Faces of Muslim China

Although we left China via the new terminal at Beijing Capital Airport, the overland core of our route was from Kashgar in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to Xian in Shaanxi Province, through the central parts of Muslim China. We may not think of China as a Muslim country, and indeed it is not, but there are some twenty million Muslims in China, a larger number than in the majority Islamic countries of Syria or Malaysia (though as a percentage less than 2%). China officially has 55 ethnic minorities, and ten of them are largely Muslim, including the Hui (almost 10 million), who are Muslim but otherwise culturally similar to Han Chinese, Uyghurs (over 8 million), and the other Central Asian Kazakhs/Kyrgyz/Uzbeks/Tajiks (in the aggregate less than 2 million). (For more thoughts on the Central Asian minorities, please see my post of 7.23.)

Since you’ve by now seen plenty of pictures of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz (posts of 6.16, 6.29 and 7.6, respectively), let’s start with the Uyghurs, who live largely in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Uyghur men, Kashgar

Uyghur man in typical Uyghur hat, Kashgar

Uyghur man, Yarkand

A young Uyghur woman with typically Central Asian features, Yarkand

Couple, Kashgar

Young men, Yarkand and Hotan

Siblings with astonishingly fair features, Yarkand

Even among the Central Asian minorities the Tajiks stand out for looking particularly “white” and apparently out-of-place in the PRC. What would you think if you met a Chinese Uyghur or Tajik in your home country, and upon your asking him where he was from, he responded “China?”

Tajik man, Tashkurgan

Tajik woman in traditional dress, Tashkurgan

Moving further east, many of China’s Muslims are classified as Hui, a designation that is not really ethnic, linguistic or cultural but religious–different groups of Hui have nothing in common but their Islamic faith, and the Hui are largely indistinguishable from the Han majority. The Hui have their own autonomous region near Xian, but most Hui live outside of it, all over China. We first encountered Hui in Jiayuguan in Gansu Province but saw the greatest numbers in the city of Xian in Shaanxi Province, where they dominate the city’s atmospheric Muslim Quarter.



Faces of Pakistan

We were in Pakistan fairly briefly, and only in the Northern Areas, but did have a chance to get some photographs of the friendly locals. The photos are in geographical order, from the Chinese border in the north to Gilgit, the capital of the Northern Areas, in the south.

Some photographs taken from Sost. Because Sost is an administrative and transit center, we think that these two individuals may not be true natives of the area, but they do have a typical northern appearance.


Heading south our first stop was Passu, which is located in the Wakhi area of the Northern Areas. Although they often consider themselves Hunza, and share the Ismaili faith (see post of 7.13), the Wakhi are ethnically and linguistically distinct, being from the Wakhan Valley shared by Tajikistan and Afghanistan (see post of 6.23). Their language (and likely their genetic ancestry) is related to that of Tajikistan and Iran, rather than the other languages of the Northern Areas.

A Wakhi boy

A Wakhi woman, in traditional dress quite similar to the Tajik Pamiris

Two Wakhi girls. Note how fair the second girl is, just like other Pamiris (see my posts of 6.23 and 6.29). Indeed, it is startling how different the ethnicities and cultures of the Northern Areas are from the rest of Pakistan.

The “heart” of the Northern Areas is the Hunza Valley, populated by a people that speak Burushaski, a language unrelated to any other in the world. The Hunza Valley is famous for its cultural distinctiveness, as well as for its beautiful mountains and healthy way of life.






Our young “guide” up to the Ultar Meadow

A common summer sight–girls and women carrying baskets for apricots

Women, sometimes with cover but often not, are a common site in the Hunza Valley, which is largely Ismaili. Heading further south into Pakistan, women were essentially nowhere to be seen–less so than anywhere else we have been.

