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Journey To The West Of China

Discovering Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province

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By DOM GALEON

Images by NOEL PABALATE

Video by NOEL PABALATE and DAVID CLARENCE RIVERA

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The Nine Dragons at the Karamay River

Traveling through Xinjiang is like going through a kaleidoscope. Each of the cities we visited on a tour organized by China Daily, in cooperation with the local government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, shone in a particular hue.

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Karamay’s Oil Bubble, a sculpture built at the site of the city’s first oil well

Ürümqi, the region’s capital, was neon orange, its streets looking like many other modern cities in the world. Turpan, with its 40-degree-Celsius temperatures, glittered in golden yellow hues under the harsh sunlight shining on the city’s many historical sites. Changji, like the cobblestones and brick houses that line its streetfood market, had hints of gray-ish blue. Karamay was a mix of neon red and black. And Kashgar shone in bright green, a reflection of its rich culture and heritage, echoing its Uyghur meaning as “the gathering place of jade.”

Xin what?

Xinjiang is somewhat an enigma. Located at the westernmost part of China, about five hours away by plane from Guangzhou or Beijing, Xinjiang is a central Asian region that sits at the border of seven countries—Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It’s China’s door to the west, which it has been historically. Many of Xinjiang’s ancient cities were portals of the Silk Road, that highway of economic, cultural, political, and religious exchanges that connected the west and the east from the second century BC until the 18th century AD.

Initially composed of independent city-states and micro-kingdoms, most of Xinjiang fell under the control of China during the Tang Dynasty. While it had been an independent province, much of Xinjiang’s pre-modern and modern history has been as part of China, either as frontier posts for the Tang or as trade hubs for the rest of the empire. Today, Xinjiang is one of China’s five autonomous regions, together with Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Tibet.

Surprisingly serene

Those familiar with Xinjiang probably remember the period of violence that rocked the region in recent history. Waves of what the Chinese government calls terror attacks from the 1990s to until only three years ago, claimed the lives of many. Government efforts to quell these acts of violence seem to be effective, at least based on what we saw during our weeklong stay. These efforts include setting up police stations in almost every corner of a major city. In Ürümqi, for example, there were police stations for every 300 to 500 meters. Tian Wen, the minister of the Publicity Department of Xinjiang, told us that these efforts had resulted in three years of peace in the province.

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An imam leads students at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute in Ürümqi

A more controversial effort is the so-called training institutes set up in 11 of Xinjiang’s major cities. We visited one in Kashgar. Western media and even the South China Morning Post have been quick to criticize these facilities as internment camps, which the Chinese government has adamantly denied. These training institutes, officials tell us, are schools for citizens who harbored extremist thoughts. “We fight extremism,” says Wang Qiubin, deputy director of the Work Committee of the People’s Congress of the Kashgar Prefecture, “because it could develop into terrorism if not stopped.”

Culturally diverse, beautifully different

Xinjiang is home to 13 ethnic groups, most of whom have nomadic origins. The most dominant of the groups are the Uyghur, with over eight million living in Xinjiang. In terms of appearances, they look more central Asian than Han, with some even looking like a mix of Persian and Turk.

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Uyghur rug vendor inside the old city of Kashgar whiling away the time

China is actively promoting Xinjiang as a tourist destination—and with good reason. The province is rich in nature’s wonders, from the snowcapped peaks of the Tianshan Mountains (or Tegri Tagh in Kyrgyz) to the edge of the Gobi Desert in the east and the Taklakaman Desert’s seemingly unending dunes in the southwest.

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Tianshan Mountains seen from above, with its snowcapped peaks piercing the clouds

Although we didn’t really visit Tianshan, we were able to see its white peaks jutting out of the clouds during our flight from Ürümqi to Kashgar.

From my window seat in the plane, Tianshan looked majestic. Its beauty does justice to its name, which means “mountains of heaven.”

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Phantom buildings at the site of the ancient city of Jiaohe; and the traditional Uyghur houses in Kashgar, with the city’s newer and taller buildings on the background

Nature’s wonders aren’t the only beauties Xinjiang has. There are also manmade monuments, some of which are still standing up to today. Most interesting, because of their Silk Road history, are the ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe, a UNESCO cultural heritage site. Nestled in Turpan’s Yarnaz Valley, Jiaohe was the capital of the ancient Jushi Kingdom. Although the ruins now look more like rocks than buildings, it was not difficult to imagine the winding streets crowded with people— such as merchants from the Roman empire, perhaps, or visitors from China’s eastern territories—trading silk and porcelain, exchanging ideas, adopting religions. Jiaohe was a sight to behold. Thinking of all the history and culture that passed through this city stirred my sense of wonder.

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Our group of journalists from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Singapore at the Jiaohe ruins

Xinjiang is somewhat an enigma. Located at the westernmost part of China, Xinjiang is a central Asian region that sits at the border of seven countries. It’s China’s door to the west.

Because of Turpan’s largely dry land, its ancient peoples developed an innovative way of drawing groundwater, which presumably flows underneath its expansive plains from the Tianshan Mountains. They developed an irrigation system made of hundreds of karez, the Uyghur word for water well. A feat of ancient engineering, each karez was manually dug by a pair of workers. Most of these are located in the Turpan Depression, spaced 30 meters apart. The deepest karez in Turpan goes 120 meters underground, with the shallowest at 2.5 meters.

