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Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG

Xinjiang
Let me begin with this lesser-known realm of
China, which lies west of the countrys
magnificent coastal cities that we are achingly
familiar withaway from the modern spires
of Shanghai, the grand history of Beijing and
the non-stop spinning factories of Guangzhou
and Shenzhen. Of them, Xinjiangan
autonomous region farthest away from
Beijing on Chinas fringeis practically terra
incognita as far as much of the outside world
is concerned.
One-sixth of Chinas landmass and
three times the size of France, Xinjiang is
huge. Its massive girth sits at the crossroads of
China and Central Asia, at Chinas extreme
western periphery, the confluence being
nothing short of a knot of spectacular diversity
of ethnic groups and landscape. From Mongols to Kazakhs, Russians to Kyrgyz to Uyghurs, all on a diverse
terrain ranging from windswept steppes to towering mountains and icy lakes to the unrelenting expanse of
the desert sands.
For me, Xinjiang had always seemed the ultimate magical destination. I had read about its lush,
rolling apple and peach valleys, Turpans grape trellis vineyards, and Hamis plump golden-hued, sweetsmelling melons. Then there were stories about legendary oases towns like Kashgar and flashes of its rich
musical heritage, of elegant compositions and vibrant melodies played out on stringed lutes such as the
dutar, tambur and rewap.
For the average Indian, Xinjiang may ring all too familiar a bell. The seventh-century Buddhist monk
Xuanzang crossed Xinjiangs famed Flaming Mountains (the Tianshan mountain range, where the red
sandstone mountains are indeed flaming red in colour) to come to India in search of true scriptures. Based
on Xuanzangs travels was the fascinating record of real geography, Record of the Western Regions, of
regions that lay west of Chinaparticularly India with vignettes of its social mores, its profound
religiosity and its landscape fraught with dangers. So enigmatic and appealing was Xuanzangs account that
it became a part of Chinas folklore in the form of the sixteenth-century novel, Journey to the West
(attributed to Wu Chengen). In this story, the Monkey King Sun WukongChinas version of Hanuman
who takes after the Indian Monkey God from the Hindu epic Ramayanaaccompanies the monk to the
West (India) in the search for true scriptures, meeting with all sorts of delightful (and not-so-delightful)

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


adventures, an allegory of an individual in search of enlightenment.
Later explorersforeign devils on the silk roaddiscovered more links with India. In the
twentieth century, the Hungarian archaeologist, explorer and geographer Sir Marc Auriel Stein, who began
his career with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), travelled to Xinjiang using Xuanzangs Records
of the Western Regions as a guide and later went on to provide conclusive evidence of Classical, Iranian,
and Indian influences linking up with those of China. French archaeologists, including the famous
archeologist Alfred Foucher, indicated that the Kushan civilisation (1st century BC4th century AD)
encompassed Xinjiang, Afghanistan, right down to the plains of North India. This expanse on the map was
an area where poetically and literally, vastly different civilisations met, which seem to qualify the poet and
writer Rudyard Kiplings lines from the Ballad of East and West:
But there is neither East nor West, Border,
Nor Breed nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
Though they come from the ends of earth!
Certainly, Xinjiang became familiar with Vikram Seths incredible travels recounted in From Heaven Lake
in 1983, but it was of a place not Chinese by any width of imagination. As for Indian influences, the
region is famous for the death-defying tight-rope dawaz performers, equally at home in the nooks and
corners of India. Aficionados of Sufyana Kalam, the classical music of Kashmir, may find the lilting
poetry and rhythm of Xinjiangs muqamchi uplifting; both forms are vocal choral music performed by an
ensemble of musicians, sometimes accompanied by dancers. These are usually large-scale suites consisting
of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes and instrumental sectionsthe most prestigious in Xinjiang being the
Twelve Muqam of the Kashgar-Yarkand region. Every child in India is aware of the stories of many starcrossed lovers such as Laila-Majnu (Leila and Meznun in Xinjiang), among other tales; these dastan stories
are as popular in Xinjiang as in India, brought to life in music by singers called the dastanchi. Among other
commonalities, Indians may recollect the incredibly talented Indian theatre veteran Raghubir Yadavs
delightful rendition of Mullah Nasiruddin on Indian television in the 1990s. Indeed, the local ethnic
population of Xinjiangthe Uyghurs, who are Turkic Muslimsclaim that Mullah Nasiruddin was from
Xinjiang.
Yet I found that the obstacles to reaching Xinjiang (inside China) in the 2000s were almost the
obstacles that stood between Delhi and Kashmir in the 1980s and 1990s. Xinjiang can almost be seen as
Chinas Kashmir, a troubled province beset with violence and adrift with rivers of blood. For long years,
Kashmirs beautiful houseboats, the gorgeous Dal lake and rolling hills of cherry orchards were off the
tourist map, just like the riotous Sunday bazaars, shrines and apple orchards of Xinjiang.
It will not take long for a layperson to figure out that Xinjiang is colloquially referred to as Chinas
Wild West, uncomfortably beyond the calling of the iron-fisted mandarins of Beijing. It seems that
centuries ago, the famous eighth-century Tang dynasty poet Cen Shen described it as a place where no
birds from a thousand miles dare flypartly because of Xinjiangs great distance from Beijing and partly
because of the different religion and culture. Despite the passage of centuries, Xinjiang remains a thorny
issue.

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG

Bollywood encounters with Uyghurs in Shanghai


My first encounter with Uyghurs in China was in the early 2000s, in cosmopolitan Shanghai of all places.
One ramshackle alley squeezed between two rows of squat old socialist blocks was colloquially called
Stinky Alley thanks to the stench of offal and carcass, with the litter of paws (of dogs) and the fishy smell
of bunched up thin brown snakes (apparently very delicious) in the air. Near where the alley met the main
street, a boisterous crew of teenagers on the threshold of manhood hung around as if they had all the time in
the world. They stuck out like a sore thumb: not only were they fez-capped but they also looked markedly
different, what with large eyes and strong aquiline noses. They were the helping hands of an elderly lot who
looked and dressed similar inside, I discovered. Together, they ran the hole-in-the-wall restaurant sidled at
the corner. The elderly lot wore mustaches or beardsquite an aberration for the average Han Chinese.
I was taken aback by their sheer exuberance as they stopped to screech Kajol and
Shahrukh (both Bollywood superstars), and even more amazed as I found myself answering Alaikum
salaam! in return. Soon I began to patronise their restaurant not because they played songs from Dilwale
Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (The Brave-Hearted Will Take the Bride)starring Kajol and Shahrukh, a 1995
runaway box office success that had reached the shores of Shanghaior sold a neat stash of hash (which
explained the frequent presence of police in the restaurant, apparently there for their cut), but because
their version of a particular chicken dish was particularly flavourful, with chunks of potatoes, green peppers
and star anisethe closest that came to curry.
In the faces, dispositions and accents of the Uyghurs, I saw the Kashmiris back home. The
exceptions I discovered later: Uyghurs who have small eyes, sport a swarthy rugged look and yet don a fez
cap. Xinjiang also shelters a diverse ethnic populationamong others, the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Mongols.
It is almost as if Xinjiangs geographical reality of straddling China and Central Asia is writ on the faces of
its people, a mirror to the reality of Kashmir, where apart from the Kashmiri Muslims, the Hindus, the
Buddhists, Dogras, Poonchi, Paharis and Gujjars also make up the social fabric.

To be or not to bea part of China


The Uyghur historian Turghun Almas minced no words in his best-known work The Uyghurs (Ughuriar,
1992; banned in China): One must state definitively: the motherland of the Uyghurs is Central Asiaa
sentiment repeated by another well-known Uyghur historian Qurban Wli who argued that the Uyghurs were
one of the principal nations (millt) that created the Central Asian civilisation. The musicologist Anna
Czekanowska concurs, saying that the Uyghurs were the progenitors of the Turkic speaking peoples of
Central Asia.
But Chinas map says otherwise. China made Xinjiang its own by conquest. Perhaps it is here that
the case of Kashmir differs. In 1947, Kashmir, then ruled by the Indian Maharaja Hari Singh, chose to

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


accede to the Indian Union. It was this act of voluntarily acceding to India that lent credence to the
construction of India as a vibrant, secular and pluralistic state. Kashmir was given a special status in the
Indian federation, with Article 370 enshrined in the Constitution; this provision gave the central government
powers with respect to foreign affairs, defence and communications. The rest of the legislative powers
resided with the state.
In contrast, Xinjiang was the result of conquest; it literally means New Territories or New
Frontier. One of the foremost scholars on Eurasian Studies, Gardner Bovingdon, points out that the
territory slipped into and out of Chinas orbit before finally being forcibly incorporated by Qing conquest
in 1759. It formally became a province following a bloody, protracted war that came in 1884 at a great cost
to the coffers of the last tottering Chinese dynasty. Its political canvas was writ by upheavals: a series of
warlords ruled between 1911 and 1949, including two brief spells in 1933 and 1944, when the independent
East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was declared. But ultimately, it became Chinese territory.
Though part of China, its distance is a hurdleboth literal and symbolicfrom the centre of power
of China, which made the conquest a tad unviable. In the mid-1930s, Sir Eric Teichman, a British
diplomat, undertook a journey of some thirty-eight days, covering 2550 miles by motor truck from Suiyuan
(Inner Mongolia) to Kashgar through the Gobi desert, crossing plains of gravelly sand and sandy beds
of dry rivers, to the Western Gobi, a jumble of mountains, to finally reach the Xinjiang border, utterly
empty save for the wild ass and antelope. Here, Teichman wrote, the traveller finds himself in a new
country, China and Mongolia are left behind.
And then there was the French expedition Croisire Jaune (Yellow Expedition) in the 1930s with
the entourage on Caterpillar trucks surviving war and warlords to make it to Xinjiang. In the early 1950s, the
journey was just as formidable, taking almost a month to reach the nearest railhead in Xian. Today, it still
takes a six-hour flight from Shanghai.

