It was dusk when the big plane lifted off northbound through the dirty skies above Beijing’s Capital Airport, banking left into the scattering sunlight.

We were headed to China’s wild western frontier, to a city named with a comic punch line: Urumqi, pronounced “ur-room-key,” like “Hey baby, slide me your room key and I’ll be over in a bit.”

My wife’s entrepreneurial brother has invested in a precious metals mine in far-away Xinjiang province, in an exotic northwest corner of China brimming with natural resources — and simmering cultural tensions. There were seven of us onboard that evening, venturing to a place that’s like another planet in its geographic and ethnic otherness. Xinjiang features vast unpeopled deserts and villages full of feisty minority residents known as Uighurs, (pronounced wee-gurs) who practice Islam and wouldn’t know Confucius if he sat down next to them at the mosque.

My companions were going to check out the landscape, feast on cumin-spiced lamb and naan bread, to see Central Asian faces so foreign from the ubiquitous almond-eyed Han.

I wanted to get a bead on the lethal ugliness that is China’s own domestic Muslim problem; in this land of blank stares, security surveillance, military checkpoints and barbed wire.

With their own language, culture and religion, Uighurs are a restive tribe that has populated the landscape for centuries. Xinjiang features thee remnants of stops on the ancient Silk Road trading route, where residents built an underground canal system to create oasis to accommodate continental travelers — a feat of engineering many liken to the building of the Great Wall itself, at a time when the Qing Dynasty mandarins held sway here. After the Communist takeover in 1949, the Uighurs and less significant cultural minorities like the Mongols, Hui and Tajiks became part of the new China. In Mandarin, the name Xinjiang translates to “old land returned to the mother country.”

Now, more than six decades later, many Uighurs want to plot their own future as an independent nation rather than continue under the lock step of Beijing’s billion-man army.

In turn, Beijing has set out to colonize Xinjiang, pirate its resources, overrun its culture with his sheer superiority in human numbers. In recent years, the government has sent millions of Han Chinese to cultivate Xinjiang, start businesses, raise families. For the Uighers and other indigenous peoples in the region, their arrival has been nothing short of an invasion. Like Native Americans on the Western plains 150 years ago, who faced a countless wave of new settlers, wagon train after wagon train, they have watched their land, their language, their perceived futures, being wrested away from them.

And like the Sioux and the Cherokee and the Comanche, the Uighurs are fighting back with their own separatist struggle.

They’ve declared a low-level war of terror against the Han that has killed thousands; with hit-and-run bombing and shooting attacks waged by bands of Uighur separatists, many schooled in Pakistani training camps, and now, as rumor says, in ISIS camps in northern Africa as well. What follows are ruthless Chinese Army crackdowns where people literally disappear. And there’s little end in sight to the violence, despite Beijing’s attempts to coverup the bloodshed, play down the body count. Last year, Beijing sentenced nine Uighurs to death for terrorist crimes.

Culturally, Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi is indeed closer to Mecca than Beijing. It lies as far northwest of the capital city as Anchorage does to New York City. You can’t get any farther from Beijing and still be in China. Picture the People’s Republic as the proverbial rooster with its head facing east; we were leaving the neck of the chicken and venturing to its farthest-west tail feathers. The region lies just north of Tibet, bordering. along with Russia and Mongolia, all of the lunar-landscape-like stans, places known for their wide-open nothingness: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Xinjiang is immense and quite empty. Some 650,000 square miles, its the size of Alaska, comprising one-sixth of China’s entire land mass, but with a population of just 20 million, the same as the single city of Beijing. But thanks to the Han invasion, Uighurs now comprise only 46% of the population, compared to 40% for the Han. But the two cultures live almost separate lives: the Han cluster in large cities to the region’s north while the Uighurs mostly exist in villages in the province’s southern end, with the two encampments separated by the east-west running Heavenly Mountains.

In between, less than 5% of Xinjiang’s hardscrabble topography is considered habitable by humans, which leaves a lot of nothingness. In two weeks, we traveled 3,000 miles, the equivalent to a coast-to-coast U.S. jaunt, and barely scratched Xinjiang’s surface.

As the commercial jet raced westward, I observed my fellow passengers, many of which looked more Central Asian with their round eyes and swarthier features. On the back of the seat head-rest in front of me was was an ad for camel’s milk.

Barely an hour after takeoff, I had already escaped Beijing’s considerable gravitational pull.

My wife wanted to visit Urumqi’s vast cultural market place called the Grand Bazaar, located next to a towering mosque not far from our hotel.

Was it safe to go there, she asked the desk clerk.

“I don’t know how to answer that question,” he responded.

He left it at that.

Later, we wandered the market anyway, comprised of tiny stalls that sold combs fashioned from bull’s horns and tambourines decorated with Uighur cultural scenes. Many merchants wore small white taqiyah, Muslim prayer caps and sported the long gray beards. Women wore colorful head scarves common in Islamic nations. By necessity, most spoke Mandarin but I’d seen the look in trips to Pakistan: the eyes stone-cold, the lips unsmiling. The invaded forced to accommodate the invaders.

Welcome to Urumqi, where an uneasy tension permeates the air, with Beijing never pulling punches to let people know who’s boss here. Unlike the rest of Xinjiang, the Han dominate here, comprising three-fourths of the city’s 3.2 million residents.

But the two tribes march their own paths. All signs are in Mandarin and Arabic script. The two groups even follow different time clocks. Beijing insists that its subjects follow the time zone of the capital city, thousands of miles to the east, while the Uighurs adhere to local time, two hours earlier.

So even the hour of the day depends on whom you ask.