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Kang Bing, China Daily’s editor-in-chief, drinks from an underground stream at the Karez Musuem in Turpan

Another ancient Silk Road portal is the city of Kashgar. If Xinjiang is China’s portal into the west, Kashgar is the gate, serving as a vital passageway to the rest of central Asia, to west and south Asia, and to Europe. Like many of the cities in Xinjiang, Kashgar finds itself in the middle of the government’s modernization and poverty alleviation efforts. Many of the city’s ancient houses, which were old buildings clumped together as if built on the side of hills and mountains, have been renovated. Prior to the renovation, these houses didn’t have plumbing systems. The entire city, in fact, lacked modern water and sewage systems. Some say that the renovations are destroying Kashgar’s ancient culture but Chinese officials say that the houses retain elements of Uyghur architecture and design.

Modern marvels

Part of the government’s efforts to modernize Xinjiang is the creation of a more efficient transportation system. Aside from having airports in almost every major city of the region, the entire province is also connected by railways, one line even going as far as Beijing.

Equally impressive are the technology centers located in Karamay, Xinjiang’s oil-producing city. Although considered to have the smallest among China’s oil reserves, it is a rich city, with an average household income of 10,000 yuan ($1,454), reflected in its booming industries. For one, Karamay is completing a 650,000-sqm campus of the China University of PetroleumBeijing, which also houses the Karamay Vocational Training Institute and the Xinjiang Training Center.

This city is also home to the Karamay Cloud Computing Industrial Park. Dubbed as China’s Silicon Valley, it houses the most number of cloud computing servers in China, including one that is run by Huawei and another operated by China Mobile. Cloud computing is a big thing in China today, with efforts to take advantage of the Internet-of-Things (IoT) and implement online programs designed to make services more accessible and efficient in Xinjiang and even throughout the rest of the country.

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At the edge of the Gobi Desert, where Karamay’s Linhai Park is located

Another impressive display of human ingenuity is Linhai Park, also located in Karamay. Linhai Park is a 6,000-hectare piece of land that used to be part of the Gobi Desert. Chinese engineers and environmental experts have turned what was once a barren stretch of land into a booming forest with over 100 varieties of trees. This ecological marvel, which serves as an important experimental site for research on biomass utilization and industrial plant emission reduction, is proof of what humankind can do to help protect the environment if there is enough support from government.

What about Uyghur culture?

A major criticism thrown at the Chinese government for how it is handling the modernization of Xinjiang is the supposed loss of Uyghur culture, which an Associated Press article claims to have been reduced to just song and dance. We did see a lot of singing and dancing, true, but we also saw other aspects of the culture seemingly left intact—local weaves are preserved, traditional designs remain evident in pottery and architecture, the Uyghur language is still largely used.

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Uyghur bakers making naan

Food. Because the Uyghurs are of Muslim heritage, the local diet in Xinjiang doesn’t have pork. It has, instead, a great deal of lamb. We tried their mutton and pumpkin dumplings or hirshon kawa manta. Like many central Asian cultures, bread or naan (sometimes called naam) is also a staple in Xinjiang—we even met the so-called King of Naan in the grand bazaar in Ürümqi. Also part of their diet is yogurt. Every meal, from breakfast to dinner, is served with yogurt.

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Children waiting for a serving of cold noodles from a stall in Changji’s streetfood market

I was also lucky enough to try Kashgar coffee at a café in the ancient city. Strong like any brewed coffee, it has a hint of spiciness to it, thanks to the fusion of herbs, including in its brewing.

For those who, like me, are from tropical countries, it may come as a surprise that hotels and restaurants in Xinjiang do not serve cold water. Apparently, to balance their meat-heavy diets, locals drink warm water.

Music. During our tour of Ürümqi, we visited an institute dedicated to the preservation of traditional Uyghur music or muqam, which was declared an intangible cultural heritage by the UNESCO in 2005. This institute preserves and teaches the traditional 12 muqams or the On Ikki Muquam, the development of which has been attributed to Uyghur musician Turdi Ahun (1881-1956). Traditional muqam instruments include the dap, a kind of framed drum, and a variety of fiddles and strings, including the 13-string shatar.

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The statue of Turdi Ahun at the courtyard of the Xinjiang Muqam Art Troupe’s headquarters in Ürümqi

Where there is music, of course, there is singing and dancing, for which the Uyghur are quite famous. They have the sanam, their ethnic dance that have movements replete with meaning. We were shown varieties of this dance, particularly one that has traditionally been used in courtship.

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Uyghur dancers in Turpan; Kang Bing

‘Discover Xinjiang’

Throughout our weeklong trip, I did discover a great deal about Xinjiang. I learned a lot about its past. I got to know some of its people. But I couldn’t help shake the feeling that there is more to Xinjiang than what we had been shown. One thing was obvious though: China wants to build Xinjiang as a tourist haven.

Already, foreign tourists are beginning to discover Xinjiang. When we were in Kashgar, for example, we came across groups of tourists from the Czech Republic and from Germany. Unlike us, who were there as part of a delegation of Asian journalists invited to see the region, these foreigners were there on their own, lured perhaps by Xinjiang’s rich heritage, history, and culture—the contemporary versions of the ancient merchants who had once passed through this hub of diversity, this modern Silk Road, which is China’s portal to the rest of the west.

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