Nobody speak. A Xinjiang journal.

Why coming here?
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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Terrorism campaign. 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.

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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.

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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.

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43 Responses to Nobody speak. A Xinjiang journal.

  1. richandalice says:

    Evocative and powerful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You go to a lot of places I’ll never visit. This was one of them and your post was absolutely fascinating.
    Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anna says:

    Beautifully written! I died laughing about your Imodium pantomime. Lol. But seriously, this place must be an eye opener to experience for sure. Thanks for sharing with us. X

    Liked by 1 person

  4. lexklein says:

    So exotic. I may have to live this one through you (although I wish that were not the case).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow. This is a sobering read. First let me say that I appreciate your writing and the descriptive paragraphs where you paint the picture of surrounding and innocuous activities all around. You certainly transport us to your neighborhood.

    As for the content, the plight of the hushed Muslim population under constant surveillance is poignant. The intentional drowning of local culture by flooding with Han distant lands, is nothing short of a criminal act. It is a criminal act against not only individuals who wind up in the camps, but as well one against an entire culture. And yet this inexorable destruction by flooding is one that the Chinese government has much practice with, witness Tibet etc.

    One can only hope that there are enough qomuz playing individuals (and all other talented recipients and transmitters of Xinjiang culture) who manage to retain enough of the culture, pass it on to the next generation and survive on the fringe of the surveillance Han culture. Until perhaps a better day when they can become resurgent again.

    On a personal level, man you are patient!! From the hours of lining up at borders to the ridiculous hours long search for where you were sleeping.. I don’t think I could do it.

    Ben

    Liked by 2 people

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Ben, thanks for the super-long comment!

      You’re right, China has great experience in doing the sort of things they’re doing in Xinjiang, and they know how to do it ‘properly’ (In inverted commas). I don’t personally think anything will survive of the old Uyghur way of life. Walking through Ürümqi it was hard to imagine the city had been anything but an ugly Chinese new town; Kashgar and the rest of the region will follow. The Soviet did the same in Central Asia but, unlike the Soviet, the Chinese are efficient.

      As for being patient… I haven’t said anything about the train station! Boy that was hard. And I didn’t even get on a sodding train.

      Fabrizio

      Like

  6. Miguel says:

    Congratulations on your blog. It´s really interesting to read on first sight what´s happening over there and specially when so well written!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A fascinating and heartbreaking post Fabrizio. I’d heard about what was happening to the Uygars, but this first-hand account makes it that much more real.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I can only echo the above comments, Fabrizio. It felt like I was right there with you, but at the same time felt grateful that I was still sitting on my couch. I marvel at your choice of destination, and am grateful for it at the same time, as it gives me a glimpse into a world I will never experience first hand. Seeing it through your eyes touches me in a way a media report never can. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. varasc says:

    Really powerful, evocative and sobering. Always a great reading. Bravo.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dave Ply says:

    “Because it’s there.” That must be quite the compulsion, to go through all that, when there are so many other places in the world to see. If I believed in reincarnation, I’d think something was drawing you back to that part of the world.

    Really well described.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Yes, it’s ‘there’ and… I don’t know, the first time I arrived in Central Asia under a monumental snowfall I thought “this is it”. I felt something ‘click’. Even now that I had my fair share of travels there, seen all that interested me, I’m still wondering… What if? What if I went there again. Thanks for reading Dave.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. James says:

    Fabrizio, I wanted to comment on this a few days ago but honestly didn’t know where to begin. Especially because I am a Hong Konger living abroad and every day I read about the things that are happening to my hometown – the way China is responding to a pro-democracy movement that still enjoys broad support (as evinced by the scale of the “illegal” march last Sunday), even when a minority of protesters resort to vandalism and violence.

    I fear that the present you glimpsed in Xinjiang is the future of my city. I’ve read reports about phones being checked at the border for “suspicious” content, of the top two leaders at Cathay Pacific, our flagship carrier, being fired for not toeing the Chinese Communist Party line, with flight attendants told not to voice support of the protests even outside of work and on their personal social media accounts. I despair at the recent news of the young Hong Kong-born British consulate worker who was detained by Chinese authorities (on spurious grounds) at the shared high-speed railway station INSIDE Hong Kong.

