Exploring China’s Wild West

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

The Jakarta Globe

silk road hotan There is a smell of goats, fresh bread and melons. A cacophony of bleating animals rises, mixed with conversations full of hard-edged Turkic gutturals. A small boy clambers deftly onto the back of an unbroken, barrel-bellied pony, and reining it back sharply he somehow stays in place as it gallops wildly over the stony ground. Horse-trading elders with beards and skull caps look on with approval and begin to count wads of tattered money. Above everything arches a vast Central Asian sky.

I am in China, but here, at the Sunday livestock bazaar on the outskirts of Kashgar, an ancient city in the southwest corner of Xinjiang, I have to keep reminding myself of that fact.

Xinjiang is China’s Wild West, a state of deserts and mountains peopled by Muslim Uighurs, and leaning more to Bokhara than Beijing. It has long had a troubled relationship with the rest of the country, slipping in and out of effective Chinese control as imperial power waxed and waned over the centuries. Today the tensions continue. In July, protests by Uighurs in Urumqi, the state capital, turned violent and a government crackdown followed. But unlike in neighboring Tibet, the government has kept Xinjiang open to tourists. When I arrive in Kashgar on a long-distance train, rolling though vineyards and pomegranate orchards, there has been a state-wide telecommunications shutdown for over four months and army trucks bearing antiseparatist slogans were rolling down the streets. But I am free to go wherever I like, and the first place I head is Kashgar’s famous Sunday Market.

Kashgar stands astride the ancient Silk Road, the much-mythologized trade route that once linked China with Europe. From here trails led east along the fringes of the desert, and west over mountain passes. For centuries, people, religions and ideas passed along the caravan routes. The Uighurs’ Turkic ancestors dropped out of the mountains in the sixth century. Before them, Buddhism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity had traveled west. A few centuries later, Islam arrived.

Today a hint of this old romance survives — the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan lie within 150 kilometers of Kashgar, and trade goes on in weekly markets across the region. In the Kashgar Sunday Market I see carpets, fruits and embroidered cloth, mixed in with everyday metals and plastics. Women in sparkling headscarves jostle with old men in embroidered pillbox hats.

But the Chinese government is determinedly dragging Xinjiang into the mainstream. The market has now been corralled into a modern complex, and beyond it new high-rises tower over the remnants of the old mud-walled city. In recent years, swathes of the Uighur old town have been bulldozed, and immigration from other parts of China has been encouraged. These moves — and the dominance of immigrant Han Chinese in the job market — have only increased tensions. English-speaking Uighurs I meet on my journey whisper their disquiet in hushed, paranoid tones. A man at the Sunday Market explains the resentment at the destruction of old Kashgar.

“There is no privacy in a Chinese apartment,” he says. “Our traditional houses are built around a courtyard so we all live together, but with privacy. We don’t want to live in apartments.”

Looking for something a little more authentic, I head to the livestock bazaar. It is a glorious chaos of goats, donkeys, horses and sheep and haggling men in fabulous hats. I am hoping to see a camel or two — real evidence that I am on the Silk Road — but to my disappointment there are none. I console myself with a plate of greasy kebabs and plot my onward journey.

From Kashgar I head east. Human habitation in Xinjiang has long been squeezed into the narrow margin between the mountains and the desert. A string of oases runs along what was once the southern branch of the Silk Road. My first stop is Yarkand — a place once as fabled as Samarkand or Xanadu. During Xinjiang’s periods of independence from Chinese rule, Yarkand was usually the capital city. It was also the terminus of skeleton-strewn caravan trails over the mountains from India.

Today, it is a backwater. A Uighur old town of mud alleyways remains, and a dusty graveyard of royal tombs studded with the faded flags of mystic Sufi cults sprawls behind a medieval mosque with a vine-shaded courtyard. A modern Chinese town of arrow-straight boulevards dominates, but away to the south I can pick out the faint white line of the Kun Lun mountains, the back wall of the entire Himalayan range.

From the next oasis, Karghilik, I take a taxi into those hills along a road that leads, eventually, to Tibet. An army check-point by the chilly banks of the Tiznaf River is as far as I can go, but I scramble up a steep brown slope to take in the view. A mass of brown mountains, ribbed and scored with dark shadow, spreads east and west. Behind them, rising in a glittering white line, is the backbone of the Kun Lun. This was the barrier that Silk Road traders from India once had to cross en route to Kashgar, Yarkand, and my own final destination — Hotan.