Urumqi-bound
I was not quite sure what to make of Xinjiang except to rely on literature, stories, anecdotes and hearsay
until my visit fell into place. My Urumqi trip in 2010 came on the heels of the noted Indian sinologist Prof.
Manoranjan Mohantys trip. Prof. Mohanty visited Northern Xinjiangthe capital Urumqi and the famously
charming oasis town of Turpan, which still stands somewhat frozen in time despite the winds of
modernisation. A complex centuries-old farez irrigation system is still in use, with some underground
tunnels spanning over 20 kilometers still in existence.
The contact in Urumqi was Chong Ge, who turned out to be a middle-aged, rather affable official of
the China Xinjiang Development Center of International Economy. He met me at the Urumqi airport,
surprise writ on his face: I thought you were a man!
At the airport and in a short while, the fact of a central government in denial became naturally evident.
I had vaguely known that there was only one time zone in all of China, but being there, the reality of Urumqi
following Beijing time dawned on me. By longitude, Urumqi ought to stand at least two hours behind. But it
was six oclock in Beijing, and so it was by the clock at Urumqis airport. The glare of the late afternoon sun
was ample proof that Beijing time had failed to clock in Urumqi.

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


Chong Ge directed the car to the city centre while making small
pleasantries. The oasis town seemed to burn in the desert heat, made worse by the sunlight glaring from the
ubiquitous glass and aluminum. I am not sure what I expected, but certainly was taken aback by the visible
Shanghai-fication of Urumqitall buildings jostled for space across each side of the expressway, all
reduced to a hazy blur by the confidently speeding car.
The city centre was yet again a disappointing Shanghai clone. Chong Ge guided me to a hotel only
to find that the hotel declined to accept a foreign guest (apologetically, as they had not received the
requisite security clearance). We drove around in circles, by which time his exasperation had reached its
limit; hotels were either full or did not accept foreigners. We drove to the last resort, the New Times
Hotel.
New Times Hotel was not exactly in the newest of times. Fronted by a peeling Peafowl Mansion,
Xerox and fried youtiao [crullers] stalls, its only concession to new times appeared to be the pizza restaurant
around the corner, as the receptionist delightfully informed me. The hotel was mercifully empty of guests
and moreover accepting of foreigners. I inspected the insides of the hotel with great interest and found it an
anomaly in faraway Xinjiang. From the efficient, uniformed concierge to the noodle soup on the menu, from
the dcor to the Chinese tea bag and mandatory tea flask in the room, it felt like anyplace in China.
In so short a time, from the airport to hotel, I had found nothing extraordinary or exceptional about
Urumqis personality; it permeated a sense of being in any other Chinese city. I had noticed the cloying
familiarities of Peoples Road and Peoples Park that seemed incongruous, even to me; from the window, the
street grid was perfectly seamless running at perfect right angles. The room was with a viewof a towering
impressive skyline, no different from Wuxi or Suzhou.
Chong Ges gentle admission that locals followed local time came as a relief; we were to meet for
dinner at 8 oclock Xinjiang time, just as we were to meet at 10 am the next day. That evening, I recollect
we drove, not walked, even though the restaurant was just a block away. It was largely what I would find in
a Uyghur restaurant in Shanghai or Beijing: Uyghur faces fanned lamb kebabs at the entrance. Inside, garish
red table covers, reminiscent of Delhis middle-class Karol Bagh-type eateries, lined the tables and the
heavy smell of lamb fat hung in the air. The diners were mostly cherubic Han Chinese. He introduced me to
his pint-sized compatriot, Li Bai of the China Xinjiang Development Center of International Economy &
Culture Overseas Liaison Department. Li Bai, all dimples and curls, sniffed that she was disappointed that I
did not drape the saree.
As we all got talking, Chong Ge mentioned a familiar nameSu Rong, the scholar who had
welcomed me at Lanzhou University as a researcher fresh out of India. It was with a bit of nostalgia that I
thought of the small, tightly knit, closed and circulating world of cadres and camaraderie in China. I had met
him on my first fieldtrip in Lanzhou, lost him, and found him again in Urumqi.
I had faintly hoped for some sort of Wild West adventure in Urumqi; to my dismay, there seemed
little hope of that. Yet it was not so straightforward. According to those in the know, the taming of Xinjiang
has been both overt and covert. Plainclothes police stalk the streets, along with police in uniform. There are
also allegations that the Uyghur population has been hemmed into one area of the city (which makes them
easier to control and track).
Afterwards, I stood surveying the square, enjoying the pleasant evening chill that had set into the
oasis town. There was an indescribable and innate sense of Chineseness: elderly Han in their night

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


pyjamas were on a stroll, and smartly attired young and confident Han faces in crisp business suits, happy
after a glass or two of the heady grain alcohol baijiu (which like vodka and gin looks clear but some vouch it
as 106 percent proof), talked in loud slurs. But for the Uyghurs serving in the restaurant and the sorry faces
of their brethren fanning the kebabs, the street hardly presented a picture of heterogeneity. I thought that
American geographer Stanley Toops accurate description of Urumqis demographics as pretty much an
ethnic Han city was dead on.
In the days that followed, Urumqis sense of Chineseness was warmly comforting, gently lulling in
predictable rhythm but also deeply disturbing. The generic Dicos (Chinas answer to KFC) was just as
popular in Urumqi; the wide-spread popularity of pork baozi (steamed bun) places made me gasp; the
ubiquitous soya milk and crullers places were a dime a dozen. On the streets, Uyghurs (and others) seemed
unobtrusive and marginal. Standing outside the supermarket where I had gone to pick up bottles of Nongfu
Spring, Chinas Bisleri water, a young Uyghur man came racing in my direction, as if he was possessed. I
stopped dead in my tracks. My heart skipped a beat. I had been warned about unexpected terrorist attacks
stabbing sprees, shootouts, and what not. The young man could be a terrorist, I thought in panic. But he flew
past me, leaving me wondering about the stereotypes in my own head.
This fallacy of stereotypes was reinforced on the citys landmark, the Red Hillnot Red but a hill
nonethelesswhere amidst the lanky foliage, I found young Uyghur couples flush with sweet young love. I
had mistakenly imagined all Uyghur women veiled and, for lack of better word, conservative; imagine my
surprise then when a young Uyghur girl in jeans and long flowing black hair, veil discarded, giggled by the
solitary shaky bench, fervently kissing the young man beside her. It felt like the pangs of first love; they
smiled shyly as they saw me, running deep into the woods. Their peals of laughter echoed for long in my
ears.
Only when I strayed to the Grand Bazaar in the heart of the city did it feel like Xinjiang. The Grand
Bazaar was a happy maze. Lost amidst the sacks of walnut, the stacks of daggers, the rolls of carpet, I felt as
if I had wandered into an old bazaar of yore. Beautiful firm pistachios all the way from Iran looked down
from tall glass jars, large plump rose-scented raisins from Turpan lay piled on heavy brass platters, and the
smell of heavenly dried lavender was in the air. I succumbed to a sequined black headscarf from across
Indias (and Chinas) borders, Pakistan. I tied it around my head and immediately felt that I fit in. I could see
happy glances of approval. It was the whiff of a different land.

