Hanzu in a Headscarf: Travels in Xinjiang

Xinjiang شىنجاڭ‎‎ 新疆 is a mountainous, oil-rich region that forms the bulbous bump of northwest China. Bordering Tibet to the south, Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the west, Xinjiang (lit. new frontier) has long been a vital trading hub and cultural melting pot at the heart of the Central Asian Silk Road.

Buddhism came and went; Islam came and stayed. Eurasian peoples have migrated around the region’s basins and deserts for centuries. It has been ruled by powers spanning the Mongol Empire, the Ming Dynasty, the Soviets, a blink as the Eastern Turkestan Republic, and since the 1949, the People’s Republic of China.

The Uighur ئۇيغۇر 维族 (Wéizú) are the Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim, Central Asian ethnic majority of Xinjiang. However, it appears the Government are working towards diluting the Uighur majority by bringing more and more Han Chinese  汉族 (Hànzú) to the region and imposing restrictions on traditional Uighur culture, alongside efforts to  ‘现代化’ (modernise) the area in line with the rest of the country.

As one can imagine, gnarly shit has gone down.

With this backdrop in mind, I covered my head with a scarf and tried with as much Uighur language as I could during our trip through the largest province in China, and perhaps even the most captivating place I’ve visited to date. 

(All photos by Kiwese, unless stated otherwise.)

Jamming with the homies at a vegetable market in Kuche. Photo credit: Ben Allnatt.
Jamming with the homies on a traditional Uighur three-stringed lute at a streetside vegetable market in Kuche. Photo credit: Ben Allnatt.

“What are you doing here?” he asked with an authoritative bark of Putonghua. His AK-47 wielding comrade stood by, surveying the local bazaar as three-wheeled motor carts spluttered past with fresh kill goat carcasses piled high on the back. I’d blatantly taken a photo of the armoured tank trucking through Kuche’s Old Town 老城.

“We are just travelling,” I replied sheepishly, lowering my head which was meekly covered by a blue and gold pashmina.

“Delete those photographs.” I complied with a machine gun Mandarin stutter of “sorrysorrysorry.”

Shenfenzheng 身份证,” he commanded, the trisyllabic staccato that has conditioned locals into producing their ID cards with the swiftness of a cat’s paw.

“I’m a foreigner,” I conceded, as he took the black New Zealand passport from my sweaty palms, fearing for a moment that he might be able to feel my racing heartbeat through the paper like osmosis.

Perplexed for a second, taking in a Han face, a foreign passport, a DSLR camera and a headscarf, he asked again, this time with a sense of curiosity intermingled with duty, “what are you doing here?

One photo survived. A regular morning in Kuche Old Town. Image by Kiwese.
One photo survived. A regular morning in Kuche Old Town.

Western reports on events in Xinjiang almost religiously include the phrase ‘ethnic tensions,’ while Chinese state media tend to opt for the more jihadi militant-packed signifier ‘暴力恐怖分子‘ (terrorist), a loanword for Islamic extremism inspired by the U.S. response to 9/11. While variations on the word ‘terror’ including ‘反恐英雄‘ (counter-terrorist hero) and ‘恐怖训练营‘ (terrorist training camps) have been adopted by the likes of Xinhua and Sina, their usage has been quarantined to inverted commas in Anglophone news reports, in a Dr. Evil style rumination on laser weapons.

Professor James A. Millward, author of the extensive touchstone text Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, has suggested in an essay for the L.A. Review of Books that the recent Government crackdown on the defining characteristics of Uighur culture are the real reasons behind unrest in Xinjiang and the spate of attacks on innocent civilians, as opposed to a militant Islamic threat.

Needless to say, foreign reportage on Xinjiang is almost exclusively about ethnic tensions between the Uighur and Han. State media reports of Han death tolls and denouncements of Islamic (read: Uighur) separatists has created a fear-inducing, anti-Islamic mindset among the Han, many of whom receive their news through state media enclosed within the Great Firewall of China and hold a resolute distrust of the Uighur. Indeed, when my cellphone was stolen in Chengdu last year, nearby witnesses were quick to inform me that it was a ‘Xinjiang man’ on a motorbike.

