A group of Chinese who consider themselves to be descendants of Genghis Khan have dedicated themselves to preserving the chuer, an ancient flute that comes from the mountains they call home.
The group of Chinese Tunivians, an ethnic group originating from Mongolia, live near Kanas Lake, a body of water located near the Altay Mountains in northwestern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The area's picturesque mountains and rivers have long served to inspire chuer players, with many describing the flute as mimicking sounds in nature.
"The way my dad played sounded like the mountains and water here, especially the song 'Altay Mountains.' It was so beautiful that you could almost see the outline of the mountains," said Mengkeyi, a budding chuer player who was inspired to take up the instrument after the death of his father Erdeshi.
The chuer is a lightweight wind instrument made out of lovage, a perennial plant that is plentiful in the area. It has only three holes, but produces a variety of sounds, depending on a player's skills.
The flutes are created in accordance with sizes of a player's hands. No two chuers or chuer players sound or play alike, said Mengkeyi's younger brother Daxi.
"The plants used to make chuer grow only here. Each autumn, we go to the mountains to find suitable lovage stalks. The ones that grow in the mountains are better than those growing at their base. Thin ones are better than thick ones. Roughly one out of every 10 stalks can turn a good chuer," Mengkeyi said.
The instrument is incredibly difficult to learn to play.
"Many people cannot make any sound with the chuer. I was one of them. I made no sound at all for my first three days of training," said Daxi, who was interviewing local elderly to collect information about the instrument to pass on to others.
"Playing the chuer is truly a difficult job. Our father started learning at nine years old but could not make any sound until he was 13. I wasn't able to make any sound until I was a teenager, too. Many quit after considering it impossible," Mengkeyi said.
Songs written for the chuer are not preserved on any score, but are passed on from one generation to another, each adding a unique flavor to the tune.
However, Mengkeyi has little worry about the future of the instrument. "Many people come here to learn how to play. Some are professional musicians, others are local residents," Mengkeyi said.