I finally made my long awaited inaugural journey to China’s ‘New Frontier’, Xinjiang, China’s ‘wild’ west. I gave two lectures at Xinjiang Normal University in Urumqi before spending three days in Kashgar for touring. I greatly enjoyed the experience at many levels.
In Urumqi, the city has become perhaps slightly majority Han people, with dozens of other nationalities, most prominent the indigenous Uyghurs (a Turkic people), along with other minorities. In 2009, ethnic violence punctuated the growing tensions between the two main groups and led to a government blackout of the internet and even phone usage. Unease remains. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a quick jaunt to the bazaar and bought some very interesting handmade wooden bowls. I was joined by Fulbright Professor Harry Williams, who went further and purchased a rug. Sadly, I would later discover that carpet was not handmade, as we’d been led to believe, after a tour to a carpet factory. Sorry Harry L. My lecture was met with some hostility, as one student read in English a diatribe against the voluntary survey regarding identity in China that I distribute at my lectures. This was one of the more harsh reactions, and when her comments were translated into Chinese, about half of the lecture hall joined in applause to condemn the ‘splittist’ foreign lecture, yours truly. It was slightly nerve-wracking, and my surveys were later confiscated by the university, despite my attempts to retrieve them.
Afterward, we flew to Kashgar far to the south near the Pakistan and Tajikistan borders. It is a predominantly Uyghur community, with numerous Tajiks and Kazakhs as well as Han people. The security situation was very strict. Riot-geared PLA troops in platoons of 8 brandishing machine-gun, baton, and shield, patrolled the city, while police officers stopped ethnic minorities (mostly Uyghurs) to check their national id card and question their comings and goings. One Uyghur asked why they let me pass (I can pass for Uyghur), but I was not detained. Reportedly, several Han people were killed in the past three months by Uyghurs that precipitated this latest round of increased surveillance. I don’t doubt the occurrence, though the circumstances were never explained (fellow mafia perhaps?). Like the rest of China, the quaint old neighborhoods are going down and the cement warrens are going up to replace them. Just as the demise of the Beijing hutong is lamentable, the bulldozing of 400+ year old homes and communities promises to end the tourism industry in the city. The remaining patches of earthen homes were quite dramatic and beautiful, and still populated in places. Meanwhile, the baked bread and grilled lamb leave a sumptuous aroma across the city. The vinegar fresh salads were delectable, and the homemade almond honey and pastries were delightful. The skies were blue, the air was clean, and the city was manageable walking; a rare treat.