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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