Category Archives: Xinjiang

Tonight in Tashkurgan


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We’re in Tashkurgan, the very last town in China before the border with Pakistan. Were it not for the official buildings that come with being the seat of the Tajik Autonomous Community, it would feel like a village, but their pomp and circumstance makes it rise to the level of town. It’s not clear that this ‘autonomous region’ has any more independence than Xinjiang, and if it does that probably owes more to its remoteness than any genuine devolution of power.

We really are in the middle of nowhere. It was seven hours along a dusty road from Kashgar. And there’s about 100km of no mans between here and Pakistani border formalities, including the western end of the Himalayas with peaks reaching above 8,000m.

Tashkurgan was another important stop on the silk road. This is seen most clearly in the ruined fort just on the city’s outskirts. Beyond are grasslands when yaks and camels join the standard horses, cows and sheep. The hills around are arid and angular, and the higher among them are capped with snow, even in this height of summer. We think it looks like Afghanistan and it turns out filmmakers do too. Tashkurgan provided the backdrop for most of the filming of The Kite Runner.

There’s just a hint of Pakistan emerging. We ate yak curry with chapatis for dinner and had the first strange recognise New Zealand because it’s a cricket country. We chatted with a Pakistani man tonight who told me excitedly he had once seen Mark Greatbatch play. Bring on the cricket chat, I say. It’s a nice change from talking about whether New Zealand really looks like Lord of the Rings (and/or Harry Potter).

Uighur food

Uighur food ranges from exceptional to inedible. The variation is mostly a function of the quality of the meat, and whether or not said meat is offal. We’ve never eaten so much sheep meat in our life, and the best stuff is just wonderful.

Everyone in Asia claims that Marco Polo went back to Europe inspired by their noodles. I think that’s most believable coming from the Uighurs. Their noodle dishes are spicy and mostly without sauce so they don’t taste Italian, but the texture and shape of the pasta does have an Italian feel. We’ve seen some shops selling something that could have come straight from my treasured fresh pasta machine at home.

Tomb of the fragrant concubine

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So I am unsure whether fragrance is something that anyone – concubine or otherwise – should necessarily aspire to be remembered by. It strikes me as at least ambiguous whether being fragrant is a good thing. But the information panels at the beautiful tomb just outside of Kashgar insist that the concubine contained therein “had an exceptional aroma from birth”. Still ambiguous, I feel. Good exception? Bad exception?

The same panels recount the story of this scented concubine. She was part of the imperial harem in Beijing in the seventeenth century where she was one of the Emperor’s favourites.”Love between this Uighur maid and the Emperor is evidence for great unity among different ethnic groups” they claim. Okay, so, a couple of things about this. First of all, I’m not convinced that the literal prostitution of ethnic minorities by the ruling powers in Beijing is really the kind of metaphor for national unity you want to champion, however accurate it may remain. Second, there is an Uighur story about the concubine that runs in quite a different direction. She was an independence leader in the Uighur version, who was taken to Beijing against her will, and away from her lover, and she died of a broken heart. Put that on your panels, China.

The tomb itself really is stunning. We especially appreciated the delightfully asymmetrical tiles that cover it in different patterns. We were less enticed by “take picture place” which offered costumes so you could dress up like a concubine. And odd addition to an otherwise peaceful and beautiful place.

Ridiculous is the new black


We’re shopping for attire that will be suitable for Fiona in Pakistan and Iran. That means tunics that cover the butt and elbows, as well as headscarves. Fiona is bothered that I don’t have to cover up in the same way. “But won’t they be distracted by your sexy elbows?” she asks. I imagine they will.

One of the challenges is that the garments are neither cut, nor coloured to Western tastes. Wearing long, baggy stuff for cultural reasons is one thing. But wearing stuff that is totally ridiculously coloured is another. You can see from the picture that we were struggling to find something subdued. Fiona found one tunic that works well enough. Hopefully there will be more in Pakistan.

We’ve been searching for reference points by watching closely what the young Kashgari women wear. There’s quite a variety: headscarves like bandanas, or more what we imagine as more classically Muslim; tight long pants versus long flowing skirts; sequins everywhere imaginable. We’re left with a lot more questions than answers: is clothing just a fashion statement, or an indication of how devout/conservative you or your family is? Do young women just suddenly turn up to school one day head-scarved when their family considers it appropriate? Or is it more like high school ball dates when one day no one has one and the next everyone does? How must it feel to be the last girl in your friend group whose parents want them to cover up?