Discovering Urumqi
I am not exactly sure about the antecedents and precedents of Li Bais office, but I could gather that it had a
mysteriously long reach. Li Bai, I thought, seemed defensive about Xinjiang (a common malaise among Han
Chinese in Xinjiang, as I discovered); she was quick to defend and display frequent fits of Han patriotism. In
between were lulls of humane interludes including an irrepressible can-do enterprise going all the way out
to help me. She was in many ways a typical Han Chinese who was not embarrassed to ask personal
questions. She seemed impressed that I had travelled to Europe and that I found Chinese food truly
palatable. I met an Indian who was strange, she said, He kept saying that Chinese vegetables were halfcooked. Li Bai finally seemed to begin to shed her apprehensions that I was a spy and scheduled a meeting

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


with the Imam at Urumqis Grand Mosque.
Urumqi is divided by an invisible line, discernable to those in the know. Peoples Road divides the
city along a north-south axis. The northern precinct constitutes the core nucleus of the city, with the business
district, the provincial government headquarters, the banks, the museums and institutions, all seemingly
Han-centric and Han-dominated. This could not be said of the southern quarters of the city, or realistically
parts of it, which belonged to the past. The streets of the southern quarter were a mangle of decaying,
fraying, derelict buildings, each with a quaint and distinctive personality, the streets bursting with people, so
much so that it felt like the middle of Chinas version of Chandni Chowkliterally Moonlight Square, a
lively, crowded bazaar in the old quarter of Delhi, opposite the famous Red Fort harking back to the 17th
century (and if it helps, Bollywood produced a predictable kung-fu movie From Chandni Chowk to China in
2009 as if to say: from the heart of Delhi to China). Like Delhis Chandni Chowk, it felt crammed,
overwhelming even, but edgy and exciting. Dingy soot-covered nang (flatbread) shops jostled with butchers
who hung huge skinned calves by the doorway. Weather-beaten, raggedy fruit vendors laboriously pushed
carts laden with stale apricots and pecan nougat. Ladies in long, colourful skirts haggled at the pushcarts. At
the intersection stood the Grand Mosque or the Hatangri Mosque (built in 1864), described as the pivot for
the Uyghur community in Urumqi.
Unlike the Hui Muslim mosques in China (and incidentally the Hui are the largest Muslim
community in the country), which are built with a recognisable Chinese aesthetic and sensibility that verged
on the style of Taoist temples (with sloping roofs and upturned eaves), the Grand Mosque was built in a style
as we know it in India, complete with a large dome and towering minarets. There was no sign of red gilded
columns, Prussian-blue inlays, semicircular and circular roofing tiles, eaves and moon-gates from one
courtyard to another, and most certainly it was bereft of dragons and phoenixes which define Hui mosques.
I thought there was something unmistakably Turkish/Persian about it; I later learnt this was a neoUyghur stylethat too largely an invented one. The French anthropologist and architect Jean-Paul Loubes
pinned the layout to an explicit borrowing of architectural influences from Uzbekistan and making the style
their own, so much so that a copy of the Kalian minaret, Bukharas most emblematic monument, is situated
on the main square.
The anachronism of the Islamic mosque lay in its uneasy location. The resplendent brick-colored Grand
Mosque stood adjoining a large commercial complex (of which the Grand Bazaar was a part) with a Kentucky
Fried Chicken outlet on the side. Fried chicken and inner spiritual peace was a mismatch, but it did cross my
mind that this was China, where religion and commerce frequently rubbed shoulders.
It was only here in this quarter that Han faces noticeably faded into the background. Instead,
Xinjiangs heterogeneous population unfolded in the steady stream of worshippers who came to the mosque:
the Uyghurs, the Kazaks, the Uzbeks and the Tajiks. I watched them take their shoes off, wrap their feet in
transparent polythene and take the stairs. This wound into a spacious hall with stark white walls, the cold
floor laid out in unappealing carpets.
The assistant Imam Qurbaan Aaji happened to be a thin, distinguished-looking, soft-spoken man with
a nervous twitch who looked his age, in his late sixties. He appeared nervously delighted to meet a foreign
guest from Hindustan. This was one thing about Xinjiang. Wherever I went in the Grand Bazaar, they
referred to India as Hindustan, which to me inadvertently honed the long historical connection that India
and Xinjiang had. Most Chinese call India by its Chinese appellation Yindu; only in Xinjiang I found that

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


the common man in the bazaar knew India as it was once popularly called.
Qurbaan Aaji appeared no different from an Imam in India. He wore the Central Asian
approximation of the kurta pyjama in crisp white cotton, with the customary fez on his head.
A small crowd of men gathered around me, piqued by interest in the deliberations (unlike Hui
mosques, this was bereft of women worshippers). This place has over 100 years of history, built in the
1860s, said Qurbaan Aaji in a mild-mannered voice. Yet I could almost smell the fresh paint. Rebuilt and
expanded recently, he added hastily.
According to him, more than 2000 worshippers congregated for the Friday salaat prayers, but
between 300400 worshippers came on a daily basis. The fact that 2000 braved the mosque on Fridays
despite a watchful and heavy state vigilance, as critics claim, was quite a revelation.
The mosque had no women visitors, unlike the Hui mosques which boast ladies ablution chambers
and prayer rooms. Kazaks and Tajiks were, however, welcome and they joined in the prayers. I asked him if
the Hui joined as well. Qurbaan Aaji scowled. The mosques for Uyghurs and Hui were different, he replied;
there was little interaction between the two Muslim communitiesno intermarriage and even the burial
grounds were separate.
Certainly, Qurbaan Aaji seemed oblivious of the divide between the Shia and the Sunni that has
fractured peace across borders from the Middle East to India. He could not tell the difference between the
Sunni in Pakistan and the Shia in Iraq, nodding his head in bewilderment. All he believed he said was that
the Uyghurs are closer to Turkish Islam, united by a common belief in Allah. There is a madrassah at
Yanan Road for religious training, he informed me. I asked him if it was true that the Uyghurs drank liquor
as the Canadian writer Lisa Carducci (who was among the first few foreigners to obtain the Beijing
Permanent Residence Card in 2005) observed during her five-week travels in Xinjiang. The Hui have taken
to pork, but Uyghurs abstain from pork, he said somewhat diffidently.
Were the Uyghur monogamous? The Uyghur in the rural areas are hard up to maintain even one;
maintaining two is out of the question, he said with rancid humour. It is weifa or illegal, shrieked an
enthusiastic bystander with light blue eyes. The laws for the Han and the Uyghurs are the same, shrieked
another with equal enthusiasm. I turned to ask the very enthusiastic onlookers (keen to see an Indian woman
live) if they had anything in common with the Han. Pat came the reply: Like the Chinese, we use
chopsticks and sometimes we break the Ramadan fast together but women de lishi bu yiyang (we have
different histories), said one gleefully. I thought I saw Li Bai wince.

Shihezi surprise
The story goes that Xinjiang was once a rough and tumble frontier of sand and gravel. This is partly true.
Many Chinese indignantly contend that Xinjiang is seeing better days precisely because of the heartwrenching sacrifices made by the first generation of Chinese settlers who landed in Xinjiang in the 1950s
and 1960s, driven by nothing but the idealism of building and buffering the frontier. I had only heard and
read about one dusty small frontier called Shihezi, trumped as borne out of the blood and toil of the first
generation. Less known is the fact that Shihezi and such like miracles in Xinjiang were products of the
quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a contentious outfit directly under the

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


State Council (akin to the cabinet in India) that was created during Maos rule, in 1954.
In the early 2000s, XPCC stood with a head count of 2.48 million. Its historical mission, as the
French sinologist Nicolas Becquelin noted, was once to stand guard and reclaim land and garrison the
frontier. It is said to control about a third of Xinjiangs arable land. Critics pan it as an umbrella outfit
that absorbed all and excess population from heinous convicts to hapless demobilised soldiers, from
political prisoners to cheery idealistic volunteers, all of whom were conveniently dispatched to the frontier.
For a fact, half a million people migrated to Xinjiang in 1954 and that the last large contingent of migrants
arrived in 1964.
In my imagination, Shihezi was a remote dot of exaggerated propaganda on Xinjiangs mapan
inconspicuous desert town propped up by publicity. I had certainly had not anticipated it as a high-profile
bulwark, a microcosm bustling with Chinese commerce. Its fortune seemed inextricably tied to the pioneer
generation (as Xinjiangers like to call the first generation of Chinese settlers).
This is what the Han built with their own hands, said Li Bai with pride as we surveyed the spread:
the leafy green tree-lined avenue with generously interspersed public parks, the broad non-potholed streets,
the huge market complexes and offices. Li Bai sighed. Most Westerners want to search for state violence in
Xinjiang, but they do not want to see that Shihezi would have been all gravel but for the sacrifice that the
pioneer generation made, she said. This is what gets our goat, she suggested frankly.
Even the die-hard skeptic cannot quite dismiss the copious funding that has been poured into
Shihezi and by default into Xinjiang. Yet as the American economist Calla Weimar has noted, even this has
led to a dead end. The paradox of copious funding which has led to visible economic gain and yet stirs
resentment is complicated. The fruits of Beijings generous cheque book are there to see, and yet Beijing has
got it wrong. Many critics crib that the Han and the Uyghurs lack common social and cultural ties such as a
common language, script and religion, but more than that, I thought it was the lack of a moral writ, which I
could not quite define.
I understood what Li Bai was trying to convey, as she left me for a moment to run an errand. I turned
to converse with the greying driver who had been quiet all along. Shifu, when did you come to Xinjiang?
I asked politely, addressing him politely as master.
To my surprise, Shifu said he was a second-generation Xinjianger. His father had arrived bag and
baggage from the coastal province of Shandong in the 1950s. He recollected his grandfather saying that
Xinjiang was nothing but a vastness of sand, a wretched tinderbox. The sand flew in sheets during storms
and days were so excruciatingly hot that it was easy to scald your feet. The pioneer generationthey
were the ones who turned this place around, working to death.
Disputing the happiness, anger, grief and sorrow of the pioneer generation is sacrilege in China
simply because it is true. Shifu agreed that the path taken had not been the best way forward: This is
what it is. It had to be what the team leaders decreed, a Chinese-style of development from top or else it
would have been nothing but desert, he muttered philosophically.
Softening his stance, Shifu said that many of the second and third-generation settlers like him had
taken to Uyghur ways, only that nobody liked to openly admit it. He could speak for himself: most days his
soul food was nang (bread) with spicy lamb mincea delicious dish cooked with plenty of onions, capsicum
peppers and carrot, a Uyghur specialtyas opposed to Chinese style-noodle soup or rice.
I asked him about his children. His daughter was studying medicine in the coastal area. I had too

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much uncertainty in my life, being here in Xinjiang. I now have a life here, but one I do not wish upon my
daughter. Soon, my daughter will be a doctor, perhaps shell find a job in Shanghai or Beijing, not here
and my life and sacrifice is complete.

