I was eating alone in a busy, crowded restaurant in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, western China. It was night, it was very hot, and the fans in the restaurant seemed to be just moving hot air from one place to another, their efforts possibly even adding to the heat. In addition to hot, I felt self-conscious. Eating alone is weird. At my peak misery point (too hot, too weird), two young Uyghur men, who were drinking beer, came to sit at the table next to mine. They stared, and talked to each other, clearly discussing me. I offered to share some food, which did make them smile a thank you, although they waved it away. I eventually got the bill, paid, and left.
Then, things got really weird. These two men followed, a few paces behind me, and towards the open square in front of the Id Kah Mosque. Realising there were fewer pedestrians (witnesses!) up ahead, and feeling none too comfortable at having two young men (who’d been drinking) follow me back to the quiet streets near my hotel, I decided to find out what was going on. I wheeled around to them and burst into conversation in Chinese, which seemed to surprise them. We began a halting exchange with scraps of English, a tiny bit of Mandarin, and hand gestures. I got their names, although all I can remember now (10 years later) is that they were Muslim names, not Han Chinese names. Eventually I bought three bottles of water in a nearby convenience store. Rehydrated, we soon became immersed in a poorly-lit photo-shoot with the Mosque and the moon as our background. We were still strangers, but we were friends.
Summer 2018, and reports of a disturbing ‘re-education’ effort focused on China’s Uyghur muslim minority are gaining increasing international attention. Under the increasingly authoritarian President Xi Jinping, the Xinjiang ‘re-education camps’ (concentration camps) have been deployed to stamp out what Beijing fears are separatist (“splittist”) and Islamic extremist tendencies present in the Uyghur population.
The internment of hundreds of thousands, and perhaps more than a million (China is not being open about how many people are involved), of its own citizens in these camps on ethno-religious grounds is just the latest stage of a long-standing policy to suppress the Uyghur people’s culture and religious practices. The policies have been heavy-handed, have led to rioting and violence, and are quite likely to remain counter-productive. The current policy of mass internment of Uyghurs is likely to provoke even more resentment and unrest. China has been lucky so far that relatively little international attention has focused on the camps, but that changed this week with the report of a UN human rights panel on the issue and several follow-up media reports.
Kashgar (in the south of Xinjiang) and Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital city, are the Chinese hubs for what is known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), itself a core element of China’s new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The CPEC is intended to give (western) China access to the Indian Ocean at Gwadar, avoiding the need to have shipping (oil, manufactured exports, military resupplies) travel the long (and US Navy-controlled) way through the Indian Ocean, the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea, and up to Southern China. The escalating crackdown and suppression in Xinjiang at this time is probably not a coincidence, given the huge diplomatic and financial effort that Beijing is currently putting into the BRI.
Seeing Xinjiang in the news reminded me of a journey I took through the province more than ten years ago. I checked through some old hard drives and found my photographic record of the trip. Back then, the ethnic segregation and “colony” feeling of many areas was quite striking. Indeed, just under a year after my journey in the summer of 2009, violent and deadly riots broke out in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital city, in response to exaggerated rumours about a real factory brawl in faraway Guangdong province that had resulted in two Uyghurs being killed by Han Chinese co-workers. The Urumqi riots of 2009 saw at least 150 people killed, including mostly Han citizens, who were apparently murdered by an angry mob of Uyghurs, with rumour holding that some victims were beheaded in the streets. The tit-for-tat inter-ethnic violence continued for days, although firm, defusing actions from the police and other security forces prevented the violence from spiraling for too long.
Summer 2008. Beijing is sweltering, often compressed under a big cloud of nasty smog. Some days I honestly can’t see the road 30 floors below my apartment window. The city is ramping up for the great spectacle of the Summer Olympic Games. With work in a pre-Olympic lull, I decide to leave the city and fly westwards, more than four hours, to Urumqi. There, I change onto a two-hour flight to Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road city in the South of the province.
