Vast expanses of sand dunes and mountains greeted me as I awoke aboard an overnight sleeper train from Lanzhou in neighboring Gansu province to Turfan. This was China's far west: Xinjiang Province. A student on his way home from a city in the East was offering me green bean snacks and asking me about the band Green Day.
He lived in a remote city in the middle of Xinjiang called Korla, where PetroChina, China's state oil company, runs their operations in this resource-rich region. His family is Han-Chinese, and had moved there from eastern China for jobs in the oil sector, he told me. But he scoffed at the idea that he would settle down here, disliking the political situation and instability in the region. "I love China," he said, "But I'm not a Communist Party member, so I won't get the good jobs."
He was, like many of the Chinese students I met, tired of the political struggles of the past, cynical about politics, and eager to see the rest of the world. But I hadn't expected Green Day to have reached the remote deserts of Xinjiang.
The recent spate of violence in Western China has refocused attention on the situation of the Uighurs, a Turkic people with roots in Central Asia, in the Xinjiang region. This incident, which left 14 rioters and two policemen dead, is the latest in a series of violent events. In October, a vehicle driven by Xinjiang Uighurs rammed into a crowd near Beijing's Tiananmen Square killing the occupants and two pedestrians.
On a recent journey to Xinjiang, I explored the many faces of this vast inland region, which make up about a one-fifth of China's land area, but has only 20 million residents, or less than 2% of the national total. Uighurs, mostly Muslim, once were a large majority in Xinjiang, but due to the influx of Han Chinese settlers, now only number around 40% in their own "autonomous" region.
The train soon arrived in Turfan, an historic center of Uighur culture in the east of the province. Turfan's landscape is a mix of Islamic-style mosques, more recent Chinese-style concrete structures, and a few lively bazaars where one can find everything from savory rice pilaf to burqas and dried grapes, a local specialty. A Uighur taxi driver showed a few Han Chinese tourists and me around the area, playing Uighur folk music while sharing stories of a family wedding he had recently attended.
After a two-hour bus ride along a recently completed highway, I found myself in the booming metropolis of Urumqi, the regional capital. Officially the largest city furthest from a major body of water in the world, Urumqi is a city of 3 million, whose population is 75% Han. Its glass skyscrapers, malls, and apartment blocks make it feel more like the cities of eastern China than the Middle East. It boasts a modern Bus Rapid Transit system that most American cities would be envious of, along with well-manicured boulevards and expressways.
Bus-rapid Transit Station in Urumqi (above)
Headdresses for sale in Turfan's bazaar
Mosque in Tuyoq, an ancient Uighur city outside Turfan
It is with this contrast in mind that one should view the current unrest in Xinjiang. In Chinese, it's name means "New Frontier," although Uighur separatists refer to it wishfully as East Turkestan. Xinjiang however, is no longer a backwater. It's strategic location as a Silk Road stopover has been revived today, as China strengthens its economic and political ties with Central Asia.
Traditional Uighur areas, like Turfan and Kashgar, where the recent attack occurred, are still bastions of Uighur culture, although these areas too are no longer immune to change. In Kashgar, authorities have begun bulldozing the historic old city, once a Silk Road outpost, and replacing it with "earthquake-resistant structures." Some contend this planning tactic is done with the goal of Sini-cizing the Uighurs and creating wider streets that are more easily patrolled by police.
Back in Urumqi, I explored the city and met a Uighur college student who took me to an excellent kebab restaurant and described his situation. He had a cousin studying in the United States and thought about trying to join him there. He mentioned that it is sometimes difficult to attend mosque because he could be hassled if authorities at his university found out. We then walked to a sports arena where a job fair was underway recruiting students. There are all sorts of Chinese companies hiring in Urumqi, for software, trade, marketing, and mining companies. There are many job opportunities in Xinjiang, he admits, if he decides to stay.
Uighur residents at a traditional restaurant in Urumqi
Indeed the Xinjiang economy is growing even faster than China's national average, at 13% in 2012. While sparsely populated and mostly desert, Xinjiang accounts for almost 20% of China's land area, and is thought to hold much of its coal, natural gas, and other resources. Next year, China's high-speed rail system will reach Urumqi, bringing it within a short train ride of the rest of the nation.
The Chinese hope that economic development will help resolve ethnic tensions in the west. This is the standard Chinese position on Xinjiang, as well other border regions like Tibet: They have brought economic development and more opportunities to ethnic minority areas. There are also affirmative action policies for ethnic minorities applying to college, and allowances for having multiple children that most Han Chinese do not enjoy. But repression of traditional culture and religion undoes these efforts and creates perpetual distrust. Civil service positions are still largely given to Han Chinese.
A banner over a development site in Urumqi reads "sing the praises of ethnic cooperation"
Xinjiang enjoys cultural and economic connections to central Asia and the Middle East, as evidenced by some of the products on display in Urumqi stores. Chinese authorities hope Urumqi will be an economic and transport hub, drawing other Central Asian countries closer to China's economic orbit. This connectivity, however, also cuts the other way: It allows Uighur separatists to travel to places like Afghanistan and Pakistan where they may link up with Islamic terrorist organizations, and return to China, radicalized.
As our plane took off from Urumqi, we passed over the snow-capped peaks of the Tianshan, or the heavenly mountains, their placid snow-covered expanses belying the turmoil below.