Extreme embrace
There is no doubting the noble sacrifices, but Chinas embraceor rather, griphas undone it. The
demographic flood by way of migration and settlement as coaxed and sponsored by the Party dramatically
altered the demography. This, I thought, made the Kashmir case utterly different from Xinjiang. Kashmirs
special status is enshrined in Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which among other things prevents nonKashmiris from buying property in the state. Unlike Mao, Nehru had too much respect for Indias pluralism
and ethnic groups to tinker with the demographic layout of Kashmir.
Respect for pluralism has ensured that Kashmiri Muslims wear their veils, scarves, burqas, the men
grow their beard as they wishall these stand banned in Xinjiang as of July 2015, including clothing with
the crescent moon and star logo. AFP reported that a man from Kashgar was jailed for six years in March
(2015) for growing a beard and his burqa-wearing wife sentenced to two years.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Kashmir is limping back to normalcy, but not
Xinjiang, which instead of blooming is bombing. A recent Bollywood film on Kashmir chronicled Indian
state repressionmentioning deaths, mass graves and alland was welcomed by the Indian public in 2014.
On the other hand, in the same year, a spate of knifings and bomb blasts originating from Xinjiang hit all
corners in China, indicating that the heavy hand is a solution only in the short run and ultimately achieves
little. Such a movie would not be possible in China, but healing requires admission as well.
Critics allege that migration is a festering problem, which draws the locals ire. Critics allege that
convicts, criminals and petty thieves came to Xinjiang, but the truth is quite complex: convicts aside,
illustrious Han Chinese political prisoners came as well. The poet Ai Qing (father of the well-known artist
Ai Weiwei) was amongst those subject to hard-core manual labour in 1959 and only came to be rehabilitated
in the twilight of his life in 1978.
But that does not take away the bite of the dramatic change in the composition of the population
owing to a deliberate migration policy, as the demographer Stanley Toops and the scholar Michael Dillon
indicate: the Uyghurs constituted 75% in 1982 but decreased to 48% in 1990 and dipped further to 47% in
2001. In contrast, the Han population shot up from 6.1% to 37% to 38% in the corresponding years. If
informal estimates are to be believed, of the 22 million population today, Uyghur comprise 40% and the Han
population ratio could be close to half.
On the other hand, the decrease is also due to outward migration to places considered more
conducive, facilitated by porous borders. Scholars have chronicled that in 1962, 100,000200,000 Kazakhs
crossed over to Soviet Kazakhstan.
Besides the demographic issue, the centre-periphery relationship between Beijing and Xinjiang has
stoked resentment. The political scientist Barry Sautman likens the relationship as one black, one
white (yi hei, yi bai in Chinese)referring to the primary products, oil and cotton. The Chinese
demographer Peng Xizhe concedes that Xinjiangs oil industry is proving attractive to migrants who make a

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beeline for the oil cities such as Dushanzi, Korla and Karamay. Today, Xinjiang produces more than 10% of
Chinas crude oil and natural gas. More importantly, its critical significance cannot be understated, lying as
it does at the crossroads of an important gas pipeline. A 4,200 km, USD $15 billion natural gas pipeline goes
from Lunnan (Xinjiang) all the way to Shanghai. That the sacrifices of the pioneer generation is being
reaped a thousand kilometers away at the eastern coast is obviously a thorny issue.

Urumqis Central Asian heritage


Urumqis inherent Central Asian heritage revealed itself at dinner. Shifu stopped at a row of unimpressive,
Chinese-style, white-tiled modern shop-houses, at a Kazakh restaurant that is favored by Urumqis
gourmands.
At last, the restaurant came as a surprise in the big city! Prominently fronted by a massive white
signage, it was scrawled in Chinese calligraphy, Russian Cyrillic and Arabic scriptsall three in thick lucid
strokes of green, a colour associated with Muslim halal food. The restaurant looked modestly nouveauriche, a faint throwback to good old butter-chicken restaurants of Old Delhi patronised by foodies. Here in
Urumqi, the place recalled old times and climes but also eagerly embracing tokens of modernity. An aging
red carpet rested on the floor and a cheap-looking chandelier hung on the ceiling. And flashing were
psychedelic disco lights in the background. No, it was not masala in the air but a suspicious aging stable
smell that hovered and made me quite anxious. I was to discover why: horse meat was its specialty, a treat
that Li Bai looked excited about.
At the far end of the wall, the makeshift disco throbbed with yellow, blue and red lights that created a
fleeting lotus. Soon a blonde Central Asian lady appeared. The ladys blonde looks (a blonde in China
never fails, goes the joke) were wildly exaggerated with overdone makeup and tight silver pants, apparently
close to the Han fetish for foreign women. Li Bai claimed that local girlsUyghur and Kazakh (and some
from across the border)sought refuge in the deep wallets of the Han men who fancied large-eyed, bigbreasted women of Central Asian stock.
The blonde gyrated suggestively and was ignored by the Han diners (cat-calls are virtually nonexistent in China; naturally, so is Eve-teasing) who silently tucked into the gourmet spread. The horsemeat
treat arrived shortly, soya-braised slivers sizzling with chunks of onions. Li Bai dug in, cheerfully
reprimanding me for my disdain for horse meat.
I gathered that Xinjiang could be roughly divided into two halves: the south was the bastion of the
Uyghurs, but the heterogeneous populationUyghurs, Mongols, Kazakhs, Sibes and Russiansmade their
homes in the northern steppes, north of the Taklamakan desert. What was left unsaid was that the north had
been somewhat amenable to Han control, but the south remained recalcitrant.
Li Bai had never been to Kashgar, the most famous city in the south. Kashgar is always embroiled
in something nasty or the other, she said truthfully. But she had heard that it was truly exotic, its grand
old Sunday bazaar the mother of all bazaars in China. She did not seem to have friends or colleagues in
Kashgar either, nor did she seem particularly inclined to visit. The famed Kashgar, so near from Urumqi and
yet so far for her, was plainly strange.

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Looking towards Central Asia
En route to the International Cultural Exchange School (ICES)an arm of the Xinjiang Normal University,
where Li Bai was taking me to visit the museum dedicated to Xinjiangs rich musical heritageI casually
mentioned that I had made plans to go to Kashgar. It had been unexpectedly easy: all I had done was to go
down to the concierge and pick the flight, and so it was, all sorted out in a matter of minutes.
Suddenly, she seemed to begin to admire me. Li Bai, who had claimed that she did not know a soul
in Kashgar, suddenly volunteered to help me with a hotel. I suggested of a place that I knew of: Qinibagh,
the erstwhile British Consulate. She immediately called a phone friend chatting loudly and animatedly,
gesturing wildly. I gathered that her phone friend told her that Qinibagh was a shabby little decrepit place,
swarming with mites, mice and foreigners, in no particular order. She looked crestfallen, but called Qinibagh
nonetheless. Bureaucracy it was, as Qinibagh informed her that it was fully booked. Li Bais amicable,
dimpled face set in a deathly grimace. She dialed another friend and followed it up with a curt phone call
back to Qinibagh. There was a vacant room, after all.
*
The administrator at the sleepy ICES was more than happy to receive me, as if a pleasant diversion from
routine boredom. The Chinese, I found, especially in sleepy or at least smaller, lesser known or visited cities,
were considerably warmer than the Shanghainese (who were anyways always too busy) and also welcoming
of foreign visitors (though Caucasians ranked higher at the welcome stakes than Asians). Students and
foreign researchers come from neighbouring Central Asian countries, she said, particularly member
countries of the SCO. The SCOShanghai Cooperation Organisationin 2001 grew out of Shanghai Five
(1996), with its six member-states Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan aiming
to provide peace and security in Central Asia.
Li Na, the administrator, said that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan had welcomed Chinas Confucius
Institute (as early as 2007 and 2009 respectively), while some other countries, like Uzbekistan and
Kazakhstan, had established bilateral exchange programmes with Lanzhou University back in 2001. In 2011,
there were almost 600 foreign students on campusfrom Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Koreain Urumqi of all
places (one just wonders whether one could say the same about the University of Kashmir at Srinagarstill
in the backwaters?).
The Head of the school is an Uyghur, Azat Sultan, she said with pride. It was impressive, only that
the Head was titular, while all powers was vested with the Party Secretary, who in this case was an ethnic
Han by the name of Liang Chao. Liang Chaos predecessor? I asked. Zhang Xianliang, she said. It was
as I had expected. The Han, not Uyghurs, were in positions of power and privilege, and this added to
troubled undercurrents.
We walked a block to the museum. The school caters to Muslim students; all the four canteens are
qingzhen (halal), she said proudly. They offered no room for namaz (prayer) as the policy was to keep the
school secular. Sounding enthusiastic about the museum, Li Na giggled. Uyghurs love to play music and
dance, music runs in their blood, she said.
The museum turned out to be an elongated hall, full of gleaming shiny new instruments. There were

