In Xinjiang on the Old Silk Road
Recently news of tension between the local Uighur [Uyghur] population and Han Chinese in the Chinese province of Xinjiang [pron. Shinjahng] has appeared in the Western media. The Chinese government has managed to sell former U.S. President Bush, Sr. on the idea that the PRC is cracking down on Al-Qaeda. Several excellent videos are available on YouTube. Among them are reports of Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur activist in exile in the U.S., whose life story is told in the documentary “10 Conditions of Love.” Some links are listed on the panel at the right, along with historical accounts in Wikipedia.
In the mid-1980s, foreign students traveling in China were much less fettered than journalists have ever been. They often left their badly-taught Chinese language classes armed with a determination to see the minority areas (which were usually closed to foreigners) and their university ID cards (which along with a bit of arguing would often get them into Chinese-only hotels). They encountered a lot of prejudice against the “national minorities” in China. I talked with one young Australian who described a the well-educated, official Uighur interpreter and the shocking way the Hans on their trip treated her.
My friend Nicole describes the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet as occupied countries controlled by force. Nicole was a middle-aged student of Chinese. In the spring of 1985, she wrote me, “I’m sitting in the square of this town selling shoes. Hundreds of people have come to look at me. Business is brisk.” She tells her story in Australian English with a French accent.
As soon as the train left Gansu Province, the passengers and the conductors started warning me about the Xinjiang people—that they were all crooks, all thieves. They created an atmosphere of distrust and fear. I met an American girl whose papers and money were stolen, but it was not a Xinjiang man who did it. It was a Han.
In Turpan I met up with five young travelers from New Zealand and Australia who called themselves the Gang of Five. I helped them get accommodation in a Chinese hotel because the tourist hotels were too expensive. The desk clerk said, “Meiyou, meiyou,” [not available], so I just sat down and asked for some boiled water and some tea. They expect us to walk away. Otherwise it means work, it means problems. If just sit and wait they have to deal with you.
I arranged a tour—to the caves, the tombs, all the usual things—and hired a cart to take us to the big mosque. Both the Uighur tour guide and the Han cart driver wanted to drop us off before we got back to the hotel. Apparently neither man had a permit. They also wanted more money than we’d agreed on. You couldn’t say only the Xinjiang people tried to rip you off.
We spent a week seeing the sights in Turpan. I’d expected something more exotic, but Turpan is the kind of place you want to hang around, very much like North Africa. There was a big bazaar and little alleys. There were some tea houses where they drank sweetened tea like in Morocco. The tea houses were upstairs, and you could just sit and watch the people going down the streets. Some women wore veils. It was really colorful. You could really stay a long time there—very cheaply, too. Some foreigners just hung around the streets and the parks smoking marijuana. They had no intention of leaving.
Most of the Hans who settled in Xinjiang were very unhappy there. A lot of them moved to Xinjiang for the same reasons that people went to Australia and America at the time of the immigrations. I talked to some who must have been in Xinjiang for ten, twenty, thirty years. They said, “The language is different, the people are different, and the customs are different.” They were stuck there for the rest of their lives. They complained that the quality of life was worse and education for the kids was worse than in Sichuan or Hebei or Hunan.
I said, “Why did you come in the first place?”
“The government painted us a picture of the place as something beautiful, a land of riches, a land of prospects, and we came for a better life.”
It was interesting to watch the relations between the ethnic groups. The Moslems barred the Hans from entering the mosques, although foreigners could go in. On the buses the Chinese always wanted the window closed, and the Xinjiang people always wanted them open. On the way to Kashgar, the windows stayed open even through the desert. You ended up with white sand on your hair, your eyelashes and your clothes. The Xinjiang people were heavy smokers like the Hans, but they smoked marijuana all the time. Maybe I was stoned all the way.
