view and discover a version of Islam not drenched in blood.

Slamati Kuli
Slamati Kuli dancing in her mall

I asked the director of the centre how he monitored the attendees. He said the programme began at 6am with activities going on until 10pm and that he trusted those who attended and did not monitor them in their leisure time whether during the day or at night.

I next visited the Id Kah Mosque, the oldest in Kashgar and largest in China, where I was met by Imam Jume Mamati who took me on a tour of the building.

He pointed to a spot in the garden, saying that this was where terrorists had assassinated his father Jume Tahir, the mosque’s previous imam whom he had succeeded.

A rug woven with flowers opposite the qibla (prayer niche) caught my eye. He said it included 56 flowers symbolising the number of ethnicities in modern-day China who could not hope to survive alone without being part of a larger unit.

Chinese people

I asked how many of these groups were Muslim, and he replied that 12 of them were.

As we headed out of the mosque, I asked whether the Uighur minority was being persecuted and whether this was because the majority of it was Muslim.

Mamati pointed to the shops adjacent to the mosque and said, “you need only to look at the names of these shops written in Arabic script as well as Chinese.

We are taught this language alongside Mandarin in government schools, so how are we persecuted when the government encourages people to embrace their own identity?

“Did you know that we and other minorities in China are exempt from the one-child rule that was until recently the law of the land? This shows that the government has never wanted to annihilate us or reduce our numbers,” he said.

Urumpi international bazaar
At the Urumpi international bazaar

Further Meetings

I met Gao Jianlong, an economics professor at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, who welcomed me warmly and said he had visited Al-Ahram in Cairo and met many colleagues and editors.

I asked him about the economic growth rate in Xinjiang, and he said it was higher than China’s overall growth rate. In 2017, GDP growth was 7.6 per cent in Xinjiang and 6.7 per cent in the rest of China, he said.

Xia Yongmin, director of the West Asia and Africa Broadcasting Department at China Radio International (CRI), told me that the Chinese government was putting a lot of effort into economic development in order to benefit all Chinese citizens, Xinjiang included, especially since it was an important segment of the ancient and newer Silk Road.

He said the central government in Beijing had undertaken several projects, including some dealing with economic, housing, cultural and traditional craft matters. “We are keen on maintaining the individual characters of the Chinese minorities,” he said.

Other regions had provided facilities to Xinjiang as a contribution to the region’s economic growth, he added.

I took a tour of the local industrial facilities, including a fully-automated textile factory with an annual output worth 300 million yuan.

I was impressed by the astounding progress I saw, though also dismayed at the automation which was rendering more people jobless.

I asked Xia about this, who smiled and said that although the factories were becoming fully automated, some 4,000 people worked at the textile factory in maintenance, administration, marketing, distribution, purchasing, and so on.

I looked up China’s unemployment rate on the Internet and found it was 4.09 per cent compared to four per cent in the US.

The next morning, I went to Kashgar’s old town where I was met by a dance troupe performing a traditional welcome dance.

I toured the old market where shops and homes had been renovated, including those surrounding the Id Kah Mosque at a cost of $1 billion.


The first shop I stopped at was an ironsmith’s making horseshoes, and then I stopped off at several others, including shops dealing in metalwork, woodwork, carpet weaving and hat making.

I savoured a glass of Chinese green tea with raisins and other dried fruit at the home of local businesswoman Slamati Kuli who owns shops selling a variety of goods from outlets nearby. I asked about her income, and she said she had 12 employees and earned some 200,000 yuan a year.

I then visited a housing complex built by the government for residents who had earlier lived in the mountains under harsh conditions.

In one of the new flats, we were met by an old man and his wife and children who offered us food and drink. I had begun to have some doubts by this point because everything I had seen had been almost too perfect.

Someone asked the woman about how she felt about living in her new house, and she responded by bursting into tears. Her husband put his arms around her, and her children smiled as she wept.

They said they had been destitute in the mountains in the past, but now they had walls to protect them and a home in which to receive guests.

The woman’s tears removed any doubts that had been in my mind. Before leaving Kashgar, I visited a modern hospital and pre-school on the edge of the city and a market selling expensive camel-hide coats.

I also found a tariff-free area (similar to Port Said in Egypt), and I jumped at the chance to buy some Belgian chocolate. I then travelled to the region’s capital Urumqi and visited a centre for Islamic studies built by the Chinese government.

There I met Imam Abdul-Rakib Tumniaz, president of the Xinjiang Islamic Institute and an MP in the National People’s Congress.

We visited classes at the institute teaching Quranic recitation, and I heard a remarkable recitation of verses from the Quran by students who studied there and were given a monthly stipend.

The institute plans to graduate 2,700 imams every six-month cycle.

Kashgar vocation centre
Learning different skills at Kashgar vocation centre

Since the imam knew I was Egyptian, he said that he had been to Cairo to meet with clerics from Al-Azhar to discuss the institute’s curriculum.

I asked about efforts to combat terrorism, and he replied that the society and government worked together and had prevented any terrorist attacks over the past two years.

I then went to the local train station built to transport goods along the Silk Road to neighbouring countries. A train arrived, and I counted 40 carriages racing past me at a speed as fast as my packed itinerary.

I next visited the international bazaar completed in 2002 in Islamic style that included a mosque, traditional shops, a food court, and musicians of all sorts.

Misrat Kaila, a woman from the Uighur minority, said she believed that “as long as you have a mouth to talk, you must sing; and as long as you have legs to walk, you must dance.” I saw the stunning mosque, and then I was swallowed up by the crowd.

It is nearly impossible to find good bread in Beijing, but here I found a woman giving away pastries for free and a bakery making Pakistani bread and a group dancing for joy.

I went to an impossibly crowded restaurant serving traditional dishes. The main dish found everywhere in the region, even for room service, consists of walnuts, almonds, dates and raisins along with skewers of delicious grilled meat.

There was a dance troupe encouraging everyone to join it, without any harassment of the female dancers as we sadly sometimes see in other Eastern societies.

Kashgar Town
Receiving guests at the old town of Kashgar

Outside there was a band of male drummers playing the tanggu (traditional Chinese drums), and I was surprised to hear that some of the rhythms they were playing were similar to those from Upper Egypt.

Leaving the bazaar, I went to dinner and then to the Xinjiang National Theatre to watch a show that took my breath away. Even though I was the official photographer at the Cairo Opera House for 20 years and often attended performances from around the world, I had never seen anything quite like this show.

The dancers were brilliant, and the show was performed on the stage, the ceiling, and walls of the theatre using astounding technology.

Alas, this spectacular show eventually came to an end. I headed to bed to be ready to take a flight home after a compact 30-hour trip exploring the new Silk Road of western China.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Reveries on the Silk Road

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