China's Wild West

In the terrible desert and desolate massif of Xinjiang, the Beijing government faces a volatile mixture of ethnic groups, some of whom are hostile to all that is Chinese.

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.

A boran tears through Turpan.

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.

THE train was to take me from Jiayuguan to Turpan, along a rail line that follows what was the northern branch of the Silk Road through the charred gravel at the edge of the Takla Makan Desert, where topsoil temperatures can reach 150°. By evening the sun, hanging low in a red-gray sky, was burning obliquely across salt flats and blackened rock barrens. In the villages women scarved against the blowing dust led camels loaded with water from the wells.

Turpan is the hottest, and lowest, place in China. Its population of 200,000 is three-fourths Uighur; the majority farm wheat and raise grapes in the irrigated suburbs. Beyond the suburbs stand majestic ruins dating from the Middle Ages, when Turpan thrived on Silk Road trade and was one of the region's most advanced centers of civilization. An awareness of past greatness enhances the Uighur sense of identity today.

Because of the heat, Turpan comes alive only at night. One evening I walked its main drag, Qingnian Street, with Yusup, a Uighur studying economics at the university in Urumchi, 115 miles away. With his square jaw, high forehead, and searching eyes, he had the relaxed mien of an aristocratic Turk and, in fact, was learning Turkish (we spoke in a combination of Turkish and English). But as we moved through the crowds, he spat at the ground after passing any Han, and he railed against the economic migrants arriving every day from the provinces to the south. In 1949 only 200,000 Han lived in Xinjiang, making up four percent of the population; now the number is approaching eight million, out of a total of 18 million.

Yusup should have been the very model of the assimilated Uighur that the state-run media like to present as proof of China's unity; unlike most Uighurs, he speaks and writes Chinese fluently, and would thus have a good chance of finding remunerative work anywhere in China. Instead he seethes with resentment. "We have too many Chinese here -- too many, and more keep coming," he said. "The Chinese have no religion; they are infidels. We look to Turkey and Iran and Arabia. We do not look to Beijing. Islam is our law."

But Islam is not the law in Turpan: we soon spotted a beer garden off the central square. I wondered if I would offend Yusup by suggesting that we stop for a soft drink, but before I could ask, he grabbed my arm and led me to a table. With an imperious snap he ordered two beers from the Chinese waiter. The place was filled, in fact, with Uighurs drinking alcohol.

"My parents are Muslims and don't drink," he said, gulping his beer. "But I drink only a little." He told me that his lifelong ambition has been to make a pilgrimage to Mecca to affirm his faith. After a moment of silence he leaned toward me, looked in both directions, and whispered, "This land is not Xinjiang, and it never was! This land is East Turkistan. But I am talking too much, and this is dangerous." He suddenly excused himself and took leave of me, though not before we had agreed to meet the next day.

Yusup was right to be cautious. For such talk -- for using the term "Turkistan," laden with Islamic and separatist connotations -- he could conceivably be arrested and dispatched to a labor camp without trial. The Beijing authorities have ascribed Uighur separatism to ideology born in mosques and private Islamic schools, and have closed many of both in the past two years. They are particularly sensitive about "Turkistan," which historically referred to much of Central Asia. With the exception of two short-lived rebel republics of Eastern Turkistan, in the 1930s and 1940s, there has never been a state by this name in Xinjiang.

Yet Islamic though Yusup's rhetoric was, most of his habits appeared to be secular. The next afternoon shopkeepers were hurrying to lower their awnings and fasten their shutters as I went to meet Yusup, on Qingnian Street. A fierce wind was blowing in from the desert -- lashing at political banners, rattling windows and doors, knocking people off their bicycles. The sun was sinking in a sky turned ash-gray from the dust. We walked along holding handkerchiefs in front of our mouths and noses.

"In Uighur we call this the boran," Yusup said -- a sandstorm wind. He paused to leer at a pair of passing Chinese women. "I don't like girls," he blurted through his handkerchief.


"I mean, I don't like girls because I am ashamed of them. Islam does not allow us to have girlfriends. I must not have contact."

By the time we reached the basement karaoke bar to which Yusup had invited me, the boran had worsened. Drivers had switched on their headlights, and the wind was ripping vines from their trellises. Down in the bar a few Chinese teenagers horsed around in front of a video screen, howling out the lyrics illuminated at the bottom. Yusup looked at the group; Chinese women were biaozi, or "sluts," he said. He asked the disc jockey to play a Uighur tune. The languid Turkic melody drove the Chinese from the floor -- the desired effect. Soon, beer in hand, Yusup had struck up a conversation with a young Kazakh woman, asked her for a dance, taken her phone number, and invited her on a date.

