To talk to Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer has been a personal ambition ever since I visited China’s Xinjiang Province in 1999. It was a meeting with the first Uygur leader, the late Isa Alptekin, that inspired my travels through two dozen countries seeking to understand the essence of Turkishness in my 2005 book, Sons of the Conquerors. By chance, a discussion about Turkey at the National Endowment of Democracy in Washington DC – which bravely and rightly gives Mrs Kadeer a helping hand, despite great pressure from China — led me to her small office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our hour together made me feel that those years of travel were worth it all over again.
I still find it remarkable that Mrs Kadeer understands when I speak my Istanbul Turkish, and that I can understand the gist of what she says in Uygur – even though the languages are separated by thousands of miles and centuries of completely separate development. Luckily, though, Omer Kanat was on hand to translate – as he had been when I last met Isa Alptekin in Istanbul in the mid-1990s. But many things about Mrs Kadeer need no translation.
Rebiya Kadeer has had an extraordinary career: she rose to become one the richest women and a member of parliament in China, became an activist for Uygur rights, was thrown in jail in 1999, won her freedom, took up residence in the United States, and even survived an apparent assassination attempt in Washington DC. 61 years old in 2009, she is the mother of 11 children, diminutive and wears a trim black long skirt and jacket topped by an embroidered black Central Asian cap. She often plays with her two traditional Uygur plaits of hair, thick, long and reaching down to her waist, and her serenely beautiful face and compelling manner are passionate and commanding.
Like Isa Alptekin, she insists on the non-violent nature of her increasingly successful quest to unify the squabbling factions of Uygur exiles and to win international recognition of the Uygur cause. Her goal is to win the same status enjoyed by the Dalai Lama. As a one-woman human force field, working the world from Washington, she certainly has a much better chance of doing so than Alptekin did in Istanbul.
Her people, the Uygurs (sometimes spelled Uyghurs or Uighurs), can only be included in the broadest of all possible definitions of the Middle East, since they are a distant Turkic-speaking Muslim people in Central Asia. Their claim to importance is that they are half the population of Xinjiang, itself one-sixth of China’s territory. The problem is that their 8 million population is a drop in the ocean of 1.3 billion Chinese. They are being crushed by fate, history, overwhelming immigration by ethnic Han Chinese and an extraordinarily strict and illiberal approach by Beijing, about which I wrote at length in Sons of the Conquerors.
Our conversation reminded me of a problem that is a theme of Dining with al Qaeda: the question of what makes a violent Islamist or a terrorist. For me, Islamism is closely bound up with nationalism, indeed I’d say these two phenomena are two sides of the same coin. Mrs Kadeer also saw them as closely linked, a reaction to the way the Chinese first neutralized Uygur religious leaders in the mid 1990s, then the intellectuals and urban commercial middle class like herself and her husband in the late 1990s.
When I visited Xinjiang in 1999, Chinese government bulldozers were driving great boulevards through Uygur neighborhoods in towns – work that is now nearly done, with the Uygurs pushed out of their old courtyard homes to soulless apartment blocks — but they had left alone the villages and the traditional, almost mediaeval lifestyle there. In recent years, Mrs Kadeer said, Uygurs felt that this rural repository of their culture was increasingly under threat from population transfers and work-seeking immigration of young Uygur women to the industrial towns of the Chinese east – according to her, a key factor behind the outburst of violence in Urumqi this year.
Given her feeling of being part of a culture under existential threat, she says she cannot bring herself to label the occasional Uygur “Islamist” militants who use violence as terrorists, at the same as she is trying to dissuade her people from using such tactics. “We have marginal groups, but we won’t say [they are] terrorists. China has put them in this state,” she said.
As a journalist, I faced the same problem when writing about the Middle East. Using the ‘terror’ label made it look as though I’d taken sides, whether in relation to Iranian policies, the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel, or the Turkish Kurd rebellion against the Turkish government. Militant groups’ actions could deliberately or inevitably kill civilians — my understanding of a terrorist act — but then so could the actions of the state they were fighting — which people called terrorist only if they disapproved its politics. I do use the word terrorist as an adjective to describe to individual outrages. But I try to avoid using the noun “terrorism” or “terrorist” as an adjective to describe groups that have real popular support, and among whom I live and report. There is no neutral path to take. Whether I use or don’t use the term, it makes one side or the other think I’ve taken sides against them.
The underlying point she made was about why young people sometimes turned to Islam. “The Uygurs were very desperate, so they embraced God,” as she put it. I’ve seen the same thing even in Israel, where my research assistant said her sister adopted the Orthodox Jewish tradition of a wig to cover her hair because she thought the difficulties faced by Israel were a punishment by God for lack of adherence to religious ways.
Those difficulties in Israel pale in comparison with the hopelessness of the Uygur fight for more rights – “our people are crushed” as Mrs Kadeer puts it. These days, when the world is increasingly turning to Beijing on many matters, it seems anachronistic to suppose that the Uygurs are “splittists” automatically seeking a separate and doubtless impoverished state of their own. In fact, Beijing would be well advised to seek some compromise with a charismatic, secular leader who can unite most Uygurs and better manage this aspect of the complex minority issue within China, rather than to scorn her and face the near-certainty of endless tensions and Islamist radicalization over the coming decades in Xinjiang. Any Chinese researchers who came to visit Mrs Kadeer in Washington and really talk to her would soon be convinced of that too.
(title note: News from Tartary is the title of one of my favorite Central Asia books, by Peter Fleming, elder brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. In it Fleming describes his daring journey through Xinjiang and China in the 1930s. The title’s evocation of utter obscurity reminds me of the way my account of visiting the Uygurs only saw the light of day in newsprint when a Sons of the Conquerors chapter excerpt appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal Asia as a news story a whole six years – yes, six years – after I had visited Xinjiang. Nothing had much changed in that time, and judging by Rebiya Kadeer’s and visitors’ accounts, I believe that today the situation is not qualitatively much different).
The third section from my book on the Turks and the Turkic world that relates my experiences with and conditinos of the Uygurs in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19, 41-171 (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005)
10. THE ANT AND THE ELEPHANT
THE UYGUR STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE CHINA
An elephant can crush an ant with one footstep. But an
ant inside an elephant’s trunk can madden it to death.
ASLAN’S DAGGER BLADE GLINTED IN THE LATE AFTERNOON SUNLIGHT
streaming through the pointed archways of a bare room on the roof of
the Emin mosque. The young Uygur lovingly watched the knife turn in
his hand, and conversation came to a halt. Distant donkeys brayed as
they pulled carts back from the vineyards that carpeted the ancient oasis
town of Turfan with a luxuriant green. A tock-tock-tock of hammering
floated over from mud-brick towers in which desert winds dried grapes
into small grains of sweetness. From below came the squeak of wheelbarrows.
Chinese workers were ending a day’s work laying out an immaculate,
soulless socialist park right beside the 300-year-old place of prayer
where we sat.
Chinese communist ideologues had long brushed aside the Muslim
identity of the monument. The authorities have named it the “Sugong
Tower,” after its imposing minaret. British traveler Francis Younghusband
was no more respectful of its intricate brickwork when he passed by in
1887, saying it looked “much like a very fat factory chimney.” For me,
however, the minaret was a lighthouse that marked the easternmost
promontory of my journeys through the Turkic world. The Turfan oasis
is the last large Uygur settlement on the road eastward toward China’s
heartland. It lies about 500 miles west of the Great Wall. Abandoned
deep in the desert lie what are said to be the remains of the Jade Gate,
through which trading caravans once passed as they left the realm of
undisputed Chinese sovereignty. There are Turkic communities further
to the east, but here in Turfan, the Turkic world can be said to properly
begin. Wooden-collonaded architecture just like the Emin mosque can
be seen in medieval structures as far west as Turkey, a fragment of a
Central Asian style carried along the Silk Road during the many centuries
of Turkic migrations.
Aslan proudly showed the blue hilt of his knife: “Made in Kashgar,”
it said in English, with the S of Kashgar the wrong way around.
“Why do so many Uygurs carry knives?” I asked.
“When you go out in the dark, you feel safe with a knife,” he said.
“You hold it like this.” The thin 22-year-old wrapped the handle in his
fist, lifted the wickedly curved tip of the blade slightly upwards, and
gripped the lethal weapon close to his belly. A shadow crossed his face,
and the skin tightened on his high cheekbones. “If you pull out a gun,
people challenge you, ‘Go on, shoot.’ But a dagger, they’re frightened of
A dagger hangs in a scabbard from the waist of many Uygur men in
Xinjiang. Such knives are one reason why ethnic Han Chinese newcomers,
who prefer electronic pagers on their belts, steer clear of Uygur neighborhoods
at night. Most Uygurs, of course, only use the blades for cutting
open the melons they share with all comers throughout the summer.