I stayed in Kashgar a week. You found a lot of nationalities there, but the population was mostly Uighur. The city had an Arabic flavor. They had a market where on Saturdays they sell animals, carpets and good custom-made leather shoes and boots. Fewer people wore Chinese clothes than in the East. The men in Xinjiang wanted their women in skirts, not trousers like the Chinese. They wanted a woman to look like a woman and a man to look like a man, and the man wears the trousers. The man I was traveling with for a while—that comes later—kept tell me that my trousers were ugly. He wanted me to wear a skirt. The Xinjiang women wore long underwear like the Chinese, but on top they wore nylon stockings and on top of those they wear skirts. The women also wore very, very bright clothes, bright colors and a lot of silver, exactly like some Arabs.
After Kashgar I set out for the Southern Silk Road, although I had some trouble buying a ticket to the next town on my route. The Southern Road was not open, and the Chinese had made less of an impact. In some places I felt I was back in the Middle Ages because of the clothes, the cattle, the habits. The people all had a lot of kids—seven or eight—the more the better.
I got stuck in a small town. I tried to get a lift on the mail truck, but the driver didn’t want me. The passengers—Xinjiang and Chinese—argued in my favor, and the driver got so angry he threatened to throw everyone off the truck. I managed to get a bus, anyway. On the way we stopped at a sort of Chinese hotel in the middle of the desert—barren all around, no trees, nothing. The hotel had a lot of broken windows and broken doors. There was no toilet. It was the most basic I ever had.
I went out to eat, and there was a Xinjiang man, a passenger on the bus, sitting next to me. He gave me some melon seeds and some raisins. He said he was going to Omian [a fictitious name].
I said, “So am I. We’ll go together.” I was thinking in terms of being on the same bus.
When we got to the town where I had to change buses, there was no bus for ten days, so he said, “Well, I’ve got a truck. You can come with me.”
“I have to buy a ticket? How much?”
“No no no. No ticket.”
He was selling shoes for a factory, and the shoes were on the truck with the driver. He’d apparently just taken the bus for this side junket.
So we went by truck. It was nice. There was a lot of drifting sand, and honestly, we couldn’t see the road. The Southern Silk Road got smaller and narrower until it became just a track full of holes in the desert. You couldn’t see the difference between the road and the sand dunes. The road was very bad, but very funny. We laughed.
We got to Omian, where I was stuck for a week. That’s where I sold shoes. I sat in the market with the shoe boxes all around me. I sat and wrote some letters. People came from all around to look at me.
I had already noticed that Xinjiang people had much, much bigger houses than you find in Eastern China, maybe because the land was not so heavily populated. A family had at least three big rooms with a huge kang bed-stove from wall to wall, with all their bedding against one wall. There was a low table as well. It was very comfy. At night the whole family slept on it together. It was a bed, a dining room, a sitting room. It was marvelous. In North Africa the Arabs had big sleeping platforms too, with bright carpets all over. [The kang or bikang is similar to the Korean heated floors.]
Most of the time, the family was outside in the courtyard, which had vines with grapes. It was really beautiful, like the South of France. They all had a little garden at the front and one in the back. The married children each had their own quarters within the same compound around this courtyard. They had a winter kitchen in one of the rooms, a small colonial woodstove, and a summer kitchen, a stove made of an old drum and a bench with a wok in it.
I was taken to see the shoe merchant’s friends and relatives. In every home they offered me bread, grapes, melons and tea. The bread, which they made all the time, was made with leavening and white wheat. Their oven was like a big jar heated underneath and on the sides, and they stuck the bread on the inside of the jar. They didn’t eat much rice, mostly noodles, perhaps with lamb, tomatoes and green pepper. In one home I had a meal of lamb and rice, and it tasted so much like couscous I thought I was back in North Africa.
The shoe merchant told all his friends that we were going to get married and he was going to live in France. He was already married, and he had two grown-up kids, but he said that was no problem. His wife didn’t want him, and he didn’t want her. In Xinjiang he had a beautiful social life selling shoes. He went from village to village, and he had friends in every village. It was a man’s world. The women just cooked the food and fed the men. I told him that if he lived abroad might not miss his wife, but he would miss his friends and the conversation.
