At home with the Uyghurs

Saturday, July 11, 2009 – Globe and Mail

The air smells of dust, grapes and leather, and blinding sunlight bounces off blue doorways, courtyard walls, the dirt road and our scooter-pulled taxi as Zulmira shows me her neighbourhood.

Approaching her grandmother’s house, she identifies everyone’s ethnicity without hesitation: “That’s a Uyghur house. … That’s Han. Uyghur. Uyghur. Uyghur. Han.”

The 22-year-old student is home in Yining, a bustling city on China’s Kazakh border, for a week-long holiday. She studies English at Xinjiang Normal University (“Xinjiang Abnormal,” she clarifies, rolling her eyes) in Urumqi, the provincial capital, and has been kind, or misguided, enough to act as tour guide for a foreigner visiting from Shanghai.

It’s early last October, two months after the Beijing Olympics were disrupted by deadly attacks in the ancient oasis cities of Xinjiang (and eight months before Uyghur and Han residents would take to the streets of Urumqi in riots that have left more than 150 people dead).

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China’s wild west

Urumqi, China
Photo by Anna Mehler Paperny

Anna Mehler Paperny

Maclean’s Magazine – December 4, 2008


China’s Xinjiang region, in the deserts and mountains of the country’s far northwest, could be two parallel universes. One is on the receiving end of a flood of foreign investment, home to swiftly multiplying oil derricks and gleaming office towers. This is the image the Chinese government wants to spring to mind when foreigners think of Xinjiang, the “wild west” whose economy Beijing is trying to bring level with the more prosperous areas of the country. The other, home to about eight million Uighurs, functions in a different language and boasts wholly foreign religion, culture and food. To a visitor it’s like another country entirely. And that’s what has Beijing worried.

In August, the region was rocked by violent attacks in the west that killed at least 33 people. The unrest, which the Chinese government has blamed on Uighur separatist groups, humiliated the government and shook China’s ostensibly shatterproof national security leading up to the Beijing Olympics. In Xinjiang, the aftermath is still palpable. It’s translated into heightened security measures—omnipresent guards and checkpoints, among other things—and tightened restrictions on religious practice for the Muslim Uighurs, one of China’s 50-plus ethnic minorities that are separated from the Han majority by language and a deep-seated, mutual distrust.

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