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the familiar erhu (fiddle), the pipa (lute), the dutar and tambur (stringed lutes). And they had a piece of the
dongbula, a two-stringed instrument favoured by the Kazakh. The five-stringed aijak which is considered as
one of the central instruments used by muqam singers was displayed, as was the popular rewap, known as
rubab in Kashmir.
The ethnomusicologist Chuen-Fung Wong, who has contributed to the scholarship on the revival of
Uyghur music, has noted the impressive effort made by the Chinese since the 1950s. The master musician
Turdi Akhun arrived in Urumqi as part of an initiative by a prominent Uyghur, Seyfeddin Aziz, to collect
and rescue the vanishing tradition of the Twelve Muqam.
The museum was smart but seemed devoid of character. To my utter dismay, it seemed a chronicle of
new instruments; it neither offered an insight on musical tradition nor practitioners dead and living.
Disappointingly, the museum failed to highlight the momentous transcription by Chinese musicologists,
spanning a decade, that led to the publication of a landmark volume on Uyghur Folk Classical Music:
Twelve Muqam in 1960. The French ethnomusicologist Sabine Trebinjac observed that over the years
Uyghur music has become ordered, presenting itself as neither raw nor pure folk music. The ordered
museum seemed to reflect Trebinjacs metaphora body without soul.

The boy from Moorkhun


To my surprise, Li Na offered to track down the sole Pakistani student on campus, Waseem Sajjad, from
Kashmir (Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, POK). I was pleasantly taken aback by Waseema strapping young
lad in his early twenties, dressed in Chinese-made stonewashed jeans, who could have easily passed off as a
nice Indian boy from small town Punjab, and fittingly his accent had a nice Punjabi lilt.
Waseem broke into a hearty smile, just plain happy to see a brown face. He told me that he was from
Moorkhun village, Gilgit. What are you doing in Urumqi? I asked in surprise. Waseems Chinese dreams
had an ingrained, unshakable logic. His father, he said, was a small-time trader. The reality of today is the
flourishing border trade which has opened new opportunities, he explained. He did not want to miss the
metaphorical boat and was here at Urumqithe cheapest destination to brush up on Chinese. This will
come in handy dealing with the slippery Chinese traders, he said with a laugh. Li Na stared at us as we
burst out in laughter.
The reality of Gilgit in Chinas lap was not new and neither was SCO (Shanghai Cooperation
Organisation). But the logic of Chinese vision, grounded in infrastructure, was telling as Waseem spoke of
the motorable Karakoram Highway (the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway now in the throes of
modernisation) and easy connectivity with China. All he had to do was to take one of the many buses that
drove up to the border onward to Tashkurgan and then to Kashgar. I thought about Chinas sustained
investment, from Track 2 diplomacy (informal diplomacy such as foreign exchange students) to motorable
highways across mountains to long-term bilateral exchange programs. India, beset with a mind-set rooted in
the past, had yet to cast its friendship and its economic net across its frontiers; the Chinese, as always, had
gotten there first. No surprises that the US $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been
cast. A 3,000 km long transportation corridor begins at the gateway, Gwadar in Pakistan, running through
Quetta (Balochistan)and Islamabad, then through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) to reach Kashgar.

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The bait of development


Give the devil its due: Chinas Party often rises above propaganda. The last stop, the Central Asian
Institute at Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, displayed the Partys foresight.
Chinas energy and pragmatism are reflected in the Silk Road initiative, but it has been brewing for
a long while. The staff room displayed the inkling of things to come. The room, manned by patent leather
sofas and green frames of Xinjiangs countryside, had a young Uyghur scholar Rusheeda (a dark grey scarf
covering her head) expounding on the problematic porous borders of Xinjiang: the Tajiks, Kyrgyz and
Kazakhs in Xinjiang had family on both sides of the border. It is the pull of shared histories, traditions and
cultures that is irresistible, she said, but China is building on the pull of development and opportunities
that would make it harder for the people to leave. Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Tajiks in Xinjiang, she claimed,
did not feel the pressure to be Muslim, to conform as they perforce had to across the borderfasting and
namaz were optional in China. In many ways, the old line of
development being the only hard truth was only being put in a new bottle.
Another scholar who called himself Taseer, a thin wiry man in spectacles (who had been to Kashmir
on an earlier occasion), sounded upbeat about commercial relations between China and her neighbours,
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They are on the right track based on oil and gas, primary
commodities, agriculture and border trade, he said. Wool, coal and leather come from Central Asia, he
offered. Taseer implied that at least Northern Xinjiang had been successful in integrating minorities. A case
in point was the Aken singing festival of the Kazakhs. But Southern Xinjiang was a difficult proposition
adrift with underground madrasahs and fanatics supported by the Hizb ut-Tahrir (based in Kyrgyzstan).
Your understanding of Xinjiang would be complete, he said with a wry laugh, when you go to Kashgar.

The road to Kashgar


It was almost time for the plane to Kashgar as we hastily scrambled out, but Li Bai insisted in a totally
motherly fashion that I eat lunch. I did so, staring at the dish of carp, feathered like chrysanthemum, the
chicken swimming in red hot chili oil, certain that I would never make it past Urumqis airportyet Li Bai
did not seem to think so. Everything will take five minutes, she assured me with breezy confidence, Feiji
deng ni (the plane would wait for me). At the airport, all the phone friends of Li Bai helped. I managed to
check in, though it was well past the time. But I had to run. So I did, past Li Bais dimpled smile, past
security through the boarding gate into the plane for Kashgar. When I settled into the seat, I stared at the
beautifully packed gift that she had thrust into my hands. I would like to believe that it came from the heart.

At the City of Saints


As the plane circled its descent down to Kashgar, I could feel a wave of excitement. Kashgars reputation

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preceded itit was after all the priceless jewel on the Silk Route, a grand historical city dotted with
hundreds of shrines, tombs of saints and mosques that attracted saints and spiritual seekers, and of course,
reputedly, a spectacularly magnificent oasis town. This was the place where all the three major caravan
routes of the Silk Road converged.
I could instantly tell the difference between Urumqi and Kashgar because it was much too stark. I
felt I had left China far behind for good, possibly because the faces that stared at me at the Kashgar airport
were either Uyghur or Central Asian; possibly more women in headscarves than I had ever seen in all of
China and all of Urumqi. The electrifying fact was that Kashgar wore its demography on its sleeve: more
than 80% of the population was Uyghur; the Han constituted less than 10%.
Outside the airport, I searched for Chinese efficiency and despaired as I found none. There was no
anointed taxi stand, not a cab in sight. I watched with curiosity as bedraggled cars drove up, the drivers
stuck their necks out and deals were done in a matter of seconds. I watched two octogenarian Uyghurs
haggle hard with a driver; spontaneously, I found myself asking in Chinese if I could join them for the ride
to the city. To my joy, they agreed. Mandarin as lingua franca made for an unmistakably strange
juxtaposition.
The taxi screeched and swerved treacherously past a donkey cart laden with hay, a solitary tractor in
slow motion, before settling into a happy pace. I stared at the expanse of the countryside in the afternoon
heat. This could only be Central Asia or a road in the Kashmir valley, hurtling through the shadows of sturdy
poplars, tall chinar (a variety of the plane tree emblematic of Kashmir) and eucalyptus. It appeared like a
surreal dream: the driver hummed in the summer heat to the radio, the elderly gentleman snoozed, a fly
buzzed on the pane.
The car came to an intersection: a massive statue of a horse stood on its hind-legs. The statue Ma dao
chenggong (The Victory of the horse) signified the symbolic victory of the Han Chinese over the territory.
What does the horse signify? I asked the driver, wanting to understand what it meant for him. Its just a
statue. This means we are entering town, he shrugged nonchalantly. The meaning of the horse, so lovingly
propped up at some cost and effort, was certainly lost on him.

