IN the Hexi Corridor, between the mountain ranges of China's arid, north-central Gansu Province, the Great Wall crumbles to an end. The wall's decayed mud-and-stone ramparts outside the town of Jiayuguan bear no resemblance to the grand other end, more than a thousand miles to the east, near Beijing. Tellingly, the territory of the People's Republic that is ethnically Han Chinese ends at the wall. Beyond it, to the west, begins a Central Asian domain that is historically Turkic and Islamic -- a land of terrible desert and desolate massif that stretches to the Caspian Sea and includes the newly independent states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, as well as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, as it is officially called, in China itself.
During a recent visit I huffed and panted my way up a walkway and from there to a watchtower overlooking the wall. I surveyed Jiayuguan, to the south; against the dun-colored Gansu barrens it looked less like a town than like an abandoned jumble of bunkers on the surface of a lifeless planet. To the west I tried to descry the beginnings of Xinjiang, where I was headed.
The region is China's westernmost and largest province, covering a sixth of the country. As a student of Russian history, I have long been fascinated by this landlocked territory, which borders what was for most of this century Soviet Central Asia. Xinjiang seemed to belong neither to China nor to Central Asia: it was not Russian, and it fell outside historically Mogul or Persian territory, beyond even the farthest reaches of the Ottoman Empire. Xinjiang was for me remoter than remote, alluringly enigmatic.
Troubling recent events had rekindled my interest. While China has been experiencing much-vaunted economic growth and social stability over the past decade, Xinjiang has suffered increasingly frequent bouts of separatist violence, much of it provoked by the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and Turkic nationalism (roughly half the population is Turkic), and at times the army has been called in to suppress revolts.
The stakes are high for Beijing. The region contains huge coal and oil reserves -- its oil reserves are believed to be three times those of the United States -- that are only now being exploited. Its size and contiguousness with the new states of Central Asia make Xinjiang a vital strategic arena and a valuable trade passageway. Finally, its sparsely populated expanses are providing lebensraum for the country's burgeoning population; unfortunately, some of these expanses have also served as convenient sites for nuclear testing and prison camps. Xinjiang, in fact, has been called China's Siberia.
I planned to cross Xinjiang from east to west, sojourning in the places where I could learn the most about the region: Turpan, a prospering but tense oasis town wedged between two deserts; Urumchi, reputed to be the capital of prosperity in western China; Ili, the Kazakh border prefecture, where, despite China's rapid development, prehistoric nomadic life was said to flourish still. I would end my travels in Kashgar, a medieval bastion of Turkic national identity so distant that until this century reaching it from Beijing took months.
I left the watchtower, and the wind followed me back to town. For millennia travelers, exiles, and merchants have said their farewells to China in Jiayuguan, and in a sense I did too. Lone cyclists wearing surgical masks against the dust dotted Gansu Highway, the main regional east-to-west thoroughfare; otherwise there was almost no traffic. The setting sun colored the roiling dust clouds orange and rust red. But it was the wind that set the mood, howling in from the desert, recalling a struggle that for eons has pitted men against their environment.
XINJIANG contains some of the harshest, most isolated terrain on earth. The Takla Makan, one of the world's largest deserts, has inspired dread in merchants and travelers since the establishment of the Silk Road, more than 2,000 years ago: "Takla Makan" translates from the Turkic as "You go in and you don't come out." Temperatures hit 120°, and sandstorms can last for days; in the past they frequently caused caravans to lose their way. North of the desert, across the Tien Shan, or Heavenly Mountains, lies the Junggar Basin, a steppe of Siberian aspect where temperatures of -68° have been recorded. The Pamir, Karakoram, and Kunlun Mountains cut off the region on the west and south; to the north and east spread Siberia and the Gobi Desert.
The fortunes of Xinjiang were for centuries intimately connected to the Silk Road, which led from central China through the Hexi Corridor, and then forked around the desert and the Tien Shan to pass through oasis settlements and continue up into the Pamirs and the Karakoram. Two millennia ago the Han dynasty annexed Xinjiang and dubbed it the Western Region; possession afforded the Han a strategic advantage in resisting Hun invasions, and China profited from the Silk Road trade with the Mediterranean and Europe.
Although the Han dispatched soldier-farmers to settle the land, their hold on the Western Region remained tenuous. Around the eighth century Turkic Uighurs poured in from the northern steppes, ousting the Han and establishing khanates. Sometime during the first millennium, the name Turkistan -- "Land of the Turks" -- was coined, and Uighurs today look to that era for affirmation of their claims to sovereignty over Xinjiang. In 1762 the Western Region fell to the Manchu dynasty; a century later it was renamed Xinjiang, or "New Frontier." Eventually the Soviets attempted to assert their influence in Xinjiang. Only in the early 1960s, after the Sino-Soviet split, did Xinjiang come completely under Chinese control.