The rest of the evening served to emphasize something I encountered throughout Xinjiang: young Uighurs, educated in Chinese institutions, were following the Han in accepting Western pop culture and mores. Islam forms the basis of Uighur identity, to be sure, but modernizing, secular layers are gradually accruing. Xinjiang's Uighurs may well come to feel as torn between East and West as many Turks are today. Rent by the contradiction between Islamic traditions and acquired Western mores, and split along educational and generational lines, they will be more easily controllable by Beijing.

THE boran had abated slightly by the time Ileft for Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang, but not before taking its toll. In two days it had killed three people and 5,000 farm animals, wiped out more than 66,000 acres of crops, and caused $12 million in damage. Such losses were not considered extraordinary. Borans are accepted as routine in a region where the climate wreaks havoc as often now as it did a thousand years ago.

The boran had put a halt to all bus traffic out of Turpan, so I had to take the train to Urumchi from nearby Daheyan. I rode in a yinzo, or fourth-class car, like most of the approximately 300,000 Han who immigrate to Xinjiang every year. My train had originated in the central province of Shaanxi and had been creaking northwest for days, filled to capacity with Mao-jacketed proles dozing on their suitcases and thick-knuckled peasants nodding over baskets of cabbage and leaky sacks of rice. They were all on their way to Urumchi too.

In Jiayuguan I had met a young Chinese businessman named Shu, who earned a good living by buying up consumer goods in Urumchi and selling them in provincial towns. He traveled first class, wore a silk suit and gold rings, and frequently consulted his pager; he was exactly the kind of prosperous Han merchant that Uighurs love to hate. Uighurs have voiced bitter resentment that the immigrant Han benefit from China's economic reforms more than they do; envy as much as religion has sparked anti-Chinese riots across the region. Yet it was impossible not to have sympathy for the Han masses traveling in the yinzo. Poverty and overcrowding, not greed, were driving them from their homes to Xinjiang.

As we left the desert and climbed the slopes out of the Turpan bowl, the boran diminished further, and the spirits of the passengers lifted. Soon verdant mountains and pastures and flocks of sheep began to appear; the air rushing in from the open windows turned fresh and was free of dust. But a commotion arose at the end of the car: a white-smocked attendant was shouting "Zou! Zou!" ("Clear the way!") as she shoveled a two-foot-high pile of beer cans, plastic-foam cups, plastic bags, peanut shells, and wastepaper down the aisle, displacing passengers. A second attendant opened the car door, and the sudden draft sent a tornado of rubbish whirling back onto us all; the door was slammed shut and the rubbish re-collected. Then the attendants shoveled the rubbish through the door on the other end into the pastoral idyll outside. Plastic bags blew into the cedars and caught on the branches. Cups rained onto the grazing sheep.

Minutes later there were shouts of the Chinese name for Urumchi: "Wulumuchi! Wulumuchi!" A teenager had sighted the skyscrapers and cranes of the capital. A half hour later we were rolling through shantytowns to the station.

Urumchi ("Beautiful Pastureland" in Mongolian) is now a boomtown, enriched by commerce in oil and coal and by Beijing's selection of the city as a trade zone spared normal taxes -- a kind of landlocked port, and a city of dreams for the Han. Centuries after the Tang dynasty populated the Urumchi area with soldier-farmers, the Chinese state continues to sponsor immigration: the city's population has increased seventeenfold in the past fifty years, to almost 1.5 million. Han compose 80 percent of the citizenry, with Uighurs, Huis (Chinese Muslims), Kazakhs, and White Russians making up most of the rest.

With good reason Beijing has sought to anchor Urumchi firmly in China by means of immigration; if it had not done so, Urumchi might well have slipped into Soviet hands decades ago. After consolidating Soviet power in Central Asia, Stalin turned his attention to Xinjiang, where Chinese government control had never been strong. Uighur and Han warlords proved amenable to trading with and receiving military aid from the Soviet Union, until the Sino-Soviet split put an end to Soviet influence. Still, Russian signs hang from buildings in Urumchi, Russian is a common second language, and local Uighurs look back on the era of semi-Soviet rule with a moist eye, feeling more affinity with the Russians than with the Chinese.

From afar, Urumchi's construction cranes and skyscrapers dazzle the eye. Up close, one sees that the cranes are idle and the skyscrapers stand half finished in mud lots without sidewalks. Jeeps, Audis, and Mercedes bustle through the streets, but many have tied-on fenders or cracks in their windows. Stores selling authentic Rolexes and Longines glitter -- but are usually empty. Within sight of the Holiday Inn and the Rock'N'Roll Cafe, on prime downtown real estate, one encounters the kind of vendors that crowd the streets of any Third World city.

