Uygurs in China II
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.