Our plane looked new and well maintained, but as we headed off into the void on the atlas far, far to the northwest of Shanghai, I still wondered if I had made a mistake by not buying some of the “Air Unexpected Insurance” on offer at the airport.
There was plenty of time for me to rue my oversight, because our departure was delayed for nearly two hours as the airforce hogged available airspace. But then, five hours after takeoff, and after we had flown over the Gobi Desert and along the edge of the snowcapped Tian Shan mountain range, a pink sunset welcomed us to Urumchi’s gleaming and expansive air terminal — built, a small plaque noted, with Japanese financial assistance.
That little plaque was a poignant reminder that there is a lot more to bilateral relations than Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s ill-considered visits to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, and his devotions there to (among others) a squad of convicted Class A war criminals.
But there I was in the middle of central Asian nowhere, after a Shanghai-based journalist friend had asked me if I was interested in joining him on a reporting trip to Silk Road territory in China’s far west.
Why not? I thought. My last trip through Guandong Province had left a bad impression of rampant pollution and noisy, dusty construction projects on a massive scale. I recalled looking at numinous photos from my friend’s trip to Kashgar a decade earlier, and his memorable encounters with Uighur activists who dreamed of an independent East Turkestan.
Influx gaining momentum
While describing the restrictions on traveling in the region, that same friend warned me to get there as soon as I could because, he said, “the influx of Han influences is gaining momentum.” Uighur China, he said bluntly, was “running out of time.”
I also wondered how China’s Muslims were faring in the post-9/11 era, and I was interested to see how China’s unquenchable thirst for energy was transforming Xinjiang Province.
After settling into our hotel, I took a stroll around Urumchi’s main square at 10 p.m. in -12C December weather, where I stumbled on more than 100 locals line-dancing to pop music. Bundled up against the cold, they still managed to get on down to the thumping beat — though I was told later that they were most likely just trying to keep warm as their apartments are icy cold. Nonetheless, with such a subversively synchronized crowd, the vigilant security forces were not far away; one could be seen tapping his feet, clearly dying to bust a move. Badminton players, yapping dogs, walkers and graceful roller-bladers also gamboled about, conjuring up images of Washington Square on a summer night — minus the drug dealers and heat.
The Uighur image in China is not very good, tied as it is with terrorist bombings, sporadic unrest and shady dealings. There are some 8-10 million ethnic Uighurs spread over China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Russia. As Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims, they are one of 56 ethnic groups recognized by the Chinese government.
Uighur literally means “united,” and refers to urban, oasis-dwelling and settled agriculturists — in contrast to the nomadic tribes in the region. In the eighth century, they presided over an empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria, but they were subsequently defeated by the Tang Dynasty and also once became subjects of the Mongol leader Ghengis Khan.
Culturally, religiously and physically distinct from the ethnic Han, Uighurs have chafed under Chinese rule, and in the 20th century there were plenty of ill-fated attempts to assert independence.
In today’s wild west of Xinjiang, the heartland of Uighur country, stereotypes have a short shelf life. In all the main towns in this heavily Islamic region, Xmas with Chinese characteristics, similar to socialism with Chinese characteristics, is infused with market forces and capitalist profiteering.
Hotels and restaurants feature fetching elves that greet customers decked out in red velvet Christmas dresses slit thigh high — yet another one of those lost in translation moments. Of course, some Muslims may have a different reaction to the brisk Xmas business at the Western superstore nestled next to the city’s main mosque, its bright neon sign illuminating the minaret at night.
Flying south across the dazzling mountains at sunrise to the desert oasis of Korla, the spartan airport confirms that you have landed in the back of beyond. Instead of duty-free outlets and pricey coffee shops, Korla’s scruffy terminal opens on to a “chill-class” outdoor “lounge,” where kebab stalls operate out of forlorn trailers fronted by antique braziers.
Korla is a booming oil town looming up out of the desert, with a population of more than 400,000. An airport upgrade is in the works. The fake palm trees with flashing neon fronds lining the main drag are the first sign that my guidebook is out of date. A skyline of shiny new office buildings, cranes and construction sites heralds an instant oil-opolis.
Disposable income, self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption are evidenced by shiny imported cars, lingerie boutiques and computer malls. But where do the oil-men squander their wealth at night? Most hotels provide a menu of services for lonely men, and bars and nightclubs with names such as Yes, Shooting Star, Bar 1,2,3 and Happy are equally obliging watering holes, where you can cringe at the unfortunate mix of too much alcohol and loud karaoke.
In this workers’ paradise, the featured attraction was a Russian dance troupe, though the warm-up act was priceless, as the crowd hurled water and abuse at a hapless, caterwauling singer who never took the hint. Then the Russians went through an innovative dance repertoire of Cossack leg-flinging, Bollywood gyrations, Egyptian veil-dancing and a grand finale featuring a belly dancer shimmying like a paint mixer.
