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The Uyghurs (/wee-gurs/) are an ancient cosmopolitan people who emerged in Xinjiang through migration, racial intermixing, and the influence of hundreds of thousands of troops, merchants and travelers who marched through the province over millennia. Travelers in Xinjiang love their food and culture.
There are an estimated 11 to 15 million Uyghurs in China, and about 300,000 live in adjacent countries. Within China, the vast majority live in Xinjiang, a large province that takes up 1/6 of the area of China. But more and more of them are moving to work and study around the rest of China or moving overseas.
The Uyghurs in Xinjiang now make up about 40 percent of the population. Millions of Han Chinese have been moving to Xinjiang in the last 30 years.
The largest Uyghur concentration is around Kashgar where almost 4 million Uyghurs live. In Urumqi, there are about 270,000 of them, and Hetian is another majority Uyghur region. Turpan is an ancient Uyghur town famed for being an old Silk Road outpost and oasis.
The Uyghur people are a mixed ethnic group. There were a lot of migrations and invasions in the Kashgar and Tarim Basin areas from about 500 BC onwards because major transport pathways went through the Gansu Corridor, a long broad valley that led to the Yellow River Basin, and the mountain passes around Kashgar. So they are racially partly Han Chinese, Mongolian, Tocharian, and Tiele.
The Tiele were a group of tribes who lived in the region around Lake Baikal and the Yenisei River and spread their domains southwards. They were thought to be descended from the Xiongnu people. They are also called "Gaoche." Gaoche means high cart because the tribes used carts with big wheels for transportation as they moved from place to place. They were herdsmen and raised horses.
Due to the Silk Road trade however, the region of Xinjiang became cosmopolitan. From the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) to the Tang Dynasty (618–907) eras, traders, merchants and other travellers from around Asia passed through and sometimes settled. The various Persian, Tocharian, Indian, and Chinese influences can be seen in the artwork in the Buddhist caves such as Dunhuang Mogao and Turpan Bezeklik and artifacts that have been discovered.
The Uyghurs were originally Christian, Buddhist, and Manichean (an ancient extinct religion), but Turkic people invaded from the west and gained control about the year 1000 AD. From the year 1000 onwards, the Uyghurs slowly started to become Islamic.
About the year 1200, Ghenghis Khan assimilated the Uyghurs to be part of his rapidly growing Mongol empire. He and his descendants led Mongol armies composed of Mongols, Uyghurs and others to invade westwards and southwards. After invading, they forced survivors to adopt to their culture and populated their territories by forced migration.
In this way, he and his descendants spread a common culture across their territories in Eurasia. After the big Mongol empires disintegrated, various Turkic ethnic groups arose out of the fragments in a big swath of western Asia and Central Asia. They spoke related Turkic languages.
In the Xinjiang area, the Uyghur language developed. It is a language related to other Turkic languages. The Uyghur people use the Persian alphabet to write their language. Their use of the Persian alphabet effected major changes in their language starting from about the 10th century and afterwards.
In the last few hundred years, the Uyghurs made a living through agriculture. Up until the Qing Empire (1644–1912) decimated the Mongolian Dzungar kingdom in 1761, Uyghurs did not live in most of the northern half of Xinjiang. The Qing Empire settled them in the big area to farm the land, and this is how Urumqi was founded.
Now, Uyghurs are the largest producer of grapes in China. They cultivate and grow grapes in the Turpan basin. In addition, they also produce large quantities of different types of crops such as rice, corn, grain, and cotton.
Uyghur cuisine is noted for being tasty and inexpensive all over China where Uyghur people have opened restaurants. However, the most authentic Uyghur food is in Xinjiang. They love eating lots of vegetables and fruit, and in Xinjiang, you'll find more authentic, meaty dishes such as roast mutton, roast beef, diary products, breads, pastries and fruitcakes made with a lot of nuts and fruits.
Meals: Typical authentic Xinjiang meals include a lot of meat such as mutton, beef, and chicken. Islamic rules forbid alcohol and pork. A breakfast might include melons, fruit jam, and milk tea. Nang, a Uyghur flat bread like Indian naan, is commonly eaten with meals or as a snack.