The aim of my trip was to get to Hongqilapu (红旗拉普) — the Chinese name for the Khunjerab Pass — the road border crossing between China and Pakistani Kashmir, and the highest border checkpoint in the world at 4880m / 16,010 feet above sea level, surrounded by much higher mountain peaks. This trip was part of a long-since suspended (as it was expensive and time consuming) plan to visit all of China’s borders. I had no intention of crossing into Kashmir, mainly due to work commitments “back east” (Beijing) and a slight nervousness about safety on that side of the border. There’s not much at the Khunjerab pass, but I was (am) fascinated by areas close to land borders.
Beijing was especially nervous about its Muslim “wild west” in the run up to the Olympics. China had been the scene of several attacks attributed to the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM / 东土）terrorist group in the 1990s, and Beijing feared that radical Muslims would be planning disruptive attacks both in Xinjiang and across China before and during the Olympics — despite the fact that many of Xinjiang’s more radicalized citizens had been killed on the battlefield in the early days of the Afghanistan War in 2001.
Adding to the nerves were the deatly riots that had broken out in March that year in China’s other large, ethnically different territory inherited from the Qing Empire — Tibet. The terrible Sichuan earthquake — that despite the distance I had experienced strongly in my tower block in Beijing in May 2008— and the human catastrophe it unleashed had dampened international criticism of China over its response to the tensions in Tibet, but China was still nervous about the enemy within.
These security concerns became clear during my long transfer at Urumqi airport. Humourless officers confiscated several of my items that had been cleared through the much larger and more international Beijing Capital Airport earlier that morning. Toothpaste, chapstick (to guard against that high mountain air), spray-on anti-persperant from the UK (not easy to find in China 2008), and a bottle of water that I was unable to convince the officers had actually been bought in Beijing after security that morning. My protests and logic was of no interest to them. There were clearly special protocols in place for Xinjiang.
The flight to Kashgar went by fairly quickly (or maybe it’s just that I can’t remember it now), and I arrived at my hotel about an hour before sundown — which is late in Kashgar (see below). The hotel was located in the former Russian consulate in the city — a throwback to the diplomatic competition between the British and Russian Empires in the 19th Century. It was a little disappointing given its historical connotations (so no photos I’m afraid), but was very comfortable all the same.
What became evident over the next couple of days was that Kashgar was extremely segregated, and that while parts of it felt similar to the typical “Chinese” cities you could see across the country, other parts felt very much “not Chinese”. In fact, in some of these areas, it was a job to remember that I was in China at all. During my stay, I took taxis with both Uyghur and Han drivers. Most of them told me that they didn’t pick up members of the other ethnic group, and while the Uyghur drivers spoke some basic Mandarin, the Han drivers I met spoke no Uyghur, and seemed a little insulted at the question.
This pattern repeated in life across the city. In larger restaurants, the Uyghur serving staff spoke some Mandarin, but in smaller ones, it was a point-and-gesture affair for me, involving pictures or special dual-language menus. With my decent Mandarin, but complete lack of Uyghur language skills, it soon became clear that the segregation in the town was going to cause a bit of a communications problem (although being British, I made a point to learn the Uyghur word for “Thank you”).
However, the “new” areas of the city did feel very Chinese. There had been no attempt to incorporate local characteristics into the architecture or city planning. The central square, oddly named The People’s Park (人民公园）despite being concrete, still had a huge statue of Chairman Mao — actually already quite rare in eastern China at the time (where he had mostly been removed). The Bank of China (one of China’s ‘big four’ commercial banks, not the central bank) had a huge, domineering and ugly building along the side of the square / park. In eastern China, this kind of urban architecture, comparable to what you would see in second- or third-tier “Han” cities, is just boring. Here in Kashgar, it felt unnatural and deliberately domineering. Maybe I was just imagining it.