    And it disgusts me to see how the Chinese government is behind a grand disinformation campaign both at home and abroad, spreading untruths that are gobbled up by overseas Chinese students who ought to know better, so they come out in force (using freedoms not available back home) to counter the rallies held in support of Hong Kong all around the world. I was worried the Hong Kong of just 10 or even five year’s time would become like Kashgar, a place where we cannot speak our minds for fear of repercussions, but for the employees of Cathay Pacific, that day has already come.

    Liked by 2 people

    • awtytravels says:

      James, I really feel for you buddy. And for Hong Kong, a city I’ve visited in the wake of the ‘Umbrella’ protests. You guys ought to be a lot angrier than you are; protesters and demonstrators have been a lot more restrained than I’d have been.
      Beijing is afraid of you guys and they’re escalating their tactics. Technology is already frightfully advanced (have you read about that “citizenry point system”?) and I bet that what I saw in Kashgar is just the beginning. Am I optimistic for Xinjiang? No. Sad to say but it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s a Muslim region (so people won’t sympathise too much, let’s say it) and the fact that a few Uyghur dickheads have gone to Syria to join Daesh doesn’t help either. How about Hong Kong? I’m moderately more optimist. The fact that Beijing hasn’t Tienanmen’d it speaks volumes. Hold fast mate.

      Liked by 2 people

      • James says:

        Thank you, Fabrizio. I am very grateful for the support that we have around the world, and that leaders in the West are willing to speak up and pressure Beijing. The idea of the social credit system is deeply alarming for a lot of Hong Kongers and we are pushing back against the installation of what the government is calling “smart lampposts”. I suspect that the PLA hasn’t been called in because of the potential economic fallout – there’s a prevailing theory that military intervention will cause an exodus of investors and great damage to the Chinese economy. Hong Kong is still important as a global financial center, after all, and sweeping Western sanctions on top of the US-China trade war may be too high a cost for Beijing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • awtytravels says:

        Yeah that’d be the only reason… which makes me think that a globalised economy ain’t a bad thing after all! Were it not for it I’m sure we’d be having another Tienanmen..

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Max says:

    I came across your blog for the first time on the Caravanistan forum, and wow – wow. That’s about all I can say. Your writing is so raw, haunting, and real. When it comes to Xinjiang I’ve watched the Vice documentaries and read the New York Times articles and kept up as best I could, but nothing has put it in perspective quite like this. That last line in particular – “On and on he continued, and on and on I sat there, listening to his serenade to a doomed culture.”

    Just wanted to say thank you for doing your best to tell this terrible story as delicately and evocatively as you did. What a dark chapter in Central Asian history, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Only more darkness. You certainly earned a new follower today.

    Like

    • awtytravels says:

      Hey Max, glad you’re here and thanks, thanks a lot, for the kind words. Caravanistan is a mine of information, big up to Steven and Saule for keeping it going. They’re great guys.

      Like

  13. Bama says:

    This is a sobering read, Fabrizio. I’ve been somewhat following the news about Xinjiang, but to read an account written by a regular global citizen like you who saw how this place is and the people are firsthand is very eye-opening, and disheartening. I can’t help but think of the unfair treatment a lot of my fellow countrymen have been perpetrating against the Papuans, the people who we call brothers and sisters when we need something from them (i.e. their rich natural resources), but we look down upon for most of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve been wondering whether I should make this trip or not. Reading your blog has not resolved my problem, but it has added knowledge. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Oof. This is really well written, but also a hard read due to the situation. I’ve read articles about the repression and surveillance in Xinjiang but the details you share about Han people being willing(/able) to chat and Uyghur people not is striking. Scary and sad. But thanks for sharing.

    Like

  16. J.D. Riso says:

    Because it’s there. To see it for myself. Oh how I understand this compulsion. I have done my fair share of wandering into the shadowlands of this planet. It’s called “dark tourism”, but yet it’s so enlightening to observe things for yourself rather than rely on the distortion of the media. Thank you, Fabrizio.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. equinoxio21 says:

    Into the heart of darkness? Why does central Asia attracts you so? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Oh my. What a punch this carries. It may be that the trip owned you but you did well, doorwise too.

    Liked by 1 person

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