Tag Archives: Xinjiang

The Kizil Caves

One morning in early July, our bellies full of fresh lamb samosas, my taxi driver Mehmet and I found ourselves in the vast Xinjiang countryside. We were more than an hour from home, bound for the Kizil Caves, a collection of Buddhist grottoes dating back 2000 years, the likes of which are surprisingly common in Xinjiang. These majestic tourist attractions are dotted around the Silk Road oases of the province. But they’re rarely close to the cities, or each other, so long highway journeys are in order for the visitor, through often barren and rocky expanses. By some rotten luck I had yet to step inside a cave this trip, so I was desperate to see the Kizil Caves, outside the oil and gas city of Kuche, a sparkling and strangely empty new town wedged beside a down-at-heel historical old village. But now, I was standing beside a highway, next to a soldier armed with a QBZ-95 machine gun. And Mehmet was nowhere to be found.

Rewind to the previous day. Baby-faced Mehmet (he looked like a younger, less-annoying Gilbert Gottfried) wasn’t “my” taxi driver. He was one of Kuche’s many local cabbies, who just happened to be passing by when I emerged from the hotel looking for a lift to the city’s Grand Mosque. I flagged him down and he promptly dropped me at the mosque, down a dusty street in the old town. Instead of driving off, Mehmet offered to wait outside while I visited. He must have been well aware that the building lacked any of the grand-ness in its title, and that I’d need a lift somewhere else fairly soon. I paid my fee at the booth before entering and lingering, alone but for a pair of curious toddlers, about the mosque’s courtyard in contemplation. I wondered how I would fob Mehmet off and instead explore the streets of Kuche’s old town on foot, searching for my first meal of the last day of Ramadan. That idea withered and died, however, when I exited the grounds and saw five armed policemen, all ethnic Uyghurs, had assembled outside the mosque, playing with the local children and casting occasional glances my way as I passed through the heavy gate. As I settled back into Mehmet’s taxi, the policemen stood up as one, and wandered off, shooting warm welcoming smiles at me through the window. Paranoid that I might be the only foreigner in the old town and receiving unnecessarily close attention, I took the opportunity to ask Mehmet to take me straight to breakfast – to his choice of restaurant for polo, a typically central Asian dish of rice, vegetables and lamb. His face lit up at the suggestion, and off we went, to a new-build place comfortably back in the soulless broad boulevards of Kuche’s new town. The restaurant was full, so I was shown to the last remaining table, crammed near the kitchen. There I was joined by two more Uyghur policemen, who smiled at me before tucking into their bowls of laghman, Xinjiang’s famous, and ubiquitous, noodle soup. As I paid for my meal, Mehmet was waiting, and together we agreed that my afternoon visit would be the 1600-year-old ruins of a city 23km out of town called Subash. By the time we returned to Kuche that evening, together we’d planned the Kizil Caves trip and agreed a time for Mehmet to be pick me up next morning.

The next morning was Eid – the end of Ramadan, roughly the Muslim equivalent of Christmas. But Mehmet’s dedication to his faith (and indeed his family) can’t have been above his business, because he’d already given his whole day over to driving me around the countryside. After buying roadside samosas to eat in the car, we stopped to get gas. In Xinjiang, all passengers must wait at the entry to the gas station while the driver refuels, so I stood there by the highway in my dusty hiking shoes and faded shorts, next to families dressed their best for the day’s festivities. Women wore bright reds, yellows and orange colours, their shiny high heels digging into the sandy road shoulder. Men sported crisp dark suits and combed mustaches, and children in pressed trousers and flowery dresses cavorted around and between their parents’ legs.