To Qinibagh, the former British Consulate


I was eager to see Qinibagh, the old British Consulate. Fancy staying in a place steeped in historythe
property and its famed gardens hosted some of the greatest explorers of Central Asia: from the British consul
George Macartney (18671945) to the diplomat Brig. Percy Sykes (18671945) who authored the
remarkable Through Deserts and Oasis of Central Asia (1920).
Brig. Percy Sykes boasted of a remarkable feisty sister, Ella Sykes. She was the first Englishwoman
to have crossed the Pamirs. Together the brother-sister team set up home at Kashgar in 1915 for a while. She
described Qinibagh as a perfect paradise: an airy house set amidst a thicket of poplars with wondrous views
of the Taman Su (Taman River) and the Kungur mountains at the back, a garden full of fruit trees and
blossoms, a house full of gaiety and laughter. Understandably, I had anticipated Qinibagh as a grand old
dame of a historical building, somewhat like a well-preserved British colonial bungalow in India with
unparalleled sophistication and old world charm. To my shock, pots of red-leafed plastic chinar trees that

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looked straight out of a factory in Guangzhou made for an uneasy entrance. The establishment had died a
slow death.
The old house that once occupied a pride of place stood decrepit, in faded glory, fronted with heaps
of cement mixture. The new wing of Qinibagh was an ungainly reminder of socialist atrocity. Its dark foyer
smelled of musty abandonment. It was the sight of tired chintz fabric and the ungainly furniture that
suddenly made me feel defeated.
A brusque Uyghur who stood at the front desk promptly registered me and handed over the keys. His
Mandarin was even better than mine. He reminded me of how minorities in China are narrowly clubbed into
two types. One type is called min kao han who speak good Mandarin because they have studied in a
Chinese-only curriculum. The second type are min kao min; in this case, it would be the Uyghurs who
studied in vernacular schools and can barely muster Mandarin. The first lot are noticeably unpopular, known
to be ticked off as the fourteenth nationality, neither fully Uyghur nor fully Chinese (only thirteen
nationalities were officially recognised in Xinjiang before 1949).
Though the hotel had claimed that it was full, it seemed unusually quiet, without a guest in sight.
Disappointingly, from the large windows in the room I could neither see the river nor the craggy mountains;
neither the main street nor any garden. It faced a deserted garage filled with redundant junk.
I unpacked and found a shawl that I had bought at Urumqi staring at me. It was still daylight when I
sauntered down to the main street, the shawl around my head, unsure how to negotiate the city by dusk. I
stood on the curb, doing nothing in particular when an old man in a plaid shirt, loose grey trousers and a
scraggly long beard came riding a rickety old scooter and stopped. I thought he wanted something
directions, money or just conversation?
But sometimes language poses no barrier. Id Gah mosque, I said as it struck me that this was a
mobile scooter taxi service. Without the slightest hesitation, I got on the pillion. This was victory no less!
The scooter easily breezed through narrow streets as dusty, dirty and uncared for as the British explorer
Francis Younghusband once described them a century ago. The old man on the scooter would shout out in
Uyghur to which the children playing on the streets went scurrying, old uncles in embroidered badam/doppa
caps (unlike fez caps these had four corners, mostly embroidered) carrying nang bread ducked, and ladies
turned to smile at him. In a matter of a few minutes, I stood happily at the front of the famed fifteenthcentury Id Gah mosque.

At the heart of KashgarId Gah Mosque


The Id Gah Mosque is fronted by a large beautifully paved square along the ignominy of a (Chinese-named)
road called Jiefang Road (literally translated Liberation Road) la mini-Tiananmen Square in faraway
Kashgar. A large statue of Mao a short distance away stood as a reminder of liberation.
I found the square had risen beyond its brief. Old bearded Uyghur menin long robes and squarish
doppa caps (unlike most Uyghur men in Urumqi who wore trousers and shirts)harked back to the many
photographs of the Aksakals (literally meaning white beard, Uyghur British agents of yore, of the early
twentieth century). Here, many of the old men wore buttoned up old-style Mao coats, long trench coats, or
loose robes, and sat in pairs and in small groups chatting. Families treated this as an evening respite, as

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small children ran around feeding pigeons. Solitary brooding young men ruminated.
The square led to the entrance of the mosquea smaller and plainer version of the Persian-style
arched iwan (doorway), which led to an intimate courtyard on the left, just a small space of parched earth
thick with tall green poplars. It was an extraordinary sight that welcomed me: in the silence badam-capped
Uyghur men sat on their knees, immersed in prayers. Enveloped by the green and bathed in luminous light
of dusk, it was a picture of perfect communion of man with nature and God.
A small pathway in the middle led straight up ahead to the Grand Prayer Hall. The Prayer Hall was
fronted by a narrow long verandah that stood on wooden pillars painted green, the intersections arching like the
iwan. The Prayer Hall stood quiet, bereft of worshippers. In a while, the solitary loud twitter of a lady echoed. It
was a Han Chinese lady sporting huge fashionable sunglasses, a burly tourist guide in tow. This is so plain and
ordinary. Is there no statue of Allah inside? she asked in a shrill pitch. The prayers are in the direction of
Mecca and no mosque has a statue, offered the guide kindly. I had expected this to be all statues, like
churches you see, said the Han lady, adjusting her baseball cap. I admired the guts of the ladyHan faces
were scarce and most other Han tourists cloistered and huddled in large group tours in anticipation of
something dreadful. But here she was, as ignorant as hell.
The mosque was shorn of extraneous embellishments; there were no elaborate water fountains or
intricate calligraphy from the Koran like the Jama Masjid in Delhi, though the basic plan had a similar
element. It was dramatically simple but its simplicity radiated an innate sense of the sacred. I wandered
along the shaded pergola and came across a signboard. The mosque was built in 862 Hegira (1442 AD) and
had been repaired and rebuilt several times in history. It had been renovated on a grand scale in 1999 and on
July 25th, 2001, announced as the State Protection Site of Historical Relics. But what caught my fancy was
the last paragraph produced verbatim:
All of it shows fully that Chinese government always pays special attentions to the another and
historical cultures of the ethnic groups, and that all ethnic groups warmly welcome Partys
religious policy. It also shows that different ethnic groups have set up a close relationship of
equality, unity and helps to each other, and freedom of beliefs is protected. All ethnic groups live
friendly together here. They cooperate to build a beautiful homeland, support heartily the unity of
different ethnic groups and the unity of our country, and oppose the ethnic separatism and illegal
religious activities.
I stepped out of the mosque, quivering in the cool waft of wind that only an oasis town can boast of in the
evening, adjusting the scarf on my head that had become my own.
The square had become noticeably crowded. A manually operated Ferris wheel had set up shop. To my
surprise, a white horse dressed in regal revelry marched around, led by a young Han teenager who began
gesturing to the tourist he saw in me. Get on this handsome white horse, Miss, and I will take a photo? said
the brown skinned face. Ma dao chenggong (The Victory of the Horse), this is the symbol of the city, he
said with a smile. I got on the horse and handed him my camera. To my shock, he shouted out a command that
made the horse stand up on its hind-legsjust like in the statue of the horse. Now you have truly reached
Kashgar, he shouted taking a picture. But ironically, I thought, the Han Chinese hadnt yet.

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Carefree and footloose girls at the square
The square set me free. This was the golden opportunity to chat with the people of all hues. Being a
stranger is a good thing. I walked to a group of vivacious girls wearing long black robes standing around
an ice-cream cart. It was hand-churned ice-cream: sweet, salty and delicious, they assured me. One of the
girls with almond eyes suggested that I try a famous restaurant at Kashgar. If I had my back facing the
mosque, it would be to the right. One of the other girls told me that the stuffed meat piesthe samsasin
the alley were delicious. Another suggested a look at the tall Mao statue, not far away. I could feel the nip
in the air, unmistakably tinged with a sweet fragrance. I asked them what it could be. More giggles
followed. We wear Kashgars famous lavender oil, said one with a laugh, directing me to the basement
market for knick-knacks.
As I walked away, I thought how Mandarin had proved the de-facto lingua franca. In the mid-1990s,
Chinese became the enforced language of instruction starting at Grade 3. The American linguist Arienne M.
Dwyer has noted that Xinjiang University no longer offered courses in Uyghur languageat least in the first
two years of coursework. It seems that even Uyghur poetry is taught entirely in Chinese; only for Chagatai
(Middle Turkic) poetry is the use of Uyghur in the classroom allowed.
Yet, despite the fact that Mandarin seemed the norm, I could see ample signage in what looked like
the Arabic script. According to the scholars Arienne M. Dwyer and Linda Benson, Uyghur was first written
using a script based on the writing system used for Syriac (a dialect of Middle Aramaic), and this script was
itself derived from the Aramaic alphabet of Biblical times. The Uyghur script eventually served as the basis
for the Mongolian script in the days of the Mongol empire (and later the Manchu script when the Manchus
borrowed from the Mongols), yet it fell into decline among the Uyghurs themselves. Uyghur came to be
written in a version of the Arabic script heavily influenced by Persian written ligatures after the adoption of
Islam in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuriesheavily modified, with all vowels clearly marked out.
The curious predicament of Kashgar began to sink in. The square was bereft of Chinese faces, yet the
people knew enough Chinese to speak with me; the place was thousands of miles away from Beijing and yet
the signage of Liberation Road had not been knocked off. I could spot Uyghur faces striding across the
square in uniformUyghur policemen! And I had thought divide and conquer was old hat.
Kebab and Knives
The sun had descended, painting the sky with a shot of orange. The first of the lights were beginning to
glimmer when I walked to the restaurant, climbing the sturdy planks to the first floor. A Uyghur man sat
threading chunks of red cubes alternating with generous lumps of fat onto a skewer. Did he spice the kebabs
as we did in India? He laughed. Remember, good meat needs no spices, just salt is enough, he said.
The room felt warm, filled with happy laughter. Families, couples and friends crowded and friendly
waiters hovered. The amber tone of the room done up with wood, white latticed screens, and colourful
striped table covers made me feel like a Silk Road traveller who had stepped right by Aladdins table.
Halal food, you have come to the right place! chuckled the chatty, thin Uyghur waiter as he led me
to the seat. This was a moment of truth. I am Hindu, I said surprised by my own admission. It does not
matter if the food is halal or not, I said. Hindustanis are Hindus who dont eat halal? he asked. But not
that it punctured his enthusiasm. But Hindustanis are people like us, he preened. Our relations go back

