[If you haven’t already done so, please read Carl’s new Hrolff post below before reading this.]
The land of Uyghuria is perhaps the most ravaged and impoverished place in all of the Drowned World. Most historians agree that its troubles began some five centuries ago, when the Time of Plenty, a period of above average rainfall and mild climate that began around AD 1200, suddenly ended. During the Time of Plenty, Uyghuria was as prosperous as any other land in the Drowned World: its harvests were bountiful, its cities prosperous. The nearby lands also benefited from the generous climate, so warfare was mostly limited to sporadic feuds and isolated raids. Even the hobgoblins of Kwarazm seemed content to squabble among themselves and leave the neighboring territories alone. When an outside threat did present itself, it generally came from Kha'atia to the east - the Vidlag have never been content to sit at home, even in the best of times - but the Kipchak dynasty, which ruled Uyghuria throughout the Time of Plenty, maintained a large, highly-disciplined military, so these threats were usually short-lived. The peace and plenty helped trade to flourish, and caused the population to grow exponentially.
Kharschum sits upon the site of the Kipchaks' ancestral home. Before the Time of Plenty, it was little more than a modest village and keep, but as Uyghuria prospered, Kharschum became the country's main trading hub, and quickly exploded into a thriving city. The Kipchaks used their newfound wealth and influence to extend their power across the country, and little more than a century later, in 1311, Kipchak the Unbecoming united all of Uyghuria under his rule. Uyghuria remained united under subsequent Kipchak rulers, and Kharschum continued to thrive as grain, fruit, wine, and a staggering array of value-added products flowed through its harbor. Slaves did pass through Kharschum from time to time, but they comprised a small fraction of its burgeoning economy.
Sometime around the turn of the 16th Century, however, the entire region was struck by an unrelenting drought that lasted for decades. In hindsight, it may not have been a drought at all, but rather the end of an unusually rainy and mild period. Whatever the cause, it was disastrous. As crop yields plummeted, farmers cleared more land in an attempt to compensate, but this only succeeded in destroying what was left of Uyghuria's coastal and riverine forests. As the famine deepened, crime and violence became rampant throughout the countryside, which forced people to return to their old alliances of race, ethnicity, and kinship in order to protect themselves. Once these factions were solidified, internecine warfare began to flare up, and within a few decades, it had grown into a conflagration that consumed the entire region.
It did not help that Uyghuria lacked competent leadership during this crucial period. Kipchak the Corpulent, who reigned during the first three decades of drought, gave far more attention to opulent feasts at his court than to the crisis engulfing his kingdom, and seemed entirely deaf to the cries of his starving people. His son, Kipchak the Feckless, is said to have been simple, and did nothing to avert the crisis. Kipchak the Feckless was succeeded by his nephew, Kipchak the Relentless, who sought to reunify the kingdom through military force, as well as public torture and execution of rebellious subjects. Kipchak did indeed succeed in reunifying his kingdom, but not in the way he had imagined. In the face of ongoing starvation and their ruler's brutal tactics, several factions banded together and rose up against the king. Their combined armies stormed into Kharschum, slaughtered everyone in the royal family, and beheaded Kipchak on the steps of the ancient church that still sits next to his ruined keep.
Though the drought lessened in severity at the end of the 16th Century, Uyghuria's climate has yet to return to what it was in the Time of Plenty. Even if it did, the land would never see the prosperity and unity that it once had. Centuries of warfare and genocide have riven the Uyghurian people so deeply that few dare to hope that Uyghuria will ever know peace, and the land's natural resources are so depleted - its forests burned and cut away, its rivers choked with its eroded farmlands - that few people cling to the illusion that it will ever produce a fraction of what it once did. The only resource that remains is the people themselves.
The slave trade was initially a byproduct of the constant warfare between Uyghuria's clans and factions; the conflicts produced captives, which were sold to support the ongoing military campaigns. It was not long, however, before the slave trade dominated Uyghuria's economy. Many of the clans dropped whatever pretenses they had maintained to keep fighting each other and warred for no other purpose than to capture slaves and enrich themselves. The kingdom of Avaria to the south, which had suffered similarly from the drought but had stabilized under the repressive theocracy of Zon-Kuthon, found that it could turn a profit by culling its cities and countryside of unbelievers, and shipping them down the River Gish to be sold in Kharschum. The hobgoblin tribes of Kwarazm became involved, as well, sending their slaves over the Devil's Backbone, a dangerous overland route that traces a steep ridge connecting the two kingdoms. Because Kharschum is the only substantial saltwater port in the region, all of the slave routes converged there.
As the slave trade boomed, so did Kharschum, though in a markedly different way than centuries before. Those who prospered from the slave trade shunned the filth and squalor of the old city, and built what amounted to an entirely new city on the river's western bank. As the Western City filled with Uyghuria's moneyed and influential, the Eastern City continued to fill with all manner of people, most of them fleeing the chaos of the countryside. The ancient stone buildings were partitioned into makeshift tenements, where a dozen or more individuals would often share a single room. If there was an empty space between two buildings, someone erected a new building, most often from mud-brick and thatch. Outside of the derelict city walls, shantytowns sprung up, until the original Eastern City was enveloped by a vast, sprawling slum. It was as if the corpse of Kharschum had been reanimated with a teeming, carcinogenic life.
Little has changed over the last few centuries. During the day, the narrow streets of the Eastern City are crowded with people of all kinds. Humans in gaudy silks and thick jewelry shove through crowds of ragged commoners and mud-stained, shrouded lepers. Naked children squat at the edges of the streets, imploring passersby for coins and scraps of food, though few seem to notice them, and even fewer bother to throw a few coppers their way. An occasional hobgoblin or half-orc pushes its way along the street, while halflings and an infrequent goblin dart unnoticed among the legs of the larger folk. Above the crowds, swarms of flies thrum and glint in the shimmering heat.
The city itself looks as if it is on the verge of collapsing in on itself. Crooked, mud-brick buildings and wooden shanties lean against the older stone buildings, which are themselves streaked with soot and crumbling with age. A few windows still have glass, but most are crudely shuttered or hung with dirty fabric, and many are entirely empty. A few buildings have been recently plastered or whitewashed, but most of these manage to look tawdry rather than tidy, and those rare buildings that are tastefully maintained do little to attenuate the squalor around them. The cobbled streets are barely discernible beneath their crust of trampled mud and manure, and the shallow gutters are clotted with shit and offal. The stench, which varies from that of ripe feces to rotting flesh to dizzyingly pungent urine, is overpowering at first, but one eventually becomes accustomed to it.
Because of these conditions, disease is epidemic in Kharschum. People die of cholera and dysentery on a daily basis, and outbreaks of bubonic plague and typhus flare up regularly. Though a thousand or more babies are born each year, and thousands of people move to Kharschum in a typical year, its population remains fairly stable because of the mortality that disease wreaks. Most of the dead are buried in mass graves outside of town, though some are dumped into isolated channels in the delta. Those with money enough for a funeral and burial are ferried to the Isle of the Dead for proper internment.
This is where you find yourselves, in a city that represents hope for some and misery and enslavement for most. If you came seeking adventure, you will certainly find it, though it may not be of the sort that you imagined, or desired.