Crank and I just got back from a week-long excursion to the Xinjiang province of China. Though many probably haven’t heard of Xinjiang, it is actually China’s largest province and has an incredibly rich history, steeped in the heart of the Silk Road, which I knew nothing about before visiting. Turns out: Xinjiang is hugely important to China. One-sixth the total size of the country, rich in natural resources like oil, gas and minerals, and bordering eight different countries, Xinjiang is a target for intense PRC scrutiny. Although it does not have the media profile of Tibet, Xinjiang has similarly been a target of ethnic conflict and at times cultural suppression. The area is ethnically quite different from the rest of the mainland, with a completely different linguistic family and alphabet (part of the Turkic languages). The majority of the population is Uighur (Turkic Muslims), with small pockets of Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and other ethnicities. Over the last century more and more Han Chinese have moved into the west, so that now Han Chinese are the second largest ethnic group in the region (second to the Uighurs).
I feel ill-equipped to adequately address the political and ethnic tensions that underlie the vast Xinjiang province. I know that a similar story afflicts Xinjiang that is prevalent in so many areas where different cultures and politics come to a head. I can really only speak to our narrow experience, which introduced us to Han, Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz people. To us, evidence of tension seemed sporadic but was there — terse discussions of Mao’s influence on the Xinjiang people while driving past his statue looming over the town’s square; road signs that we learned were changed into a new language to prevent locals from learning English; our guide’s brief mention that he is unable to get a passport or leave the country. But for each strange tense episode there was evidence of different, less politically divided real life — our Uighur guide joking with our Han cooks; local Kyrgyz villagers conversing with American travelers in broken Chinese. For now it seems China’s relationship with the Xinjiang people and province will remain a quixotic one — them continuing to keep hold of an important strategic resource and encouraging development of the area while trying to protect the value of the region’s unique cultural history.
More posts soon on some of our specific exploits in camels and kebabs and windy old town streets, but for now a brief itinerary of our travels and some teaser photos:
Day 1: Flew from Beijing to Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang), and then on to Kashgar.
Day 2: Left Kashgar for the incredibly beautiful Karakul Lake, close to the border of Kyrgysztan. Met up with our camels and began trekking!
Day 3: After breaking camp from our riverbed site (with amazing views of the mountain) we continued trekking, today through two new Kyrgyz villages.
Day 4: The plan: Walk up to the basecamp of Mutzagh-Ata, camp for the night. The reality: Stepho gets horribly ill, we spend the day and night camped out in the home of a Kyrgyz nomad while Stepho lies unmoving for 36-hours, trying to recover. Family thinks she has swine flu. She does not.
Day 5: We drive back to Kashgar. Some people continue to explore the city, others continue to explore the fascinating reaches of the hotel bed.
Day 6: Spend the morning visiting the Old City of Kashgar, filled with winding roads and hundreds of Uighur families, and then head to the airport for our flights back home.