En Route: Xinjiang

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Photo by Erin O’Brien.

At the entrance to China, there is a gate. A wrought-iron gate, complete with golden dragons, golden spikes, and not-so-golden barbed wire wringing its perimeter. It’s a gate to inspire awe, to remind those who see it that they are in China, and China is powerful, goddammit.

With the help of four officers in full fatigues, complete with bulletproof vests and too-shiny aviators, the gate slides open, revealing a perfectly paved, perfectly lined stretch of road, reaching into the Tian Shen Mountains. It’s a far cry from the potholed, blockaded road that leads to the gate from Kyrgyzstan.

The gate and the road and the officers and the guard dog that stands at attention during the extensive passport check have the desired effect. Nerves and fear mount, and the beginning of the seven kilometer walk to the real border check feels somewhat like a prisoner march.

But then, as the gate disappears behind the mountains, things begin to crumble. Everything is still striving towards that authoritarian perfection, but the lines on the road have become a bit crooked. Their color is something other than their original bright yellow, and the mile markers are a bit faded. Cracks extend in webs from the edges of the road, cold and time threatening the integrity of that initial, prison-like façade.

Farther down the road, the cracks grow deeper, and the lines more faded, until suddenly, they stop. Out of nowhere pops an abandoned town, complete with broken glass, shattered windows, and carnival lights long since burnt out. The streets are filled with garbage, and the buildings look burnt out. A few men pray in the street for lack of a mosque, and there is a broken radiator perched on the sidewalk. Off to the side, there’s something that looks like a government building, because why else would two armed soldiers nap in the sunlight in front of it? Welcome to the China behind the gate.

Xinjiang, the region that lies behind the abandoned town, is one that wears a mask. A government-sculpted, poorly fitted mask. The highways, for the most part, are paved, and the road markings, though rarely regarded, are visible. But they run through fields of rubble, spotted with shiny new oil fields. Traditionally, it is a Uyghur region, with a culture more akin to that of Central Asia than its Eastern Asia counterparts: a land of kebabs and low-lying mud houses. But, in recent years, largely thanks to its natural resources, it has become the “new frontier” of the Han-dominated government. And the Han-dominated government prefers skyscrapers to mud houses. And standardized Mandarin characters to the Arabic script of Uyghur. And stir fry to kebab. The answer? Demolition, literal and cultural.

Today, a cursory glance down the main drag of Kashgar looks like any Chinese city, streets lined with hot pot restaurants and blinking fluorescent lights. On the surface, as with the gate, the government has done an incredible job of asserting its authority. But something else bubbles beneath the surface. Something powerful. Something real. Some, pointing at the Uyghur “attacks” of in May, call it terrorism. But looking behind the front row of Chinese-built buildings at houses pulled down by government-sponsored bulldozers, at the subtly racist anti-terrorism posters – depicting caricature-like, weapon-wielding Uyghur men, bearded, weathered, and prayer-capped, shaking hands with smiling, upstanding Chinese policemen, with captions like “Cooperate for a peaceful Kashgar” or, more bluntly, “Cooperating with terrorist activity is strictly prohibited” – that hang in the Uyghur neighborhoods, it becomes difficult to see something malicious. Prodding at the babies’ clothes trapped beneath the bricks of a destroyed home, standing in front of the mosques torn apart brick by brick, a different word comes to mind: desperation, of a culture under attack, a culture which threatens to expose the dark underbelly of the centralized regime. And so, in fear, they demolish.

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