In July 2009, violent riots in the Han-gentrified provincial capital of Urumqi ئۈرۈمچى شەھىرى 乌鲁木齐 led to over a hundred (Han) deaths, a temporary internet lockdown in Xinjiang and the penultimate nationwide blockage of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The car explosion at Tiananmen Square and the knife attack at Kunming Railway Station back in 2013 have both been attributed to Xinjiang extremists. On the other hand, foreign media are often quick to hum the tune of the Chinese Government heavy hand— the words to the song we all know.

Anyone who has taken the most elementary class in Media Studies will know, the way in which the media report an event will influence the way we perceive it. With regard to ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, I think it’s safe to say that people’s perceptions have indeed been influenced.

Rough translation: "Look to modern culture to lead the way." Near the Kuche old town 老城, just nearby a Uighur dude passed out in his own vomit on the footpath. Image Kiwese.
“Use modern culture as a guide.” Propaganda billboard in Kuche’s Old Town, 老城, just up the road from where a local man was passed out in his own vomit .

Click smaller images to enlarge

After a ten-hour overnight train ride in the shàngpù 上铺 out of Liuyuan near Dunhuang, the ancient Buddhist cave site and last major stop in Gansu, my long-time Welly bro Ben and I were welcomed to Turpan تۇرپان‎ 吐鲁番 with open arms— full-body, boob-patting, nutsack-tapping frisk downs by gender-assigned security guards. Hellooo, Xinjiang!

From the train station to Turpan City, we experienced the hassles with security that local people have to deal with on a daily basis, with at least three ID checks during the one-hour bus ride into town. The Chinese flag flew atop all kinds of structures, even a rickety old shack with a teetering awning constructed entirely of old car parts.

Beneath the colourful fabric sunshades of a Turpan food market was all sorts of boiling, baking and frying going on in steel pots over roaring, open flames. Samsa pastries filled with salty, tender beef. Fresh apple juice. Wonton soup and tea. “WHISKEY!” claimed one witty juice vendor, pouring me a cup and thrusting it into my clammy hands for the criminally low price of 1 kuai. Most snacks and beverages in Xinjiang linger around the 1-2-3 kuai mark!

“How do you say ‘thank you‘ in your language?” I asked the owner of the wonton stall, who was tending to an enormous mound of spring onions with a cleaver. “Raqmed!” she replied with a warm smile.

A nearby woman soon butted in with something along the lines of: “Raqmed! Raqmed! Take my photo! And then take hers!”

Wonton stall crew check out the local news.
Wonton stall crew check out the local news.
Glam poser lady who requested I take her photo hahaha
Glam lady who demanded I take her photo hahaha 

Carpets, fabrics, patterns. A local guy approached us in broken English and said he cannot get a passport with a Xinjiang hukou (registration). I’d later meet a dude with a Xinjiang hukou who couldn’t even visit a scenic spot on the border with Pakistan, in the province where he was born.

We took a ride with a Uighur driver who couldn’t speak Mandarin to the Jiaohe Ruins, where we melted in 40 degree heat surrounded by the remains of an ancient city.

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The Grand Central Temple. Jiaohe Ruins.

The Uighur specialty dish, ‘big plate chicken’ dà pán jī 大盘鸡, emerged on two plates of spicy chicken, noodles and potato.

“Where are you all from?” the laoban of the Famous in Turpan restaurant asked me in Mandarin with a smile. I responded: New Zealand, the Netherlands, France and the U.S was our combination that evening.

“Welcome!” he responded with a grin and adding “so you know, I don’t mean any offence by it!”

“Of course not!” I replied, and we shook hands and waved goodbye while saying “bai bai!” and the Uighur form, “khosh!”

BIG PLATE CHICKEN.
BIG PLATE(S) CHICKEN. Turpan styles.

