Travels on the Silk Road
October 1st is a national holiday in China. It is Chinese Independence Day. Not only is it a holiday for a day, but for a whole week! The Chinese have 7 days off to celebrate! Our school follows this in its calendar, so we had a chance to travel to Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in west/northwestern China, the first week of October. It is a fascinating place!
We flew to Urumqi (“oo-roo-moo-chi”), the capital of the Region and on to Kashgar, a 2000 year-old city, at the confluence of two branches of the old Silk Road, where camels in caravan carried spices, silk, from China west to the Middle East, Turkey, and Europe. Marco Polo traveled through here 900 years ago, and wrote about it in his journal.
As you can see, Xinjiang is as far west as you can go in China. Our traveling from Shanghai to Kashgar (also called Kashi), Xinjiang, was like traveling from New York to Los Angeles in distance.
One of the interesting things about China is that it has one time zone, Beijing Time, so, being all the way in the far west, meant the sun came up about 9 am, and went down about 8:30 pm! That does something to one’s “timeclock.” Even though we were on our usual time, we found ourselves waking up later and later, as it was still dark out! The locals did have their own “local time,” which was 2 hours behind Beijing Time, so we had to always ask, “Is the time local time or Beijing time?”
As you can see from the maps, Xinjiang is near to the ‘Stans-Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan… and just a “stone’s throw” from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The people who live in Xinjiang are the ethnic group called the Uygurs (“Way-gurs,” also spelled Uighurs, Uyghurs). They are predominately Muslim, of Turkish descent, and have a much different look from Han Chinese. Notice in the pictures that follow.
The women are covered, some almost completely, as you can see in the pictures. Many wear beautifully colored scarves on their head and over the lower half of their face, and even wear sunglasses over their eyes. We noticed some women have incorporated the white face-mask worn by many here in Asia, as part of their covering.
We saw there were different groups within the Uygurs, as some came from Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, or Kyrgyzstan.
The Uygurs have been at odds with the Han Chinese at times in history. They wanted to and briefly formed their own country Turkestan in the 1800s, again talked of an independent East Turkestan in the 1930s and 1940s. Prior to the time that Communist China formed in 1949, the Chinese in power convinced the Uygurs to give up ideas of separatism, in return for having more autonomy over the region (hence the name Autonomous Region). It then was the Chinese social goal to send Han settlers to the west, which has diluted the Xinjiang Uygur population from about 90% then, to today, less than 50% (Lonely Planet China Guide). This has led to obvious tension between the Uygurs and the Han. You may remember demonstrations for a Uygur state in the news in this part of China in 2008 before the Olympics, (followed shortly after by similar “Free Tibet” demonstrations in Tibet), and more riots in 2009 in Urumqi where many Uygur people were killed or injured. There has been more or less martial law in Xinjiang since then, and there is a strong military presence (Lonely Planet China Guide). We were told (in our guidebook and by our guides) not to take any pictures of soldiers while there. We saw a few soldiers while there, but did not feel their presence overwhelming.
The Chinese have not allowed any separatist ideas for a number of reasons. Xinjiang is rich in mineral and energy resources (iron ore, coal, oil, natural gas), so it wants to hang on to this region. The region acts as a “buffer zone” against any influx of influence/ideas from groups like the Taliban from Pakistan or Afghanistan. China also has in place a “Develop the West” campaign that has been going on since 2000. We saw a lot of this industrial development going on.
The whole Region has a spectacular varied landscape, with huge glacier-covered mountains, the Karakoram Range (part of the Himalayas), deserts like the Taklimakan, and agricultural areas where much is grown (even though there is little rainfall, there are rivers and some sort of aquifer). More to come on Xinjiang’s landscape in the next entry.