Aslan resented Chinese rule. Ten years earlier, he said, the authorities
had shut down a religious school in the mosque. “Small groups of
students were saying bad things about the Chinese,” he recalled with
But daggers and the odd terrorist bomb have proven no match for
the world’s most populous superpower. In the lengthening shadow of the
Emin mosque’s minaret, the Chinese workers had finished their civilizing
mission for the day. A young architect wearing rimless glasses and
cargo-pocketed shorts inspected a new brick terrace. Blank-eyed workers
slaked their thirst with beer and plucked with chopsticks at their
dumplings. The skimpy shirts and trousers, the alcohol, the forbidden
pork meat in the mosque precinct would have horrified a devout Muslim
of the Middle East. Their behavior did not faze Aslan, however, who
quite liked the neat lines of the park. What bothered him was that there
was not one Uygur among them.
“Most of us here in Turfan are Uygurs, but not one of us can get
work in our own mosque,” he said.
Aslan invited me home. Once I picked up speed on my rented bicycle,
he jumped up onto the rear carrier frame. In the old Uygur quarter,
the centuries had worn smooth the remaining beaten-earth streets.
Across a wide new boulevard we walked through a rough, narrow passage
between brick walls that led to a gate in his garden wall. His family
came out to greet us in a dirt courtyard. Aslan’s father took me to pick
a bunch of small Turfan grapes from the tangle of vines on the trellis
overhead, and then his mother invited me to sit on a square platform in
a corner of their garden. Aslan cut open a melon. A conversation of sorts
got cautiously under way with his father Mohammed.
“How is it in Turfan?”
“It is good.”
“I see you have cotton, grapes, melons . . .”
“We have cotton, grapes and melons.”
“So life here is good?”
“Life is good.”
Silence fell. On one level, the common language and gestures made
me feel as though the Uygurs were close to other Turkic nations. On
another, they seemed to know remarkably little of the world outside their
almost medieval domain, or of the broad Turkic resurgence of the past
“Where are you from?” Mohammed asked.
“From Istanbul, in Turkey,” I responded.
“Oh, isn’t Turkey Muslim?” he asked, brightening considerably.
“Yes, Turks are Muslims,” I said. “But they are also Turks, like the
Uygurs. Aren’t Uygurs Turks as well?”
The family group perched on and around the wooden platform
looked puzzled before they got my meaning. The name of Turkey had a
positive ring to it, but even though two of Aslan’s friends were studying
there, it seemed to these Uygurs to exist in another, unattainable uni-
verse. Uygurs who heard me speaking an approximation of their language
assumed it was because there were Uygurs where I lived. Few had heard
of Turkish republican founder Kemal Atatürk. Eighty years out of date,
many thought Istanbul was still the capital of Turkey.
My courage faltered in this increasingly political terrain.
“What do you think makes the Uygurs special?” I asked the assembled
company as the evening darkness softened the heat into a dry, blanketing
“Once we were great,” volunteered Mohammed, flexing his forearms
and clenching his fist. Then, with a meaningful, silent look and a nod,
he added: “We are nothing now. I’ll leave it at that.”
Mohammed’s sense of a modern Turkic identity might have been weak,
but he was aware of the Turkic empires of the past. The Uygurs first
appeared in the eighth century AD in what is now Mongolia, taking over
leadership of a federation of Turkic tribes from the rulers of the first
explicitly “Turk” state, the Göktürks. They ruled a wide empire for a century
before themselves being forced to move southeast to the area now
known as Xinjiang. New leaders arose in Kashgar in the mid-tenth century,
known as the Karakhanids. The first Turkic encyclopedia, the Divan
ul-Lugat al-Turk, the Compendium of the Turkic Languages, was written
by a Karakhanid nobleman, Mahmut of Kashgar. Around the same time,
Yusuf Hass Hajib of Kashgar wrote his Kutadgu Bilig, a book of advice for
princes, whose 6,700 couplets are the first work of Turkic literature. Two
centuries later, when the Mongol leader Genghis Khan conquered most of
Asia, the educated, literate Uygur elite supplied the bureaucracy of his
empire. Later, I would meet educated Uygurs who noted with satisfaction
that the Mongol, or Yuan dynasty actually ruled the whole of China for
nearly a century from 1279. But the dynasty fell in 1368, and thereafter the
Uygurs and Chinese began to compete for territory and trade. The name
Uygur fell into disuse for centuries and was only revived by Soviet ethnic
planners in 1921.
“Where did the Uygurs go wrong?” I asked Aslan’s father delicately.
That question was answered with a heartfelt sigh. No one spoke. I
had touched on a subject that perplexes Turkic peoples everywhere:
their weakness, disunity and failures in the past century. The Uygurs
have a better excuse than most: their lands were a battlefield between
the far greater powers of the Soviet Union and China for the first half of
the 20th century. After being cast away by Moscow in the late 1940s,
Xinjiang was subjugated by China for the second half of the century.
I tried to compliment him on his bright and hardworking son, Aslan.
But Aslan complained that he could not speak or write proper Chinese,
which blocked his access to good work.
“I always wanted to be a mechanic,” he said bitterly. “Whenever I see
a broken bike, I want to fix it. TVs, watches, radios too. I’d like to open
a shop. But I can’t. I couldn’t get the parts. We’re not allowed permits to
get them. The Chinese don’t let us do anything. All we’re supposed to do
is pick our grapes.”
Even a half-century ago, there were clear signs that told travelers
they were passing westward from a Chinese to a Turkic domain. The
high-wheeled Turkic arba carts cut wider ruts into roadways than did the
trucks belonging to the Chinese. Bread appeared in roadside stalls, and
rice became rare. The ubiquitous children’s kites were thinner and flew
higher, and the flat faces of the ethnic Chinese gave way to high Turkic
cheekbones. The sing-song staccato of colloquial Chinese would switch
to the more guttural sounds of Turkic. Today, many of these signs have
vanished; the physical geography has been blurred as the Chinese
expand their settlement around roads and towns and push the Uygurs to
the margins. Although the main body of China is hundreds of miles to
the east of Turfan, it is largely the Chinese who benefit from new highway
connections like the one I followed westward to Urumqi, the capital
of Xinjiang. Uygurs are condemned to a parallel economic, social and
political system, their villages bypassed by the new main roads. China
clearly hopes such policies will lead their culture to dry up in a desert
I boarded an intercity bus in Turfan’s characterless new main square,
and soon we were skirting the edge of the Taklamakan desert. Once the
bed of a great sea, it is now a forbidding expanse of sand dunes whose
Turkic name means “place-where-one-gets-stuck.” Merchants used to
set their course by the bleached bones of dead animals. For the Chinese,
travel is far easier now. The driver of the bus careered around brand-new,
still-empty toll booths. The highway was even and smooth—and, I
learned later, partly financed by the World Bank. Gas stations built to
resemble great pyramids and cartoon fantasies whizzed past, as if in defiance
to the harsh desert haze that hung over us.
After an hour, the rocky east-west range of hills that divides Xinjiang
into two vast, shallow bowls loomed ahead. The bus climbed out of the
Tarim basin and up the rocky river gorge that leads to the northern
plateau. A howling wind lashed the river beside the highway into galloping
waves, whipping spray off the crests in long sheets that hung in the
air over the water for dozens of yards. As we emerged onto the plain at
the top of the gorge, a gigantic icon of China’s modernity stood before
us. With memories of the Uygurs in their shady, timeless Turfan oasis villages
still fresh in my mind, I was amazed to encounter among the barren
hills the swooping propellers of a vast complex of Chinese windmills,
purposefully feeding electricity into a network of high-tension powerlines.
With a new railway line shooting straight into the heart of distant
Kashgar, and new highways all over the territory, there is no doubting
Chinese determination to impose control. Reasons are not hard to find.
Apart from defending China’s northwestern frontier, officials believe
nearly 80 billion barrels of oil may lie under the province, nearly as much
as Iraq or Iran possesses, although so far only 2.5 billion barrels of those
reserves are proven. Gold, uranium, iron and coal are also abundant.
Showing a rare willingness to integrate, the Uygur bus conductress
wore an immaculate uniform and had adopted a no-nonsense, egalitarian
style. But a tacit apartheid otherwise divided our motley caravan. While
a cheerful group of young Chinese workers noisily joked and ate at the
front, Uygur families sat impassively toward the back. One couple jointly
studied a text on how to be good Muslims, and another man cradled a
cage with two canaries. Mildred Cable, a Christian missionary who
worked here in the 1920s, wrote that the “stream of Turki and Chinese
people in the bazaar only mingles superficially for, in fact, each keeps
separate from the other and follows his own way of life. The Chinese
buys at Chinese stalls, the Turki shops among his own people and the
food vendors serve men of their own race. The mentality and outlook of
each nation are profoundly different and neither trusts the other.”
By the time we pulled into the hubbub of the Urumqi bus station, it
was clear that the city had changed out of all recognition since Cable’s
day, when the Turki town and Chinese cantonment were wholly separate.
Urumqi had participated fully in China’s orgy of development in the
1990s, and a dozen tall glass-fronted buildings shimmered in the baking
July heat. The city’s skyline had become the most modern in the whole
of Central Asia. Still, on street level, I was constantly reminded of the
sharp divisions between Chinese and Uygurs. My first stop was to
change money at the regional headquarters of the Bank of China, set in
the shiny new city center. I pushed up the steps to the entrance. I had
not expected a crowd of Uygur wheeler-dealers to accompany me, each
of them waving a wad of currency. I asked them to let me through.
