Battling poverty on the 'Roof of the World'
Updated 16:53, 14-Aug-2019
By Zeng Ziyi

A treacherous drive of six hours from Kashgar city toward China's westernmost frontier will take you to a place of unmatched serenity reserved only for the most adventurous of globetrotters. At 4,000 meters above sea level and surrounded by imposing snow ridges, the Pamir Mountains has been home to the Chinese Tajiks for centuries.

The Tajiks of China are one of 56 ethnicities living inside the country. As one of the smallest in size, the group's population was over 50,000, according to the 2010 national census. A popular local legend tells the story of how Genghis Khan's formidable horse archers once chased the group to the plateau and killed its king before leaving them alone. 

Upon entering the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, a stone engraved with "roof of the world" reminds its visitors of the remoteness on this land. Due to its extreme location, Tashkurgan was out of touch with the development of inland cities until almost 20 years ago, when the local government took on a series of initiatives to modernize the mountainous region.

"We lived in this house when we were young," said Zaftuljon Mamajon as he pointed to a castle-like shelter built on rocks, wood boards and yellow mud. "The rain seeped through the roof and it was very cold being inside during the winter."

A painter by trade, Professor Wen Guozhang from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing came across the Chinese Tajiks 30 years ago. Since then, he has dedicated his works exclusively to the group, traveling up the mountains at least once a year to capture what to him is unmatched beauty and the purity of the locals. To Wen, the changes that have taken place here is nothing short of astonishing.

"When I first arrived, their lives were very hard," said Wen. "Tashkurgan County is lodged deep in the mountains, so their living conditions were bad."

Wen explained that three decades ago, there used to be only one paved road where a few shops struggled to keep up. He even had to head to Kashgar after suffering a bone fracture once. Now, the county is equipped with schools, six hotels and a multi-department hospital capable of treating a variety of illnesses.

For residents, the most tangible changes took place in their living quarters, when the government began a housing renovation project roughly 20 years ago. People began moving out of the "Tupifang," or mud houses, and into the newly built homes that were larger, furnished and earthquake-resistant.

"I went to Urumqi in 1987 and saw a television for the first time in my life," said an emotional Zaftuljon when recalling his first trip to Xinjiang's capital city after being admitted to Xinjiang University. "Now, we have 4G network, high-resolution televisions and smartphones that are upgraded every half a month."

When Professor Wen first encountered the Chinese Tajiks, he was quickly drawn to their unique looks with Caucasian features – prominent noses, blondish hair, and a deeper set of eyes in colors ranging from blue to green. Yet, what most attracted Wen was their unique customs and hospitality.

"They don't get into fights with anyone, they have a very clear system based on filial piety," said Wen. "They are amiable and sincere."

Reporters: Wang Xiaonan, Zeng Ziyi

Videographer: Yang Shengjie

Video editor: Yang Shengjie

Voiceover: Zeng Ziyi

This is the ninth story in our series, "A rare look into southern Xinjiang." You can find the other articles documenting our seven-day tour throughout the region here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.