If you are looking for accommodation in Turpan, go no further than the Turpan Dap Hostel, 吐鲁番达卜青年旅馆, run by original Fuzhou gal Tang, her husband Liu and their golden retriever Hadou! Located in a quiet neighbourhood in a traditional Uighur-style courtyard covered in grapevines. They welcomed us in and let us enjoy their beautiful hostel, as well as providing sage travel advice and even POSTING MY UNDIES TO CHENGDU WHEN I FORGOT THEM ON THE WASHING LINE!!

Tang: "Why are you going to Aksu ئاقسۇ 阿克苏?!" 
Me: "Cos we wanna go down to Hotan خوتەن 和田." 
Tang: "....why would you wanna go to Hotan?"

And with that, we disembarked our next overnight train in the dusty, little town of Kuche كۇچار‎ 库车 instead.

High speed trains have made their way to Xinjiang, while the line that runs through the belly from Urumqi to Kashgar has improved tremendously, said one Han driver from Gansu who’d been in Xinjiang for over 25 years. He likes it. He could understand Uighur but only speak a little of the rapid, Turkic-lingua franca: “我的舌头发不出来” (‘my tongue can’t get the words out!’) He thought the train improvements were positive, noting that all kinds of people use them now. There are long haul buses too, which are cheaper.

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Chinese characters fell away. Elegant hooks, calligraphic swoops and diamond-shaped dots of Uighur adorned the remaining dusty, flat brick buildings of Kuche’s Old Town.

Coloured headscarves for women and square, pointed doppa hats for men, white-grey beards on the elders. I felt so silly for trying to speak Mandarin in a restaurant where the menu was completely in Uighur for its completely Uighur customer base. Noodle soup and nang that tasted like pizza with a big pot of black tea, however, were achieved that morning.

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What was up with the photos of soldiers in the corners of all these standardised shop signs?!

Big ornate doors opened into courtyards similar to the old Chinese courtyard homes 四合院 which have now largely been bulldozed to make way for apartment buildings to house the swelling urban populations. The open doorways on ‘Rasta Lu’ revealed all sorts of happenings: woodwork, noodles, dough, toilet paper, barbers, dentists, bread makers, vegetables, steel works tink-tink-tinking away…

Nang flat breads sat outside the abundant bakeries, stacked and displayed with Newtown New World-like precision. Bed bases covered with rugs for sitting and snoozing lay out on the street, occupied by smiling families and their gorgeous babies with big, wide eyes. The one child policy does not apply to China’s ethnic minorities. A large clay oven revealed dozens of samsa stuck to the inner walls like lichen on a rock.

Samsa,” I observed, sidling up to the beefy pastries to snap a photo.
“Mmm, samsa,” echoed a by-standing elder who donned the classic dark-green doppa hat, nodding with content.

Homeless old people with dark, leathery skin lined the bridge from the Old Town across the arid, scorched river bed; their hands outstretched with small wads of jiao notes, their toothless mouthes wailing in a tormented arrangement of Uighur. Later on, I saw an impoverished man sprawled out on the ground of a food street, eating the fallen peanuts from a nearby stall.
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Wandering around Kuche with our backpacks in the sun, we met Xinjiang ice-cream. Sweet, tangy ice-cream solidified in a rotating freeze machine and scooped into little pottles of goodness for 1 kuai each. Armed cops sat idly among apples and watermelons. A three-wheeler trundled past the vegetables and covered bowls of yogurt with a baby strapped into a hammock in the back.

A Uighur man jammed his three-stringed snakeskin lute outside a neighbouring teahouse. His strumming wrist was sore, so he let me have a try. The instrument had a chunky neck with frets marked by fine, nylon string, with a twangy timbre similar to the Turkish doshpuluur I played in Litang. The community gathered round with intrigue. An older lady plonked herself down and spoke with me at length in Uighur about an unknown topic. My awkward interjection of “不好意思,我听不懂,” “sorry, I don’t understand,” did little to break the flow of this mystery monologue.

