Editors Note: We are having extreme difficulty posting from China, especially with Flickr, so please be patient with us.
Our first week in China passed in an area that has virtually nothing to do with the stereotypical images of China. We entered into Xinjiang autonomous region, an area of China populated by the Uygur people, who have more in common with the Turks in Turkey than with the Han in China.
Muslim, the Uygurs speak a Turkic language which uses Arabic script rather than Chinese characters. A mix of Asian and European features, Uygurs are a central Asian people that settled in what is now northwestern China during the heyday of the silk road trade. Raising mostly sheep, the Uygurs are soft agrarian people and it wasn’t until the highly publicized political problems of the last few years that most westerner’s had even heard of them.
A July 2009 demonstration in the region turned bloody and caught the attention of the worldwide media. The plight of the Uygurs was brought to light and suddenly China had a second, very public minority problem on their hands (the first being Tibet). We entered the region expecting to find a repressed minority, but instead we found Urumqi, a thriving, densely populated Chinese city that’s home to a Louis Vuitton and a Cartier. It wasn’t the sort of economic situation I was expecting, in fact the place seemed booming.
It didn’t take long to realize the Chinese government had in place some very enticing economic incentives for Han Chinese families to move into the area. With all the violence in the last few years I expected to feel more tension on the street, but like most places, people are getting on with their lives, putting one foot in front of the other and taking one day at a time. Several days later, outside of Xinjiang province, a Han Chinese woman told us she would be scared to go into that province, for fear she would be singled out to violence because of last year’s political unrest. I’m not sure how many other Han Chinese feel the same way, but it certainly makes for an interesting discussion.
A few days later, in a smaller town, with a very clear Uygur majority, the tables were turned and it would have taken someone to tell us we were in China, for on the street you never would have known it. Unfortunately very few people speak English and we speak neither Mandarin nor Uygur (nor Arabic or Turkish) so although we were consumed by questions we left without many answers. It was disappointing because both of us were literally filled to the brim with political and social questions. Perhaps with more effort we could have found someone who spoke enough English to answer our questions, but then again, after what happened to me at the border I wouldn’t be surprised if they would refuse to talk to us out of fear of reprisal.