All hotels feature metal detectors, which seem to be discriminantly employed. On several occasions, I watched groups of Han Chinese walk past without being checked, while local Uighurs were patted down and scrutinized. Popular tourist attractions outside the city featured post office type Most Wanted photos of looks that were not permitted inside. They included long beards and Taqiyah, like Crips and Bloods gang colors banned from Disneyland.

Police checkpoints are everywhere, with Han policemen and soldiers mostly scrutinizing the IDs of locals, letting Han drivers pass. Even getting your gas tank filled was a reminder of the potential violence that lurks around ever corner.

Every gas station in Xinjiang is encased in barbed wire. Posted guards record the driver’s information and passengers are required to get out and walk around, rejoining the driver on the other side, only after the fill up. Cars are checked for weapons and bombs.

But the biggest reminder of the two clashing cultures are the traffic cameras. Especially in big cities such as Urumqi, cameras flash at every intersection and freeway overpass. A local told me that Urumqi is the most security-camera-laden city on the planet. You feel like a starlet facing the paparazzi, with the flashing lights collecting evidence of your presence here in case the unwanted happens: a bomb explodes and the authorities need to trace the terrorist’s steps.

Much of the violence reported out of Xinjiang in the last year has taken place in the more restive southern fringes of the provinces, where few Han dare tread: A car drives through a crowded outdoor market. A window rolls down and bursts of automatic gunfire kill a dozen Han shoppers. A phony checkpoint is set up on a rural road. Han drivers who stop are stabbed to death.

But in 2009, the violence even visited Urumqi, with riots that rocked the city. One local told me that following a string of attacks by Uighurs, the Chinese military moved in and killed scores. Beijing’s official death count was 197 but locals insist the numbers were much higher. Uighur men vanished after being brought in for questioning. Mosques were closed. The Chinese government followed up with an Internet crackdown that included restrictions on telephone text messaging. More than a year passed before levels of Internet service returned to normal.

In all, 400 Uighurs were charged. Two dozen received death sentences.

We ventured out on one of our many trips into the Xinjiang hinterlands.

Traveling with my wife can be hair-raising in the best of times. Hers is the whirling dervish version of trip planning, or lack thereof.

Seat of the pants. Get up and go. Now. Research? What research? She’s always, let’s just say, a little light on the details.

Each time I asked about our destination, she’d only say that she’d heard about three areas that we had to see. She said that they were all too difficult to describe but that when we saw them we’d say “Wow!”

I began calling them the Three Wows.

Anyway, she said, dismissing me with the wave of a hand, our hired van driver had our itinerary mapped down to the nano-second.

Her instructions: Shut up, sit back and enjoy the scenery.

A half hour out of Urumqi, the driver turned to our party of six and said “So, where are we going?”

I gripped the arm rest.

But it worked out. We continued west and then turning south over the Tian, or Heavenly, Mountains. With each passing mile, the landscape transformed from shapeless desert into a glorious series of switchbacks over numerous wooded ranges, the road dipping into one valley before scaling the next ascent toward snow-capped white mountain tops gleaming in the September sun. Some vistas presented a picture postcard view of a dozen descending tarmac turns, the roadside dotted with round homes known as Yurts, where farming families lived the same way they’ve had for decades and decades, with a traditional and pronounced relationship between man and animal.

Shepherds on horseback guided herds that included sheep, goats, cattle, horses, even camels. We began calling them traffic jams, as our vehicle slowed to a stop, held in check by the sometimes hundreds of scurrying animals that surrounded us.

The big trucks blared their horns, trying to recapture control of the thoroughfare, but the animals were relentless and then shepherds nonplused: Their reluctance was a not-so-subtle form of protest against the Chinese. These were their roads, they seemed to say. They’d been here long before the first Han invaders with their diesel-belching trucks. Out here, the old ways prevailed. So shut up, sit back and enjoy the scenery.

Villages were preceded by police checkpoints. At one town, the site of a weekly street market, the Han policeman checked out IDs and looked me over.

“Where is he from,” he asked our driver.

America, huh? Well, if you get out of the vehicle, be careful. We don’t want him to be hurt. We don’t need an international incident.

After we passed, our driver looked over at me and winked.

Then he pulled out the long-bladed knife he’d hidden under the seat.

Let’s do some shopping, the look seemed to say.

No problem.

Our host wanted us to see a real Uighur neighborhood; eat the specialty noodle dish.

Born in Xinjiang, but not Muslim, he’s the mining partner of my wife’s brother, and he wanted to show us a good time. He called a friend, a fellow Uighur who looked like a typical military mercenary with his taut body and short haircut. The friend said he’d lived in North Korea for a year, but didn’t say why.

We drove to a neighborhood where street vendors sold a special meaty naan naan that tasted like a sauce less pizza, and found a crowded Mom and Pop restaurant full of Uighur families. The neighborhood was the scene of riots back in 2009, a place where hostilities still lingered; even, it seemed, in that tiny restaurant.

There were nine of us, mostly Han Chinese. The owner was solicitous, serving up the special noodle dish; the ingredients handmade by women sitting in a row along the front window.

The stares when we entered were piercing. No one made eye contact, but we were whites entering a black barbershop in the Jim Crow South, or like chaperons barging into the darker corners of some high school dance. We weren’t welcome. But we were safe as long as we were accompanied by our Uighur hosts.

I looked at the next table with a family with three children. A girl who appeared to be about nine, with large brown, eyes caught my gaze for just a second, but long enough to make a point.

The look was unemotional but carried a resentment that seemed to have simmered for decades.

Eventually, she looked through me, through us, like we weren’t even there.

But we were. And that was the problem.



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