The tomb of the Muslim saint Imam Asim lies in China’s Taklamakan Desert, at the end of a long walkway lined with poplar trees. An elevated mud structure, the shrine would easily be camouflaged by the sand if not for the flags, rams’ skulls and strips of cloth decorating it. It is located near the town of Hotan, in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, in the country’s north-west—the homeland of the Turkic-speaking Uyghur Muslim community. For centuries, Uyghur Sufis would journey through the desert between shrines such as this one, stopping at each to recite poems celebrating religious heroes.
“Chinese people don’t come here,” said Tudi Mohammad, a 50-year-old sheikh who is the shrine’s guardian. “It’s not a tourist site.” Mohammad has lived near the shrine for most of his life; his father was also its guardian. He remembered how thousands of people would visit the shrine in May, when locals commemorated the anniversary of the saint’s death. But now, he said, the government has prohibited that ceremony, and Uyghurs come to the tomb in tens, at most. Before he could elaborate, a police car arrived at the shrine. Several personnel entered the building with large batons in hand, demanding that we leave. Mohammad turned around and returned to his room near the shrine’s entrance, glancing pointedly at a security camera hanging above his door.
Xinjiang is one of China’s most politically tense regions, and the government maintains a heavy security presence here in the name of countering extremism and separatism. In June, China’s State Council Information Office released a white paper praising what it claimed were unprecedented levels of religious freedom for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Its claims ring true at some level: select religious and cultural sites—including some state-constructed ones—are open and functioning. Others, however, such as the shrine of Imam Asim, are heavily policed. Some are even closed completely; the Orda Padishahim shrine, about 60 kilometres from the city of Kashgar, which used to attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually, has been shut for a decade. When I told locals I hoped to visit the shrine, they said that doing so was illegal, and warned that I would be stopped by the police.