The Kizil Caves – no photos are allowed once inside

After about an hour of highway driving, we came upon what appeared to be some kind of toll booth. About twenty cars were lined in single file and Mehmet coasted our taxi to a stop. Several Uyghur policemen with shotguns and heavy flashlights approached. I was asked to get out and walk the next fifty meters, through a security checkpoint. One policeman smiled and asked to see my passport, which fell open on the arabesque swirls of my Iranian visa.
More background: The Uyghur language, which all young Uyghurs can speak and read, is written in the Arabic script. (This wasn’t always the case – the Chinese government has switched from Cyrillic to Latin and again to Arabic in the 67 years since 1949.) So Uyghur policemen can’t read our passport pages, and often they struggle with the Chinese on our tourist documents and their very own passports.
But the young man had little trouble extracting my information from the 2013 visa issued by the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Allah!” he read aloud, looking at me with incredulity. The joy written across his face told me I was the most interesting thing to happen to him this shift, on this most festive of days. He led me into the security check and I was whisked through the metal detector and ahead of the patient queuing Chinese foot traffic like some kind of VIP. Several other Uyghur staff gathered round the ID check window where my passport was handed across a desk. One looked up at me and said “Assalamualeikum” to which I instinctively smiled and replied “Waaleikumassalam” They all thought I was a fellow muslim! “What do you do for a job?” they asked in Chinese. Was I married? Where was I from? “Aodaliya! (Australia!)” I spat out hastily. “Oooh Antalya!” they cried in chorus, realising I must be from Turkey. “No, Aodaliya” I corrected them. “Yidali ma? (Italy?)” they asked. My Chinese wasn’t having a good day. Before I could ask for my passport back, to show them the kangaroo on the coat of arms, the whole joyous spectacle had attracted the attention of their superior, a tall, broad, square-jawed Han Chinese who appeared over my shoulder. The playful air was sucked out of the road-side security hut immediately. He rifled through the pages of my passport to find my valid Chinese visa. The question of where I was from returned, in the form of a serious interrogation. What was my occupation? Why was I in Xinjiang? Where was I staying? Mehmet reappeared, helping me answer the superior’s questions as best he could. And when the superior was satisfied, he handed my passport back, and said goodbye. The young policemen continued to chat to Mehmet and they asked me whether I liked Xinjiang, where I was going and where I’d come from, and then bid us a warm farewell as we departed. When we reached the car, Mehmet told me to stay out, and that he’d be back in five minutes. And then he drove off. I stood in the July sun, beside the stern-looking soldier in an armoured vest, carrying the standard-issue QBZ-95 Chinese military machine gun.

Mehmet took longer than five minutes. All up it must have been twenty or thirty, but it felt like an eternity. I’d been unnerved by the exchange at the checkpoint, worried that the several Chinese visas in my passport, combined with the Iran visas, might have been too peculiar for the tall, humourless Han superior. I felt guilty that Mehmet might have been subjected to more searches than he otherwise might have, all because of me. Underneath all of the informal warmth of Xinjiang, there’s still the very serious matter of security. And anything out of the ordinary demands closer scrutiny. Probably hundreds of people like me pass through that checkpoint every year with funny names, strange passports and exotic visas. But they’ve got to check. There’s a process to follow. No need to worry.

One of the frescoes from the Kizil Caves

An example of the Kizil Cave frescoes (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Kizil Caves were worth all the time and effort. Their collective story is remarkable: 236 cubby holes hewn by holy men into a barren hillside overlooking the Weigan River plain; peaceful places of worship overcome by the desert and 2000 years of regional power shifts, in parts plundered and vandalised, and now protected by Beijing in one of Xinjiang’s few truly positive national initiatives. Their “discovery” by the European powers was a coveted prize in the bitter contest between Great Game rivals Albert von le Coq and Aurel Stein at the turn of the 20th century. The soft blues and pinks in the wall paintings came from India and Afghanistan and the frescoes’ artistic style, like the very people of Xinjiang themselves, descends not from China but from the Indian, Turkic and Greco-Persian cultures of central and south Asia. At dusk, before I returned to the hotel, we tucked into laghman and Turkish tea in a Kuche chaykhaneh – the Persian word for “teahouse” that is understood all the way to Europe. There we were accompanied only by curious waiters and cheery families – paranoia subsided and not a policeman in sight.


I feel I must note that in the last year or so there have been horrifying revelations of mass incarcerations in Xinjiang broadcast on major news outlets like the BBC and the New York Times. One should always be wary of stories that confuse the PRC’s brutal campaign against Uighur separatism, one with roots much deeper than those of the PRC itself, for a campaign against Muslims in general. And journalism in the West has a track record of sometimes being too heavily influenced by pro-independence elements in the diaspora – in this case the Uighur and Turkic diaspora. But after all I’ve read, I have no doubt that the highway checkpoint in my story is an element in the security infrastructure that is being used to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of innocent people for the diabolical purpose of “re-education.” At that checkpoint there was a process to follow, and for me there was indeed no need to worry. But that wasn’t the case for Mehmet or his fellow Uighurs in that security hut. They might have worried for family or friends that had already disappeared, or for the very real prospect of themselves being taken away at a moment’s notice to be imprisoned for an indefinite time, under spurious pretences.