Another slightly odd source of the strange “colony” feeling in Xinjiang (and in particular Kashgar with its westerly location) was the time zone. Xinjiang, despite being four hours’ flight to the west of Beijing, is officially on Beijing time. So, the sun comes up and goes down “late” in Xinjiang. July sundown in Beijing is at about 7:42 p.m., in Kashgar, about 10:25 p.m. In December, Kashgar dawn happens as late as 10:15 a.m. Indeed, Kashgar itself is roughly at the same longitude as Islamabad, which is three hours behind Beijing. It was fairly obvious that most people in Kashgar did not really let the official “Beijing time” dictate their lives, at least not when they didn’t have to deal with anything associated with the central government (banks, government offices, etc).
I soon found a lot more ‘flavour’ in the older, more ‘cultural’ parts of the city. I’m aware of the cliche, but it’s true. My first stop on the second day was the the Id Kah Mosque. Tall and brightly coloured, it stands next to a large open circular square, if that makes sense. I was suprised to learn that I could just walk in despite obviously being a tourist and showing no sign of being Muslim. The mosque was clearly active, with dozens of people engaged in prayers in a rear area inside. Along with the walls, tall trees inside the open courtyards provided shade, which was a welcome relief from the extreme temperatures and blazing sun.
Aside from the faithful, who I tried not to disturb (‘touristing’ while they prayed felt a little bit wrong), the feeling inside the mosque curiously reminded me of an old German-built church I had visited in Qingdao, as well as Buddhist and other temples I had visited all across China. The reason was simple: the mosque had been designated as a tourist attraction, and thus its religous function was at least partly compromised. There were multi-lingual signs inside, explaining the Islamic religion, the government’s support for the mosque, and the ethnic harmony of the people...
Leaving the mosque, I wandered towards the old town, a maze of single- and double-story traditional housing with no vehicle traffic, joined by narrow lanes filled with kids playing and adults sitting outside chatting. There seemed to be several smaller mosques at various points dotted throughout the area. An overarching memory of these streets is “sandiness” — sandy coloured brownness, not actual sand, although there was a layer of dusty desert sand on everything.
At the entrance, I was approached by a young Uyghur lady who spoke English and Chinese, and who was holding a petition. The petition was in English and Chinese and was demanding that the government shelve plans to tear down the old neighbourhoods for redevelopment. After about 15 minutes chat (I hadn’t really had an actual conversation with anyone for two days by this stage), I signed it and headed into one of the narrow lanes. Another reason I signed — she had a contact who knew a driver who spoke some Chinese and some English, and who she said I could hire for two or three days to drive down the Karakoram highway and get to the Pakistan border at Hongqilapu.
Inside the narrow lanes, I was instantly mobbed by a crowd of happy Uyghur children who were extremely interested in my digital camera, specifically in seeing each other on the screen after each picture was taken. One of them wore an all yellow football strip with the French player Zinedine Zidane on the front, and was quite pleased when I said the name of the star (this was the only verbal communication between us aside from “hello” and Nihao in Chinese). Over the course of a full hour in which I felt unable to move on, they gradually escalated their photo poses, going from standard smiles through Kung Fu poses to handstands and other stunts, checking back in with the screen after each shot. Increasingly, I was neither involved in the photography nor the posing. I had spare camera batteries, so it was okay.
These narrow streets definitely had the kind of community feeling that you can still get in what is left of Beijing’s own Hutongs 胡同 (‘alleyways’). In other words, probably pretty poor facilities in terms of plumbing, vehicle access, and living standards etc, but a much stronger sense of community than you get in “modern areas”. I finally left the maze feeling fairly at ease with my decision to sign the petition, but with little doubt that the petition would be mostly useless in influencing whatever fate awaited the old parts of Kashgar.