The road to Hotan blazes across the stony desert, the mountains floating to the south. The vast void that surrounds it makes arrival in Hotan a strange experience, for here, at the very limit of China’s vastness, is another large, modern town. As a Uighur heartland, the Chinese government has been particularly keen to integrate Hotan with the rest of the country. Roads from the north now plough straight across the Taklamakan Desert, and from next year a railway line will link it to Kashgar. A Uighur man I meet at a kebab stall hisses, “When the railway is ready we will be finished — Hotan will be all Chinese.”

But something remains here: a week has passed and it is time for Hotan’s own Sunday Market. Nothing has been regimented here; the bazaar sprawls over a vast area, filling all the lanes and alleys of the old quarter with a mass of color and commerce. There are sections given over to cloth and carpets, to the jade mined from the banks of nearby rivers, to animals and even tractors. Donkey carts clatter through the crowds, the drivers calling out “ Bosh! Bosh! ” (“Coming through!”). When I am tired of wandering I feast on laghman (Uighur noodles) and slices of fresh watermelon.

And as I leave the market I spot something — what I had hoped to see in Kashgar. A boy is leading a pair of shaggy, twin-humped Bactrian camels through the crowd. They are enormous beasts and they pass through the chaos unperturbed and disappear among the trucks. I stare after them as they go, now sure, despite the political tensions and the heavy-handed Chinese modernization, that I am in Central Asia, and on the Silk Road.

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Clampdown in Xinjiang

August 7, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy AFP

2008-08-05T041909Z_01_NIR01_RTRMDNP_3_OLYMPICS-XINJIANG

Members of the security forces walk pass local Uighurs as they patrol a steer, near the area where a bomb attack took place the day before, in Kashgar, Xinjiang province, August 5, 2008. China’s tense Xinjiang region announced sweeping security checks of transport on Tuesday after assailants used a truck to mount a deadly attack on police days before the Beijing Olympic Games open. 

REUTERS/Nir Elias (CHINA)

KASHGAR, China (AFP) — Chinese authorities moved Tuesday to keep a lid on further information about a bloody assault on police in Kashgar with a truck, explosives and machetes.

At the hotel directly across from the site of Monday’s raid, which killed 16 policemen, guests were told in the morning that the Internet had been shut off across the city, on police orders.

Police entered an AFP photographer’s hotel room and forced him to delete photos he had taken of the scene. Plainclothes police followed journalists as they moved around the city.

“We can’t talk about that. You must understand if we talk about it, the police will come and arrest us,” said a shopkeeper in Kashgar, a remote city in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, who declined to be named.

Nevertheless some independent information emerged outside of the uniform coverage in China’s state-run press, which was all based on reports from the official Xinhua news agency.

Foreign witnesses described a “sickening” scene that unfolded as two assailants drove a truck at a group of policemen who were out jogging, then attacked the officers with small explosives and machetes.

“My wife almost threw up and had to lie down afterward,” said Wlodzislaw Duch, a Polish tourist who watched the assault from his hotel room directly across the street from the scene.

The Xinhua news agency said the two, aged 28 and 33, were arrested immediately, and identified the men as members of the Muslim ethnic Uighur group, a Turkic-speaking people that have long chafed at Chinese rule of Xinjiang.

The state-controlled China Daily, the government’s main outlet to foreign audiences, said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), listed by the UN as a terrorist organisation, was “likely” responsible.

“There is little doubt that the ETIM is behind the attack,” said Li Wei, an anti-terrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, according to the paper.

The attack showed the ETIM is now “into advanced planning” since “it has rarely used cars or trucks in an attack before,” Li was quoted as saying.

China has repeatedly warned the ETIM was planning to stage attacks on the Beijing Olympics, which starts on Friday.

However Chinese authorities have not gone on the record to blame the ETIM for Monday’s attack, allowing only unofficial “experts” to be be used in the state-run press.

Beijing Olympic organisers said they did not know yet if there was a direct connection to the showpiece sporting event, but insisted the Games would not be threatened.

“There is always the risk to the security of the Bejing Olympics,” Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organising committee, told reporters.

“That is why we have drafted hundreds of security plans, and now we are prepared to deal with these kind of security threats. We can guarantee a safe and peaceful Olympic Games.”

Xinjiang, a vast area that borders Central Asia, has about 8.3 million Uighurs , and many are unhappy with what they say has been decades of repressive Communist Chinese rule.

Two short-lived East Turkestan republics emerged in Xinjiang in the 1930s and 1940s, at a time when central government control in China was weakened by civil war and Japanese invasion.

The exiled leader of China’s Uighur Muslims condemned the reported killings.

“We condemn all acts of violence,” Rebiya Kadeer said in Washington, where she has been living in exile since 2005 after spending six years in a Beijing prison.

"The Uighur people do not support acts that engender bloodshed.”

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