It was truly humbling to sit at that tea table with them—welcomed into the bosom of their community without question.
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A bizarre By the Rivers of Babylon remix played on repeat with another random club banga on the 民族街 Food Street. Sweet potatoes, Turkish egg pancakes, lamb skewers, more samsa and icecream. We eventually found ourselves walking past a Uighur primary school as class was let out for the day. Kids spilled out onto the road, hopping on the back of mini motor buses home. Boys played in water spouting from a burst pipe. 

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Ben and his new mates. School's out in Kuche!
Ben and his new mates. School’s out in Kuche!

Security scans, black dogs and riot cops armed with rifles greeted us in the southwestern city of Kashgar قەشقەر شەھرى 喀什, closer to Bishkek, Tashkent and Islamabad than Beijing. On the bus into town, a Uighur was punched in the face by a Han. There was a brief scuffle, in which no one dared intervene.

The Pamir Youth Hostel sits next door to the Id Kah Mosque in the centre of town. Wu Laoban is a skinny, chain-smoking Han dude from Heilongjiang in the far northeast— a province famed for sub-zero winters, the Harbin Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival and year-round coal smog.

Wu is staunchly anti-Muslim and despises the Uighurs for despising him. He freely discussed them alongside the need for ‘控制’ (‘control’). Speaking with Wu was an interesting insight into this Han Xinjiang resident perspective, to hear how people from the majority feel when they become the 少数民族, the ethnic minority. When I asked if he could understand any Uighur after four years, he shook his head vigorously and replied that he only knew the sound of the Uighur slur for “fuck you.”

As an optimistic foreigner that had been in Xinjiang for all of five minutes, I told Wu all about the positive experiences we’d had with the local Uighurs so far.

“Try going out alone,” Wu said, toplessly smoking another cigarette in his non-smoking hostel lounge, “without your foreign friend.”

It was as if he was daring me into some kind of perilous danger; and his words sent shivers down my sweat-ridden spine.

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Animal carcasses hung upside down from every third or fourth shop, carefully inspected, pinched and prodded by local consumers and restauranteurs, selected and chopped up on a wooden board with a small axe. “thwack-Thwack-THWACK!!”

The crusty yet majestic, half torn down yet floodlit (!) ruins of Kashgar’s original Old Town. Bulldozers sat a top cleared land and the omnipresent red Chinese slogan banners (横幅 héngfú) hung above. Random cows continued to graze and shuffle about on a street behind the construction site. We clambered up the stone stairs into the grove of alleyways, steps, overpasses and balconies, all of which seemed eerily deserted, except for a few quiet, remaining families. Two dudes were torching severed goat heads in an open furnace.

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One evening, when everyone was just chilling on the Pamir rooftop, sitting cross-legged on cushions a top the wooden platforms draped with that quintessentially Xinjiang fabric, the mosque’s call to prayer lingering in the air, three geared up cops with flashlight mounted AK-47s shimmied in the door. Fuck!

I asked ‘Zhao Laoshi,’ Wu’s girlfriend and co-laoban about it once they’d gone. She was completely unfazed by such a routine procedure, noting they get only checked occasionally, while the Uighur-run hotels get checked every night.

Statue of Mao Zedong down on one of Kashgar's main streets.
Statue of Mao Zedong down on one of Kashgar’s main streets.

The public bus was chock-a-block full of Uighur school kids and locals heading home for lunch. A cute, little girl of maybe eight-years-old bravely posited a question to me on behalf of a dozen curious classmates.

“姐姐,你是美国人吗?” “Big sister, are you American?” she asked in perfect Putonghua, while my ‘husband’ Ben was sardined up the aisle among the other commuters.

“不是,我是新西兰人!” “No, I’m a New Zealander!” I replied, sparking a flourish of Uighur analysis among the thrush of tiny children. The leader spoke again.