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Xinjiang Gallery

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Throwing Rocks at 13000ft

At around 4200m above sea level, perched on a rocky slope and huddled in layers in the shade, I hurled my last stone into the rushing torrent below. It had been a motif on this trek, throwing stones, shifting slopes, the clinking sound of small rockfalls and the unpredictable splashes when they hit water. Instead of chucking the things I decided to copy the local shepherds, engage in a more constructive exercise and stack a small cairn while we rested on our descent of Muztagh Ata – the ‘Father of Ice Mountain’ in China’s far western Xinjiang province.

We got here via the Karakoram Highway, a road route from the city of Kashgar and on to Pakistan, over the imposing Khunjerab Pass, that encompasses much of the ancient Silk Road route. Until the latest collosal construction project is complete (late 2016), the route is a bumpy off-road experience, taking roughly 7 hours to complete the barely 200km between Kashgar and our first stop, by the western shore of Karakul Lake. Along the way, army green trucks flying the PRC flag stalk the highway in convoys, transporting coal and iron ore. These commodities are the sole property of the government 4000km away in Beijing. The Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Tajik urban and nomadic communities of the area, in their ‘autonomous counties’ have no stake in the riches beneath their feet. Construction on the highway is carried out by companies from across the PRC, from faraway places like Shandong and Guangxi. A new dam and hydroelectric power station has been built beneath the imposing Kongur mountain, creating a new lake and sinking the winter pastures of the local Kyrgyz villagers, and a part of the old Silk Road. Just like the housing developments in Xinjiang’s cities, financed by municipal goverments like Shanghai and Shenzhen, these projects that flow on from the discovery of western mineral wealth are eastern ventures, and the locals of the west will have to take advantage where they can, or be damned.

They are doing just that, as evidenced by our very presence, renting Kyrgyz villagers’ homes as part of an organised tour. The villagers are also by the roadside hawking jewellery and traditional headwear when the Han Chinese spill from their enormous tour buses for photos by the lakes. These are resilient communities that have seen their fair share of cataclysmic changes and tyrannical rule, and the belated arrival of the full force of the PRC juggernaut is just the latest.

For our first day’s trek we set off clockwise around Karakul Lake, as if traversing an ancient Buddhist circuit. The skies are clear and the views of white capped mountains in almost every direction are breathtaking. We pass through Kyrgyz winter villages, deserted except for the odd curious family. The children usually stare wide-eyed at us strangers until we wave to them, then they crack a smile and hide behind their mother or each other. The clear skies prevail, and the daunting peak of 7500m Muztagh Ata, our purpose, watches over us to the east throughout the day. We pass the odd local on a motorbike, plying the dirt trails between villages. Our guide and donkey driver greet them warmly and uniformly: a smile, the right hand placed on the heart, ‘assalamaleikum (waleikumassalam)’ a firm shake of the right hand, and it returns to to the chest, as inquisitive conversation begins. It’s repeated all over Xinjiang, but here in the mountains there is that warm, rural, genuine concern that inhabits the countryside the world over.

Walking the eastern edge of Karakul Lake, the ink black water is so calm, the stratified tan foothills of the Pamir reflect so clearly that peering over the edge feels like staring into an abyss, the sky deep beneath our feet. We leave the lake behind us, swing around a small hill and across a valley of grassland to a house in the village of Idara – a collection of stone houses with a modest mazar (cemetery) on the western side. The almost 18km walk is exhausting. We’ve barely gained 50m in altitude, but there’s extra effort in even the simplest of tasks at 3700m. Idara is a winter village, but in mid July the family are there to host us for the night, to return to their cattle higher up the slopes as soon as we are gone. To our east, the day’s last rays of sunlight glint off the western glaciers of Muztagh Ata, and the clouds clear for a cold, starlit night.

