The afaq khoja mausoleum in Kashgar is one of the holiest places in Xinjiang, a region in the far west of China. The site is politically charged, too. Several 19th-century uprisings against Chinese rule began with rebels making a pilgrimage to the shrine, and its tomb of Afaq Khoja, a divisive figure revered by some locals as a Sufi Muslim saint, and scorned by others as a traitor. It is beautiful, with stately domes and minarets rendered as exquisite as a jewel box by tiles of green, blue, yellow and brown. To one side lies an ancient cemetery fringed with poplar trees. Its mud and brick tombs were capped with snow when Chaguan visited. As remote as it is lovely, the shrine lies closer to Baghdad than to Beijing.
Not all Muslim sites are as protected. In recent years China has worked to stamp out any hint of religious fervour in Xinjiang. Perhaps a million of the region’s ethnic-Uyghurs have been accused of radical Islamic thinking and sent to re-education camps. Domes and minarets, deemed an “Arabic” import, have been removed from many buildings. An analysis of satellite images published in September 2020 by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a research group, estimates that over 8,000 mosques have been destroyed. That is one-third of all those recorded in Xinjiang by a census in 2004. Xinjiang’s government insists that it has never “forcibly demolished” religious sites, and has merely improved old mosques that were unsafe in earthquakes or heavy rain, or “poorly laid-out”. The claim is not hard to disprove. In the oasis city of Hotan, Chaguan saw the bare ground where the small Gulluk Kowruk mosque stood, and visited the corner of Wenhua and Taibei Roads, from which a larger mosque has simply vanished.