A trip for the senses in Xinjiang

Hui Muslim street food that can be found in Changji City.

China recently invited the media and foreign diplomats to Xinjiang as part of a diplomatic outreach to counter claims of alleged mistreatment of Muslims in the autonomous region. The Star’s RAHIMY RAHIM shares what he saw there. 

THE 10,000 steps of daily walking is known to be good for your health. But clocking in the same number of steps daily in Xinjiang can do wonders for your mind and soul.

Xinjiang, an autonomous region that is spread over 2,400km and borders eight countries, has a landscape that is a stark contrast to China’s busy capital city of Beijing.

When we landed at the autonomous region’s capital Urumqi, snow had covered the beautiful desert and mountainous terrain, turning the mountain peaks into a winter-like wonderland.

Xinjiang was once the hub for the ancient Silk Road and a gateway from China to the West, and served as a cultural convergence both from the East and West.

Its long historical cultural mix had laid a solid foundation for multi-ethnic and multireligious co-existence and cultural integration.

According to a local census collected in 2010, the Muslim population stood at over 12.7 million people, which makes up 58% of the total population in Xinjiang

Tian Wen, head of Xinjiang’s publicity department, said there are 56 ethnic groups from various backgrounds, including 10 ethnic Muslim groups, and all of them are treated equally.

She said under China’s federal constitution, all groups are free to practise their faiths.

Local delicacies: (left) Naan bread made in a traditional oven, a staple food for the Muslim community in Xinjiang. (Above) Hui Muslim street food that can be found in Changji City.
Local delicacies: Naan bread made in a traditional oven, a staple food for the Muslim community in Xinjiang.

On tourism, she said Xinjiang received over 150 million international visitors in the region and she was confident that it could reach more than 200 million people this year.

We walked an average of 10,000 steps per day when were here. Our first stop was at the bustling Grand Bazaar, also known as International Grand Bazaar, which is an Islamic bazaar in Urumqi. It is the largest bazaar in the world by scale, combining Islamic culture, architecture, ethnic commerce, tourism and entertainment.

The visit is part of the Asean China Tour 2019, which followed a series of tours by overseas media members and foreign diplomats to Xinjiang.

The meeting was aimed at strengthening relations between China and the media from Asean countries.

During the bazaar tour, we saw shops selling locally-grown tea, fruit, nuts and local handicraft. There is also a food plaza.

The local food reflects the many ethnic groups in the region and we had our first taste of its staple, a version of naan bread.

Right in the middle of the bazaar lies a store known by the local folk as the “King of Naan”, which sells various types of soft and pillowy naan, including chickpea, roasted mutton, meat and buckwheat, served with local milk tea.

It is said that Yutian’s Keliya people living in the Taklimakan desert took a piece of fermented dough with them when they went out to pasture in the morning and baked it into naan during meal time.

Other signature dishes commonly served at Muslim restaurants are lamb-based dishes and yogurt.

Typical grilled lamb skewers are more than 15cm, but they vary in the way they are seasoned.

The skewers, which are similar to the Middle Eastern lamb kebab, are a combination of lamb meat with small chunks of fat, often served using metal or willow wood sticks to add extra flavour.

Another dish distinct to the Uighur community is called da pan ji or big plate chicken – comprising spicy cooked chicken with hot chillies and peppers mixed with noodles.

Other notable dishes in Xinjiang are from the Hui Min ethnic group, another dominant Muslim group after the Uighur.

Although the majority of these two ethnic groups are of the same religion, their cuisines are quite diverse.

The best place to search for their kind of food is at the Hui Muslim community street food street in Changji City – featuring Chinese flatbread stuffed with meat, locally-made tea with cheese and local sweets.

A trip to Xinjiang will not be complete without visiting the Id Kah mosque, the largest mosque in China. It is also equipped with a library.

The mosque, which was built in 1422, often caters to 10,000 Muslim worshippers who perform their Friday prayers there each week.

During the visit, China Islamic Association vice-president Abdul Amin Jin Rubin said minority Muslims in China are not being discriminated against or persecuted by the Chinese government.

Abdul Amin, who represents more than 10 Islamic bodies, said Muslims in China enjoy the freedom to practise their religious beliefs as provided for under the country’s constitution.

He also dismissed reports of mistreatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Journalists also observed classes held at two pre-schools at the Naizwebag township in Kashgar, where children aged between three and six years from all backgrounds attend classes for free.

The children were taught in both Chinese and Uighur languages.

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