Closed to the world for half a century, like a black hole in the Asian landmass, the wilderness of Xinjiang in northwest China is returning to the light. The picture it presents is both fascinating and disturbing.
Despite a savage landscape and climate, Xinjiang has a rich past: sand-buried cities, painted cave shrines, rare creatures, and wonderfully preserved mummies of European appearance. Their descendants, the Uighurs, still farm the tranquil oases that ring the dreaded Taklamakan, the world’s second largest sand desert, and the Kazakh and Kirghiz herdsmen still roam the mountains. The region’s history, however, has been punctuated by violence, usually provoked by ambitious outsiders—nomad chieftains from the north, Muslim emirs from Central Asia, Russian generals, or warlords from inner China.
The Chinese regard the far west as a barbarian land. Only in the 1760s did they subdue it, and even then their rule was repeatedly broken. Compared with the Russians’ conquest of Siberia, or the Americans’ trek west, China’s colonization of Xinjiang has been late and difficult. The Communists have done most to develop it, as a penal colony, as a buffer against invasion, and as a supplier of raw materials and living space for an overpopulated country. But what China sees as its property, the Uighurs regard as theft by an alien occupier. Tension has led to violence and savage reprisals.
This portrait of Xinjiang should be essential reading for travelers and for anyone interested in today’s China and the fate of minority peoples.