I loathe the term dark tourism. Yet why am I here? I’m not an activist, a journalist, somebody with a higher sense of purpose.
My only answer is because it’s there. Because I want to see it with my own eyes. Make of that what you want.
Entering Xinjiang by land is not easy, but Irkeshtam Pass promised to be the easiest way in. So one day I gave it a go, a thousand truckers my only company. Uzbek and Kyrgyz lorry drivers queue for days for the chance to enter China and fill their European knock-off trucks with made-in-PRC goods. Bumper-to-bumper, they covered the entire road to customs and beyond.
Kyrgyzstan bode a misty-eyed adieu with its best spectacle of snow-capped mountains and pastures. By 9 AM I left that wonderfully hospitable country; it’d be another 10 hours before I reached Kashgar, 180 kms and 15 checkpoints away.
PSC. Patience, Smiles, Compliance is the mantra for this journey. You’ll need to comply with all the rules, even when they’re clearly pointless – such as the soldiers hand-writing your passport details 10 meters after passing immigration. You’ll need patience, for there are checkpoints every 30 kilometres on the 90-km journey between customs and the city of Kashgar and, at each one of them, the cops will behave as if this is the first time anyone in China has seen you. And you’ll need to smile, even when all you want to do is dish out Glaswegian kisses to the cop who’s crumpling your passport pages and to the Han fella who’s cutting in the queue. I’ve had my fair share of idiotic borders, but this one takes the biscuit.
The Irkeshtam Pass crossing was a day of tension, uncertainty, fatigue and frustration. But it was also the day when I found myself singing Toto Cotugno with Rakhmat, an Uzbek lorry driver. Or when I hitched a ride with a Chinese border patrolman. It was the day when I read a few pages of Peter Robb’s excellent A Death in Brazil, feeling very much like J.K. Rowling at one of her public outings,to an audience made of three Chinese police officers, none of whom spoke English. During that day a border officer called me “No. 1 cool guy”, which I took as a compliment, and my mime antics – how else do you explain what is Imodium for? – caused a policewoman to laugh so hard that she cried.
Kashgar, when I eventually got there, had the longest sunsets I’d ever seen. China’s idiosyncrasies force this corner of the country – closer to Baghdad than to Beijing – to work on the latter’s time. It’s tea time in Kyrgyzstan but people in Kashgar are sitting down to dinner. Sun doesn’t set until well past eleven in the evening.
My hotel is one of the few that accept foreigners and allows bookings online; perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to find. Its advertised location yields only a hand-painted sign and not much more. A few hours of search and I find it under another name and in a different location; by the time everything is said and done I’ve got barely the energy to walk up to the statue of Mao. The old mass murderer is still there, waiving his hand at the electric scooters.
Mornings in Kashgar start with a via crucis of riot vans. In groups of three, white-and-blue Ivecos cruise the main roads of the new town in a cacophony of sirens. The troubling aspect of this parade is that it goes at near-walking pace. I watch them from the stairs of the hotel, cruising slowly, their cabins bulging with cops. I ask the only person who speaks English, a young receptionist, what’s the purpose of that spectacle. “To wake up drunk Muslims” is the reply. I sense a language barrier issue here, or at least I hope there is.
Cops are as ubiquitous, here, as drug ads are on American TV. They stand guard, in twos and twos, at every corner. They walk patrols in groups of three or more. Dressed in black with a black helmet, one of them carries a riot shield whilst the others handle a rifle or the strangest array of tools I’ve ever seen in the hands of an officer of the law: pitchforks, pikes, long metal poles and something that can only be described as a clamp mounted on a stick.
Note the police vehicle and checkpoint on the right.
If it’s not cops it’s local security guards in oversized flak jackets and tin helmets. If it’s not security guards it’s soldiers. They appear in the afternoon, groups of lean men who walk with rifles in their hand and an angry expression. They have bayonets mounted on the guns’ barrels. And if it’s not them it’s cameras. CCTVs are adorned with the same blue logo that is painted on police cars, they come in every size and shape and they are everywhere: hanging from trellis, perched atop a pole, sticking out of a wall. A 100-metre stretch of Jiefang road is eyed by 18 cameras, and it’s only on one side of the boulevard. The All-Seeing-Eye exists indeed.
Kashgar is like an onion. Peel the layers of tall tenements and wide boulevards and you’ll end up with a core of tightly-knit roads; a bundle of homes backing up into each other, of streets too narrow to drive through. The Old Town.
The city centre has been restored, cleaned up, sanitized and that’s for the better. There’s none of that sweet stench of putrefaction that punches your nostrils in places like Osh or Dushanbe, where a skip has been filled with garbage left cooking for days under the sun. Chinese efficiency means smooth roads and sanitation. Even here.
I feared Disneyland but I find none. The adobe homes of the Old Town haven’t been turned in B&Bs or organic soap shops: they’re inhabited by families, mostly Uyghur and Kyrgyz. Potted plants embellish most corners, vines climbing up on trellis. Stickers, of the kind you find in cereal boxes, have been plastered on the walls. Kashgar’s Old Town is alive with playing kids, watchful elders, silent cats, small shops selling household items and tandoori ovens baking the same round lepyoshka bread I bought in Osh to sustain me on the road to here. I bet, though, that’s not how they call it over here.