Chinese influence, by which I mean ethnic Chinese political influence from Beijing, felt like a paradox. The lack of development and facilities in the old parts of the city was clear, and yet when compared to the souless “new” parts of town, I knew which ones I would prefer to visit. Visit mind, probably not live in. Aside from my tourist sensibilities, I could also sympathise with ethnic Uyghurs who didn’t want to have the sterile change forced upon their historic neighbourhoods. Beijing had gone through a similarly difficult transformation, with historic neighbourhoods being pulled down to make way for development — especially in the run up to the Olympics that year.
In the sweltering heat, I found my way to a food market which had some impressive spice stalls that looked like they came from National Geographic covers (see below), and quite a lot of butchered meat stalls (less photogenic). I ended up buying some round bread (a bit like naan) and some lamb meatsticks. The lady at the meatstick stall showed me how to use the seasoned bread as a base, put the meat skewers inside, place another bread on top (sandwich style), and then pull out the metal skewers, leaving the meat inside as a kind of sandwich. (A bit like one of those tricks where someone yanks the table cloth out from under all the dishes and cutlery, but less spectacular, and with more lamb.)
Having booked (over the phone) the car and driver for the next day (he had texted me in fairly decent English), I took a final walk up a sloping road before heading to the hotel to eat my bread and meat dinner. It was a slight relief not to have to head to a restaurant. For some reason, I feel awkward dining alone when travelling, especially in China where it has a similar air to drinking alone in Europe — a bit pitiable. It’s odd, because when travelling you actually do have a pretty good excuse for not having a dinner companion.
After a while, and realising I was leaving what I considered to be the more interesting parts of the city, I noticed a small crowd of people looking at some public notices that had been fixed up on the side of the entrance to some kind of official-looking compound. As I got closer, it appeared that some of them were quite agitated. Others were extremely silent. All of them were Uyghurs, or at least not Han Chinese, from what I could make out.
I got to the front and checked out the signs. The display was in both Chinese and Uyghur, and it took me a while to decipher what the Chinese actually said. It was a notification of execution, or yet to be carried out death sentences, relating to three Uyghur men (a status that involved their photos being displayed with dramatic crosses over their faces, and also their assets being confiscated). The condemned were listed as having committed the crime of separatism with relation to the state (犯分裂国家罪). The rest of the notice was about other less draconian sentences (including fairly small fines) given to other people. All the criminals listed were described as ethnic Uyghurs (维吾尔族).
The feeling in the small crowd, which grew during the time I was there, was odd. There wasn’t overt anger as such, but the crowd were silent compared to the people I’d just left in the markets or in groups in the old city areas. They were reading the notices with a slightly bizarre mood that felt equally like passive acceptance and also simultaneous unspoken anger / disappointment. Only later that evening did I consider that some of the people present may have been family members of the condemned or sentenced. I obviously had no information about the crimes, and nor did the other people in the crowd (family members apart), aside from what was listed on the notice.
I eventually returned to my hotel that evening in yet another taxi driven by a Uyghur man who claimed to refuse to pick up Chinese passengers. I still wasn’t sure if these claims were true, but the air of segregation in the city was definitely noticeable. My experience at the “notice of execution” posters framed it in a way that made more sense.
The next day, I had booked the car and driver for 8 a.m. The plan was to head down the spectacular Karakoram highway to an old fort town called Tashkurgan (see banner photo at the top of this article), which lies right next to the border with Tajikistan. There, I would stay overnight, before setting off on the following day towards the Khunjerab Pass and the border with Pakistan. I knew the Karakoram highway passed through ethnically Kyrgyz areas into ethnically Tajik areas, and was hoping to see snow-capped mountains and some ethnic villages, and get a sense of what life in the real borderlands was like.
I was blissfully unaware that the next day I would end up fleeing the charge of a mean camel at an altitude that made my attempt at running a pathetic farce, many hours from any decent medical care, and that this whole slapstick routine would be witnessed by an ambivalent driver who was unsympathetically leaning on his car, safe up an embankment, shucking peanuts, and laughing maniacally. Some friend.
In the next section — my un-airconditioned drive down towards Kashmir (better pictures!)