The popularity of the Russian Market, near the neighborhood of Min Yuan, serves as an indicator of the true state of the economy. Crowds pick through piles of fake Omega and Russian-made McLenin watches, imitation Ray-Ban sunglasses, sturdy military binoculars, Uzbek textiles -- everything that can be made or counterfeited cheaply in the former Soviet Union. The Han migrants I talked to on average earn the equivalent of just over fifty dollars a month. Though this contrasts favorably with the twenty or thirty dollars they would earn in the poorer provinces from which they come, it is still far below workers' salaries on the prosperous eastern coast.

I walked the Russian Market and met Xinhe, a fleshy Russian-speaking merchant in his thirties. Xinhe was born in Urumchi, a few years after his parents arrived, in 1958, on the back of a truck from Gansu. He was doing relatively well as a trader, turning a profit of $300 or $400 a month by shuttling between Almaty and Urumchi, taking clothes to sell in Almaty and using the money he earned to buy electric razors and tools for resale in Urumchi. He looked tired. Now more than ever, he said, he was living day to day, and recent murders by the Russian mafia of two Chinese merchants in Almaty worried him. Urumchi no longer inspired him, and he was pinning his hopes on starting up a business in Siberia. When, after glancing at the counterfeit watches in trays around us, I told him of the genuine Rolexes on sale in the city center for thousands of dollars, his jaw dropped. "I barely have enough to feed my family," he said. "Even with [Deng Xiaoping's free-market] reforms we just get by. I have no savings, nothing at all, and I have a daughter to feed and a wife. If one of my trips goes wrong, I'm wiped out." Only to those raised in the poverty of the central provinces could Urumchi be a city of dreams.

WITH a population of about 900,000, the Turkic and Islamic Kazakhs are the third most numerous ethnic group in Xinjiang; they have been granted three autonomous zones within the Uighur Autonomous Region. The officially recognized status of autonomy confers upon minority peoples such as the Uighurs and the Kazakhs a number of rights, the most important of which is the right to use native languages for purposes of education and broadcasting -- though Beijing imposes restrictions on content. The largest of these zones is Ili, 167,000 square miles of steppe and mountain bordering Kazakhstan. Herdsmen have been driving their sheep, goats, and yaks across this land for millennia. The Kazakhs, unlike the Uighurs and the Han, are for the most part nomadic, migrating with their flocks from season to season, living in stone huts during the winter and in felt yurts in summer. China has for decades been officially discouraging the wandering life, deeming it unproductive and backward. Statistics are unavailable on how many still lead it, but figuring in the Mongols, one may hazard a guess of about a million people on the move.

I traveled from Urumchi to Sayram Lake, in the Tien Shan, to meet a few Kazakh people; I was curious to get an idea of how they differed from the Uighurs, and to find out how they regard rule from Beijing, in view of their proximity to independent Kazakhstan. Chocolate-colored mountains streaked with snow and riddled with glaciers jutted into cloud banks; in the foothills, where the bus left me off, stone huts hunkered over dun earth. Even here Han and Uighurs had set up roadside shops and restaurants. My self-appointed and unpaid guide, Chen, was Chinese, originally from Gansu, and the owner of a small general store I had noticed when I got off the bus. Chen was in his thirties, and though he spoke only Chinese (which I could mostly understand), he had emblazoned the walls of his store with Uighur and Kazakh advertisements in Arabic script.

Chen led me up a hillside from which I surveyed the lake, which was frozen; the early-spring weather had not yet warmed, and the Kazakhs were still living in stone huts. Outside one we met Mapan, a Kazakh in his fifties. Shooing sheep out of our way, he invited us in. We sat cross-legged on carpets spread over a stone floor in a raised part of the hut; on the walls hung kilims blackened with soot from the wood stove. Mapan ordered his wife to serve us. She boiled tea and spooned in goat's milk. She had only a few teeth and was sinewy and solid. Mapan himself was leather-skinned. He sat lethargic in layers of wool clothing, his eyes half-closed under a wool cap.

His wife dumped a sack of petrified bread crusts on the table. Chen and I sipped our tea, sour from the goat's milk, dipping crusts to render them edible. In thick-tongued Chinese, Mapan told me about the seasonal movements of his sheep and oxen and about raising his seven children. The family had no radio, no television; time seemed to be standing still. Political issues apparently did not matter to people who lived with animals and roamed the hills.

One teenage son, ruddy and silent, came in and popped a tape into an ancient cassette player. The singer was Rozymbayeva, from Kazakhstan -- a rare intrusion from the world beyond China's borders. I asked Mapan and his son what kept young people in the village. What did they do for fun?

