In Muslim China: Travelling to the Uighur region

Uighurs on the market in Hotan

Getting up to pay our Internet bill, we noticed the Uighur boy in the next booth playing one of those grisly violent online games. On a second glimpse we realised that he was watching a video where someone was just being violently beaten up. The young woman wearing a headscarf on the boy’s other side also looked up, and then she too watched in horror as a severed head was placed on the dead body, like a trophy.

We don’t know who was attacked by whom, and where nor why the boy was watching the scene. But the experience was disturbing, and in a predominantly Muslim area somewhat frightening.

The Uighurs we meet while travelling along the Silk Road in China are generally very friendly. They smile much more than the Chinese. And their stares (yes, they stare, and so do we) are curious rather than annoying or threatening. Wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt or talking to Muslim men does not seem inappropriate. On the surface, Chinese and Uighur people also appear to get along well. However, we knew that there is an independence movement, with suicide bombings a few years ago in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi. A closer look reveals some reasons for tensions.

Moving Han Chinese into Uighur regions

Street sign in Hotan with Chinese, Arabic and English letters

Even after decades of migration programmes for Han-Chinese from the overpopulated coast to the minority regions, the majority of Xinjiang’s population are Uighurs. Yet most government-paid posts as well as the more prestigious jobs seem to be occupied by Chinese. Conveniently for the Chinese applicants, Chinese language skills are imperative for higher education and better positions. The everyday language however is Uighur, and many Uighurs do not speak much Chinese.

Uighur belongs to the Turkic language family. In the past it has been written in a variety of scripts. Even a specifically Uighur script existed, which was printed in movable type a hundred years before Gutenberg. Today, an adopted version of Arabic script (with vowels!) is in use.

Central Asia in China

If it weren’t for the street signs written in Chinese with additional Arabic and Latin alphabet, it would be hard to believe that t he sandy back alleys that make up most of Xinjiang’s smaller towns belong to China. They are populated by Uighur families with many children. Fruit sellers pass on their donkey carts, shouting “Posh! Posh! Out of my way!” Old women with headscarves sell fresh yoghurt on little tables in the middle of the street. For more impressions from a typical Uighur market, visit our photo post about a visit to the famous Hotan Sunday Market.

Culturally, the Uighur region is closer to the Central Asian states just to the west of the mountains. For instance, the staple food is not rice anymore, but is dominated by noodles and pasta dishes – similar to those we know from Uzbekistan. But of course, those countries – which belonged to Russia / the Soviet Union for decades – are now independent countries working on their new identity based on their own history and culture.

Chinese influence in the Uighur region

The Uighur region, by contrast, is in the process of losing its own identity. In the centre of each town there is a Chinese quarter. Usually it is about two blocks with paved sidewalks, where you would find the banks, department stores, and expensive hotels. Shoppers as well as the staff are almost exclusively Chinese.

Even to us, the propaganda efforts invoking the inseparability of Xinjiang from China, the “Chineseness” of the Uighurs and the great contribution made by the Western regions to “our beloved homeland China” are very obvious. They are bolstered by efforts to Sinisise the Uighur elite.

Men praying in a mosque in Xining that looks like a Chinese temple
Even the mosque looks like a Chinese temple

A female Uighur student we met on an overnight bus had just spent 5 days to travel home to Hotan from her university on the coast. “I had no choice” she explained in fluent English. “If I wanted to study I had to go to the coast”. With her tight T-Shirt and the Baseball cap over her dark curly hair, she indeed stood for the integrated minority the Chinese government is trying to generate. We wonder if this policy will succeed.

NB: Our trip to the Uighur regions of Xinjiang was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.

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