En route to Kazakhstan we’re in China’s most westerly province. The Chinese call it Xinjiang which literally means new frontier. And then they’re surprised that there’s a separatist movement*. It’s like, come on guys, there’s a clue in the name!
Xinjiang is not a historical part of China. The ten million Uighur people that it encompasses were once an independent empire, and an influential one along the silk road. The Uighurs were ruled by the Soviets for a time before Xinjiang became part of Mao’s China. Their inclusion is uneasy at best. Xinjiang is theoretically an ‘autonomous region’, but it’s hard to imagine how you can have autonomy without democracy.
In debunking the idea that nations are primordial and eternal Benedict Andersen talks about how modern a concept the border is. Historically there was no clear line between one empire and the next. Instead the empire’s power was strongest at its centre, but faded with distance from its capital. Modern China feels a bit like this, except that Beijing’s influence has spread with its highways and high speed rail. They carry goods and Han Chinese migrating in search of new opportunities. Cities at their terminus, like Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, are still very Chinese. But outside the city limits is a different story.
More Middle East than Middle Kingdom
We visited an Uighur village an hour’s drive from Turpan. This village welcomes tourists who pay a small fee, but it probably doesn’t get many. There wasn’t much set up with us in mind except some obnoxious Mulberry Juice. But we were very happy to wander and soak up the difference.
The Uighurs are a Muslim people. Among them we’ve seen more heads covered – men and women – than any other Islamic people we’ve visited. They speak a Turkic language that’s written in Arabic script. They’ve rounder eyes and bigger noses than the Chinese. It felt wrong to greet them with ni hao but we received many cheery “hellos”. Whereas the Chinese are always happy to be photographed, mothers of village children hid them away when we motioned requests to take pictures.The kids playing on the streets had toy guns. Maybe they were playing Uighur separatists. A grandma stood stripping a foul smelling sheep carcass that was gathering flies while her toddler grandson grabbed at intestines. In the mountains behind the village winds were whipping sands to obscure the view. It felt like a scene from the Kite Runner.
It felt so different that we were moved to think of ourselves as starting the next part of our trip: Central Asia and the Middle East. But not quite: we’ve returned to ‘real China’ for a few days in Urumqi now. It’s got all the Chinese brands we’ve come to enjoy, and the feeling of all the big Chinese cities. To the Chinese who live here it must feel like an Oasis in the desert. To the Uighur who now make up a minority of its population it must feel like an outpost of the oppressor they’ve come to fear and loathe.
*We’ll write more about the ongoing conflict here, and what we understand of what the Uighur think of China’s dominance, when we’re free from Xinjiang’s intense censorship.