Xinjiang

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Astana, Xinjiang, China, November 2008. Typical Uygur face and cap.

Xinjiang’s Turkic Uyghur majority is being displaced by a continuing influx of Han Chinese settlers, and they complain about the political, economic, and social discrimination and the erosion of this autonomous region’s cultural identity. Both ethnicities want to show they were the first there, but maybe it was neither of the two.

Results of a Sino-U.S. team that did genetic mapping of 52 very well preserved (thanks to the dryness of the desert) mummies with Caucasoid features, often with reddish or blond hair, now known as the Tarim mummies, discovered in 1980 in Loulan, Tarim Bassin, show that Indo-Europeans seem to be the oldest inhabitants of this land (back 5,000 years ago) — a West Eurasian, possibly Southern Russian, descent.

Followed the Tokharians-Yuezhis-Kushans who gave place to the Uygurs in the 9th century, at the time Islam started overpowering Buddhism in the whole region. As I say it is not just history, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, experienced again strong political unrest during the 2008 Olympics, just before our trip, based on ethnic rivalries.

Political sensitivity at the universal level too, “These theories [about the origins of the earliest inhabitants] run counter to the idea that the East and West developed civilizations independently, but suggest that some form of cultural exchanges took place”. So, today we are not facing Samuel Huntington’s Clash of civilizations, but a Rendez-vous des civilisations, as coined by French historian and anthropologist Emmanuel Todd.

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Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, November 2008.

We made it to the legendary oasis, except it’s not mythical anymore, just one more sprawling Chinese city, modern, big, busy, dirty, ugly, very religious, lots of women not only scarved like this young one, but wholly covered with a brown cloth, their seeing through the fabric. OK, in comparison to the other Central Asian markets, this one was huge and well-stocked. And I liked the General Public Hospital #2 where I went for my kidney colic. People poked into the rooms and talked to the physicians while these were examining patients, yet there were none of the huge lines they have in Greece and they quickly and efficiently found what I had — I paid 15 Euros for an ultrasound, a lab test, and medical examinations with a generalist and a urologist.

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Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, November 2008.

Because of that kidney colic, our great travel insurer insisted on flying us back and forth to a private Shanghai clinic on the other side of China, two planes and 7 hours flight away. On the way we zipped through Xinjiang’s enormous capital and over the mighty and snowy Eastern Tien Shan mountain range (see below).

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Kizil, Xinjiang, China, November 2008.

The scenery looked much nicer outside than in the Thousand Buddha caves, at least those they allowed us to visit in this late season. We got rewarded at the astounding Mogao caves, 1,500 km to the east, although Kizil was the blueprint for these as Buddhism expanded eastward.

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Turpan, Xinjiang, China, November 2008.

Another mythical town on the Silk Road. Although we will remember it for the Turpan-Dunhuang bus ride. It is supposed to take ten hours, like most overnight trips in sleeper buses. Ours took … 30 hours, including nine hours – from 2 to 11 a.m. – totally blocked while we were exiting Xinjiang. The driver would turn the engine on from time to time to avoid freezing. We still don’t know what was the cause, there were hundreds of trucks, buses, and some cars stopped on the highway, was it an accident? roadwork? a strike? some special control upon exiting the autonomous province? When we moved, we saw all of that, works, wrecks, a toll booth, snow, then it took us six hours to cross a low pass with snow on either side of the road. It was positively a torture, every twenty minutes or so, we would drive about 100 meters, then stop again, in the other direction there were trucks one after the other, similarly moving at a pace slower than snails. It was dark again, the worst was that these sleepers are hard on your legs when you are awake, plus we did not have anything to eat apart from some biscuits I had managed to buy in some basic stores along the way, and others a nice lady had liberally passed around along with water bottles.

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Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, November 2008.

Here was a real market. Central Asia’s biggest, by far. Yet, not rivaling Turkmenistan’s Tolkuchka.

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Eastern Tienshan mountain range, Xinjiang, China, November 2008.

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Dunhuang, China, November 2008.

This looks exotic but it is just an example of Chinese domestic tourism turning beautiful natural sights into junk, paying attractions, tightly regulated not unlike the U.S.

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