News / Asia

Reporters Notebook: Xinjiang Journey

Armed policemen stand guard near the site of an explosion in Urumqi, northwest China's Xinjiang region, May 22, 2014.
Armed policemen stand guard near the site of an explosion in Urumqi, northwest China's Xinjiang region, May 22, 2014.
After three days in Urumqi, I decided to spend my last day in Xinjiang visiting other parts of the troubled region.

Because of the sensitive nature of the situation, I tried to be mentally prepared.  But I did not expect how difficult it would be to travel. Two cars refused me service before I found a taxi in the street that was willing to take me where I wanted to go.  

It's nine o'clock in the morning in Urumqi, with the sun rising in the distance over towering snow-capped mountains. It feels like an ancient land.

As we pass south of downtown, the barren desert wasteland rises up to greet us. But the desert is the least of my worries on this road.

At every highway toll station, we are directed to a heavily armed police checkpoint for a car inspection.  Many Chinese citizens with a second generation ID card go through electronic scanning.  But we saw one young Uighur, standing under a shed, while police did a detailed inventory of his vehicle.

Caged Soldiers
 
Continuing along westbound Highway G30 Lianhuo, leading to Korla toll station, we met the most stringent security checks. Not only was every car stopped, but I observed security forces with powerful pump action shotguns as four officers surrounded our car.

They required everyone to produce documents and asked us to open the trunk. The driver told me that the check will be more stringent when we return to Urumqi.
 
After the toll station checkpoint, we saw more armed patrols and police with camouflage uniforms, helmets and rifles, as well as soldiers surrounded by protective net cages.
 
Tourism into the Wind
 
About 60 kilometers out of Urumqi is Xinjiang's famous Salt Lake landscape. Here is an international scenic spot. And yet I saw the area deserted, except others reporters, surrounded by a silence like a deserted ruin.
 
Fear of violent incidents in Xinjiang and tough anti-terrorism measures have crippled the area's tourism industry. Today it was reported that the Xinjiang government will provide 500 yuan ($80) as an incentive to encourage visitors. However, despite the beautiful scenery, the money may not be enough. As some netizens said, 50,000 yuan ($8,000) would not be enough to get people to take on the adventure. While restoring tourism is a priority, law and order is probably what is needed before tourists return.

Beauty and a Golden Toilet
 
The beauty of the scenery along the way, you can not use language to describe it. Along the highway is an area of 1,000 square kilometers of Asia's largest wind power plant. Brown on both sides of the highway extends to iron hot rolling hills and cliffs of gorgeous color and hues. Near the ancient Silk Road, we see a still vivid Thousand Buddha Caves temple and an ancient clay castle. I can not help but ponder. With such magnificent mountains and rivers, so much fertile land, why does it spawn terrorists? Downstream of the oil and wealth, why are local residents living in dilapidated homes?  Why can they not take a slice of the natural resources?
 
The answer might lie in a toilet.

We traveled along the road from Korla to Turpan, then to Shanshan. Because it was late, we decided to return to Urumqi. In the wind farm rest stop, we stopped to use a dilapidated restroom built over a foul smelling, hollow pit next to the magnificent wind farm and oil wells.
 
Here, wells from the United Arab Emirates draw up money from the ground and are used to create gold plated toilets elsewhere. Natural gas in Xinjiang, according to our driver, is transported to Shanghai. He said locals now use natural gas imported from Russia.

At a  recent meeting of the Politburo, President Xi Jinping proposed allowing more of the natural wealth to remain in Xinjiang. However, because of reports of local corruption, ordinary people in Xinjiang would be assigned benefits.

A Knife and Some Raisins
 
Along the Lianhuo road, we came across locals making raisins using an ancient process of drying grapes in a small shack and then placing them on the ground in the sun. We saw the dozens of large and small reddish-purple raisins, which exude a seductive scent. In the raisin processing room, a Uighur boss and I talk and enthusiastically endorse all kinds of raisins. He takes a big bamboo basket from a dark dark room, filled with plump, sparkling raisins.  

Let us taste!
 
Then he pulled out a rusty iron knife, briefly giving me a little chill. Concern vanished when he got up and cut a watermelon, inviting us to eat. His wife set me up with a kettle and asked with concern if I need heat for the water. We appreciate the moment, warm and welcoming. Uighur and Han Chinese. Today, because of tensions and violence in Xinjiang, many Han Chinese are scared
 
But my taxi drivers said the Uighurs, if not brainwashed by outsiders, are simple and warm.  This view has been echoed in recent days in Chinese official media propaganda, which says recent attackers were brainwashed by extremist religious ideology.

In every corner, in every school, store, department store, city center - like a shopping center, movie center, everywhere - you'll see heavily armed security. But for how long? Will this be the future of Xinjiang?

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