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


centuries across the mountains, we are the same people of the same blood you know, he said. Such
charming conversation of sweet nothings was a tad hard east of Xinjiang.
And it was a feast all right, a familiar feast that I could make sense of. Polo was rice pilaf or good old
biryani but with lamb, carrots, raisins and the slightest touch of saffron. The kewaps were as good as the man
had described them. The laghman was another avatar of Chinese noodlesthick and spongy, it came
smothered with chunks of lamb, green pepper and tomatoes. I browsed through the menu. Uyghur nang,
murraba and qiyma kawap were the naan, murraba and kheema kebab that I knew so well in India. To think
of the culinary footprint on Indias palate! The food was hybrid and syncretic, as much Chinese as Central
Asian.
The evening ended on an unexpected note. Heads turned as a very dashing young Uyghur man in a
dark navy coat entered with what appeared his new bride. Curious about the gentleman, I asked the waiter
who he was. Gongan and his bride (the policeman and his bride), he whispered. You know, last week, a
Uyghur policeman was stabbed eighteen times at the square for being considered a Han collaborator, he
said conspiratorially while quickly counting the money that I had handed. The implication was the
unfortunate fate of collaborators, or traitors. I thought I heard him wrong. We have hugs for our friends
and daggers for our enemies, he said, his eyes twinkling with merriment. Was this true or just gossip? But
whatever it was, Kashgars heart of darkness was distinctly palpable. The siren that wailed and echoed
through the silence of the night confirmed this.

Modern-day Fragrant Concubines


As the City of Saints, Kashgar has fascinating records of religious practices such as of the shrine of Bibi
Anna, who granted unmarried girls young and handsome husbands. Ella Sykes was to chronicle some of the
prayers at the shrine: Oh Allah! Oh Saint! Grant me a house with a kettle on the fire and a spoon in the
kettle! May the house have carpets and towels, and may I be granted a husband whose father and mother are
dead!
Then there is the famous Sigm or Mud Shrine for skin diseases. One had to throw a lump of mud and
wish for a cure. Sure enough, I found posters of religious tours pasted on walls in the manner of Bollywood
posters. If one read between the lines, it would appear that such tours were motivated by profit. The Uyghur
scholar Rahila Dawut suggests that the exploitation of religious culture for tourism is common. It seems a
few state or private tourist companies have begun to buy management rights to many of the shrines in
Xinjiang. In stark comparison to the posters that suggest religious freedom, Dawut chronicles the reality:
festivals such as Ordam Festival, the largest Shrine Festival at the tomb of martyr Ali Arslan Khan in
Yengisheher county, has been banned. Illegal religious activities, feudal superstition and separatism are cited
as the main reasons.
Kashgars outskirts boast the mazar (tomb) of the famous scholar Mahmud al-Kashgari, who
authored the eleventh-century masterpiece the Diwan Lugat al Turk, a dictionary of Turkic languages. He
was a contemporary of Al Biruni, who Indians may remember as the polymath who wrote the famed Tarikh
al-Hind (A History of India). I found that most tourists head out to the mazar of the patron saint of the
city, the Sufi leader Apaq Khoja (khoja literally translated means master) of whom, it is said, converted the

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


Buddhists of Kashgar to Islam.
I set out for the mazar located on the fringes of Kashgar. It is said that the seventeenth-century mazar
was originally built for Muhammad Yusuf Khoja, the father of Apaq Khoja. Today it is more popularly
known as the mazar of Eparkhanalso written as Ipar Khan, or else known as Xiang Fei or Fragrant
Concubinesaid to be the beauteous favoured concubine in the eighteenth-century Beijing court of the
Qianlong Emperor. The Emperor was smitten by her sweet fragrance and thus called her Xiang Fei (literally
meaning Fragrant Concubine).
There are two versions of the Fragrant Concubines love story with the Emperor. The Chinese
version says that the concubine pined for the Chinese emperor after his death. Not the Uyghur version,
though, which contends that the concubine was an unhappy one who constantly plotted the death of the
Emperoreven going as far as hiding a dagger under her clothes.
The social anthropologist Edmund Waite asserts that it is a mistaken assumption that the Fragrant
Concubine was buried at the site. But this has not quite deterred the flow of tourists. A dirt road that leads to
the complex was full of tour buses and cars. The complex looks entirely non-Chinese. It is built in Islamic
style, a few structures of brown earth and buildings covered with white and blue ceramic tiles in floral motif,
the vibrant colours of the tilesjade green, mustard yellow and prussian blueevocative of Isfahan.
A mosque and the mazar constitute the complex: at the time of visit, the former was undergoing
restoration, while the latter has withstood the ravages of time. It is a grand green and white structure with the
geometry of the Taj Mahala grand pishtaq (doorway) with minarets at the four cornersbut it had none of
the Tajs grandeur or opulence. The exterior was inlaid with floral ceramic tiles in vivid blue, bottle green
and mustard yellow; the interior was plain and ordinary. One of the tombs inside was covered with a plain
green cloth; the other covered with red marked the concubines final resting spot.
The tour group ahead of me had made a beeline for the inside and then rushed to the rose garden. I
was soon to find out why. Two local large-eyed, ingenious beauties had dressed the part of the Fragrant
Concubinefaces caked with make-up, necks adorned with cheap costume jewellery. One wore knee-high
boots; the other wore loose harem pants. Get a picture taken with the Fragrant Concubine! they shouted.

Party plays out the fable of Aladdin as it trades old for new
Another prominent landmark in Kashgar is the historic 500-year-old settlement described as the bestpreserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia. This settlement still
stands, now enveloped by modern trappings of housing blocks and traffic. The settlement is atop a hill: a
cluster of tightly packed mud and wood houses along narrow alleys.
The ticket I bought said (which I quote verbatim):
The famous poet Guo Xiaochuan have written like this. You do not know Xinjiang horse is strong
without entering Tianshan mountain. You do not know Xinjiangs wilderness without entering the
southern Xinjiang. You do not know Xinjiang history is so long without reaching Kashgar. While
how about not walking on this street? Then you know nothing.

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


This clunky translation explained why Caucasians in China find English teaching jobs for a song!
But for a fact, the walk was enlightening. It seemed that the existing houses and households had
been turned into a living museum. As the accompanying flyer said:
Visiting the old town, you can feel the legacy of middle ages and enjoy the typical Uyghur folk
customs. All kinds of ancient living style will be shown in Kashgar such as carpet making, Uyghur
hats hand making, musical instruments hand making, copper article hand making. These kinds
hand-making skill hand down from one generation to another generation. You can visit Uyghur
family and enjoy traditional Uyghur food here. The usual entertainments with custom will make a
deeper impression on you.
The streets and houses, all the uniform hue of earth, seemed fascinatingly mysterious. I noticed some doors
had been left ajar. They opened into lived-in courtyards covered with grape trellis. Stacked with firewood
and coal, cycles and scooters, washing lines and potted plants, they were homes that people still lived in.
Some doors remained steadfastly shut. A closer inspection of the doors left open revealed the stamp in
Chinese calligraphy saying wenming hu or civilised dwelling.
A group of noisy kids cycled and played at a dead end (the hexagonal pattern of cobble stones
indicates whether you are moving to a main street, rectangular pattern towards a dead end). Looking after
them was the oldest girl, a nineteen-year-old called Teherniya. Teherniya was beautiful as Uyghur women
are; like other Uyghur women, she wore the headscarf (not the veil). This revealed her face and sharp
features: a tall nose, large eyes and delicate skin. She said she did not go to schoolthe other kids quipped
that she was waiting to get married.
Teherniya invited me in. Teherniyas housecertified civilisedwas the first (and last) peek
into a Uyghur household, albeit a Party-aided idealised, model household.
The neatly swept, open courtyard boasted a well in the centre, a large urn stood with a stone on its
lid. Drinking water, she explained. To the right stood the common wall with the neighbor. A door on the
opposite side opened to a large, longish living room astoundingly rich and colourful with an array of
different kinds of kilims (rugs and carpets) a stack of mattresses on the side. This is where the menfolk
sleep, she explained. There was yet another room inside, dark and gloomy but lavishly decorated with an
assortment of rugs used by the ladies in the house. A small alley opened to a space where the family kept
their sheep and then onward right to the balcony looking out to a vast empty space. In the distance, the main
street ran parallel. Beyond were new mud-colored housing blocks.
The household was civilised all right. The Party gave us these wondrous carpets to put in the
house and helped us build our modern gussalkhana, you know with an English pot, she said happily
(gussalkhana or washroom is also the word used in North India), taking me back to the open courtyard by
the entrance, where the gussalkhana sported a brand new English pot (i.e. a ceramic commode).
After my grunt of approval, we returned to the balcony to survey the vast open space below. The
space was littered by debris: old clothes, broken windows, shafts of wood and perhaps even a bicycle tyre.
Teherniya confirmed my suspicion. The Party demolished some old buildings and is building a public park
and a shopping plaza, she said. Across the road lined by mangy weeping willows, I eyed the mud-colored
stack of modern apartments. Families are being asked to move from here. Those who do will get