Some pictures from Gilgit. Although Gilgit is in the Northern Areas, that it is a much bigger city and its more southern location mean that many different ethnic groups from Pakistan have settled there. For example, the second man below (who liked to smile but not for the camera) told us that he was a Pashtun from Peshawar. Gilgit was extremely tense, with a huge police/military presence trying to suppress ongoing sectarian violence, but the locals were for the large part very friendly. The most common joke, believe it or not, was men pointing at their bearded friends and telling us that they are Taliban. One man even pointed at another man’s large belly saying that it was actually a bomb and he a suicide bomber!






I believe these guys are Hunza, because they are wearing Hunza hats.

Rather intense eyes, don’t you think?

Faces of Kyrgyzstan

Let us start with Kyrgyz in a proper traditional Kyrgyz setting–a yurt. We took these pictures around (Lake) Song Kul, a popular destination in central Kyrgyzstan.


Look at those suburnt cheeks!

A Packers fan!

More urban Kyrgyz


Selling ak-kalpaks, the traditional Kyrgyz hat

As with the other Central Asian republics, Kyrgyzstan has a substantial population of ethnic minorities, including especially Uzbeks in and near the Fergana Valley. We met Uzbeks not only in Osh, but also in the Uzbek village of Arslanbob nearby.

At a market restaurant in Osh. Osh, by the way, has some of the best food in Central Asia (although we did not try the odd concoction pictured).




Faces of Tajikistan

The Tajiks were right up there with Syrians and Iranians (the latter, their kin) in terms of friendliness and warmness to foreign visitors, and we will remember the country very fondly. These portraits are in the order of western lowlands to eastern Pamirs, the direction of our travels.

A beautiful young girl from Penjikent

Elderly Uzbek man, Penjikent. Uzbeks make up some 15% of Tajikistan’s population, living predominantly in the west and north. Tajiks were quick to point out that the ethnic Uzbeks of Tajikistan live much more freely than the ethnic Tajiks of Uzbekistan. [See my post of 6.21.]

Some photographs from Dushanbe. Dushanbe, being the largest city and the capital, contains many different ethnic groups, but the people pictured here appear to be Tajik.


Heading into the mountains of eastern Tajikistan, one encounters the Pamiris, who are an Iranian people like the lowland Tajiks but have a distinct (and ancient) culture. I have read it speculated that they are descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Central Asia, the Scythians, who were reported by many historical sources as having light hair and eyes. Pamiris, having lived in mountainous isolation, retain valley-specific idiosyncratic languages and ancient pre-Islamic customs. [See my post of 6.23.]

A Pamiri family living near a high pass, tending livestock for the summer.


Other portraits of Pamiri Tajiks. Note how light some are in coloration.







Along with the last picture, the following were all taken on the high plateau of the eastern Pamirs. The Murgab District is largely Kyrgyz, Tajikistan’s second largest minority group. I was generally shocked at how “Asian” Kyrgyz look–I could certainly pass for one!



Two members of a rather beautiful family that we met while out on a hike


Cheeks astonishingly burnt by sun

Faces of… Afghanistan

While we were never actually in Afghanistan, our route along the Panj River Valley shared between Tajikistan and Afghanistan kept us within sight and often literally a stone’s throw of Afghanistan for days. Due in equal parts to chance and planning, we were also in the Tajik town of Ishkashim on the day of the cross-border market located in the no-man’s land between the Tajik and Afghan border posts, set up with the assistance of the Aga Khan Foundation (post on the Aga Khan to come) and western donors. As it turned out, the sellers were almost all Afghan men crossing the border to sell Afghan and Iranian goods (including such mundane items as Iranian soft drinks, but also including clothes, machine-made carpets and traditional medicines) while the customers were almost all Tajik women.

The northern part of Afghanistan is largely populated by Farsi/Dari-speaking Tajik people (just like Tajikistan), but some of the individuals pictured seemed to reply to our questions that they were Pashtun, and so I was left uncertain as to their ethnic backgrounds. If you can tell, please enlighten us and comment!