China’s “wild west”: an introduction

Glacier-laden mountains provide a backdrop to the Karakoram Highway at a location close to where part of The Kite Runner was filmed. (click on the photo for a closer look)

Never heard of Xinjiang? Well, neither had I. However, if you, like me, have watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Kite Runner, there’s a good chance that you’ve already seen parts of it without ever realizing it.

Xinjiang (pronounced something like “shinjang”) is China’s largest and westernmost province. It shares borders with eight different countries: Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It has been defined as an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China since 1949.

John Keay’s “China: A History” describes it thusly:
“Largely desert though far from deserted, this is the largest of all China’s provinces and the remotest. It was once known to the Chinese as ‘the Western Regions’ and to non-Chinese as Eastern or Chinese Turkestan. The current designation simply means ‘the New Territories’ (Xin-jiang); indigenous activists would prefer ‘Uighuristan’, they being largely Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs.”

As with Tibet, the Chinese government supports the move of ethnic Chinese Han to the province (“flooding the region with Han settlers” is how Lonely Planet puts it). According to Lonely Planet, Uighurs have declined from 90% to 50% of Xinjiang’s population, although they don’t provide a specific time frame (I’ve found somewhat different numbers, although the direction of growth/decline is consistent, in a detailed report (from ETH of all places!)). Naturally this demographic shift brings with it inevitable changes to the local culture.

I don’t know nearly enough about this topic to write about it with any authority. It is obviously a contentious subject for both sides, to the point that there were deadly riots in the capital Urumqi in 2009. Reports on the number of casualties vary Chinese police reports listed around 200 deaths and 1,700 injuries. An Internet blackout lasting ten months was subsequently put into effect in the province.

While my knowledge about the changing face of the province is minimal, being at least somewhat aware of it is a key part of experiencing Xinjiang. The province is incredible and astounding for its mix of cultures. Walking mere city blocks in Kashgar, where we spent the most time, can transport you from a functional, modern Chinese city to a crumbling warren of streets where Uighurs live in much the same way they have for centuries (minus the electric scooters of course).

Xinjiang isn’t just about the brackish results of the tide of ethnic Chinese immigrants. The province is home to well over a dozen different ethnic groups, including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tibetans. Xinjiang, in some ways more central-Asian than Chinese, has a long, rich history associated with international cross-roads.

The reason the province caught my eye in the first place was reading about the Karakoram Highway (from the site “For the ultimate in road trips, choose the highest paved road in the world. The Karakoram Highway is 800 miles of mountain road connecting Pakistan with China across some of the tallest mountains in the world.” How can that not call to a person?!).

This modern day “highway” (using this word in the literal sense, rather than in the sense that someone in the States would think of a highway) traces parts of the Silk Road, a collection of ancient trade routes that linked China to India, Tibet, Persia and even areas on the Mediterranean Sea. (You can read more on Wikipedia).

That information alone was more than enough to get me to want to see it. What I didn’t know was what sort of landscape we were heading into.

We only had a week in Xinjiang and in this time could visit but a small fraction of the place. But in those few, full days, I saw some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever encountered in my life. Looking back over my photos, I am still in awe that such incredible nature exists and that I was able to spend some time in it. No wonder those movie directors decided to film here!!

I hope this helps to set the stage for the posts that will follow on our time in Xinjiang. There’s so much more to the places’ history, cultures, politics, landscape, etc. and I am in no way an expert on any of those topics so please bear in mind the limitations of what I’m writing. 🙂 For more of a taste of the place, here is a blog/site by an American guy who lived there and loved it, which was also one of the contributing factors inspiring me to include it in our China journey:

– Lonely Planet China
– China: A History by John Keay

2 thoughts on “China’s “wild west”: an introduction

  1. I didn’t know we could sign up to follow you….Ed wants to pack a small bag and really follow you, just leave your itinerary ! He doesn’t snore…..much !

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