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


apartments there, she said, pointing in the direction. Did she want to move into an apartment, I asked. She
was civilised enough not to answer.
I had neither known about relocation plans designed to move families from the old city into newer
apartments across the road (the New York Times reporter Michael Wines had reported in 2009 that 13,000
families would be moved), nor the fact of the park and shopping plaza designed at the cost of demolition of
the old townthe demolition of which the Party justified in the name of earthquake protection. Teherniya
showed me how only a small part of the old city wall was intact. It was where I had bought the entrance
ticket. The surrounding moat of yore had been flattened to become a road. I looked at Teherniya who looked
as though she could call the Party bluff. That momentary silence, I could feel the rage of the girl, waiting to
get married.

The magic of the Silk Route is still alive


If there is one memory that makes me smile, it is of the bazaar. I asked one scooter taxi to take me to a
bazaar, not specifying one because I did not know any well. It turned out to be the Atush Zapar Kuch
market, which sold cloth and dresses. The market appeared to be a massive tin shed, sort of a large extended
garage that was maddeningly busy and frighteningly huge. Outside, ragged and scruffy vendors who looked
like they washed once in a blue moon made freshly squeezed pomegranate juice for a fawning audience;
bales of cloth dominated the inside.
Then were the stall owners: old gentlemen, impressive in their long jackets, badam caps and with
such beautiful, dignified manners that they qualified as the never-ending spirit of the Silk Road. I looked at
the stack of Russian headscarves in my hand; I had bought them not quite knowing why. The elderly
gentleman at one of the stalls had been charmingly persuasive. There was no hard haggling, no venom of the
Chinese kind. Just pure sweetness that made me feel like a Queen: as would with a trader whose trade ran in
his blood.
On the way back, I stopped at the market in front of the Id Gah mosque. While a large part had been
cleaned up, some alleys remained as crummy as before. It was a riotous evening market. Sellers from the
nearby pockets had pulled up in their donkey carts. On sale were irresistible things that modern markets
cannot quite match: figs just freshly plucked, heaps of sweet-smelling juicy melons, mounds of grapes so
fresh that you could see the leaves and vines. Grape-popping seemed a popular sport. I watched as young
lads threw them up in the air, to catch them by the mouth. Oils, scarves, turbans and hats. Samovars, daggers
and knives.
Many gathered around vendors sitting on low stools with large, cane baskets, covered over with
white cloththe bread-makers of Xinjiang. He is the best baker in Kashgar, said a helpful old man. I
bought a loafwarm, fragrant sourdoughwhich cost a pittance. It was providence as it was the only food
that I was to eat the next day.
The skies had begun to darken in anticipation of rain. I scurried back, the loaf under my arm, just as
the wind was beginning to whistle. As if on cue, thin sheets of sand began to fly as I entered Qinibagh. Rain,
storm and all would settle,
I thought.

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


In a few hours into the night, the wind howled like a pack of sorrowful wolves on the loose while
dark clouds whirled like dervish. The old window frames rattled in despair. The city seemed unnaturally
quiet, dark and still, echoing only the fury of nature. Then the lights went out and the storm continued to
rage.
In the early hours of the morning light, the scene was of haunted desolationthe sky muddy grey,
swirling with sheets of sand flying. Caught were listless leaves of chinar and grape and dirty polythene.
Downstairs, the reception had filled up, many had sought shelter in the building. No electricity. The taps
would run dry, informed the receptionist. All flights out of Kashgar would be rescheduled, the reception
assured. I was to leave the next day and then connect back home. I could hardly protest. I had half a bottle of
water and a loaf of bread. But I could not discard my niggling sense of anxiety.
It was a day spent looking out of the window, praying for the storm to quell. The hours passed slowly
nothing changing at all, until suddenly late in the night, the city turned serene.
The next morning was a fine day, as if nothing had happened at all. Everything had fallen into place,
including the flight back to Beijing, scheduled on time.
The airport was chaotic largely because of the backlog of flights. The flight would leave, assured the
airlines, but it would be late afternoon at the earliest. It was early morning and with the flight re-scheduled
late afternoon, it seemed the city was calling me back!
I spotted two young and yuppie Chinese backpackers on the same flight back to Beijing. They told
me that they had decided to wait it out at the airport. What a waste of a day, they grumbled. I told them that I
had decided to head back, could I call them (or they me) just so to tally the exact time of departure?
One of them, Yao Yin, bespectacled and earnest, asked if he could join with me. His friend Wang Lin
would call him or me and keep us in the loop about departure time. This seemed the ultimate foolproof plan.
We flagged a taxi and headed back to the Id Gah Mosque area. It was Friday, the opportunity of a
lifetime to see the massive flow of the people into the mosque.
As we journeyed to town, I sized up Yao Yin. He was freshly married, straight out of Harvard, and
spoke perfect English. He worked in a cushy multinational in Beijing, now traveling to see lesser-known
China. He explained why he wanted to latch onto mehe felt safer with me, a foreigner. Some might
mistake me as your partner, your boyfriendTaiwanese, Hong Kongeranything but CHINESE, he said
with exasperation. This was certainly a first: a smart Chinese man who had found a perfectly pragmatic
solution to visiting the alleys of the Mosque area, areas he had been forced to skirt because it was dangerous.
I casually asked what his father did for a living. No surprises herehis father was a Party member.
It was true that Friday appeared more colourful and festive than usual, with people gaily dressed. The
square sported a relaxed air. We made our way to a snaking alley and stopped where a crowd had gathered
freshly baked minced meat samsas (Indian samosas) just out of the clay oven. The baker asked me if my
boyfriend was from Taiwan; I said he was. The crowd roared in approval. I thought I saw Yao Yin fiddling
with his ring.
The alley was a magical worldfrozen in time. Medicine shops, ration shops, sweetmeats, carpets,
pots and pans, herbal teas, fragrant oils, bread shops and dhurries. The dhurrie mats came from
Afghanistan when it was still good times, said the owner, pouring us black tea from a copper samovar.
Soon both of us were lugging two heavy, identical dhurries.
Around the corner was a shop that sold musical instruments. Are you Indian? asked the

Excerpt from FINDING INDIA IN CHINA by Anurag Viswanath : XINJIANG


shopkeeper. Yes, I answered. Your boyfriend is from Hong Kong? Yao Yin nodded in agreement.
Well, come in then and take a look, said the shopkeeper.
There were a few paintings on the walls; one in particular was alluring. This painting is by a
Uyghur painter, a talented, reclusive Uyghur intellectual, most wanted by the government for sedition, he
explained. I will sell this for US $2000 and not a penny less. That is what the family deserves. It seemed
that the painters days were numbered.
There was no doubting that the painting was striking with its muted tones, not the gaudy street
scenes sold at the souvenir shops. The strokes were deft, the painting realistic and melancholic in its
depiction of an ancient street in Kashgar. The shopkeeper took us out and pointed in the direction of modern
plazas and shop-houses. The street existed, it was real until demolished and now look at the modern plaza,
he said, his voice quivering with anger. We stood twiddling our thumbs.
Just then a man in a badam cap and a long robe made a regal entry into the shop and we all
followed him in. I do not know who he was, but he seemed to command respect. All the assistants stood
up. This stranger was obviously a familiar face. We watched him tune a stringed lute. Sing, pleaded the
shopkeepers. And he acquiesced.
The stranger had a golden voice. I do not know what he sang, a rhapsody so deeply sorrowful and
moving that all of usthe Uyghur shopkeeper, his battery of assistants, Yao Yin, the American-educated
Chinese in search of Chinas lesser-known, and Istood entranced and transfixed by the magic of his voice.
It was this voice of angst that echoed long after the singing ceased.

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