Xinjiang (新疆, xīnjiāng) is an extraordinary region more than 3000km from any coast which, despite all the upheavals since the collapse of the Silk Road trade, still comprises the same oasis settlements strung out along the ancient routes, many producing the silk and cotton for which they were famed in Roman times. Geographically, Xinjiang – literally “New Territories”, and more fully the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region – occupies an area slightly greater than Western Europe, and yet its population is just 22 million. With ethnic minorities comprising almost sixty percent of the total population, Xinjiang is perhaps the least “Chinese” part of the People’s Republic.
The Tian Shan range bisects Xinjiang from east to west. South of this dividing line is Nanjiang (southern Xinjiang), a predominantly Uyghur region that encompasses the Tarim Basin and the scorching Taklamakan Desert, its sands covering countless forgotten cities and another buried treasure – oil. China estimates that three times the proven US oil reserves are under the Taklamakan alone. The cooler forests and steppes north of the Tian Shan, in Beijiang (northern Xinjiang) are home to populations of Kazakhs and Mongols living a partially nomadic existence. Beijiang’s climate is warm in summer, and virtually Siberian from October through to March.
Regional highlights include the mountain pastures outside Ürümqi, where you can hike in rare solitude and stay beside Heaven Lake with Kazakhs in their yurts; but it is the old Silk Road that will attract most travellers, predominantly the oasis towns of Turpan and Kashgar. It is possible to follow either the Northern Silk Road from Turpan to Kashgar via Kuqa, or the virtually forgotten southern route via Khotan. There’s also the possibility of continuing the Silk Road journey out beyond the borders of China itself, via the relatively well-established Karakoram Highway into Pakistan, or over less well-known routes into Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.
While Xinjiang’s past has been coloured by such great personalities as Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great, the region’s fortunes have waxed and waned throughout its history. Likewise, China’s influence has been far from constant. The area first passed under Han control in the second century BC, under Emperor Wu Di, but it was not until the Tang dynasty (650–850 AD) that this control amounted to more than a vague military presence. Xinjiang enjoyed something of a golden age under the Tang, with the culture and Buddhist art of the Silk Road oases at their zenith.
From Tang dynasty to twentieth century
The ninth century saw the gradual rise of the Uyghurs, and their conversion to Islam. Subsequent centuries saw the Mongol conquests under Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Both brought havoc and slaughter in their wake, though the brief period of Mongol rule (1271–1368) hugely facilitated Silk Road trade – for the first and only time in history, east and west Asia were under a single government.
After the fall of the Mongols, Xinjiang began to split into oasis kingdoms or khanates and suffered a succession of religious and factional wars. Nonetheless, the Qing reassertion of Chinese domination in the eighteenth century was fiercely contested. A century later, in 1864, full-scale Muslim rebellion broke out, led by the ruler of Kashgaria, Yakub Beg. Ultimately the revolt failed and by the beginning of the twentieth century, Xinjiang was a Chinese backwater controlled by a succession of warlords who acted virtually independently of the central government.
Since 1949, the Chinese government has made strenuous attempts to stabilize the region by settling Han Chinese from the east. The Uyghur proportion of Xinjiang’s population slipped from ninety percent in 1949 to below fifty percent in the 1980s, and is still on the way down, despite the minorities’ exemption from the One Child Policy.
Today, the Chinese government remains nervous about Xinjiang, especially given its enormous economic potential. Uyghur dissent reached a peak in July 2009, when Ürümqi witnessed Xinjiang’s worst-ever clashes between its Uyghur and Han populations in recent times. Official sources put the number of dead at just under 200, the majority of them Han; Uyghur groups claim that the overall figure was much higher, and that hundreds of their own people’s deaths had been covered up. Security was tightened across the region, and hundreds of Uyghur men were arrested in huge sweeps of the main cities; an unknown number have since been executed.
With numerous minor incidents since 2009 tourist numbers have, understandably, taken a tumble. Visitors will notice a heavy security presence across Xinjiang but especially around the strongly Uyghur regions surrounding Khotan and Kashgar.