"Well," Mapan said, "we have the [annual] Feast of the Sacrifice. We slaughter a lamb and, well, we eat this lamb." A silence followed. Many of the young, not surprisingly, are settling in the town of Ili.

Later, in Chen's general store, a concrete hovel that lacked the insulation provided by the stone and the carpets of Mapan's hut, I asked Chen how he got along with the Muslim Kazakhs. He shrugged cheerfully. He socialized little with them, content just to provide them with goods (liquor, sweets, clothes -- especially liquor) that they would otherwise not have. His needs were as modest as those of his customers.

Genghis Khan once rampaged through Ili, heading west. Now, 800 years later, traveling across the great plateaus of the Tien Shan on my way to Kashgar, I saw his Mongol descendants, along with Kazakhs, still driving yaks up into the lairs of snow leopards and ibex.

I BEGAN my journey across Xinjiang at the end of the Great Wall. I finished it in Kashgar, a few hundred miles west of which stands another kind of wall -- the natural barrier formed by the Pamir and Karakoram Mountains, ranges of snowbound peaks that are the end of Xinjiang and of the People's Republic of China itself. Beyond this barrier lie the historical centers of Islamic civilization, in Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Another boran whipped me along on my way to Kashgar. Clouds of dust browned out the noon sky as my bus rattled along the road bordering the Takla Makan Desert, prompting the driver to turn on his headlights and even, on occasion, to halt when the wind buried the pitted asphalt in sand. By the time we reached Kashgar, we were covered with dust and choking on it, shaking it from our pockets and wallets and hair.

Kashgar, 2,500 miles west of Beijing, seems more than anywhere else in Xinjiang to belong to a different country. Though the Han controlled the city 2,000 years ago, for much of its history it has been dominated by Mongol and Turkic khans. In the nineteenth century Kashgar became a focus of the Great Game -- the clandestine struggle between the British Empire and Russia for Asia. Since then Beijing's authority has been firmly established, but the Chinese have never caught up demographically: 75 percent of the 200,000 Kashgaris are Uighurs. Uighurs in Xinjiang consider Kashgar a bastion of tradition, the most Uighur of Uighur cities. Islam-inspired Uighur separatists in Kashgar have set off bombs, rioted, and murdered government officials.

KASHGAR'S main event, the Yekshenbe Bazari, or Sunday Bazaar, dates back 2,000 years. It is a gathering of medieval aspect, a hurly-burly of trade conducted by 100,000 Uighurs from surrounding villages.

Well before I reached the bazaar grounds, by way of a bridge across the Tuman River, I could see the dust kicked up by legions of donkeys, rickshaws, and customers. Soon I came upon rows of stands where villagers were buying clothes and selling peppers, doling nuts into sacks, sampling spices. Pyramids of apples stood next to piles of figs. Men haggled over goats, women over cloth. You could find someone to break a horse or geld a stallion in the market; you could buy a sheep whole or assemble a slaughtered one from its component parts; you could have a molar pulled by a toothless dentist with iron tongs and blackened fingernails.

I walked farther into the melee. A boy was selling a brown drink of sorts from a bucket at his feet. An ox ambled over beside him and, sniffing a pat of dung, released a powerful stream of urine into the dust; it splattered copiously into the drink, and the young vendor scrambled to find a lid to cover the bucket. Later I watched him sell cups of the brew to villagers.

The more I saw of the market, the more I became convinced that tradition will work against the separatists. Illiteracy and fatalism render effective mass opposition unlikely. Riots and political murders cannot do the work of the sustained, sophisticated political campaign -- both domestic and foreign -- that would be necessary to force the Chinese to withdraw from Xinjiang. Well organized and in possession of powerful military and internal-security systems, they will do all they can to hold on to the region, and will go on creating facts on the ground by settling it with Han. There is no one to stop them.

Yet the roots of Xinjiang's trouble do not derive entirely from Chinese rule. History and geography have slighted the region, leaving it on the periphery of Islamic as well as Chinese civilization and far from the invigorating, progressive influence of the West or the developed East. Xinjiang's very remoteness -- the quality that had drawn me to it -- will effectively assure its continued status as China's vassal.

Later, as the call to prayer rang out above the market, I made my way back to the center. A boran was rising once again, and it would soon blot out the emerging stars and moon.

Jeffrey Tayler lives in Moscow. His first book, was published last year. He is at work on a book about traveling the Congo River.

Photograph by Jeffrey Tayler.

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; China's Wild West - 99.09; Volume 284, No. 3; page 22-29.