“Don’t go in there!” one scruffy fellow said, answering my Turkish.
“They give a lousy rate.”
The brassy Uygur surprised me by sticking to my shoulder throughout,
right up to the window inside, plastered with credit card and dollar
“I’d like to change dollars,” I said to the Chinese bank clerk.
The clerk typed out the numbers 80.7 on a calculator. My Uygur
companion coolly picked up the calculator and typed the figure 87.0. I
expected a quick-stepping troupe of Chinese police to come and drag us
both away at any moment. But they didn’t. I looked at the young clerk,
who watched me impassively. The Uygur’s devil-may-care attitude made
me more confident. I began to bargain.
“Give me 89,” I said.
“OK, 88,” he retorted.
“What about the police?” I asked.
He laughed. “Oh, they won’t do anything, those Chinese. But we
should step outside.”
I began to walk with him. The Chinese teller betrayed no sign of
interest. Outside, the moneychanger produced a fat bunch of notes
and began to count them into my hand. He didn’t appear to care
whether I had any money myself. My trust broadened. It seemed just
a small step from this pavement in China to my home street in Turkey.
Turks feel honor-bound to act as though the actual transfer of money
to complete a deal is a matter of supreme indifference to them. This
habit can infuriate foreign business partners. But it is a boon when I
step out to the shops in Istanbul and find I have forgotten my wallet.
Still, it was odd that the Urumqi bank tellers were almost exclusively
Chinese, while the black market was staffed entirely by Uygurs, hungrily
waiting for Chinese men in sleek cars to pull up to them and slide down
their electric windows.
“Why are the Uygurs the only ones who work the currency market?”
I asked as we shook hands warmly on concluding our transaction.
“There are no jobs for us,” he said.
Our exchange had probably netted him a day’s factory wage, but he
clearly didn’t regard what he did as a ‘real’ job. Throughout the Turkic
realm, paternalistic regimes make the local population believe that the
only jobs that matter are sinecures in the state bureaucracy, which often
come with lifelong access to housing, health benefits, privileges and
pensions. Yet official employment was hard to come by. A hard-working
Uygur teller in a bank in Kashgar told me that she was one of just four
Uygurs working among 25 employees in the branch, and had no hope of
becoming the boss. Xinjiang Airways in-flight magazine talked of a happy
family of minorities in the province. But no Uygurs were allowed to be
taxi drivers at the airports. Jazzy Central Asian silk neck-bows decorated
the collars of the air hostesses, but all of them appeared to be Chinese.
A kind of apartheid was in operation at Urumqi airport. The Chinese
restaurant above the departure hall came complete with attentive waitresses
and excellent food. The pokey little “Muslim Restaurant” could
only be reached through an ouside service door, where one might have
expected to find a public toilet.
The Chinese bank building was built on the edge of the Uygur quarter,
where it dwarfed what was left of the poor, untended, two-story
Uygur houses across the street. I wandered into the old neighborhood
over broken pavements and dusty roadways.
“Hey!” someone called.
I stopped in my tracks on a twisting street between the houses. A
neatly dressed figure squatting by a pile of melons was waving me over.
His arm’s urgent “come on” gesticulations were an exact pantomime of
an Istanbul traffic policeman. Choosing a melon, he flashed his dagger
through the yellow flesh, and we shared slice after slice of cool, succulent
sweetness. Erkin was his name, and he explained that he owned a
clothes shop in the old quarter. Ten yards behind where we squatted,
Chinese bulldozers had cut another great hole in the fabric of the Uygur
town. A colony of Chinese laborers was laying out the foundations of a
new mammoth structure. We exchanged looks.
“The Chinese,” he said flatly.
Erkin invited me back to his shop. We strolled on together through
the fragmented architectural battlefield in which modernity was visibly
crushing tradition as each day went by. Chinese women, scrupulously
clean and purposeful, cycled by in neat short skirts and straw hats made
of plastic. By contrast, the disenfranchised Uygurs of Urumqi generally
adopted a ragged, shambolic look.
Private Uygur gathering places were equally unprepossessing: at one
restaurant I passed with Erkin, kebabs sizzled on outdoor metal braziers,
the workhorse of Turkic restaurants from here to Europe. But the grubby
plates and stringy mutton seemed poor cousins to the marinated grills
that emerge from under the embossed and polished copper chimney
hoods of Turkish city restaurants. Here, a layer of grime seemed to coat
every surface, including chairs, tables and walls.
Erkin caught me looking disapprovingly at the street scene.
“You see?” he said. “The Chinese have done nothing for this street,
just because it’s Uygur.”
I disagreed. “Why don’t local people do anything to clear up this mess?”
“What can we do?” Erkin replied with a sigh of defeat. We reached
his shop, a corner of a cooperative where he had four trestle tables. The
priciest, fanciest dress cost $2.50.
“So the Chinese let you do business? Can you get rich?” I asked. I
hinted at the success of Uygur businesswoman Rebiya Kader. A mother
of 11, working from near this very spot, she had built up her Urumqi
laundry into a clothing and trading empire that did business with Central
Asia and Turkey. But she was already falling out of favor, accused of trying
to foster Uygur independence. The Chinese authorities jailed her
one month after my visit.
“They let you do business, as long as it’s just business,” Erkin replied.
To prosper under Chinese rule, Uygurs had to submit and work in
the small, undeveloped space allotted to them by the regime. While the
Chinese built with bulldozers, steamrollers, piledrivers and tall cranes,
pairs of Uygur men still solemnly swung great five-foot lengths of tree
trunk in an ancient rhythm to settle foundations and beat earth floors
flat. Erkin didn’t need to show me the way back to the Chinese new
town. A 40-story blue and silver hotel, built by the Chinese Ministry of
Communications, reared up overhead like a tidal wave about to engulf
the district. As I headed for it, I walked passed dwellings that had been
bulldozed that very morning. The era of separate, independent cantonments
for Uygurs and Chinese described by 19th century travelers
seemed to be over. Tall Chinese buildings were converging on the Uygur
quarter from all sides, gobbling it up, house by house. Grim-faced
Uygurs, who said they had been allocated new apartments in soulless
modern apartment blocks on the edge of town, picked their way through
the rubble to retrieve roofing beams, windows, doors and bed frames.
China is taking a risk by stoking up Uygur resentment while brushing
aside Isa Alptekin’s model of peaceful Uygur national development.
An old Turkish proverb has it that “you can hit a Turk a ten times, and
he’ll do nothing. The eleventh time, he’ll kill you.” I was to stumble onto
many signs of rising fear, stress and anger as I began my journey home
I had hoped to make my first stage through the mountains into the
Kyrgyz Republic.Like many a traveler before me, and the Uygurs themselves,
I found that the great mountain ranges that rise up round much
of Xinjiang are often its prison, cutting its people off from the outside
world. My car toiled up the foothills towards peaks wrapped in dark,
angry clouds. Wide riverbeds that lay dry for much of the year overflowed
with rushing brown waters that tossed boulders and splintered
tree branches like pebbles and twigs. I reached the Chinese customs
gate just as a minibus full of Chinese soldiers arrived from the passes
high above. The soldiers were streaked with mud and soaked to the skin.
The passport officer gleefully reported that the pass would remain closed
for weeks. The road had washed away.
To by-pass the mountains, I had to use Xinjiang’s far-flung border
with Kazakhstan. This gave me the excuse to visit Yining, known in
Uygur as Guldja, the capital of the province of Ili. It was off the tourist
trail, and was the scene in February 1997 of some of the worst clashes
between Uygurs and the Chinese security forces. After a crackdown on
Uygur traditional public discussion groups known as meshreps and a
bloody altercation during the detention of popular religious leaders, hundreds
of Uygurs had taken to the streets, shouting Islamic slogans,
demanding jobs and calling for equal treatment of Uygurs. Protests, knifings
of Chinese, attacks on government buildings and burnings of cars
continued for two days. Riot police sealed off the city for two weeks, during
which time up to 5,000 people were arrested and hundreds of
detainees treated with extreme brutality. At least nine people were killed
in the disturbances, including four policemen. Nine others were later
executed, mostly Uygurs.
