Posted by Dan
We still hadn’t let go of the idea of cycling the Tibetan Highway, the G219 that leads through the heart of Tibet to sacred Mount Kailash and onto Lhasa, when we passed through customs and across the Chinese border into Xinjiang. I had folded and hidden our Tibet maps in my back pocket in case of a bag search. So much fear, intrepidation and drama had filled many of the travellers reports of journeys through China and particularly pathways that lead to Lhasa. We didn’t want our maps confiscated or entry blocked.
However, after a 3-hour wait in the scorching sun, border guards opened the gate, and with relative ease, slack and random swine-flu checks and a single pannier bag through the scan machine, we were processed as Aliens and entered ‘The People’s Republic of China’. Just whose ‘people’s republic’ is anyone’s guess! ‘Power to the people’ seems like a very alien concept here. It didn’t take us long to see this as the first example of Communist propoganda. This land does not belong to the people.
Initially, we were excited by the friendly Chinese people we met, and challenged by Chinese script and a hopeless chance of understanding anything said to us. But we soon discovered that Chinese wasn’t the only language spoken here. A variation of Turkish, spoken by the indigenous people of this land, the Uighurs, saved us from pointing and gesturing. Their traditional script is Arabic, which luckily Krista can read, helping us to decipher roadsigns.
Reaching this giant landmass, called China, feels like a huge accomplishment to us and means we’ve almost covered the distance we set out to attempt. But getting here is bitter-sweet. We see now that if we’d reached Kashgar 60 years earlier, we’d actually be in East Turkestan, the homeland of Muslim Uighars, and a very different place. For in 1949, the Chinese government expanded its borders and forcefully occupied Xinjiang, just as it did when it entered and began to decimate Buddhist Tibet and Inner Mongolia.
These occupied regions, rich in natural resources and ancient cultures, make up more than half of the landmass called The People’s Republic of China.
A beautiful but thought-provoking 250km ride from the border at Irkeshtam took us to Kashgar, the most westerly city of China.
In Kashgar, every morning, just after dawn, we hear a recorder version of “Happy Birthday” ringing out on the citywide PA system to celebrate 2009 being the 60th year of China as we know it. However, according to the faces of the indigenous Uighar population, we are very much in an occupied region under a Chinese government regime, and this is no celebration.
Unfortunately, the Uighars, who want for a quiet, content, peaceful life, practising Islam and tolerance, don’t have a figurehead and spokesperson like the Dalai Lama of Tibet. So when the Chinese government shut down all telecommunications and internet access in Xinjiang at the start of July, the Uighars voice was silenced.
A local man, calling himself Abdul (but probably disguising his real identity from us in fear of the Secret Police) told us that reports of the number of people killed by the military in the July demonstration in Urumqi, before communications were cut, could easily be five times greater. He explained the events that led to the demonstration, which sound very much like an effort to dilute the Uighar culture and population. The government took young Uighar men between the ages of 15 and 25 from their home and forcefully put them to work in a Chinese government toy factory thousands of kilometres away. In this factory, 80 Uighars suffered physical injuries from racial attacks and 2 were killed. As a result, Uighars demonstrated against Chinese government repression of their people, but killings and indiscriminate arrests by the military silenced their freedom of speech.
As we entered Kashgar, we were met by troops of heavily armed Chinese soldiers on street corners and military trucks circling the Uighar districts, day and night, in convoy. 19-year old soldiers, crammed into caged troop trucks wielding machine guns and riot shields naively and innocently waved to a sarcastic foreigner cycling behind. PA system messages blasted from the back of these trucks as they circled, leaving no moment of silence, propaganda of which locals told us they’ll never believe.
In the days we were in Kashgar, we saw huge troops occupying the shady spots in the main square under the trees outside the mosque where the pious old Muslim men have always sat. New recruits for the local branch of citizens’ police practice walking drills and aggressive chants, taking delivery of uniforms and huge wooden batons outside our hotel. We spotted snipers on the roof of buildings surrounding the bazaar.
A friend we made told us how the government are destroying the Old City and paying people out of their traditional mudbrick homes to replace with with ugly, faceless Chinese concrete appartments – actions that are very obviously erasing the presence and history of Uighar tradition and culture.
He doesn’t want to sell his home that has been passed on from generation to generation, but is worried that next year, his block will be demolished anyway and he’ll be left with nothing. So far, about 50% of the Old City in Kashgar has been destroyed.
We were left feeling sad and disturbed at seeing a very palpable example of racial genocide, cultural dilution, regime and oppression. The weight of our feelings could of course never be compared to that of the repression Uighar people are being forced to live with. Tibetans have been living under the same kind of conditions, but the international world is more aware of their plight due to the proactive and vocal Dalai Lama. He states clearly that the Tibetan people in Tibet are not free and are constantly living in fear. We feel that this is also true for the indigenous population living in Xinjiang.
For us, the journey we are on is not about politics or fighting the grain of a situation, yet we feel that, since we have the fortune of freedom of movement, we owe it to those who don’t, to remove ourselves from an area of the world that is controlled by such ‘bloody-bastard-guys’.
Passport in hand, Pakistan is the closest country we can enter without prior arrangement of a visa (at least we think so!). We’ll head south-west towards the Khunjerab Pass, past the Kongur-Muztagata and Sariqul mountain ranges through Tajik and Kyrgyz settlements.
Deciding to change our route and reach the Himalayas via Pakistan and India instead of via Lhasa has not been easy. But we have chosen to do this in opposition to the occupation of Xinjiang and Tibet by the Chinese government, who are imposing a fearful and oppressive regime over the Uighur and Tibetan indigenous people.
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