Xinjiang is quite special. Political and religious tension. Check. Tight security. Check. Diversity, Yes. Surprises, loads of that. Formally known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, much attention has fallen on the word “Uyghur” because of the religious and political tension there the last couple of years.
Xinjiang is more than just Uyghur territory. It is also home to some 50 ethnic groups, of which 10 are major groups. As a result, this largest administrative division of China is a potpourri of culture and diversity. It is this colourful mix, coupled with its wide spectrum of landscapes, from dusty desert trails to snow-capped peaks, which make this province unique. The Uyghurs and Kazakhs are two of the largest minority ethnic groups; some 68% of Xinjiang’s 23 million population is Muslim.
Located in the furthest north-western side of China, Xinjiang has six months of summer and six wintry cold months. But even in the summer, the snow remains on some of its mountain tops.
Most of the Han Chinese live and work in the cities or towns while the minority groups find comfort living together in villages and autonomous prefectures. Xinjiang is one big Uyghur region within which are several autonomous prefectures. Some of the minority groups are in farming, livestock or run small businesses. They come across as rather entrepreneurial and artistic.
While its capital Urumqi is well-developed and modern, tall skyscrapers are absent. Urumqi is earthquake territory, so the height of its buildings is capped. Mosques dot Urumqi and its outskirts but many of these buildings have a typical Chinese temple structure, or have entrances reminiscent of one. In a street food centre, the pagoda-like arch comes with the crescent moon and star, a symbol of Islam.
Along the streets, men and women go about life in both modern attire and traditional gear, Muslim men typically with some Kazakh hat or some other head gear while Muslim women have their hair covered. Some of the minority groups have Central Asian features. Others have Caucasian features with light skin and brown hair.
Our interpreter for this media trip, Zhang Jie Nian, says: “We may look different but we are all Chinese. Some of us have a different religion.” But there are also typically Han-looking Chinese who cover their hair, like the Shibo minority group.
“In every way, they are Chinese. The only difference is they are Muslim,” says Zhang. Most Mongols – descendants of Genghis Khan from Mongolia – are Buddhists. There is a small group of Russian Chinese, but the number is dwindling.
There are schools where children from minority groups are dominant and there are special Islamic institutes. In the retail scene, be it fashion or the digital mall, many of the businesses are owned and operated by Kazakhs and Uyghurs.
Muslim restaurants, from the Al-Baik fast food chicken chain and more upmarket restaurants, serve a delightful variety of kebabs. Lamb is by far the most popular and the Kazakh bread comes in an assortment of tastes and flavours. Some are round and flat, others plaited.
The Kazakhs and Ugyhurs are rather entrepreneurial. At the Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, dried fruits, dates and nuts of every variety are displayed. The locals get their supply from the Carrefour supermarket just three minutes’ walk away.
Rice is seldom eaten in its white plain form. Instead, it is fried with chunky lamb pieces and eaten with other vegetables and meat.
In the city, the most palpable forces of differences among the people are probably religion, food and culture. In the countryside, it is the lifestyle of each of these groups which sets them apart for each other.
The Kazakhs, for example, are herdsmen and the older generation continue to cling to this nomadic lifestyle during the summer months.
During a two-day drive on the G30 highway, Kazakh tents, sheep and goats dot the pastureland and mountainside. The 4,243km expressway links coastal city Lianyungang in the east to Khorgas in the west, end-to-end.
The drive, beginning from Yining, about 700km from Urumqi, provides an introduction of the Tian Shan range and its different peaks, the highest being Victory Peak at more than 7,437m.
The G30 highway offers some of the most spectacular views of the range, from dry and dusty mountain range where not a blade of grass seemingly grows to pristine pastureland. The G30 also leads to some of the newest towns the Beijing government is promoting today, like the Mongol towns of Wenchuan, Alashankou and Khorgas, the last being a border town which straddles Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. Other neighbours include Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Russia and Mongolia.
This expressway forms part of the land route of the Chinese government’s One Belt One Road economic initiative which was unveiled in 2013. This initiative parallels the old trading route known as Silk Road where livestock, herd and slaves were traded.
Today, a new level of exchange is being planned. Labour, e-commerce and modern day goods and services will be traded among the 57 countries that lie along this Belt Road initiative which includes a land, rail and sea route. It will be both a trade channel, and a route that offers unprecedented cultural exchanges.