Xinjiang – China’s Muslim west

By Razi Azmi

The Uighur language is written in the Arabic script, although it is a variant of Turkish which is now written in the Roman script. Uighur too was written in the Roman script from 1969 to 1983, when China’s leader Deng Xiaoping very cleverly restored to the Uighur Muslims their beloved Arabic script. The Uighurs rejoiced, oblivious to the fact that the loss of the Roman script deprived them of their natural advantage in learning English compared to their Han Chinese compatriots.

Kashgar has a provincial look although the airport is fairly large and modern. The city is predominantly Uighur, unlike the provincial capital Urumchi, which is a burgeoning, busy metropolis where the ethnic Han Chinese predominate. Western tourists converge on the Chini Bagh hotel in Kashgar, while Pakistani “businessmen” can be seen hanging around in lesser hotels in their favourite shalwar kameez.

My local guide in Urumchi, a fluent English-speaking Uighur Muslim, told me with some trepidation that the Pakistanis had a very bad reputation, being regarded as uncouth and aggressive and always ready to make advances to local women, no matter their thick and long beards and Islamic pretensions.

It was late July and the markets and pavements were full of grapes, peaches and many varieties of melons, some of which I have not seen elsewhere. Sadly, no one had the business acumen to sell cut portions of cold melon or juices. One may only buy whole, hot melons, sometimes portions of it, but never cold. This was the pattern throughout China – even in Shanghai you can only buy flavoured bottled drinks, sometimes cold, but fresh fruit juice or cut fruits, cold or not, are never sold.

In this respect, other countries can learn from Thailand, where portions of mangoes, papayas, pineapples and other tropical fruits, cold, clean and nicely packaged, are sold off the streets. For the best fruit juices, though, one has to go to Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos. No one makes fruit juices like the pretty women of Luang Prabang do! These are delicious concoctions of fresh fruit juice mixed with coconut, milk and other ingredients.

Xinjiang’s melons and grapes are in such demand that they are sold at airport shops, nicely packed in boxes, which many of the departing passengers carry with them as hand luggage. The best grapes come from Turpan, 150 kilometres to the southeast of Urumchi. At 154 metres below sea level, it is the second lowest depression in the world after the Dead Sea. Turpan may be sizzling hot, but the grapes that grow here are a gift from God!

Uighur naans are a treat for the palate but only when they are hot out of the oven. They are sold from open tables, exposed to the elements, and after a while they are dry as a bone. The only way to eat them is to first soften them up by dipping them in green tea. The popular and ubiquitous Uighur skewered kebabs are also rather dry. But Xinjiang has many fine dishes, of Central Asian or Turkish origin, with an added tinge of Chinese.

In Kashgar one saw a few women in the head-to-toe black burqa with a brown mesh to cover the face and eyes. At the centre of old town is the Eidgah, one side of which is a vast square, surrounded by narrow roads and traditional Uighur shops. Prayers are regularly held at the Eidgah mosque, set in the middle of a nice garden, outside of which old bearded Uighur men hang out, perhaps deliberating on the precarious state of their religious freedom and dwindling ethnic autonomy in modern China.

A mosque with towering minarets also sits at the heart of Urumchi’s old town, surrounded by traditional shops, which sell all manner of very colourful clothing and caps, among other things. In Urumchi as well as in Lhasa (Tibet), uniformed police and army pickets and patrols are everywhere giving both towns the look of a military zone. This is the consequence of serious anti-Chinese riots in both cities, in Lhasa on March 14, 2008 and in Urumchi on July 5, 2009. Many lives were lost, hundreds were injured and there was considerable loss of property.

A Tibetan I met later commented that in eight hours of rioting, Tibetans had only killed 18 Chinese, whereas the Uighurs had managed to kill 140 in two hours. Sounding almost embarrassed at this relatively low “score” for Tibet, he explained this to be the result of the peaceful nature of its Buddhist people compared with the ferocity of the Muslim Uighurs!

About one hundred kilometres northeast of Urumchi is the hill resort of Tian Chi, which means “heavenly lake”. It is very aptly named, for the lake is a long stretch of clear blue water, 2,000 metres above sea level, reflecting the snow-clad Peak of God (5,445 m). It is at the end of a fine road dotted with Kazakh yurts where they put up little ethnic dance shows for the tourists, for a price.

Around Tian Chi I noticed some heavy and dangerous construction work in progress to secure the cliffs from collapsing under the tremendous force of the gushing waters. Asked about the absence of Uighurs in the workforce, my guide explained that they were not preferred by the Han Chinese contractors, implying some kind of discrimination. But he added that the contractors would find it hard to provide special Muslim food to Uighur workers, who would much rather remain unemployed than be served food which was not guaranteed halal! Preferring to be more polite than curious, I chose not to ask why the Muslim workers could not bring their halal food with them from home.

Although my guide’s father was a simple farmer, all six of his children had graduated from college on government scholarships or stipends, but jobs were hard to find. He himself had a degree in irrigation technology, but was working as a casual tourist guide, thanks to his good English. Judging by the number of Western, Central Asian and Chinese tourists visiting Xinjiang, perhaps he made more money helping them than he would if he worked as an irrigation engineer.