The most common reaction I received in response to saying I was going to Xinjiang, China on holiday was - “why?”.
Dhaxna (left) says travelling along the Karokaram Highway was a highlight of the journey
This was also my first reaction when my friend suggested that we visit the province situated in northwestern China. To be honest, China has never been at the top of my travel list, but after doing a little reading about Xinjiang province, my first instincts changed.
During our 10-day trip we travelled to Urumqi (the provincial capital), Kashgar, Tashkurgan, and Turpan.
The definite highlight was driving from Kashgar to Tashkurgan along the stunning Karokaram Highway, which connects China and Pakistan, and also leads to many of China’s border countries. The highway follows the trail of the Silk Road and and is regarded as one of the most beautiful highways in the world.
The scenery along the Highway was picturesque, including grasslands, desert, sand dunes, 6000 - 7000m-high snowy mountains, glaciers, and turquoise lakes. We also passed vast fields of solar and wind farms, and looked inside a traditional yurt now powered by a solar panel.
A turquoise lake Dhaxna visited along the Karokaram Highway
It was fascinating to learn about Uighur culture, especially at the Kashgar Sunday livestock market where we watched business exchanges over camels, cattle, sheep, and goats, and ate some very fresh lamb kebabs!
We booked our trip earlier in the year, hoping to see some amazing scenery and enjoy the local culture. While the architecture, food, language, customs, and even the physical appearance of the people was so diverse (it was often hard to believe were still in Mainland China!), we knew before we landed that travelling to this province was not going to be easy.
In recent years, hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang as a result of ethnic unrest between the Uighurs and Han Chinese. In response, the Chinese government has implemented a range of cultural and religious controls, and security and surveillance measures throughout the province, to control what it labels Uighur extremism, separatism, and terrorism. The government believes these are necessary short-term measures to bring peace and prosperity to the region.
In the week prior to our trip, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted reports of mass detention of Uighurs (and other Turkic Muslim minorities), and estimates that upwards of a million people are being held in so-called counter-extremism centers, and another two million had been forced into so-called “re-education camps” for political and cultural indoctrination.
Visiting Kashgar livestock market
We were definitely troubled by these accounts, and more international news agencies were reporting about the situation while we were there. It was hard to watch how increased security measures are impacting on the lives of the local Uighur people in particular. For example, locals must have their national identity cards checked (and usually scanned) while carrying out almost any basic day-to-day activity; entering underpasses, going shopping, meeting at the Bazaar, and at checkpoints along highways. It seemed almost ritualistic having to carry their ID cards and line up outside booths for pat downs and sometimes even facial or retina scans. The constant presence of various security personnel was also disconcerting.
As foreign tourists, we were not persons of interests, and it was relatively easy for us to pass through security. We drew more attention for where we had come from (New Zealand is called ‘Xinxilan’ in Chinese), and had numerous pictures taken of us for personal albums! The people were very friendly and curious about us, but it was difficult to get a feel for what is really happening in what is described as the most surveilled place in the world.
In my view, the government wants control over the province to ensure the success of its Belt and Road Initiative which aims to re-establish the ancient trading route (which cuts right through the province). Combined with its abundance of oil, gas, and mineral resources, Xinjiang is of great strategic importance. But at what cost? It struck us as a cruel irony that while the local culture and religious practices were a huge drawcard for us to visit, those are very aspects of Xinjiang that are currently under threat.