Uygurs in China III

Sons cover thumbnailThe 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)



An elephant can crush an ant with one footstep. But an

ant inside an elephant’s trunk can madden it to death.

—Uygur proverb


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

to Istanbul.

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

the ground.

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

the country.

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 country.”

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,”

he said.

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:

“Mister B.B.C.”

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

and steppe.

  1. Hugh
    April 16, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Reblogged this on From the archive.

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