I felt the continued raw tensions of this frontier town during my first
evening meal, at a pavement restaurant in the Chinese part of town. The
meal of stewed snake, cooked in a fiery sauce in a wok on my table, was
challenging enough. But as I sat gnawing on an unyielding cartilage, a
scuffle started outside a nearby nightclub. After much shouting and
brawling, a badly beaten Chinese man emerged from the scrum in the
half-darkness. His face streaked with blood, he galloped past my table to
the restaurant’s open-air kitchen. Grabbing a meat cleaver, he charged
back, hurling the knife past my head towards his assailants. The heavy
blade missed and clattered along the concrete. The combatants melted
away. I was frozen in surprise. My Chinese fellow-diners watched in rapt
passivity. Within seconds, it was as if nothing had happened. A chauffeur-
driven car pulled up, and a sharply made-up girl stepped out and
sauntered over to the nightclub doorway. She simply ignored the shadow
of at least one man beaten in the scuffle, who still lay unconscious on
Back at the hotel, I asked a Chinese woman in the lobby why
nobody had intervened. Her answer exposed a Chinese weakness. “The
problem for us Chinese here in Xinjiang is that if an Uygur gets into a
fight, all the other Uygurs come to help him. But if a Chinese person
gets into a fight, all the other Chinese look the other way,” she
explained. When ethnic tension rose in Yining, she said, any Chinese
residents who could quickly found business in China proper. Indeed,
many of the Chinese I spoke to were required by law or jobs to stay in
Xinjiang, and longed to go back to the safer, developed, go-ahead east of
Most Chinese depended on the central government for work. About
one third of the Han Chinese population in the province, or 2.4 million
people, worked in the “Bingtuan,” or Xinjiang Production and
Construction Corps. This organization had its origins in settlers from
Mao’s disbanded Chinese army units, and since 1953 it has colonized
Xinjiang’s borderlands. It controls nearly half of the territory of Xinjiang
and works nearly one-third of its arable land. But its budget and politics
answer directly to the central government. It seems possible that if state
support collapses for some reason, this subsidized Chinese presence
might pour out again as fast as Chinese statistics show Han Chinese are
now flowing in. Something similar happened in neighboring Kazakhstan,
which was taken over by Russia at about the same time as China formally
annexed Xinjiang as the ‘New Borderland’ in 1884. When the
Soviet Union fell apart and Kazakhstan won independence in 1991, ethnic
Russians quickly haemorrhaged out, even though there were more
Russians than Kazakhs and they had grown much closer than Chinese
and Uygurs have ever done. For sure, Chinese garrisons have frequently
held sway over part or all of Xinjiang since ancient times, making one
name for the region “Chinese Turkestan.” Mao ordered he colonization
to rebalance the paradox that he himself articulated: “We say China is a
country vast in territory, rich in resources and large in population; in fact,
it is the Han nationality whose population is large, and the minority
nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich.” Still,
over the centuries, the region has spun out of Beijing’s control more
often than not.
The next morning in Yining, I discovered that the placid appearance
of an enchanting Uygur quarter was deceptive. The houses were large
and comfortable, and several owners were rebuilding their houses even
more grandly. In an exception to the aggrieved Uygur mainstream, the
border trade had been kind to the town’s Uygur entrepreneurial class. A
group of young men stood chatting at an intersection.
“How are you, well?” I asked.
“How are you, well?” one of them replied, the traditional Uygur
“What a lovely area this is,” I went on. “How old are the houses
“About 70 or 100 years old. They’re real Uygur houses,” the man said
“How many people live in each one?”
“Eight or nine.”
“How much does a house cost?”
“Oh, $4,000, $6,000, maybe $8,000 for a big one. The Chinese, you
know, they have to pay $8,000 for a much smaller house elsewhere in
The Uygur houses were indeed palatial by Chinese standards. This
seemed to be a lovely place to live. Except for one thing. They were
Uygurs in China, and for them, threats lay everywhere.
“What’s that written on the wall?” I continued, pointing out the
Uygur Arabic lettering that was one of the only decorations on the
smooth mud plaster.
“It says, ‘Don’t make children,’” the man said, laughing and ruffling
his young son’s hair.
Sometimes one, sometimes three slogans were printed neatly across
the walls next to each doorway, spray-painted through stencils. The ones
I could read exhorted inhabitants to remember that “Family Planning is
Good,” “Making Few Babies is a Virtue” and “Few Babies is a Top
Government Policy.” Even though allowed one more child than Han
Chinese in China’s strict one-baby population control system, Central
Asian tradition pushed many to try to beat the system, registering new
babies with all manner of female relatives. I remembered other Uygurs
talking resentfully of Chinese officials coming into their houses to feel
the bellies of women, and their fear of forced abortions, carried out even
late in pregnancy.
Watching me puzzle through the anti-baby slogans, one of my interlocutor’s
friends whispered something in his ear. Apparently a warning
not to talk to me, he brushed it aside. I kept smiling.
“What happens if you have more than two children?” I asked.
“I just wouldn’t,” he said.
Another chipped in: “You’d have to pay a $2,000 fine.”
That was a huge amount of money.
“What job do you do?” I asked the boy’s father.
“None of us here has a job. We just sell shirts and socks in the market,”
The suspicious man intervened again. “What sort of questions are
these? You’d better be careful.”
“They’re normal questions,” the friendly man replied.
“But he asks about everything you’re doing!”
“So,” I said, trying to brazen it out. “It’s all very quiet here, then…”
“Quiet??” the friendly man shot back.
A liquid fear surged through his body. He looked at me with wideopen
eyes, went pale, and staggered back to squat at the base of a garden
wall. He took his head in his hands and started shaking it from side
to side. He plucked his shirt off his chest between his thumb and forefinger,
and flapped it back and forth, as if to fan himself with cooling air.
“Don’t ask me any more questions. I’m afraid,” he said in a small
Just watching him set my heart racing. It seemed so incongruous on
this delightful soft suburban morning.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand,” I started to say, backing away
to beat as dignified a retreat as possible. Only later did I learn that three
Uygurs who spoke to foreign reporters in Yining after the 1997 riots disappeared
into the Chinese gulag, and were rumored to have been sentenced
to more than 15 years in jail. The reporters were expelled.
“You should be sorry,” the man’s sharp-eyed comrade shouted. After
I’d put a dozen yards between us, he followed with a parting shot:
I walked hastily out of the Uygur quarter. Its edge was marked by a
squalid restaurant where a fat, sweating chef gyrated round a flaming
fire, hedged in by smoke-blackened walls. Somebody hustled up behind
me. I expected a policeman to grip my elbow. Instead I turned to see a
mad-eyed boy waiter rushing past. He disappeared into a gap in a wall
that passed as the restaurant’s doorway and popped up on the other side.
“You English?” he called out at me. “You want hashish? Good hashish?”
I did not need hashish to make my head spin as I made my way onto
the wide modern boulevard that marked the beginning of the “civilized”
Chinese part of town. I felt doubly guilty. I had no plans to betray
anyone. But I had put these Uygurs in danger simply by talking to them.
Then I had sought refuge in the part of town built by their Chinese
It was hard to predict the future for one of the Turkic world’s oldest
settled and urban cultures. Still, as recently as the 1980s, few would
have foreseen the emergence of an independent Kazakhstan or
Turkmenistan, countries dominated by Soviet methods of government
and whose indigenous pre-Soviet state traditions were often as fluid as
that of the Uygurs. Indeed, many of the more rural Turkic populations
are often barely a generation or two away from their nomad past.
President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan herded sheep in his youth, as did
Turkey’s former President Demirel. Some Kazakhs still make their way
by truck each summer to the high pastures of northwest China. My visit
to their camp was the moment on my journeys that I came closest to the
Turkic idyll, a glimpse of the pre-modern life of the Central Asian hills
Second posting of Uygur-related extracts from
Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19, 41-171 (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005)
9. THE GHOST OF ISA BEG
KNIGHT-ERRANT OF TURKESTAN
I was never carried away by the valuable Chinese gifts of gold,
silver, silk and sweet words. I did not forget how many Turks
who had been deceived by such things had died, how many
had been forced under the Chinese yoke.
—Stone inscription by Bilge Kagan, an 8th century AD
Turkic ruler in what is now Mongolia
FROM HIS SPARSELY FURNISHED APARTMENT IN AN OUTER SUBURB OF
Istanbul, Isa Alptekin, the late leader of the Uygur Turks of China, never
imagined that he could free his people by force. The grand old man of
this large but little-known Turkic minority always spoke the language of
passive resistance, as did his much better-known comrade in the struggle
with China for greater rights, the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Alptekin clearly
felt vindicated by the fact I had sought him out for a news agency
interview in 1988, a rare moment of recognition after an extraordinary
series of protests in China during which his name had been chanted by
Uygur crowds. Alptekin chuckled lightly when I asked him if he had
agents at work, as China alleged.
“Let’s just say I’m popular,” the nearly blind old gentleman said, his
tall frame motionless on a sofa. Although happy to be noticed, he was not
sanguine about the outcome of the unrest in Xinjiang. The Uygurs might
number eight million souls, but they were a drop in the ocean of 1.2 billion
Chinese. “We are few, and they are many,” he said. “They have the
guns; we don’t.”
In Chinese, Xinjiang means “new borderland.” In the hearts of the
Uygurs, who still number half of the population of this remote region
that makes up one-sixth of China’s landmass, it is still old East
Turkestan. They remember that two millennia ago China built the Great
Wall to keep their unruly ancestors out. They also know that 1,200 years
ago the Uygurs founded the first major Turkic state, and that Han
Chinese only started arriving in large numbers after the communist
takeover in the last half of the 20th century. The arrogance and highhandedness
of the Beijing authorities have made them as resented
among local people as they are in Tibet.
