Dispatches From China's Wild West

China Through the Back Door
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 3 2008 3:48 PM

Dispatches From China's Wild West

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Click here to launch a slide show on Chia's Wild West.

NEAR THE CHINESE BORDER, Kyrgyzstan—Bundled into my sleeping bag against the high-altitude chill, unable to sleep, I peered through the bus window. But there was only darkness. I was on a 24-hour bus ride through the desolate borderlands between Kyrgyzstan and China. A combination of harsh geography and paranoid superpowers—the Soviet Union and China—discouraged anyone from settling here in the last 90 years, and this road was opened to travelers only in 2002. The going is still rough. It took us nine hours to travel the 150 miles from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, to the Chinese border, with only one roadside "bathroom" stop at 3 a.m.

Whenever I fell into a shallow slumber, I would be jostled awake by the enormous ruts in the dirt road that constantly rattled our bus or the glaring headlights of oncoming trucks. But also contributing to my insomnia were the butterflies in my stomach as I thought about where I was headed: Kashgar! Closer to Turkey than Beijing, surrounded in every direction by 20,000-foot mountains or harsh desert, for thousands of years it has been a vibrant but remote outpost on the Silk Road between Europe and Asia and the very definition of the middle of nowhere.

Kashgar's Silk Road history has made it a popular tourist destination with Western backpackers and, increasingly, with Chinese tourists. But it was Kashgar's more recent history that interested me and drove me to spend the next few weeks exploring the city and the surrounding province of Xinjiang.

Xinjiang is the traditional home of the Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) people, Muslims who speak a language related to Turkish and whose European features and olive skin easily distinguish them from the Han Chinese, who represent more than 90 percent of the people in China but who are a minority in this province. China has exerted some sort of influence here for millenniums, and the Chinese presence has ebbed and flowed—exactly how much is hotly debated between the Chinese and Uighurs. Since their first contact, the Uighurs have stubbornly resisted assimilation.

Now China is making a renewed push to cement its control, driven by a confluence of geopolitical factors: its mounting consumption of oil and gas (Xinjiang is home to about one-third of China's total petroleum reserves), growing fear of Islamist extremism (Uighurs have been captured in terrorist training camps in Afghanistan), and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Independence for countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, whose people are closely related to Uighurs, has renewed hope among Uighurs and fear in Beijing that Xinjiang, too, could become an independent state.

Aiming to nip that ambition in the bud, Beijing is cracking down on the slightest sign of Uighur nationalist sentiment and is rapidly moving Han Chinese people into Xinjiang in an apparent effort to change the demographic balance there. Think Tibet, but without the Dalai Lama or the Beastie Boys.

When we reached the Kyrgyz border station just after dawn, the bus driver collected 500 Kyrgyz som—about $13—from each passenger to bribe the border guards. I was exempted, as was the only other tourist on the bus, a soft-spoken Russian named Ilya who planned to bicycle to Tibet. The other passengers were Uzbek or Kyrgyz suitcase traders re-creating a poor man's version of the Silk Road. They were on their way to buy cheap Chinese clothes and electronics they would then sell in their ruined post-Soviet hometowns, and they were at the mercy of the border guards.

We lined up inside the border post, our breaths visible in the unlit room, the wooden floor creaking under our feet. For an extra 100 som, the Kyrgyz guards gave us the option of purchasing a piece of paper declaring that we did not have AIDS. This, it was stressed, was optional, but we were warned that the Chinese border guards might ask for it. All the traders bought one, and on their recommendation Ilya did, too. Naturally, the "certification" was made without the benefit of a medical examination. When it was my turn in line, the guard simply noted my American passport and smiled. It was Sept. 11, and in fair English he said he was sorry about what happened six years earlier. He didn't even offer me a certificate.

Of course, on the Chinese side of the border no one asked for my AIDS papers. After lengthy border procedures and several hours of traveling through a barren, rocky landscape of reds and browns, we reached Kashgar after dark.

Far from the remote outpost of my imagination, Kashgar was a dynamic city with new, wide, and well-lit streets and battery-powered mopeds humming by noiselessly. The city's taxis were metered—something that, after several months of haggling with Azeri, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz hacks while traveling through the former Soviet Union, seemed the height of modernity. Neon signs greeted me in Chinese and a brand of English with which I would soon become very familiar: "WELCOME TO KASHGAR. THE TOUR WITHOUT KASHGAR IS NOT CONSIDERED THAT YOU HAVE BEEN XINJIANG."

In the morning, though, it was easier to see Kashgar's character through the sleek veneer it has acquired over the last few years. Sure, too many of the buildings in the ancient city center are new, obviously cheap knockoffs of Kashgar's traditional, bricked Islamic architecture. And, yes, the street commerce that has existed here for thousands of years has now been overwhelmed by tourist kitsch (miniature Uighur lutes, engraved teapots with "Made in Pakistan" stamped across the bottom). But the spirit was still there. Groups of bearded men in embroidered four-cornered skullcaps sipped scalding-hot tea out of bowls in dark teahouses, and women in bright multicolored silk dresses bought vegetables from carts in the narrow alleys.

Kashgar is one of the most heavily Uighur cities in China. According to official figures, just 10 percent of its people are Han, but more and more Chinese people are arriving. Han are heavily overrepresented in government jobs—most policemen, for example, are Chinese, including the ones, posted in the sparkling-clean pedestrian underpasses, who sit in front of back-lit propaganda posters, which declaim, in Chinese and Uighur:

A stable Kashgar is my responsibility,
A friendly and open Kashgar is my responsibility,
A harmonious Kashgar is my responsibility.

And in case there is any doubt about who is in charge, a 59-foot statue of Mao Zedong, one of the largest in China, dominates the vast main square.

After a short stroll, I got a haircut in a shop decorated with the same placards you see throughout the Middle East—posters of praying cherubs in front of the Kabaa in Mecca. Included in the price of the haircut (about 75 cents) was a quick but efficient massage. Invigorated, I set out to find a translator and guide.

The first man I met, a friend of a friend of a friend, was nervous. The first thing he said to me was, "If you are a writer, I think it's better to stay away from you." (I was afraid even to utter the word journalist—because of its political sensitivity, Xinjiang is off-limits even to credentialed journalists, unless they have special permission, and I was posing as a tourist.) "But call me in an hour or so, and I'll see if I can find something," he said, vaguely.

Five minutes later, he found me and explained that he had watched me walk away and hadn't seen anyone following me. So we stopped for a tea and he explained that over the last year, the police had tightened their grip on all types of political activities and he didn't want to risk being seen with a journalist. "But call this guy," he said, scribbling down a cell phone number. "He'll help you."

Day 1.

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