“姐姐,你是汉族吗?” “Big sister, are you Han?”

“是的。” “Yes.”

This sparked endless excitable chatter, accompanied by a headscarf gesture. Students are prohibited from wearing headscarves to school in Xinjiang (see aforementioned Millward article). The Han stick to the Han areas, and speak of the Uighur areas in a foreboding Mufasa style discourse of what happens to those who venture into the shadow lands beyond Pride Rock.

A Han chick aboard the local bus was a foreigner; and a Han chick wearing a headscarf was an anomaly.

Bai bai!” they tweeted gleefully, full of waving and smiles as they bounced off the bus and into the street.

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On the last Sunday of our trip in Xinjiang, I ventured out “without my foreign friend,” to test the strength of Wu’s evaluation on Uighur-Han relations…

There’s a kind of wide-eyed innocence and vulnerability that comes with being a non-native speaker. You have less suspicion of people, you are less jaded, you have less experience in traversing the markers of character through the nuances of speech.

Ordering food in Kashgar in Mandarin:
Me: "Do you have noodles?" 
Laoban: "Yes, but not till 10am."
Me: "Great, just another ten minutes!" 
Laoban: "No no no, 10am Xinjiang time!!"
Lamb for breakfast, again.

Morning tea was served in a white teapot inlayed with ornate, turquoise flowers. A bowl of polo پولۇ, 抓饭, Uighur pilaf: a generous pile of rice with grated carrot and an unbelievably breakfast-sized lamb bone planted on top. A side platter of vinegary bright orange and yellow-green preserves, arranged neatly atop the washed out blues, purples and browns of the outdoor woven tablecloth. “Raqmed!”

My day at the Kashgar Livestock Market 动物市场 and the Sunday Market 星期日市场 is scrawled in frantic shorthand as “absolutely bonkers, chaotic, manure, loud, wonderful, hot, gross, shocking and wow.” These two sights are often considered ‘must-sees’ by tourist guidebooks and I was excited to get lost in the madness. With spot-on directions from Zhao Laoshi, I put on my headscarf and was off.

I caught the #7 and the #23 to the Livestock Market, and was easily the only foreigner on board either bus. When the #23 rattled to a halt at the final destination, the driver yelled out the name in Uighur and an old bearded man in a dark-green doppa gestured to me that we’d arrived. I joined the human migration up the road towards the market entrance and he said something to me in Uighur, to which I apologetically uttered a “听不懂.” He calmly raised his right hand with a nod, as if to indicate that whatever he said was not of much importance anyway.

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Holy. Mother. Of Woah. Trucks full of sheep with their heads clamped in a row sped down the road. A couple were cracking up as they tried to wrangle themselves onto a 50cc scooter with a live goat positioned sideways across the bottom, clearly seeing the utter ridiculousness of the equation. Near a grassy embankment, a dead sheep was strung up by its hind legs and sliced down the belly with a knife, where its pink-grey guts fell out of its body with the gravitational spill of an unzipped bag of toiletries.

Eeekkk!! A donkey harnessed into a wooden swing structure had a back leg slowly winched upwards with a pulley. Oh, wait, whew – just a donkey shoe repair station!

Goats, sheep, horses, camels, cows and people with hats and veils of all fashions, even more diverse than the ones seen in town, blurred into one manically bustling scene. Breeders from all over the region flock to this market every Sunday. Mooing, baaing, neighing, whinnying underscored the constant yelling of bargains in an incomprehensible rabble of Eurasian dialects. Faaaaaaaa out!!

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I bustled through the swine and legs and poo behind (though almost beneath) all the livestock vehicles, horse-drawn carriages, colossal bulls and small children, while gaining my fair share of stares and confused looks. Donkeys bucked about wildly and camels bared their big, yellow teeth. Carts sped off and sent cow dung flying into the air. The edges of the market were lined with tarpaulin-covered eateries, where firey ovens pumped out samsa, noodle soups an endless pots of tea as crowds of men in doppa hats sat around the cluster of tables. Herds of goats were pulled around by hollering businessmen, a horse raced down the rocky mud-gravel at the back of the yards, creating an incredibly satisfying galloping sound of hoof to dirt, that crunchy ‘clop-clop-CLOP!’