I struck up a conversation with a Louisiana bayou-raised oilman who does a cool $10-million-a-year business in high-pressure valve widgets that cost up to $100,000 a shot. He spoke of drilling in remote border sites that he described as “deep Muslim,” and enthused about how it was more pleasant to chill in Korla.
In several prolonged visits over the past few years, he said he has watched the boom as oil and gas output have risen to meet China’s suddenly insatiable demand. He told of proposing ways that would cut costs by 30 percent while raising output 15 percent, but Chinese clients are uninterested in the new technologies, content to work with tried and true methods.
He believes that the younger generation who are studying petroleum engineering at U.S. campuses will return with new techniques with them. But, he says, these innovations are only likely after years of frustration working under backward bosses who will want to show them their place. Nonetheless, the current 15-year technological advantage enjoyed by U.S. firms is destined to shrink.
Next day, driving five hours west to Kuche along the road to the fabled Kashgar bazaar, I encountered the Chinese equivalent of speed traps. At first I thought my driver had a bladder problem, as he would periodically stop the car, relieve himself, mill about and then resume driving. Turns out that along the road, cars are obliged to pull into checkpoints where the precise time is written down on a receipt handed to the driver. At the next checkpoint, on presenting this receipt if the elapsed time shows he has been driving too fast because he has arrived too early, he is fined. So everyone drives too fast and with reckless abandon — I would be very surprised if China did not lead the world in driving fatalities — and then slow down and stop before the next checkpoint in this charade of a road-safety campaign.
Naturally nothing is done about the more dangerous hazard of tractor-trailers parking in the middle of unlighted roads at night so drivers can grab some sleep. Meanwhile, gas stands in China remind me of pachinko parlors, redefining the aesthetic of neon overkill.
Pulling into the dusty, smoky-as-a-BBQ-pit town of Kuche, the hotels also sport a pachinko glitter, while along the main streets the now familiar fake palm tree fronds wink away garishly through the night.
My PDA-toting, wireless-networking, text-messaging, gizmo-maxed companion put our hotel search in perspective-mandatory broadband. Coming from Japan, where thin band is the rule in the boonies, I thought “dream on.”
As it turned out, our concrete Stalinesque mausoleum of a hotel served mediocre food and worse wine, did not deliver warm showers, and had a room temperature alternating between that of the Artic and the Gobi Desert — but it miraculously had broadband. Gizmo-journalist heaven! The operator gave me the access number for a cheap dial-up international call service while the cashier matter-of-factly accepted credit cards — all eyebrow-raising events for one accustomed to traveling in Japan.
All this, mind you, in the outback, way closer to Central Asia than Shanghai.
Near Kuche we took a drive through China’s answer to Monument Valley and Cappadoccia, a stunning surreal landscape with Uighur shepherds tending their flocks, pristine rivers, monastic ruins and rainbow-hued, oddly shaped rock formations. Stealing a page from the Japanese, the canyon we visited is ranked in the official Chinese canyon top 10, and small Han Chinese tour groups were equipped with both flags and bullhorns.
But the weekly Friday market is where Uighur Kuche comes into its own. A bustling open-air zone of frenetic haggling, shopping and snacking, nary a word of Chinese can be heard. Donkey carts, taxis and trucks snake their way thought the teeming crowds. Sesame nan are piled high and the delicious odor of lamb kebab wafts through the smoky market.
Scowls to smiles
Aside from a few burkas, many women don their best, flirt with the male hawkers for bargains and revel in the festival-like atmosphere. Swarthy, handsome men sport a stunning array of furry and woolly headgear and most have beards and mustaches. Young men seamlessly shift from menacing scowls to beguiling smiles, comparing notes on the local hotties at a distance.
Although nothing here seemed Chinese, all that is set to change as the government plans to close the market and relocate it to a charmless mall where rents and taxes can be collected.
I felt a sense of loss that this way of life and distinct culture is being overwhelmed and marginalized by the process of national development and integration. The inexorable Sinification of this remote western region, most easily seen in terms of faces and architecture, is driven by the dictates of state power, security concerns and spiraling energy consumption.
Massive government investment is transforming Xinjiang and attracting a flow of Chinese migrants. Although enjoying autonomy in name, the province is feeling Beijing’s tightening embrace — economically, socially and culturally.
This ineluctable process is based on a powerful but flawed logic, and as in Tibet, the march of “progress” takes a heavy toll. Yet, one presumes, this stoic and resilient people will endure and carry on their way of life as best they can in the face of assimilationist pressures. This is, after all, their homeland.