The problem is I can’t ask anyone. I wish I could ask someone. In fact, I wish I could talk to someone. But it’s impossible: at times, Kashgar feels like being a cop in a dodgy neighbourhood after a mob hit, but with a difference. This isn’t omertà. This smells like something else.
Xinjiang’s Party chief is a man called Chen Quanguo and he’s a man on a mission. It’s called Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorismcampaign. And let me be absolutely clear: despite the unconscious bias of Western media that deploys the term between brackets, there is a terrorism issue in Xinjiang. And no matter how despicable is Beijing’s conduct here: there’s no way to defend suicide bombings or knife attacks. What applies to London Bridge must apply to Kunming too.
What’s different with London Bridge, though, is Chen’s policy. He’s not just fighting terrorism. He’s on a mission to make Xinjiang more Chinese: on one hand through the resettlement of millions of Han; on the other by implementing “Modern culture”.
The pursuit of modern culture forbids Uyghurs to study their religion, to wear a headscarf, to sport a beard longer than the stubble I have, to refrain from eating pork, to go on the Hajj pilgrimage or to give their children names that “exaggerate religious fervour”. In Xinjiang, then, new-borns cannot be called Mohammed.
Transgressions are punished heavily. According to China’s own data, Xinjiang – 1.5% of the Republic’s population – does 21% of all arrests. And these are the lucky guys and gals. Those less fortunate enter the shady and terrifying world of concentration camps that are said to be holding tens of thousands without trial or sentence.
Central Asians are the chattiest people on the planet. I’ve been everywhere in the region, from the steppe of Kazakhstan to the mountain desert of Tajikistan, from lake Issyk Kul to Bukhara, and I guarantee that if you walk through their cities, board their trains, eat in their restaurants people will talk to you. Regardless of whether you want it or not, whether you speak the lingo or not, the Central Asians will stop and chat with you. Their Uyghur cousins, with whom they share history faith and language, don’t.
People around town talk in hushed tones. Everyone looks but, if I put my right on the heart and wish them “As-salaam alaykum” as it’s the custom in the Kyrgyz mountains not far from here, no one replies “Wa’ alaykum-as salaam”. I receive nods, smiles, but no words. Perhaps I’m using the wrong words. Perhaps they’re the Parisian waiters of Central Asia.
It’s at that time that I begin noticing the mosques. There are dozens of them – somewhere I read that Kashgar had almost 150 of them – but every single one of them was padlocked shut. Only Id Kah, the Friday mosque, wasn’t but had the looks and feels of a museum. A madrasah, sporting the same delicate pillars decorated with muqarnas as Bukhara’s Bolo Haouz mosque, lied abandoned too, its courtyard used as a parking lot for those electric buggies that ferried tourists around.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
I came to Kashgar doubting that I’d ever see the signs of the implementation of ‘modern culture’ in Xinjiang, but here they are, plain for me to see, in the Old Town. Mosques aren’t only places of worship: they are culture centres, hubs for networks of mutual help and places where the community can come together. Closing them cripples the community and sends a message: the old ways are out; including the salutes. Fear, indeed.
There are no qualms about talking with the foreigners when I want to converse with the Han. Language remains a barrier, but anyone who speaks English will happily do so with me. Tourists on a country-wide bike tour. A bank clerk. The hotel’s receptionist: hindered only by vocabulary and accent, conversation flows freely over beers and shared fruits. Starved as I was of human contact, those moments became my daily highlights.
It’d be unfair to be harsh against my interlocutors, to blame them for the Uyghur’s plight. To protest against the treatment of Xinjiang’s indigenous peoples requires one to be aware of the situation, to know that someone – say a judge – will act on it and that you won’t suffer any retribution at the hand of the state. Nobody in China has all that. What they have, today in Xinjiang, is security and the knowledge that they won’t risk being bombed or stabbed, and they’re grateful for that. I wish I could ask their thoughts on whether security must forcibly pass through the destruction of Xinjiang’s cultures, and there are times I’m on the verge to do so. But then I see the cameras or a police roadblock. There’s a difference between courageous and stupid.
I leave after almost a week. I had plans to explore further, to travel to Turpan; but trains are full and, when I manage to snag a ticket, the train doesn’t appear. Or is delayed. Who knows. Defeated I leave the station after hours of queuing and fly to Urumqi. Mildred Cable said, in 1942, that the town had “no beauty, no style, no dignity and no architectural interest”. It hasn’t changed much since then. Stranded, I follow the tip of two cops and end up at the Hilton, emptying my budget in a town of taxi drivers who almost go out of their way to con me. Sometimes you own a trip, sometimes it owns you. This is that time.
I fly to Almaty. As the plane soars above the Tien Shan I’m reminded of a scene I’ve seen in the Old Town. A girl with incredible yellow-green eyes sprayed water on the plants embellishing a small piazza, just a couple of benches between the adobe buildings. On the other side of the square was a man sitting on a chair outside his antiques shop. He sat with his shoulders to the piazza, the street and the world, his feet stretching out on the steps leading into the shop, playing an instrument that looked like a very long lute. A qomuz. Shoulders to a world that either was busy destroying his culture or didn’t care if it happened, the lone man played his qomuz in an endless, delicate jam. On and on he continued, and on and on I sat there, listening to his serenade to a doomed culture.