A Journey Through Islamic China
I’ve been on this train for 28 hours and have spent countless more jolting across train tracks on previous legs of this 4,389-kilometre overland journey. Before this, I didn’t know it was possible to spend so much time staring, captivated, out of a window. My mates and I are sharing triple-decker bunk compartments with strangers, and mine is occupied by hijab-wearing women who rock with kind, genuine laughter as we try to converse in the universal backpacker language of mime.
The world outside is colourful and mysterious and spiritual. It sure doesn’t feel like China.
In another compartment, a young man excitedly shows me a video of himself playing the guitar and singing, in the rapid, throaty, kkhh-heavy language of this part of the world. The windswept desert is intimidating in its vastness. Over the past three weeks, I have fallen in love with this place’s intricately tiled mosques and intoxicating local bazaars, where improbable sweet grapes flourish in the harsh earth and old men in embroidered square hats bend in prayer five times a day.
This is the country’s north-west: a place so simmering with tension, even its name is contested. The ruling communist party would tell me that I am currently in Xinjiang, China’s largest and most resource-rich state, a primitive desert backwater that is, fortunately, overflowing with oil, coal, and iron ore. Alternatively, I could say I am in Chinese-occupied East Turkestan. This is the view of a Turkic-speaking, devoutly Muslim, 10-million strong ethnic group called the Uyghurs. They would tell me that this is rightfully their land, but that they have been steadily and systematically squashed since their state was annexed by their more powerful neighbour over 60 years ago – or at least they would tell me that, if they weren’t routinely jailed for saying such things.
Our journey on this tour cuts through the heart of East Turkestan. It starts in the most Chinese of Chinese cities, Beijing, and unfolds across the centre of the country to terminate in Kashgar, a stronghold of Uyghur culture nestled on the far western border with Kyrgyzstan. Along the way we climb gorgeous Alpine mountains, roll down immense shifting sand dunes and explore the state’s unique semi-developed cities. We find ourselves engulfed in the Taklamakan desert, where the Flaming Mountains are streaked with melting banners of red, orange, yellow and brown. But being on a pre-organised tour, and hobbled by my inability to speak Uyghur, Russian, or Mandarin, one aspect of East Turkestan I don’t gain much firsthand knowledge of is the people.
I know from reading independent media, like Radio Free Asia, that life here is hard for its native citizens. It’s late 2015 when I’m sitting in my little train carriage, and since even then the cultural oppression of the Uyghurs has considerably worsened. Throughout Xinjiang, Uyghurs are now not allowed to wear Islamic dress, pray anywhere besides a government-sanctioned mosque, give their babies Islamic names, practice Ramadan, own the Quran, possess any items with their flag, the crescent moon, or the words ‘East Turkestan’ on them, or be rude to Han Chinese officials. Their homes are raided, often in the middle of the night, and they are encouraged to report on each other. Their cars have been fitted with compulsory GPS trackers, and a breach of the rules results in jail sentences of up to 10 years.
As a visitor, East Turkestan is so beguiling because of the clear beating heart of intertwined culture and religion visible everywhere you look. It’s an anachronistic and precious way of life that is being systematically reduced in what the Uyghurs call a cultural genocide.
Even as a tourist though, there are signs that everything isn’t quite right in Xinjiang. The police presence is unsettling. One particularly absurd evening, we walk through a town square where a group of laughing older women are practicing Tai Chi – a typical scene in public spaces throughout China. Children and dogs play in the rainbow-lit fountains. Teenage boys practice whip cracking. And at each corner of the square are stationed military officers armed with AK-47s. Tanks are parked in the middle of the street. Polished statues of Chairman Mao are unmissable. Even the most simple scenes of city life contain a strong current of unease and ethnic tension.
Our guide tells us the heightened security is due to the threat of terrorism, which is partly true. There has been increased violence in Xinjiang over the past decade, with attacks also being carried out in other Chinese cities, and hundreds of people dying of violent means. In 2009, Uyghur workers were savagely beaten to death in a factory elsewhere in China, and subsequent protests in East Turkestan turned violent. Since then, the Uyghurs have been trapped in a hostile spiral. One of their own will act out violently against government oppression, which the government will capitalise on with new and even harsher repressive policies, which leads to more rebellion. The government insists on characterising Uyghur attacks as jihadi terrorism. However, activists say the unrest is as much about fighting for freedom and economic justice as it is about the right to practice their traditional religion, Islam.
None of this conflict, however, is apparent from the train. We chug past an idyllic scene of sunflower fields, and continue to struggle to converse with the women in our carriage. Eventually, we give up on small talk and buy each other’s friendship with food. From us, pastries, and from them, boiled chicken feet.
Soon we will arrive in Hotan, where our tour group will breathe in the arcane smell of a handmade paper workshop, watch silk woven with creaking wooden machines, and browse the jade carvings for which this city is known. First though, we will pass through the robust security measures that mark all train stations in East Turkestan. Weaponised officers will search our bags and examine our passports, before waving us through to the fascinating oasis city outside. It’s an apt experience in this strange corner of the world, a place that knows beauty and cruelty in equal measures.
Photos by Diana Baillie