Swear I almost shat myself when I was encircled by a  donkey cart. It felt like my heart rate was up by a zillion bpm, while my eyes had bulged to twice their usual size and I kept gasping aloud involuntarily into the hot and smelly market air. Curious at everything, yet urged along by the overwhelming sense of movement to shuffle through it all with the endless stream of living, breathing things. 
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Fruit and vegetable carts parked up at the gates of the Livestock Market and I was quite relieved to be around some non-sentient produce. These two watermelon vendors held up their finest product and asked me to take their photo! Cool guys!

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The #23 back into town had everyone packed in like sheep in the back of a pick up truck. The roads surrounding the Sunday Market were absolute madness— completely criss-crossed in all directions with motorbikes, buses, cars, pedicabs, horse-drawn carts, fruit vendors, snack trolleys, shoppers, pedestrians… pretty much anything with wheels or feet. And then some. Zhao Laoshi had mentioned there was a section out the back of the main market where the locals go to shop. I bumped into some of the Chinese crew from the hostel who were heading back to the Old Town. When I told the Jiangsu girl that I’d caught the bus to the Livestock Market, she stared at me as if I were Joan of Arc, or… Mulan.

This market was beyond massive. Anything and everything was for sale in enormous quantities. Trestle tables of torches, aisles of alarm clocks and of course endless stalls of local patterned fabrics. Out the back, was indeed where the action was. If the Livestock Market was a male domain, then the Sunday Market was where da ladies at. Arabian style white veils with regal crowns on top, high turbans, loose flowing veils, classic tied back kerchiefs and more. Some women had drawn on their eyebrows with blue eyeliner in a straight line across both brows. Kid vendors yelling at the top of their lungs about shoes. Feeding frenzy bargain bins. There was some serious shopping going down. I bought a bunch of red and green fabric, deftly cut and measured by a barefoot fabric vendor, which is now on my wall in Chengdu!

Exhausted, hungry and sweaty, it was time to retreat to Pamir. The roads were chaotic, the buses were bursting at the seams. A three wheeler with rug-covered benches on the back was chugging past while the driver yelled out “ID KAAAAAAH!! ID KAAAAAAH!” so I flagged him down and hopped on, joining an absolutely ancient woman in a pink veil, a mother and daughter, a classic dark green doppa elder and about six more people who would squash with us during our quick, 3 kuai zip through the backstreets to the Id Kah Mosque. So awesome!! Whizzing down these alleys I’d never have known about, past a guy kneading mud concrete with his bare feet, through the distinctive smell of cumin and spices from the charcoal-smoked lamb kebabs. People piled in as quick as they piled out. What a wild day.

“Huh? How’d you get back so fast?!” the Chinese crew asked, surprised to find me back at Pamir before them.

Because I trust the locals. Because I have trust.

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There is so much to be said about Xinjiang. 

The encounters I had in Turpan, Kuche and Kashgar (I haven’t even gone into Karakul Lake) are all I can write about at length with my mere amateur understanding of the intricate and often controversial complexities of Xinjiang’s greater historic, cultural and social situation.

There’s always so much more to learn, discover and consider.

Ben fashioned as a turd at Karakul Lake. Sunrise. Freezing our butts off.
Ben fashioned as a turd at Karakul Lake for a beautiful sunrise, where we stayed in a Kyrgyz yurt. Near the border with Tajikistan. Freezing our butts off. Ben wears: Uighur hat, it has ‘sheep’ inside.
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Hahaha this ad is such a winner, had to make it in somehow.

Xie xie and RAQMED to all!

Shout out to my mains Ben ‘Cool Charm Rachel’ Allnatt for being an incredible travel companion, as always!

Until next time, Xinjiang!

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