The colour of Kashgar

We’ve loved our visit to Kashgar. It’s a vibrant city that feels true to its history as an ancient silk road trading post. It’s colour has really boosted our enjoyment of travel. Very timely as we needed some re-invigoration about travel.

It doesn’t feel like a Chinese city any more than Auckland does: there are parts where you could live your life speaking Chinese, but if you did you would miss what the city is all about. The whole central city feels like the Urumqi bazaar. The haze in the sky doesn’t come from factories, but from charcoal grills on every street corner cooking mutton kebabs. Between them and the sheep carcases being butchered in the street, sometimes I feel like the whole city smells like lamb.

Kashgar feels like less of a Police state than Urumqi. In Urumqi the military presence included tanks every couple of blocks and patrols in between. Here the only real military we’ve seen have been guarding the People’s Square and its massive statue of Mao. It’s an austere and unvisited monument that doesn’t feel at all like the heart of the city. Instead that heart is at the major Mosque.

In Urumqi security measures mimicked flying. There were metal detectors to get into shopping malls and restaurants and Fiona got scolded by a police officer for trying to take bottled water on to the bus. Here it all feels much more relaxed. Maybe China feels this city is lost to its original culture. Or maybe there’s not enough that signifies Chinese authority for terrorists to try and blow up.

In any case, while our passports will record that we returned to China for Kyrgyzstan, that’s not how we will remember this part of the journey. We’ll say we visited another quaint and misunderstood culture along the silk road.

Good to know

All of it shows fully that Chinese government always pays special attentions to the another and historical cultures of the ethnic groups and that all ethnic groups warmly welcome Party’s religious policy. It also shows that different ethnic groups have set up a close relationship of equality, unity and helps to each other, and freedom of belief is protected. All ethnic groups live friendly together here. They cooperate to build a beautiful homeland, support heartily the unity of different ethnic groups and the unity of our country, and oppose the ethnic separatism and illegal religious activities.

This notice appears outside the main Mosque in Kashgar. It is so good to know that Xinjiang province is so harmonious, free from terrorism or oppression. And that all the ethnic groups love the party’s religious policy!

If Alice the Camel has one hump is Alice the Camel a camel?


Our travels have taken us back to the lands of camels and so an important question has arisen again. Are dromedaries, who only have one hump, camels? This question arises from the preschool song about Alice the Camel which involves counting down the number of Alice’s humps. When Alice only has one hump the punchline is that she is no longer a camel.

Wikipedia has an answer that is to do with science. Dromedaries are a kind of camel, it says, also known as the Arabian Camel or Indian Camel. But actually I think a more satisfying answer was provided by our camel driver when we trekked in Indian desert some years ago. He had clearly given this question a lot of thought. He’d probably been asked by a lot of backpackers like ourselves. He had reviewed the picture on camel cigarette packets he said. They only had one hump. Ergo dromedaries were camels. The end.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s neighbour

We’re headed back to China’s Xinjiang province, land of incredibly tight censorship. Before we do, this post tells the story of a conversation we had about the conflict there.

We were in classic lost traveler pose: big packs on, hunched over our guidebook. She wore a polka dot bandana that looked more gypsy than Muslim. She’d spotted us, she later said, because of how quizzically we were looking at the Chinese army tank at the bus station entrance, and heavily armed guards around it. “We use to,” she said.

In simple English with a hint of Bond villain accent she offered us directions and then, when she found her brother, a ride to our hostel in Urumqi.

Brother got on the phone for directions and spoke fluent Mandarin. So I asked sister what her first language was. “Uighur,” she said. That was enough to unleash a roller coaster conversation about the plight of their people, their disdain for Chinese government, and their sympathy with those who take radical action against it.

At one point sister apologised for the polemic. We urged her to continue. At another, the two conferred amongst each other. It was dangerous to talk about these issues with strangers, they said. We promised they weren’t Chinese spies, so they went on. We never learned their names (so sister and brother will have to do) but we got an amazing insight into the realities of the Xinjiang conflict.

Their story wasn’t fundamentally about Islam or identity. It was about everyday oppression and lack of economic opportunity. Sister’s limited vocabulary left her with repetition as her only tool for emphasis so we heard this a lot: “I speak Chinese, Uighur, English, use computer. All. Him Chinese he get job not me.” Go into any bank, they said, and you will find only Chinese working, and only in Mandarin. Uighurs who only have their mother tongue can’t access services – a loan, a savings account – that they need to get ahead. Outside the bazaars, and the restaurants selling shishkebab and naan, most Uighurs we saw were street cleaners, the womens’ bright orange overalls capped off with a face ask and a head scarf.

