Under the Gun in Urumqi

August 10, 2015 — Urumqi, Xinjiang Province

Urumqi is occupied territory.

That was clear the moment we stepped out of the train station in Xinjiang’s capital city.

Getting in or out required a turnstyle-style walk back and forth and back and forth through barricade-lined corridors. At increments, literal cages with up-swinging sides held glowering contingents of People’s Liberation Army soldiers, rifles at the ready, bayonets fixed — the only time I’ve seen it in all of China. At corners and intersections, machine gunners perched atop armored vehicles scanned the crowds shuffling along underneath their turrets.

The police were everywhere, yanking aside anyone with desert-darkened skin, black hair and especially the distinct green eyes or Muslim headscarves or four-cornered hats that really set the Uyghurs apart from Han Chinese. Which meant that what seemed like some 70 percent of everyone in the train station got pulled, bags to searched, ID to be scanned, and questions to be asked.

Ethnic relations are taut in Xinjiang.

Our train stopped in Turpan on the way to Urumqi. Xinjiang uses mostly Chinese and Uyghur script for its signs.

Our train stopped in Turpan on the way to Urumqi. Xinjiang uses mostly Chinese and Uyghur script for its signs.

At more than 1.6 million square kilometers and ringed by nigh-impassable deserts and mountains, the province is massive and isolated, which gave it the space to develop a unique culture, even though according to Wikipedia, only 4.3 percent of its land area is habitable.

Xinjiang, which means “new territory”, has a documented history that spans more than two and a half millennia, and although the Han Dynasty first pushed the Xiongnu empire out the region in 60 BC in order to secure the Silk Road, it wasn’t until the 18th century that Xinjiang was permanently — up to now, least — incorporated into China under the Qing after a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In the interim, the region had traded hands between a succession of kingdoms, becoming Islamified beginning in the 9th century CE when Turkic Muslims invaded the Tarim Basin. It remains staunchly Muslim.

Today, about 45 percent of the population is Uyghur — a minority group Westerns scholars believe to be a mix of various other ethnic groups who either migrated to Xinjiang or were indigenous to it — 40 percent is Han, and the rest smaller is made up of ethnic groups. Northern Xinjiang is mostly Han, while southern Xinjiang is mostly Uyghur, and under the administration of the People’s Republic of China, development has mostly been uneven at the expense of the south. The discovery of massive oil and gas reserves has in recent years also flooded the province with Han workers, who are often better educated and better paid than their Uyghur counterparts. Economic hardships combined with fears of cultural dislocation and destruction have radicalized some Uyghur nationalists, who claim that Xinjiang is not part of China, and Xinjiang has become a frying pan of popping ethnic tensions which in recent years gone up in flames with increasing frequency.

Notably in 2008, men with purported ties to the Uyghur separatist movement attacked a group of jogging police officers in Kashgar, killing 16 of them just days before the Beijing Olympics. Then in 2009, Urumqi was the site of mass rioting by the Uyghur minority group that left some hundreds of people dead. Rumors of mass retaliation against Uyghurs followed, and the Chinese government shut off all telecommunications from the city for ten months afterward.

Ughyur separatists have also been blamed for a spate of terrorist attacks in China in the years following, including one in 2013 when members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement crashed a jeep into a crowd on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing five people (three of them in the car) and injuring 38 others when the vehicle burst into flames. Xinjiang militants also were blamed for a mass stabbing in Kunming in 2014 that left 29 civilians dead and 140 others injured.

Other attacks occur every few months within the province, and extremist groups have allied themselves with other terrorist organizations including al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The old adage long applied to Xinjiang that “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away” no longer seems to hold true.

That’s what we’d stepped into outside the Urumqi train station. We watched a heavyset officer, even thicker with his bulletproof vest (another novelty), scream at a crowd to move along as he jammed an old man from the sidewalk with a nearly-two-meter long heavy staff. Officers in helmets watched the crowd with stone faces behind riot shields.

The air stank of resentment, anger, and car emissions.

We got out of the station as quick as we could and went in search of something to eat. We learned quickly that even the malls of security checkpoints complete with bag scanners and metal detectors.

At last we found a mall that, empty and echoey atrium nonwithstanding, actually had some restaurants. After Matt’s recent noodle experience , we settled on pizza. The grease was so thick we could slurp it off. We barely finished a slice each.

Urumqi. It was time to get out of there.

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