“Oh, but I’ll have your friends.”
“But you don’t speak any English or any French. How will you get on with my friends?”
He said he was going to come. He didn’t even ask me if I wanted him. .
I liked having a grown-up there with me. He took me around on the back of his bicycle like a Chinese. We went on walks in the moonlight in the desert, with the mountains and the white desert sand. It was beautiful and romantic, but that’s all it was. He tried to flirt, but luckily the social circumstances didn’t permit any improvisation. I say “luckily” because it’s unpleasant to have to say no.
His friends were from his army days. After 1949, when the Chinese entered what was then the Second East Turkistan Republic, the Xinjiang men were drafted into the army. He was drafted at sixteen. In six years of the Chinese army he never learned to speak Chinese properly, which I think shows a lot of resistance to the culture that conscripted him.
One day I mentioned the East Turkistan Republic, the independent republic the Xinjiang people tried to set up. The Chinese government invited the five leaders to a discussion in Beijing, and they all died in a mysterious plane crash in Kazakhstan airspace. He remembered. He said, “My mouth says certain things, but my heart beats differently.” I thought that was an interesting way of putting it.
In Omian I saw about fifty public security and military men going up and down the street in their jeeps and big guards standing in the corners watching. It was “hygiene inspection.” After the police and military there were two ambulances with about ten Chinese and ten Xinjiang men. They entered every shop and every household, and they checked for “dust.” By this time I had seen enough to know it was an excuse to go into every building and check for counter-revolutionary movements and people collecting arms. One of the women told me they had nothing to fear.
I was waiting for a truck which the shoe merchant’s friend in public security was trying to find for me. It would take me over the Xinjiang border to Tibet where another truck would take me all the way to Goldmud. My truck didn’t come, and I asked everybody, “Where’s my truck?”
Finally someone said, “Public security said not to give you a lift.”
“I’ll go and see them.”
I met the public security officer on the street. He was very stern, and he tried to scare me. He took me into a back room, and I just sat down and made myself at home. He asked me what I was doing there. I’d been there a week. He’d never bothered me before. I’d been to a party at his house. I had even danced with him. I think it was because that mob that descended on the village had asked what a foreigner was doing there. For a week I had gone into people’s homes, and I was entertained everywhere. Now all of a sudden I was an undesirable observer.
“Well, I’m going from Kashgar to Lhasa.”
He explained to me that the way to go is to Liuyuan, then Goldmud, back to Urumqi because the Southern Silk Road is not open to foreigners.
“I didn’t know. Okay, I’ll go back.”
The next day I got a ride on one of the ambulances. There were two, one with the Chinese and one with the Xinjiang people. It was so funny. They had a lot of tire punctures, so many I thought it might be sabotage. At first I traveled in the ambulance with the Xinjiang people, and when their car had trouble I was put with the Chinese. We also got bogged down in the sand several times. Everybody got out, and we tried to push, and it got worse. So it was lovely. Some people were working on the car, and others built a fire. It was cold out on the desert.
Once when we stopped at a village, the man in charge of the medical inspection said, “You’ll be okay here because everybody’s Chinese in this village.”
I always feel better with the Xinjiang people. They have blood in their veins. They’re really warm.
That’s what I learned about the nationalities when I traveled. I became aware of the Hans as an entity. Before I went to Xinjiang, I knew they had a lot of nationalities in China, but I thought it was like France, where you have people from different provinces. It’s not like that. They are different ethnicities, different cultures, who have nothing in common with the Hans. The Uighurs speak a Turkic language which is written in the Arabic alphabet. The music is Arabic too.
The other day I was listening to an Urumqi radio station. There was some beautiful, warm music, and I loved it. They translated the words into Chinese, and it was just propaganda. The song went, “I love China. I’m a communist, and when you’re a communist you never have any problems.” That’s why it’s possible for the Han Chinese to be there. There are so many Xinjiang people willing to work for them. Then I remembered why I like Xinjiang. The people have great energy. You can feel them living, breathing. They’re alive.