Uygurs in China II

51Q02AWQ0EL._SS128_SH35_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)



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


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

through labor.”

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

nationalist cause.

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

greater cause.

“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

their home.

“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.

  1. Hugh
    April 16, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Reblogged this on From the archive.

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