It wasn’t just Isa Alptekin’s archaic turns of phrase that told of his
origin in a distant corner of the constellation of Turkic peoples. The pre-
20th century links between western and eastern Turks were alive in his
memory, too. The Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz had sent advisers and arms
to the Uygurs in China in the 1860s. “My grandfather was trained by the
Ottoman officers and saw battle,” he recalled. They raised a substantial
army and won diplomatic recognition from both Russia and Britain in
what for thirteen years would prove to be the Uygurs’ most successful
rebellion. “When I was five years old, my grandfather used to tell us
about it, and when he got excited, he’d stand up and order us about in
Istanbul Turkish: ‘At ease! Attention! March! One, two, one, two!’’
The old man’s mood darkened as he recounted how China crushed
his experiment in Turkic nationalist government. This bloomed after the
nationalist group of which Alptekin was a leading member won the
region’s first and last free local election in 1947, part of the confused
interregnum as Russia began to disengage from Eastern Turkestan in the
1940s. It was snuffed out when the communist army of Mao-Tse Tung
re-established full control in September 1949. Subsequent resistance,
mainly from Uygurs and Kazakhs, was stamped out. Waves of Turkic
refugees scattered for safety. Isa, his family and 450 others fled in midwinter
to Pakistan over the 14,000-foot passes of the Karakorum mountain
range. One of Alptekin’s sons, Arslan, today living in Istanbul, was
five years old during the 10-week trek. The pain, cold and misery were
so intense, Arslan would later tell me, that he even saw a horse weep.
The frostbitten toes of one of his feet had to be amputated when they
arrived in Pakistan. His younger sister died.
In the ensuing years of exile, Alptekin traveled widely to drum up
international support for the Uygur cause. Like his ally, the Dalai Lama,
he preached against violence, terrorism, intolerance or Islamic fundamentalism.
But he died without seeing his native land again.
My first conversation with the elder Alptekin lasted all afternoon.
Little did I realize that our chat would lead me, more than a decade later,
to his birthplace in Yengisar, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert in
northwestern China, nearly 2500 miles away from where I sat. Much
had changed by then. The old man had died in 1995. The last time I saw
him was on a chilly winter morning, and he was depressed. It was soon
after Azerbaijan’s “Black January” in 1990, and he believed the Soviet
government had crushed the Azeri Popular Front in order to send a warning
shot across the bow of all nationalist movements active in other
Turkic republics. I asked him whether the bravery of the Azeris would
inspire the Uygurs.
“There is a thrill going through the Turkic world,” he said. When I
asked what this meant for the Uygurs, he paused. He spoke of the need
for caution, remembering his own futile attempts to enlist international
help in the past. He correctly predicted that the Turkish state would do
nothing for his people. In the late 1990s, in order not to offend China,
it re-issued a ban on the public display of the blue-and-white star-andcrescent
of East Turkestan, even as Uygur youths were being sentenced
to death for hanging it on the vast statue of Mao in Kashgar.
“A little help would have meant a lot to us,” Isa sighed. “It would
have told us we were not alone, that we had a friend, that we could one
day be happy too.”
It was in Kashgar in 1999 that I boarded a crowded bus to reach Isa
Alptekin’s birthplace. The two-hour journey to Yengisar was a bumpy
ride. Chinese workers swarmed over the highway leading out of town.
They were busy knitting mats of steel reinforcing bars to turn it into a
vast concrete boulevard. The new carriageway looked able to carry
columns of tanks, which was probably the point. Alongside the raw
swathe that Chinese roadbuilders had cut through the ancient fabric of
the city, mudbrick Uygur houses and gardens lay ripped open and abandoned.
By the time we reached the outskirts, dust kicked up by this and
other engineering works had brought visibility down to a few dozen
yards. The leveling of the ancient city had been going on for decades.
Militants of Mao’s Cultural Revolution had started in the 1960s by cutting
down the trees that used to shade the roads. Next to go were the
cooling water channels that ran beside the streets. Now, apparently, it
was the turn of the streets themselves to be erased from memory.
Likewise, the wide tarmac highway that entered Yengisar bulldozed
right through the heart of the mud-brick town that Alptekin would have
known. It was a hot midday, and there was little traffic and few passersby
on the street. Over the road from the small, white-tiled bus-station,
however, people stirred among the shaded tables of the New Silk Road
Muslim Restaurant. I wandered over. It was a rough-and-ready Uygur
establishment where the chef, 19-year-old Suleyman, sweated over a
flaming wok on a stove made of an old oil drum.
Suleyman quickly whipped me up a standard Kashgar goulash—
strips of beef, green pepper, tomato, and lashings of chilli pepper—
served with steamed white bread dumplings. He and his family joined
me at the table, friendly and curious. They loved a joke. When I showed
off my tool-filled American knife, Suleyman pulled out his Uygur blade
and laughed hugely at the fear in my eyes as he played out a lightningquick
game of dagger slashing. The point flashed within fractions of an
inch from my chest and arms. Later, while I ate, I asked Suleyman tentatively
if anyone in Yengisar remembered someone called Isa Alptekin.
He shook his head; if he recognized the name, he didn’t show it. I tried
Isa Beg, the name by which he is known to generations of Turkic nationalists.
Suleyman seemed genuinely ignorant of it, so we went back to discussing
a topic he found of much more pressing importance: how he
would get the money he needed to wed.
Fortified by the hearty repast, I set out to determine whether
indeed Yengisar’s most famous son had become a non-person in his
hometown. Shady tree-lined paths wandered between earthen roads
flanked by water channels that brought a delightful coolness. Tanned
children splashed happily behind little dams. Stopping from time to
time at garden gates that stood ajar, I looked into the courtyards of
houses. Many sported small charcoal forges and piles of scrap car
parts, where craftsmen kept up a knife-making tradition that makes the
name of Yengisar famous among Uygurs. A group of brightly dressed
women observed my investigations and, giggling over my Turkish-style
Uygur, paused to chat.
The women, too, denied knowledge of Isa Beg. But after a few
whispers, they directed one of the girls, a pretty young teacher, to take
me to a man called Karim, who, they said, would be able to answer my
questions. As she and I headed back to the town center, she recognized
a man passing by on a moped as Karim’s relative. He stopped, flashing
us a big smile. We hailed a horse-drawn cart and he led the way to the
other side of town, past big plots of farmland fringed by tall poplar trees.
We stopped at a new, concrete house of unusually grand dimensions.
The relative led me through a big door and a tunnel, like the entrance
to a medieval English inn. Then we were suddenly out in the sun again.
Here in a courtyard oasis of greenery, sat Karim, a man in his 60s with
big, heavy spectacles, a diamond-studded gold watch and a goatee
Karim spoke fluent Turkish. After the usual pleasantries about my
journey, I came round to the subject of Isa Beg, delicately, I thought, by
talking of living in Turkey and the new park in Istanbul that had been
named in his honor.
“Ah, so you’re a journalist, I suppose?”
“No, no, well, perhaps a kind of writer,” I lied. I felt like an imposter.
China forbids foreign writers from touring Xinjiang without lengthy
arrangements for guides, interpreters and minders. I had come here on
a tourist visa, and all of us could be in deep trouble if my true purpose
were revealed. Human rights reports cite “political conversations” as a
reason that Uygurs are sentenced to many years in jail or “re-education
Karim patted me on the knee and smiled knowingly. I met his eyes
and we let the subject drop. But he gave away little about the story of his
life. In his childhood he had been a next-door neighbor of the Alptekin
family, and had joined the column of Uygur refugees who escaped over
the mountains with Isa Beg to Pakistan as the Chinese communists took
over. After exile in Pakistan and India, he moved, as did several hundred
Uygurs, to Saudi Arabia. Enriched by a restaurant business, he had
retired to Istanbul and taken a much younger Uygur wife, Fatima. But
seven years before he had given in to her entreaties that they return
home to Yengisar. He had let out his Istanbul flat, and his foreign income
made him a wealthy man here.
“We manage. Everything we need is smuggled between here and
Turkey,” Karim said.
“Are you free to travel?” I asked as he invited me to pick a peach
from one of the fruit trees in the courtyard of his two-story mansion. The
fruit’s flesh was white, juicy and exquisite.
“Coming back is easy. Going away again is hard. They won’t give us
our passports. I feel like one of my parrots,” Karim said, pointing to his
large collection of caged birds. One of them was in a pagoda-style cage,
which, paradoxically, had actually been made in Turkey.
“Is Isa Beg’s house still standing? Can I visit that?”
Relatives of Isa Beg lived in the old Alptekin family house, Karim
said, but his land was now buried under the asphalt of the new crossroads
in the center of town. He passed me some soft apricots and slices
of a watermelon brought over by Fatima. He spoke of the former delights
of wandering through old Kashgar’s orchards, now entombed under
Chinese urban development.
“Who remembers Isa Beg? What about The Cause of Eastern
Turkestan?” I asked, using the title of one of Isa Beg’s books.
“It’s finished. Oppression has buried it,” he said with conviction.
“There’s nothing left here. People don’t have enough money to think
about Eastern Turkestan. Everyone is afraid.”
Fear had not crushed Uygur resentment or the dreams of Isa Beg,
however. Back in Kashgar, one man dared to speak openly of the Uygurs’
burning ambitions. I was in the knife market, and my Turkic chatter with
the owner of a knife-sharpening stone—I was trying to get a respectable
edge on my personal blade, and he required me to spin it by pulling a
long strap—attracted the attention of a well-dressed Uygur gentleman.
