Saturday, September 05, 2009

Seven thousand kilometres of travel in China finished just in time. Chaos has broken out in Xinjiang province again. I was in Urumqi about ten days ago, where groups of soldiers were everywhere: at intersections, restaurants, bank machines and even at isolated points in the park where I ran. There were probably a dozen soldiers just in the park.

Helicopters were seen overhead in the morning in Urumqi, the regional capital, one day after tens of thousands of Han, the dominant ethnic group in China, took to the streets to demand that the government prevent alleged hypodermic needle stabbings by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who are largely Muslim, according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency.

After three weeks and a few books about life in China, I'm stunned that this level of political expression is possible in China, and in Xinjiang of all places, where caravan trucks full of soldiers drive by with regularity. The Internet is blocked, international phone calls are block and foreign journalists are banned. The story is datelined from Beijing and quotes extensively from official Chinese media. Making the story bizarre is this intense information blackout.

What traveling in Xinjiang shows you isn't much compared to actually being from there, but you'll notice that Han Chinese are better off than Uighurs. Han Chinese run the place and Uighurs work for them. Uighurs have to learn what is to them a foreign language, and adapt to an influx of newcomers. They cloister in their own part of town for the most part, called the Uighur quarter in both Urumqi and Kashgar, and traveling from one to the other is like visiting a new city. You seldom see the two groups intermingling.

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