China is one of the world’s oldest and most significant civilizations. Westerners have often misread and misunderstood the Chinese and their culture. For instance, we tend to forget that, while most of Europe was muddling through the ‘Dark Ages’ around the year 500 AD, China had already been a flourishing civilization for over a thousand years.

The west tends to think of China’s people in terms of the Han Chinese majority when in fact, a wide range of ethnic minorities lives within its borders. This has proven to be a controversial and enigmatic issue for the Chinese government as some of these ethnic groups chafe at Chinese authority. Tibet is the most obvious example. 

One of China’s most restive areas is the far western province of Xinjiang.  Situated at the crossroads of central Asia, Xinjiang is a massive territory  that shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It’s a harsh, windswept land of vast open spaces, big skies and astonishing beauty, where high desert plateaus are ringed by Asia’s great mountain ranges—the Himalaya, the Karakoram, and the Pamirs.  

The dominant ethnic groups here are the Uyghurs and the Kyrghyz, semi-nomadic Turkic peoples who have squeezed out a living in this part of Asia for centuries. They are master horsemen and yurt builders, embracing a way of life little changed over the centuries.  (more…)