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    Chasing the Fire-Worshippers of Tashkurgan

    In far western China, the Tajik people still practice customs with roots in one of the world’s oldest religions.

    Many once-obscure places across the world become famous after being featured in works of art, literature, film, or music. Aficionados of Humphrey Bogart’s irresistible charms flock to Casablanca; fans of a certain British detective track down London’s Baker Street. Both are magnets for people trying to understand what it was, exactly, that inspired the transcendent quality of these works.

    My version of such a place is Tashkurgan, a dusty former Silk Road outpost in the remote southwestern reaches of northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. My inspiration for visiting this humble settlement at the foot of the Pamir Mountains was the 1963 film “Visitors on the Icy Mountain,” an epic tale of love and war that I consider one of the finest black-and-white Chinese films. A well-known violin solo titled “The Sun Shines on Tashkurgan,” composed by Chen Gang and based on a traditional Tajik folk song, was the other reason for my visit.

    The glittering snowcapped peak of Muztagh Ata, the 43rd-highest mountain in the world, stands sentry on the road into Tashkurgan. The city itself sits at more than 3,000 meters above sea level; at noon, the mountain sunshine beats down relentlessly. In the central plaza stands a statue of a majestic eagle — the emblem of the Tajik ethnicity, who proudly refer to themselves as “eagles of the high mountains.”

    Tashkurgan is autonomously governed by Chinese Tajiks, an ethnic minority with a population of just over 50,000 according to China’s 2010 census. Many people who grow up in Han-dominated eastern China have trouble distinguishing Tajiks from Xinjiang’s predominant ethnic minority, Uyghurs, but to locals, the distinction is clear: Tajiks have deeper-set eyes, more prominent noses, darker skin, and the rosy cheeks typical of people who dwell at high altitudes.

    Tashkurgan’s most famous landmark is a stone fortress built by the Kingdom of Puli around 2,000 years ago, located on a small hill overlooking the resplendent Aral plains. Today, the fortress is mostly a ruin. The entire outer wall has been destroyed several times over the millennia, most recently in 1933; the inner wall and a few golden stone turrets are relatively well-preserved, though today they would do a poor job of protecting the city from bands of marauding Mongols, Manchus, and other peoples who used to periodically attack the town.

    Tashkurgan was also where the seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang read from the scriptures on the return leg of his pilgrimage to India during the Tang Dynasty. More than 1,200 years later, the Western explorers Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin would set out in search of Tashkurgan to retrace the route that connected China to the West.

    The stone fortress sees only a couple dozen tourists a day, and even fewer visit Tashkurgan’s other landmark, the ruins of Quxman. These 2,500-year-old burial grounds were only discovered in 2007 and were finally excavated four years ago. The graves commemorate believers in Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest extant religions. Zoroastrianism is thought to have emerged in what is now Iran in the second millennium B.C. and came to China during the fifth and sixth centuries. From the hills above, the graves appear as a vast plain of black and white stone blocks neatly arranged into roughly a dozen rings around small ditches in the earth.

    The discovery of the Quxman tombs challenges the notion that Zoroastrianism — known in Chinese as baihuojiao, or “flame-worshipping religion,” due to its followers’ reverence for fire — originated in Persia. Historians are now examining evidence that it originated in Central Asia, perhaps even on the Pamir plateau that stretches along China’s western border.

    I climbed a mountain some distance from the burial hills. Below, the plains were soaked in the golden light of the evening sun, and I wondered if, before Buddhism and Islam arrived in this land, Tashkurgan’s ancient Zoroastrians ever roamed these hilltops and lit the fire they believed would cleanse them from evil.

    I set off back to town at dusk. Later, while lingering on the roadside, I met Kaebi, a 20-something Tajik man who struck up a conversation with me. He made a living selling yak meat, he said, adding that he was waiting for his deliveryman to show up.

    Most local Tajiks speak Mandarin, Uyghur, and a dialect of Tajik. When I told him in Mandarin that I had gone to the Quxman tombs, his eyes lit up: “I think, even now, our people still venerate fire,” he said, explaining that although most Tajiks in China follow Islam, on Eid al-Adha, those in Tashkurgan sacrifice sheep on the roofs of their homes so that the blood doesn’t spill onto the earth — a practice not observed by most other Muslim peoples.

    Furthermore, Kaebi said, the Tajiks still preserve certain unique practices related to Zoroastrianism: “We worship fire in our homes once a year” — usually on the 14th or 15th day of the eighth month in the Islamic calendar — “and worship stones that have been passed down through our family or are particularly ancient,” he explained.

    Tashkurgan is almost completely silent at night. Everything is shut, aside from the occasional Han-run convenience store and a few hotels targeting tourists; the locals mostly go home the moment the sun sets. But in the city’s culture square, there are nightly screenings of “Visitors on the Icy Mountain” — a film that, in the decades since its release, has become the town’s calling card.

    Locals dressed in the Tajik traditional garb shown in the movie gather in the square to pose with tourists as the theme tune begins to play. “Why are the flowers so red?” croons the singer. “Red as a burning flame, a symbol of pure friendship and love.” I settle in to watch.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: A Tajik family perform a ceremony at their home in Tashkurgan , Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, July 15, 2011. Shang Xiaowei/IC)