The next day it’s an 8km walk, 400m up to the busy summer village of Qaltamuk, full of lounging juvenile yaks and energetic children on their summer holidays. We cross a vast pebbled riverbed. The streams running through it are high enough that at one point we are forced into our first effort at rock-throwing: establishing a series of stepping stones to traverse the bubbling waters. Across the grasslands beside the riverbed rust-coloured marmots chirp their warning signs to each other, keeping their distance and stood so still they resemble the rocks that dot the hills. We have a brief lunch in Qaltamuk in the early afternoon before attempting to reach the glacier on Muztagh Ata. The ascent is slow and conversation scarce. Marmots chirp somewhere nearby. We cross a herd of bolshy yaks grazing the upper slopes. Between sips of water and gulps of thin air, we snack on Albeni bars – a kind of Turkish Twix. When the grass slopes end we scuttle over the rocks that the retreating glacier has long since left lie, towards its crumbling ice fringes. We reach 4500m. That’s as high as we’ll get. Rain and hail begin to fall, and the mountain is obscured by clouds except for the white wall lower reaches of the glacier. We hang out at the glacier, grinning for photos beside giant blocks of ice and topping up our bottles with crisp, fresh glacier melt. The weather eases and we begin our difficult descent along the moraine, following the path of the ice. Climbing was tiring, but simple and repetitive. Descending loose rocks requires concentration. We rest often, and throw, or stack, rocks in contemplation. The sun comes out. The cavernous sound of rushing water echoes beneath the glacier, and silvery trickles drip from the melting ice to our right. These drips become the waters that divert through the summer village where we will sleep and fill the pebbled valleys far below. They paint green the grasslands where marmots burrow and horses graze and each ever so slightly lifts the level of Karakul Lake. Unlike where I come from, water is plentiful here and electricity is not.

We return to Qaltamuk just before sunset and slump by the warm stone house stove, spent. Our Uyghur guide and Kyrgyz donkey driver roll out their rugs and pray with the hosts, as they have done each evening, night and morning throughout the trek. They whisper Bismillah before our meal of white rice and fried vegetables, and offer thanks with Alhamdulillah after, placing their palms up and then covering their face before clearing the plates. These Sufi traditions sit comfortably alongside the more ancient superstitions that attribute a divine nature to the mountain, and respect for the countryside and the food on their table – echoes of the region’s Buddhist, and pre-Buddhist, past.

Our appetites shot by altitude, we’re grateful too for the mouthfuls that we managed. And for our descent next morning, back across the river via another rocky crossing. Then further down the highway and into the next valley, where the weather is warmer and the air is thicker. As the stone house lights go out and rain falls on the roof, I wonder how long my little stack of 6 rocks will last, so close to the water’s edge, and with winter not far away. Will the shepherds acknowledge it? I’ll never know.

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Flight CZ6888 CAN-URC

Most flights pass by with little incident, each one predictable, indistinguishable from the next. My flight from Guangzhou to Ürümqi in Xinjiang was not one of those.

The first thing that struck me was protruding from the seat pocket in front of me – on the pamphlet of safety instructions, the usual Chinese and English characters were joined by the Arabic script. Xinjiang is the only part of China where Arabic is used, for the Uyghur language, spoken by more than 40% of the province.


China Southern’s Safety Instructions – in Uyghur, Chinese & English

This was the first time I thought I’d noticed an air marshall on a plane. Tall, with close-cropped hair and a deep crease bisecting the back of his head, the man one row in front would periodically strut the cabin and un-selfconsciously eye the passengers with a mixture of boredom and suspicion. I knew what he was for sure when he abruptly ordered the cabin crew to tell me to turn off my “shou ji”, my mobile phone. They and I fell into line without reply.

About 2 hours into the 5 hour flight, looking out the window offered a birds-eye view of a moonscape. Parallel to the plane ran a spine of desolate brown crags, their tops scattered in the summer with snowdrift. Perpendicular to these peaks, long winding ridges of rock fell away, twisting into the distance like the backs of giant alligators. They dwindled to shallow bumps and eventually into dark ripples of sand dunes. As far as the eye could see, there was no sign of life; no road, no river, no farm, no village. Desolate China; her own big, broad Badlands.


Naan bread for sale in the streets of Turpan, near Urumqi

Before our descent, an African man with a francophone accent, dressed in jeans and t shirt and wearing a silver crucifix, sat next to me briefly. He told me was on his way back to Kyrgyzstan, having missed his transit to the Philippines in Guangzhou. It seemed an unlikely story, so I politely declined his request for help, assuming he’d manage okay.

The long approach to Urumqi Airport passed over a flat expanse of bland urbanisation, dominated by an ugly, orderly collection of asbestos blue warehouse roofs. At some distance, through the industrial haze shone the snowcapped Tianshan, the “Heavenly Mountains” of Central Asia, which Xinjiang shares with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.


Late night kebabs in Urumqi

As we disembarked, we passed the air marshall in the jetway where he was placing the African man in handcuffs. Behind them in the west set a toxic orange sun. Less than an hour later I would be ordering lamb kebab and ayran after iftar in a bustling Uyghur cafe across from my hotel – a late night snack and a welcome to Xinjiang fittingly following such a peculiar flight.

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