Uighurs are feared outside of Xinjiang. They can’t move to the big cities to work in iPhone factories like other rural Chinese. And they’re rarely issued passports so they can’t travel overseas for work, even though they’d probably find a much more comfortable culture in nearby Tajikistan, Krgyzstan or Kazakhstan. “We do not have free,” brother said.

Social services are a problem too. Chinese doctors can no more communicate with Uighur patients than Chinese bank tellers with Uighur customers. Brother talked about being called into the hospital to translate for friends. Uighur children must now be educated in Mandarin from kindergarten. “How,” asked sister, “can you expect our children to learn another language when they do not speak their own?”

The complaints that brother and sister offered weren’t about Chinese people. They were irked by the no holds bar capitalism that Chinese migrants had brought to Urumqi (“Chinese people very like fox”) but they were clear that their complaints rested with the government, not its citizens: “Uighur people good. Many Chinese people good. But the government is bad. We hate the government.”

The economic oppression is so real and the hate is so strong, they said, that some Uighur “can no longer bare it”. They take matters into their own hands.

In October 2013 a group of Uighurs drove an SUV into Tiananmen Square and set it on fire. Five people were killed and 34 seriously injured. The driver was a neighbor to brother and sister.

He was a good man, they said. To their mind the story of his life led to a logical conclusion that we would call terrorism. The driver’s son and younger brother had been imprisoned in Xinjiang, sister said, for circulating copies of the Koran. They died in prison, probably at the hands of guards. Their father wanted an explanation. He bounced around China’s bureaucracy like a ball in a pinball machine knocking on one door and then another, including in a trip to Beijing. He got no answers. He was desperate. He died in the SUV he set alight.

Sister wasn’t advocating violence per se, but sympathised with it in the face of personal tragedy. “I don’t know, maybe I would do the same,” she confessed.

The Tiananmen Square fire was not an isolated incident. Uighur terrorists killed 33 people at Kunming train station with knives, and injured 143 more in March this year. Personal tragedy might explain why some Uighurs are radicalized, but the violence is probably better understood as a separatist movement. Many of the ten million Uighurs want out of China and a new state called East Tajikistan.

Brother and sister say reports of violence are exaggerated and some are made up. Ordinary crimes are trumped as terrorist attacks. And the state violence against Uighurs – like the Chinese murder of an Imam – is never reported. They find themselves yelling at the television. Chinese censorship may have effectively made the nation forget the 1989 violence in Tiananmen Square, but it can’t make Uighurs forget their conflict, because they’re still living it.

The Chinese have done a good job keeping the Xinjiang conflict out of international media, especially as compared with Tibet, where the issues are broadly similar. Search “Tibet conflict” on and you’ll get twenty pages of results. Search “Xinjiang conflict” and you’ll get eight single results with The Idiots Guide to World Conflicts in fourth spot. Sure Tibet has a government in exile, a revered leader, and a movie where kids play soccer in flowing orange robes. I also wonder if it’s easier to get on board with China’s charaterisation of Uighur Muslims as terrorists than of Tibetan Buddhists. The truth is, both are setting themselves on fire.

How bazaar

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A song from the Uighur millionaire’s club

All my Uighurs in the back, Kazakh traders in the front
Haggling over almonds in the hot desert sun
Nectarines are green here, flesh is white inside
There’s stone fruit of all the kinds, some are fresh and some are dried
Lamb kebabs are piled up, one part fat for one part meat
But they’re still delicious grilled on charcoal in the street

How bazaar
How bazaar, how bazaar

Urumqi’s in Xinjiang, Chinese call it “new frontier”
There’s much oil and gas here but its sovereignty’s unclear
Uighur’s are oppressed here, their ‘autonomy’ a lie
But careful what you say here, someone listening is a spy

How bazaar
How bazaar, how bazaar

Ooh baby (Ooh baby)
Urumqi is crazy (Urumqi is crazy)
Everytime I look around
Everytime I look around (Everytime I look around)
Everytime I look around
There’s a Chinese tank

Watermelon’s everywhere, piled up in a heap
You could buy your body weight it’s that super cheap
Spices, rugs and headscarves, this doesn’t feel Chinese
But they’re who is in control here, at least economically
You’ve probly heard about Tibet and the freedom movement there
But what about East Turkestan, where things are equally unfair?
Chinese cops are everywhere, guns and flashing lights
Want violence to rest hey, give Uighurs rights…

How bazaar
How bazaar, how bazaar
Ooh baby (Ooh baby)

Urumqi is crazy (Urumqi is crazy)
Everytime I look around
Everytime I look around (Everytime I look around)
Everytime I look around
There’s a Chinese tank