He introduced himself. In his thirties and of middling height, he spoke
fluent Istanbul Turkish. After awhile, our increasingly intense conversation
began to draw stares in the bustling thoroughfare, and he invited me
to dinner at his house that evening.
Mahmut met me at the entrance of Kashgar’s great Idgah mosque. I
followed him through a maze of streets into a narrow alleyway, where he
suddenly ducked into a low doorway. The entrance gave no clue to what
lay inside, a fine, well-kept house. Built round a spacious courtyard, it
shared the comfortable privacy and the wooden-colonnaded verandah of
traditional Central Asian townhouses over the mountains in Tashkent,
Samarkand and Bokhara.
When we walked in, Mahmut’s family was sitting on carpets on the
verandah, watching television. The womenfolk looked up and were
about to scatter modestly, but Mahmut told them to stay since we were
going inside. Mahmut’s father and brother got up to greet me with a
warmth that put me at ease. My host poured water from an old, intricately
beaten copper pitcher to wash my hands, catching it afterwards in
a matching wide-rimmed bowl on the ground. Then I was led through to
the main reception room. Mirrors winked behind white stucco tracings
and intricate woodwork. After I took my seat on a floor cushion against
a wall, Mahmut pointed out brass and porcelain family treasures in little
onion-domed alcoves. A feast of dried nuts, fruits and melons lay on
the table waiting to be eaten. The political diet, however, would have
made a Chinese secret policeman choke.
“We can’t get a homeland without bloodshed,” Mahmut declared
matter-of-factly, when I asked him an innocuous question about the
Uygurs’ future. “Back in the 1980s, we might have succeeded with nonviolent
methods. But now it’s too late.”
I had stumbled onto an educated Uygur who could speak candidly
for the Turkic cause. It was a far cry from the caution of Isa Alptekin.
Mahmut had lived abroad for many years. His father began to send his
children to Turkey in the 1960s, just in case the Uygurs were driven
out of Xinjiang entirely. I supposed that it was this familiarity with another
world that made him comfortable confiding some of his more incendiary
thoughts with me. I revealed to him my identity as a writer and assured
him I would not reveal his true name. Our shared fluency in Turkish and
love of Turkey facilitated communication immeasurably.
“Our model should be a violent uprising, like that of the Chechens,”
he continued. I protested that the prospect of an endless, unspeakably
bloody civil war against a powerhouse like China was hardly an appealing
model for national liberation. He shook off my objections. “The
Chinese are frightened of us,” he insisted. “That’s why you can’t see one
of them on the streets after 9 p.m. They never come into our quarter
here. There’s no furniture in their houses! Just one incident, and they’ll
all run away. All the new building you see going on is just for show.”
He paused to allow his words to sink in, and then he proclaimed
gravely, “In fifteen years, either China or communism will have collapsed.
There will either be a democratic China, or we’ll have an independent
A knock on the door from Mahmut’s mother signaled the arrival of
hot food and gave me a moment to collect my thoughts. Mahmut stood
up and brought in the tray. I savored the scent rising from the deep bowls
of coriander-flavored mantı, a kind of ravioli, a dish served throughout
the Turkic world. As we began to eat, Mahmut continued his story. It
was in Turkey, he said, that his nationalist consciousness was born.
While living in Istanbul, he discovered that just a few hundred words
separated Uygur and Turkish. He also found that he felt completely at
home when visiting with other Turkic peoples, such as the Uzbeks. “The
Uzbeks are the same as us,” he maintained as he reached for another
spoonful of food, “The only difference is in the accent. They speak in the
back of the throat, we speak with our tongues.”
Mahmut’s profession as an importer and exporter of goods from
Turkic lands, a rare incarnation of trade along the full length of the “Silk
Road,” seemed to fulfill his dream of Turkish togetherness. From Turkey,
he ordered clothes, which are preferred in Central Asia for their quality
and stylishness over competing Chinese or Pakistani brands. These
arrived by truck and plane in the neighboring Kyrgyz Republic, where an
Uygur partner received them, packaged them and sent them down to
Kashgar over the high mountain passes. In return, appropriately enough,
Mahmut sent back scarves made of silk.
I asked if Mahmut’s trade with other Turkic countries-almost all of
which was conducted illegally-translated into outside support for the
He shrugged his shoulders. “Once we do something,” he said evasively,
“I’m sure we’ll get support. In the meantime, all we ask is that that
other Turkic countries don’t sell us out.”
The portents, though, were not auspicious. Support could once be
counted on from the main Uygur expatriate communities in nearby
Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic. The latter was even home to what
may be the world’s only Institute of Uygur Studies, thanks to past Soviet
indulgence of the Uygurs as a tool against China. But the Soviet Union
was no more and the Central Asian states were vulnerable to pressure
from China. Any Uygurs there had to cease providing aid to the rebels.
Mahmut’s partner had been interrogated and harassed in the Kyrgyz
Republic for giving interviews to a separatist radio station.
Uygur exile groups also existed in Europe, Mahmut said, particularly
Germany, to where Uygur students who joined in China’s 1980s prodemocracy
movement had fled after the massacre in Tianammen Square
in 1989. The Eastern Turkistani Union of Europe claimed at one point
to have thousands of members. But amid accusations of Uygur Islamist
terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, a crackdown by the German authorities
curtailed the group’s ability to raise funds and remit them home.
I mentioned my meeting in Istanbul with Isa Alptekin, who had
complained bitterly at the attention the outside world lavishes on Tibet,
while ignoring the Uygurs. Uygurs are cold-shouldered by Muslims
because they are Turks, Alptekin had said to me, and by the West
because they are Muslims.
Mahmut nodded in solemn agreement, and began to recite the litany
of Uygur protest and Chinese repression. The modern protest movement
was born in 1985, he said, when students demonstrated against Chinese
nuclear testing at Lop Nor, deep in the Taklamakan Desert. Hardliners in
Beijing blamed the “open door” policy of the late 1970s-which liberalized
travel, economic enterprise and mosque-building-for awakening Uygur
national sentiment. Others pointed to the erosion of Russian control over
its Central Asian territories, culminating in the Soviet collapse and rise of
Turkic states. Whatever the cause, the violence in Xinjiang soon escalated.
Riots against discrimination broke out in the late 1980s. Some crowds
chanted the name of Isa Beg, prompting my colleague in Beijing to alert
me in Istanbul to this novel event. Chinese police met them with teargas,
bullets and mass arrests. In 1990, riot police killed up to 50 Uygur protestors
at Baran, south of Kashgar, after the entire town, angered by the
sudden closure of a mosque, had risen in rebellion against Chinese rule.
Uygur nationalists retaliated with attacks against government targets
throughout Xinjiang. The separatists even struck in Beijing, where they
carried out a series of bus bombings in the early and mid-1990s.
When China launched its ‘Strike Hard’ campaign to crush domestic
dissent in April 1996, Mahmut told me, it only strengthened Uygur
hatred of the Chinese. Ten months later, during the Muslim holy month
of Ramadan, Uygurs in the industrial city of Yining staged the largest
demonstrations yet. Though he opposed the murder of civilians,
Mahmut said he had no reservations about attacks on Chinese police or
military targets. The inevitable reprisals, he said, were justified by the
“A lot of young men are ready to die,” he added, abandoning his now
cold bowl of manti and calling to his mother for a new pot of pale green
I had certainly met Uygurs who seemed bitter enough to follow
the old Turkic proverb of suicidal rebellion: “Better to be a wolf for a
day than a mouse for a hundred.” But I doubted it was the case with
Mahmut. He’d had his own share of run-ins with the authorities, who
accused him of helping Uygur rebels. But he seemed far too pragmatic
to jeopardize his comfortable standing for an abstract cause. He couldn’t
even challenge his mother over her decision on a bride, while he preferred
his lover in Istanbul. In many ways, Mahmut seemed more of a
frustrated businessman than a revolutionary.
A distant muezzin sang out the call to prayer, and our conversation
drew to a close. Mahmut and his brother joined the family for prayers
in the courtyard. The father declaimed the Arabic cadences in a deep,
unaffected voice. It was moving to see such natural piety, passed on
from father to son for generations. I was asked to leave soon afterwards.
Mahmut said his mother, who had overheard snippets of our
conversation, was nervous that there might be another police raid on
“We don’t know whom to trust,” he said glumly as he led me to the
door, “There are spies on every corner.”
The Uygur cause could look doomed in perpetuity. It has almost no
foreign support, its diaspora is fractious and far-flung, and the best-
known local Uygur nationalist leader, businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer,
was thrown in jail by China in 1999. She was sentenced in 2001 to eight
years in prison, later reduced to seven, for “providing secret information
to foreigners”—namely, mailing two local newspapers to her husband
abroad. At a meeting in Germany in April 2004, most mainstream exile
opposition groups founded a World Uygur Congress that firmly backed
the late Isa Alptekin’s policy of peaceful struggle to free the people of
East Turkestan. But it still tussled with a rival and more aggressive East
Turkestan Government in Exile, set up a few months later in the United
States. It was small wonder that Isa Alptekin used to lament that the
Uygurs risk extinction, like panda bears.