Before dinner, everyone in the family should wash their hands. Younger people sit with the senior members of the family. It is customary to eat all of the rice they are served at every meal, and it might be considered insulting to leave rice uneaten. For more information about Uyghur cuisine, see Western China Food.
An aftereffect of being on the Silk Road is that Uyghur high fashion means satin and silk. Women wear silk scarves, and for those who can afford it, both men and women might wear silk slippers, especially indoors. Cotton fabrics might have silk embroidery.
Uyghur people have traditionally grown cotton, and cotton clothing is their traditional daily wear. Uyghur women typically wear one-piece dresses with bright vests and baggy sleeves. They accentuate these with silk scarves. On the other hand, men usually wear gowns paired with a long scarf around the waist.
Uyghur people never leave their home without a cap. Caps are the most important piece of clothing for Uyghur people. Women like to put designs on their caps. They often add colorful embroidery and pictures.
Uyghur women also love to accessorize with necklaces, earrings and bracelets. They keep their hair long. Married and single women can be distinguished by their braids. Married women only wear two braids. Single women can wear as many braids as they want.
Most Uyghur customs and traditions stem out of Islam. However, Uyghurs are different from a lot of Muslims in that they really love dance and music and that women perform publicly. They don't usually cover their faces. Uyghur musical ensembles are popular.
Couples who plan to get married should undergo marriage interview and marriage contract ceremonies. These are ways of showing prudence and respect for the marriage rite.
Traditionally, a young man who really wants to get married to a specific woman should go for a marriage interview first. This rule also applies to parents who want to have an arranged marriage for their son. The interview will confirm that the bridegroom knows everything about the future spouse. This includes their age, personality and family members.
The man can propose marriage to a woman when he feels like he is ready. When the woman agrees to it, they should inform their family members. The marriage interview then follows. This is their way of making the relationship public and legitimate.
Uyghur people believe that entrance doors should not face west. They also believe that the proper way of sleeping is to lie on their back with their head facing towards the east. Male friends should shake hands when they meet. They also touch their chest using both of their hands.
Women should also salute when meeting and saying goodbye. It is very important to receive gifts using both hands. This shows respect and appreciation. Politeness is very important in their culture.
In the harsh lowland desert climate in the Tarim Basin that the Uyghurs inhabited for most of their history, an adequate and sure supply of water was essential for their survival.
The Turpan Karez water system that brought water to their town and fields is considered a historical masterpiece and is noted as one of China's three greatest ancient irrigation projects.
The Uyghurs didn't build great architectural projects above ground. But the Sugang Ta or Emin Minaret still stands out. It was built in 1778 out of mud bricks. It has survived because it hardly rains, and is noted for its simple elegant earthen beauty.
The Corban Festival is the most important Islamic festival in their annual calendar. They celebrate it on the tenth day of the second month of the Islamic calendar. This is their chance to express their gratitude and faith in their religion. This is the most important part of the year where they hold the biggest worship ceremonies.
They always make sure they prepare well for this day. Before the day comes, they clean their entire house. They also prepare their livestock. The people wake up early on the morning of the festival. They clean themselves and dress up. After that, they flock to local mosques for worship. They shouldn't eat for half of this day.
When the ceremony ends, people go home and prepare the livestock for slaughter. The meat is equally divided into three parts. The first part is for the family who owns the livestock. Another part is for relatives or friends, and the remnant is given away as a donation. Every family that can afford it makes sure to give a share to the poorer Muslims.
After the traditional meal, they then go out to meet their relatives and friends. The most anticipated part of the festival is the singing and dancing performances. This is open for all to see in public areas. Through the festival, family and friendship bonds grow stronger.
Do you want to visit the Uyghurs? Our expert tour guides know the routes and beautiful people you can meet. They know the must-sees in Urumqi, Turpan, Kashgar and across the vast far-flung landscape of Xinjiang.
It is important to have a local and expert guide with you both to keep in line with government regulations and also to ensure a warm welcome among these sensitive, traditional people.
Our tour experts provide careful logistical planning and advice for a tour of Xinjiang suited to your interests.
These tours may all be customized. Today, the Silk Road still tells many stories of ancient times and the exchange of cultures. We would be glad to tailor-make a Silk Road tour for you.