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The Uyghur autonomous region of Xinjiang (新疆, xīnjiāng) is one of the most thrilling parts of China, an extraordinary terrain more than 3000km from any coast which, despite all the upheavals since the collapse of the Silk Road trade, still comprises the same old oasis settlements strung out along the ancient routes, many producing the silk and cotton for which they were famed in Roman times.

Geographically, Xinjiang – literally “New Territories” – occupies an area slightly greater than Western Europe or Alaska, and yet its population is just 21 million. And with the Han population probably comprising more than fifty percent of the whole, Xinjiang is perhaps the least “Chinese” of all parts of the People’s Republic. By far the largest minority in Xinjiang is the Uyghur, though there are also some dozen other Central Asian minority populations.

The land of Xinjiang is among the least hospitable in all China, covered for the most part by arid desert and mountain – the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountain) range effectively bisects Xinjiang from west to east, with Kazakh and Mongol herdsmen living a partially nomadic existence on its fringes. The climate is not particularly hot in summer, and virtually Siberian from October through to March. To the south is the Tarim Basin, dominated by the scorching Taklamakan Desert, fiercely hot and dry in summer. Its sands cover countless forgotten cities, and another buried treasure – oil. Chinese estimates reckon that three times the proven US reserves of oil are under the Taklamakan alone, which is one reason that the government is firmly establishing a Han presence in the region.

Highlights of Xinjiang include the Tian Shan mountain pastures outside Ürümqi, where you can hike in rare solitude and stay beside Heaven Lake with Kazakhs in their yurts; but it is the old Silk Road that will attract most travellers. The most fascinating of the Silk Road oasis cities are Turpan and Kashgar. It is possible to follow not only the Northern Silk Road from Turpan to Kashgar via Aksu and Kuqa, but also the almost forgotten southern route via Khotan. The routes were established over two thousand years ago, but traffic reached its height during the Tang dynasty, when China’s most famous Buddhist pilgrim, Xuanzang, used them on his seventeen-year voyage to India. There’s still the possibility of continuing the Silk Road journey out beyond the borders of China itself – not only over the relatively well-established Karakoram Highway into Pakistan, but now also over the less well-known routes into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Brief history

The region’s history has been coloured by such personalities as Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, even Alexander the Great. More often, though, in counterpoint to the great movements of history, Xinjiang has been at the mercy of its isolation and the feudal warring between the rulers of its oasis kingdoms, or khanates.

The influence of China has been far from constant. The area – commonly referred to in the West as Eastern (or Chinese) Turkestan until 1949 – first passed under Han control in the second century BC, under Emperor Wu Di. But it was only during the Tang dynasty (650–850 AD) that this control amounted to more than a military presence. The Tang period for Xinjiang was something of a golden age, with the oases south of the Tian Shan largely populated by a mysterious but sophisticated Indo-European people, and the culture and Buddhist art of the oases at their zenith. Around the ninth century, however, came a change – the gradual rise to dominance of the Uyghurs, and their conversion to Islam.

Subsequent centuries saw the conquests of the Mongols under Genghis Khan and later, from the West, of Tamerlane. Both brought havoc and slaughter in their wake, though during the brief period of Mongol rule (1271–1368) the Silk Road trade was hugely facilitated by the fact that, for the first and only time in history, east and west Asia were under a single government.

After the fall of the Mongols and the final disappearance of the Silk Road, Xinjiang began to split into khanates and suffered a succession of religious and factional wars. Nonetheless, it was an independence of a kind, and Qing reassertion of Chinese domination in the eighteenth century was fiercely contested. A century later, in 1862, full-scale Muslim rebellion broke out, led by the ruler of Kashgaria, Yakub Beg, armed and supported by the British who were seeking influence in this buffer zone between India and Russia (for more on which, read Peter Hopkirk’s excellent The Great Game). Ultimately the revolt failed – Beg became a hated tyrant – and the region remained part of the Chinese empire.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Xinjiang was still a Chinese backwater controlled by a succession of brutal warlords who acted virtually independently of the central government. The last one of these before World War II, Sheng Shizai, seemed momentarily to be a reforming force, instituting religious and ethnic freedoms, and establishing trade with the newly emergent Soviet Union. However, he ended by abandoning his moderate positions. Slamming the door on the Soviets and on leftist influences within Xinjiang itself in 1940, he began a reign of terror resulting in the deaths of more than two hundred thousand Communists, intellectuals, students and Muslim Nationalists.

The drive toward the defeat of the Guomindang in 1949 temporarily united the conflicting forces of Muslim nationalism and Chinese communism. After the Communist victory, however, there could be only one result. The principal Muslim Nationalist leaders were quietly murdered, allegedly killed in a plane crash, and the impetus towards a separate state was lost. The last Nationalist leader, a Kazakh named Osman, was executed in 1951.

Since 1949, the Chinese government has made strenuous attempts to stabilize the region by settling Han Chinese from the east, into Ürümqi in particular. The Uyghur population of Xinjiang slipped from ninety percent of the total in 1949 to below fifty percent in the 1980s, and is still on the way down, in spite of the minorities’ exemption from the One Child Policy. Today, however, the Chinese government remains nervous about Xinjiang, especially given the enormous economic potential of the area, in terms of coal and now gold mining, oil exploration and tourism, plus its strategic value as a nuclear test site.

There have been outbursts of Uyghur dissent in the region; since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Chinese government has equated Uyghur nationalism with global Islamic terrorism and indulged in its own “war on terror” by monitoring and arresting Uyghurs it claims are involved in separatist activities. These troubles came to the fore in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. With China in the international spotlight, and apparently spurred on by the death of an Uyghur in police custody (as well as similar unrest in Tibet), Uyghurs held demonstrations across the province, most prominently in Kashgar, Yining and Khoten; these occasionally bubbled up into more serious incidents, and there were numerous deaths and arrests over a period of months. Still, this was nothing compared to the large-scale rioting the following year in Ürümqi. Tourist numbers have, understandably, taken a tumble, but the average traveller will notice little difference save for an increased security presence.

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