Still, there was another way of looking at the Uygurs’ chances.
China’s jailing of Kadeer propelled her into Uygur public consciousness,
and the adoption of her cause by groups like Amnesty International gave
her international fame. Powerful outsiders were beginning to take
notice: in 2004, the Uygur Association of America received $75,000
from the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, a first such
grant for an Uygur exile group.
More importantly, China was not winning the hearts and minds of
the Uygurs. Their resistance was not just in the fervor of their prayers or
in gestures like keeping their clocks and watches two hours behind
Chinese standard time on an unofficial “Xinjiang time.” It was a broad
cultural rejection of China that reaches its most vivid and anarchic
apogee each week in the pageant of the Kashgar Sunday Market.
Streams of people begin arriving at dawn, with long queues of donkey
carts from Uygur villages jostling past the usual traffic of Chinese-driven
motor vehicles. Plunging through narrow, dusty alleyways into the
pushing crowds, I felt as if I’d landed in a different century, and, if not a
separate future country, certainly a region and people that showed no
sign of becoming a homogenous part of China.
In fact, I felt that as a Briton I might be culturally closer to the tidy,
westernized Chinese tourists in the market than to the Uygurs, who
were resolutely Central Asian. In a clearing between donkey-cart parks
and animal enclosures, a street circus re-enacted the entertainments of
a medieval Turkic court. An Uygur man with a reedy horn cajoled a boy
tightrope walker through faked stumbles and dramatically petulant
protests. The boy was slowly making his way up a thick cord strung at a
steeply ascending angle from the ground towards two long poles crossed
at their tips. Then came a flatter section of cord to the other end, a tall
mast hung with triangular pennants. It all looked like the rigging of a
sunken galleon. I later came across exactly the same set-up in an early
Ottoman Turkish miniature, portraying celebrations of the circimcision
of one of the sultan’s sons in Istanbul. Pushing deeper into the crowded
market’s amorphous maze of beaten earth streets and clearings, I passed
an eatery built almost entirely of smooth mud bricks. A man fed wooden
branches and old housing beams into blackened holes under cauldrons
cooking on a rough and ready range. Wielding an outsize colander
on a stick as a ladle, he dipped into bubbling mess to serve his customers
bowls of froth and bones. The scene could have been conjured to life
from a Bronze Age archaeological site.
My sense of cultural difference was underlined by the Uygur treatment
of animals. I visited an ill-defined forum where horses were traded,
and found it to be a latterday kind of slave market. Bearded men in
striped gowns and turbans inspected teeth and bargained implacably. I
dodged boy jockeys as they tore round a dusty clearing, testing mounts
for would-be buyers. At other times these boys poked and tormented
horses that were helplessly tethered up to wooden rails. Beside a ramshackle
cart stood a man surveying the scene and chewing slices of
melon. He occasionally passed the rinds on to his donkey to munch on.
But as often as not he followed the gesture with an absent-minded
punch on the animal’s nose. It was all as if the Uygurs wanted to punish
the animal world for the stress of their own lives. In return, a stallion
fixed me with a vengeful stare, then whacked me with a well-aimed kick.
Another horse made a dramatic bid for freedom while its owner was
washing it in the turgid waterway that ran beside the market. Running,
bucking and kicking, the horse valiantly fought for several minutes to
evade re-capture, but to no avail. Peter Fleming, a British traveler
through Xinjiang in the 1930s, was horrified by Uygur attitudes, especially
when he passed a donkey abandoned on the roadside to die of its
hideous sores. “The Turkis are completely heartless with their animals,
whose breakdown is accelerated by callous neglect,” he wrote. Even
today, there is so little trust between man and beast that in order for a
Uygur blacksmith to shoe a horse, he has to suspend it from a great
wooden frame, bound up with slings and rope bonds under its belly.
I retired for the afternoon to a one-room museum near a Muslim
shrine on the outskirts of town, and found that education did not patch
over that sense of Uygur-Chinese separateness. The diminutive Uygur
archaeologist in charge was determined to prove that Uygurs were a fundamentally
separate people as he showed me round the findings from
one of Xinjiang’s many 2,000-year-old tombs. All dated back long before
any putative arrival of Turkic peoples to these desert oases. The centerpiece
of the exhibition was a mummified corpse, which the curator
insisted proved that his homeland lay beyond the Chinese pale. With
growing excitement, he pointed out the Uygur-style leather soles on the
dead woman’s slippers—not Chinese-style layers of fabric, he declared
—and the way her chin and feet were bound with a fabric band, a tradition
that persists among the Uygurs to this day. The painted wooden coffin
also looked like nothing in China.
“Look at the onion-dome shapes! These ancient people were certainly
our ancestors, not the Chinese,” he concluded with a flourish. “We
Uygurs just don’t know our history well.”
But informed Uygurs like him were becoming more common, and
their story was getting out. The Uygur catastrophe of the past half-century
was partly because information about the Uygurs was so scarce, and
there was thus no check on China’s actions. The days are gone when the
Alptekin family’s great victories would be a report handed to a U.S. president
by the Dalai Lama or an invitation to discuss matters at a panel in
a university in Malta. China is opening up to inspection as it integrates
with the world, and, in intellectual circles at least, is becoming more
sensitive to domestic grievances. Both Chinese and international travelers
are visiting Xinjiang as never before. Quite a few of them, to judge by
some professional-looking camera equipment in the Kashgar Sunday
Market, are reporters posing as tourists.
“I used to pin up each article that was published about us and just
gaze at it. Now I can’t keep up. There are just hundreds,” Isa Beg’s eldest
son and political heir, Erkin Alptekin, told me in 2002. Two years
later, he was elected as the first president of the World Uygur Congress,
a stronger new platform that would build on his years as the General
Secretary of the Netherlands-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples
I left Kashgar the next day convinced that rooting out the Turkic
identity of the Uygurs would not be so easy for China as it had been to
destroy the character of Xinjiang’s cities. The Uygurs had preserved their
culture through the worst of what China could do to them. But as I traveled
more widely in Xinjiang, I found that this isolated and embattled
history had left many Uygurs in a brittle, explosive mood.
The first of four Uygur-related extracts from my book on the Turks and the Turkic world.
Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19
God Most High caused the Sun of Fortune to rise in the
Zodiac of the Turks; he called them ‘Turk’ and made them
Kings of the Age. Every man of reason must attach himself to
them, or else expose himself to their falling arrows.
—MAHMUT OF KASHGAR, author of the
first Turkish encyclopedia, 11th century
ONE SPRING DAY TOWARDS THE END OF THE COLD WAR, A TIME OF
surprises, my teleprinter shuddered into action at the Istanbul bureau of
Reuters news agency. A colleague in Beijing was sending a message:
members of an ethnic group called the Uygurs, of whom I had never
heard, were demonstrating in the streets of Urumqi, capital of the
northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. The protesters were
denouncing the communist leadership in Beijing and chanting the name
of an exiled leader said to be living in Turkey, a man named “Isa.” My colleague
had a simple and urgent request: Could I track Isa down?
The strangeness of the message took a few moments to sink in: thousands
of miles from Turkey, in a place I believed to be firmly within the
pale of a monolithic China, demonstrators were risking their lives to
honor the name of a Turk. A quick check revealed that the Uygurs are a
people known as Turkic, an adjective also then unfamiliar to me. I lived
in Turkey, and its inhabitants were until then the only Turks or Turkic
people I knew of. It took several phone calls to lesser-known Turkish
journals and exile associations to track down Isa, the Uygur activist, to
an outer suburb of Istanbul by the Marmara Sea. His family name was
Alptekin, and when he opened the door to his modest apartment, I took
my first step into this new world. Then 87, the tall, dignified Alptekin
had, forty years earlier, led an explicitly Turkic nationalist uprising
against Chinese rule in Xinjiang. His Republic of Eastern Turkestan last-
ed just 14 months. The nearly-blind old gentleman impressed me not
only with his elegant bearing and sharpness of mind, but also by the oldfashioned
language he spoke. Certain turns of phrase hinted at a religious
education in Arabic. Others sounded strangely familiar, a living
echo of the Central Asian ancestors of the Turks of Turkey among whom
It was 1989. The Soviet Union was showing its age, protests were
gathering pace in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall would
soon fall. Cold War-era Turkey was an isolated, lonely place, despite its
loyal membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It was
shunned by co-religionists in the Islamic world for its alliance with the
Christian West, at daggers drawn with its neighbors Greece and Cyprus
and cut off to the north by a whole third of the iron curtain between
NATO and the Warsaw Pact. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991,
all the political boundaries would be redrawn from Albania to the China
Sea. What I did not realize, like many at the time, was that this broad
buffer zone where Europe meets Asia was mostly straddled by Turkic
populations. As a century of restrictions fell away, Turkey suddenly felt
at the center of something, a more exciting and international place to be.
I was hooked, fascinated by this new dimension of the country where I
had chosen to live.
