Shifting Sands in China's Stark Xinjiang Region

Q. Sakamaki / Redux

Hero worship
Muslim Uighurs pray at an unknown soldier's tomb at a holy site in Xinjiang's Taklamakan Desert

When describing Xinjiang, silk road clichés never grow old. China's westernmost region is a vast territory of deserts and mountains, where peaks of black sand descend toward ancient oasis towns. In many of its cities, men still haggle over livestock in dusty markets and purchase blades from blacksmiths whose families have stayed in the craft for centuries. The faces of its Uighur inhabitants, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group, tell of Xinjiang's history as a crossroads for caravans and civilizations: an astonishing array of gray, hazel and blue eyes, fringed by brown or black or even blond hair. Marco Polo...

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