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The Turks of China

The plight of the Uighurs of Xinjiang

Half the people of China’s far west are not Chinese at all – they are Uighurs, their language Turkic, their religion Islam. This 36-page report on the Uighurs of Xinjiang highlights a poor, proud people subsisting in a harsh desert under alien rule. Photographs: Ashley Gilbertson

  • The mausoleum of Mahmud Kashgari in the village of Opal, southwest of Kashgar, within sight of the beautiful Pamir Mountains. The 11th-century poet, regarded as the father of Uighur literature, also compiled the first Turkic dictionary'
  • Desert dust: A girl sprinkles water outside her home in Kashgar. Because of its altitude, the city does not become unbearably hot in summer – unlike Turfan in the east, where inhabitants once used to take refuge below ground. Below left: Tursungül, aged 22, in the kitchen of her family's house in the south of Xingjiang. Below right: A young Uighur shows the aquiline profile characteristic of many of the inhabitants of the south and west of of Xingjiang. The term Uighur is no longer an ethnic one: it is applied to all oasis-dwellers to distinguish them from the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, who belong to the steppe and mountain areas


Xinjiang, formerly known as Chinese Turkestan, is home to some ten million people of Turkic descent. Their culture, language and religious beliefs still owe more to central Asia and the northern steppes than they do to China itself. As distant from the China Sea as it is from the Mediterranean, Xinjiang is a place of wild terrain and extreme climate, surrounded by high mountain ranges. By Christian Tyler, author of Wild West China: The Taming of Xingjiang

In the centre of the Asian landmass, enclosed by towering mountain ranges and scoured by desert winds, lies a strange, wild place called Xinjiang. Until a few years ago, it was forgotten by the world.

The native inhabitants of this wilderness are citizens of the People’s Republic of China. But they are not Chinese. You can see it in their faces. You can see it also in the names of their landmarks: a mountain is tagh, water is su, lake is kul. Their language is Turkic, their script Arabic, their architecture Persian and their religion is Islam.

To the puzzled visitor, it seems as if, during the great westward steppe migrations of 1,500 hundred years ago, these proto-Turks turned south too soon and ended up on the wrong side of the mountains. The land they chose seems to us fierce and barren, but there are fertile oases beneath the mountains and round the desert shore. For centuries these Turks were left alone to enjoy their new life as farmers. But as empires expanded and national boundaries became fixed, the outside world pressed in. Today, while their cousins on the western side of the Pamirs have escaped from their Soviet masters, they find themselves chafing under the iron hand of Beijing.

Rediscovered by European adventurers in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Xinjiang was closed again from the 1930s until the late 1980s. Nobody was there to report on the plight of China’s Turks as they were hammered into a Chinese mould along with Mongolians and Tibetans on either side of them.

So remote is this province of China that its ancient Turkic capital, Kashgar, is as far from Beijing as it is from Ankara. Yet the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (to give it its official name), formerly Chinese Turkestan, comprises a sixth of China’s territory, while containing a mere sixtieth of its population.

Of its twenty million people, about ten million are Turkic, mainly oasis-dwelling Uighurs, with smaller numbers of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. There are another million or more Mongols, Hui (Chinese Muslims), Tajiks and others. Officially, the Han Chinese population is 7.5 million. In reality, it is probably nearer twelve million.

Not only remote, Xinjiang is also a country of extremes. Its mountains are among the highest in the world, soaring to 25,000 feet (7,600 metres), while the Turfan Depression is below sea level, one of the deepest pockets on earth. The Taklamakan Desert, which fills the Tarim basin, is the second largest sand desert on the globe. So dry is the region that only one of its rivers, the Irtysh in the far north, ever finds its way to the sea. The rest are swallowed by the desert sands. Temperatures in the Taklamakan swing from minus 50 to plus 50 degrees centigrade. Howling sandstorms batter the traveller along the desert margins, and the oasis towns around its shores are muffled in a pall of dust for days on end. Dwellers on the less-populated southern side of the desert fight a constant battle against the inexorable advance of the great dunes.

For centuries the chief influences – peoples, cultures, religions – came not from China but from the far side of the mountains. Xinjiang’s history defied its geography. The Chinese began their incursions during the Han dynasty (206bc–220ad), mainly to get the horses they needed to keep on terms with their steppe enemies. It took many false starts and reverses before the Chinese succeeded in mastering the people they regarded as the ‘barbarians’ of the far west. Not until the mid eighteenth century did they manage a credible military conquest. It took another 200 years, and the Communist revolution of 1949, to achieve complete administrative control. Even today, Xinjiang is not entirely subdued.

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