My conversation lasted all afternoon with Alptekin. But it was not
until ten years later that I found my way to his birthplace in Yengisar, on
the edge of the Taklamakan desert in northwestern China, nearly 2500
miles away from where we had talked. By then much had changed. For
one thing, Alptekin himself was dead. But he would not be forgotten; in
the intervening years, the Turks of Turkey became conscious of a new,
wider national identity, shared with more than a dozen Turkic peoples.
They rediscovered Alptekin and his history. A park was named after him
in the historic heart of Istanbul, next to the old Byzantine hippodrome.
When China officiously objected to this honor to a “separatist,” municipalities
all over the country named streets, bridges and monuments in
By the time I reached Alptekin’s Uygurs in China I had spent a
decade criss-crossing the Turkic states and communities that emerged
from the break-up of the Soviet Union. It was my good fortune to experience
at first hand the breaking down of the frontiers that had divided
the Turkic peoples among the West, Russia, China and the Middle East.
Numerous journeys to the booming new capitals and remoter deserts of
Central Asia convinced me that from such roots a wider new Turkic consciousness
is putting up shoots. I listened as Turkic dialects once relegated
to second-class status became state languages, now confidently
dominant on the streets of Baku, Ashgabat and Tashkent.
Unlike their fellow Muslims, the Arabs, the Turkic peoples are lucky
that their interests have largely coincided with the policies of the United
States. Washington made its opening move quickly in February 1992,
when U.S. military flights were allowed for the first time over the airspace
of the former Soviet Union. I was one of a few journalists invited
to join for an inaugural American aid flight from Ankara, over the
Caucasus, the Caspian Sea and then to Tajikistan in the heart of Central
Asia. The U.S. had deliberately routed the flights of this “Operation
Provide Hope” through the Turkish capital in order to underline its wish
that the new states follow the Turkish model of secular government, pro-
Americanism and a market economy. Our plane bore a 26-ton gift of
medicine from Japan, raisins, sugar and cigarettes from Turkey and supplies
of cookies, pasta and vanilla puddings from the U.S. This token
offering was hardly likely to save the ailing and wary Central Asian
republic of Tajikistan where we landed. But aboard the plane’s flight
deck we all knew we were entering a new era, as the enthusiastic,
Russian-accented voices of air-traffic controllers crackled over the radio
to welcome our plane to long-forbidden airspace over Baku, Bokhara and
These enlightened U.S. moves were mostly about preventing post-
Cold War chaos. But the U.S. also single-mindedly led Western nations
in pushing for access to the oil and gas of the Caspian basin—estimates
of proven reserves start at the equivalent of the Gulf of Mexico or the
North Sea—and to develop a strategic Turkic buffer zone between
Russia, China and Iran through which that oil and gas could flow to
Western markets. The European Union, with its own vision of opening
up new markets, offered a program of loans to replace the old Moscowcentric
lines of communication with east-west transit routes. Governments,
companies and international organizations began to treat parts or
all of the Turkic-speaking world as a coherent region of operations, if not
yet a strategically important bloc. And the need to export energy resources
to markets in the West may soon force more cooperation among the
often rival Turkic regimes themselves.
The longer I studied the Turkic peoples, the harder it was to account
for the fact that they had been overlooked for so long. Together, they
constitute one of the world’s ten largest linguistic families, numbering
more than 140 million people scattered through more than 20 modern
states in a great crescent across the Eurasian continents, starting at the
Great Wall of China, through Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, Turkey,
the Balkans, Europe and even a fledgling community in the United
States. The Turkish spoken by its biggest and most developed member,
Turkey, is widely spoken by significant ethnic minorities in European
states like France, Britain, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia
and Romania. They are most prominent in Europe’s most powerful state,
Germany, where Turkish can be heard on every other street corner of the
capital, Berlin. Having brushed against the language in my undergraduate
days at Oxford and having spoken it for nearly two decades, I found
that whether buying a carpet in a bazaar in Iraqi Kurdistan, interviewing
Kosovar refugees high in the mountains of Albania, or discovering a
common language at a conference in Tashkent, fluency in Turkish
offered an invaluable introduction to an exclusive and unusual club. As
a major in the British Army wrote to a fellow officer in 1835, while he
traveled near Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan: “A knowledge of
Persian will aid a traveler in these countries; but the Toorkey [Turkish]
is of infinitely greater consequence.”
The 19th century rise of the West now obscures the historic
prowess of Turkish dynasties, which dominated the Balkans, Middle
East and Central Asia for most of the past millennium. The extraordinary
scope of their success in history inspired me to name this book
evlad-ı fatihan, or sons of the conquerors, an honorific the Turks use for
the colonizer descendants of the Turkic nomad armies who forged one
of the greatest Turkic states, the Ottoman Empire. Turkish historians
trace this tradition back to the ancient armies of the Huns. Arab caliphs
hired tough Turk fighters as mercenaries for the armies of Islam from
the 7th century onwards, and soon afterwards Turkic warriors became
the military backbone of the Muslim world. From the tenth through the
fourteenth centuries, Turco-Mongolian horseback fighters and their
families spread westwards across the Middle East under conquerors
such as the Seljuks, Mamluks, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Then
came the Ottoman dynasty, Turkic raiders who captured Constantinople
in 1453 and who, within a century, had completed their conquest
of the Balkans and marched on to seize the holy cities of Mecca
and Medina, Egypt and most of Arabia. The Ottomans proclaimed
themselves caliphs of the Sunni Muslim world and spread Turkic settlers
far and wide. They ruled over this vast empire for five centuries.
Few people today realize that many other conquerors who seized the
thrones of Iran and India—Mahmud of Gazna, the Safavids, Nadir
Shah, the Qajars, the Moguls—were also of Turkic stock.
Turkic-populated lands have not drawn intense Western interest
since the time they were a chessboard for the rivalries of 19th century
empires. Turkic dominance had turned to weakness and defeat.
Diplomats and monarchs debated the “Eastern Question,” which
focused on whether the Ottoman Empire should be kept on life support
as “the sick man of Europe” or carved up. Moscow and London played a
“Great Game” for power and control over the Caucasus and Central
Asia. In today’s new Great Game, however, the major players and forces
have changed. The U.S., a newcomer, is at the height of its power, and
long-distracted China is now pushing forward. Formerly dominant
Russia is still influential, and Great Britain, once so strong, is marginal.
But another big change is that the Turkic actors, although still weak, are
back in the game, and have to be taken into account. As the U.S. discovered
in the Iraq war in 2003, the Turks cannot be taken for granted.
And the Turkic world stretches like a long bow over what the Pentagon
now describes as “arcs of instability,” its new strategic worry in the post-
Sept 11 world. “We will have to be out acting in the world in places that
are very unfamiliar to us,” a senior Pentagon planner told a colleague at
my newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, in 2003. “We will have to make
This book is the fruit of more than a decade of travel through the
lands of the Turkic-speaking peoples, including extended expeditions
along the ancient tracks that became known in the 19th century as the
Silk Road. I visited communities in a belt of Turkic speakers which, if
one accepts evidence of a Turkic link to the native Indians of America,
literally girdles the globe. They took me from the edge of the Taklamakan
desert in China’s “Wild West” province of Xinjiang to mosques alongside
Dutch canals leading to the North Sea and onward to the Appalachian
Mountains in the western United States. I took many flights, of course,
but I also crossed all their borders in Eurasia overland. I returned to several
places repeatedly and was able to observe dramatic changes. I have
steamed across the Caspian Sea both ways by ship and paid no less than
four visits to the isolated Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan. I have
criss-crossed the Caucasus a dozen times by train, by bus and by car.
It was tempting to start my story in the east, following the great westward
movement of the Turks that started more than a millennium ago
and continues to this day. But having distilled my experiences from more
than 20 countries, of which a dozen merit extended treatment here, I
feared that a travelogue might prove confusing. Instead I have divided
my impressions into six sections that I believe reflect the collective qualities
of the Turkic peoples: their military vocation; their strong, quarrelling
leaders; their shared history and neighbors; their pragmatic experience
of the Muslim religion; their love-hate relationship with the West
over issues like oil, corruption and human rights; and their conviction
that the coming decades must bring better fortunes than the devastating
experiences of the 19th and 20th centuries.
My argument is that Turkic peoples can no longer be treated as marginal
players on the edge of Europe and the Middle East, or crushed
subjects of remote parts of the Russian and Chinese domains, or distant
allies taken for granted by the Europe Union and the United States.
They are becoming noteworthy peoples and prosperous states in their
own right, and are developing numerous new connections between each
other. I hope this book will give a broader context to those who know
Turkic peoples only in one guise: perhaps as minority immigrants in
Europe and America, as go-getting businessmen in Istanbul, as displaced
refugees in the Caucaus, as oil negotiators in Central Asia, or as dissident
rebels in China. I know of few other attempts to put the Turkic peoples
in the center of a narrative frame, and certainly none of this scope.
I believe it reflects the Turkic peoples’ attempts since the end of the
Cold War to set a course to a better future—sometimes breathtaking and
daring, often clumsy and controversial, but always with a passionate
determination to regain control of their fate.