The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Returning to Kashgar

Note: Serik (still) does not exist. In order to protect the people who talked to me in Kashgar, I’ve created “Serik.” The quotes in this piece are real, but they are not from a single person and not all from Kashgar. Obviously, details have been changed, and the story altered, but it does hint at my very real experiences in Kashgar.

We should’ve known Serik’s good mood wouldn’t last when, instead of getting a beer, he ordered a small bottle of baijiu, a potent rice liquor, just for himself.

Earlier in the day, I went back to Serik’s workshop. Initially, Serik was in great spirits—he’d just met up with a friend from his old band, whom he hadn’t seen for six years. He decided that he’d take us outside the city where we’d relax, enjoy the nice weather and listen to his friend play the dutar, a two-stringed Uighur guitar. It was supposed to be a low-key night.

We were sitting on carpet laid out on the grass when Serik ordered the his baijiu. Throughout the world, dispossessed peoples have higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction than the general populace, and Xinjiang is no exception. An increasing number of alienated Uighur males have turned to the bottle. The problem is further exacerbated, because mäshräps—grass-roots, Islamic social groups designed to supply substitute activities for drinking—were banned by the Chinese government in July of 1995.

Government surveillance of that night confirmed for me China’s suspicion of Uighur gatherings. Across the street, a lone man on a scooter watched us for half an hour, left for a few minutes, and then returned to a different location to stare at us. I have no doubt that he was a member of the Public Security Bureau keeping tabs on which Uighurs were talking to foreigners.

By the time the gawker on a scooter had switched positions, Serik was drunk. He saw a friend of his mother’s, a wealthy businessman who did business in Afghanistan. Rich Man had a steely gaze and was constantly smirking. He refused my “foreigner beer” and was rude to Serik, accusing him (accurately) of being a poor alcoholic. Serik responded belligerently. I decided it was a good time to leave and, feeling responsible for Serik’s state, I took Serik with me.

We jumped in a taxi, but Serik told the cabdriver, who didn’t understand English or Chinese, to take us to a store. Serik “needed” me to buy him more baijiu. During the cab ride as I’m refusing to buy him more alcohol, he’s yelling, “My mind says ‘no,’ but my body says ‘yes.’” At the store, he storms out of the taxi, and I follow him outside to the curb. Distraught, he tells me if don’t buy him just one bottle of baijiu, he’ll break the store window and steal it.

After spending some time trying to calm him down, I tell Serik, referring to something we’d toasted to earlier, “I’m trying to help you. Remember the power of friendship?”

With that comment something in Serik clicked.

“You’re right! You could have kept going, but you got out.” At which point, I walked a happy Serik back to his shop. He was in a good mood again; he’d beat an urge to drink.

That night was Serik’s birthday.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Hitchhiking the Karakoram Hwy

From Karakul to Tashkurgan, a city near the China-Pakistan border, one continues on Karakorum Highway along an old path of the Silk Road up the mountains and then down into a small oasis. The highway has been dubbed both the “ninth wonder of the world,” and “the most beautiful road in the world.”

Not wanting to take a cramped bus that might limit my views, I decided I would hitchhike the one hundred kilometers. It’s still quite common along the Karakoram, and as I waited, I saw many other vehicles already filled with hitchhikers. “It’s safe,” I thought to myself, “Nothing will happen. I’m certain.”

After about thirty minutes, a red truck stopped to pick me up. Mouth agape, I stared unabashedly out the window at the naked ridges and barren scree. The Karakoram Highway supplies the grandest views of nature I’ve seen from an automobile, but it has none of the intimacy of Highway One on the West Coast. Along the Karakoram, the plains are vast; the mountain peaks are perennially hidden in clouds, and the vegetation is sparse. You don’t feel close to nature; you’re made to feel insignificant by it.

But after only about thirty minutes of enjoying the view, the truck came to a slow halt. The driver calmly jumped out, futzed with his engine, and looked underneath the truck. He then walked around to the passenger side, shrugged his shoulders, and gave me an apologetic look. He never said a word, but the message was clear: We’d broken down, and there was nothing he could do about it.

I got out and waited by the side of a road. With the help of the driver, I flagged down a 1980s GM compact car. The vehicle already had three hitchhikers and a driver. I squeezed in the back, and we were off.

As we approached Tashkurgan, one comes across a large billboard of a Han man and woman in police uniform saluting. As if on cue, the four other people in the car saluted back at the advertisement and then proceeded to burst into laughter. Clearly, these were not fans of the police.

The rest of the trip proceeded without incident, and I ended up in Tashkurgan, pleased that I’d hitchhiked for the first time, but less than enthusiastic about trying it on the way back. Being stuck at an elevation of about 4,000 meters should only happen once a trip.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Karakul Day 2

He was singing to me in Kyrgyz. It was just the two of us walking around a lake near Karakul. When the local Kyrgyz man stopped singing, I gave him a big smile and and a thumbs up. Then, he asked me to sing “America” to him.

I’m not really sure why I chose the song I chose, but there I was surrounded by mountains near the Pakistan-China border belting out “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Despite it’s unAmerican origins and my terrible pitch, I sang the entire song, and he clapped enthusiastically at the end.

As we hiked, he taught me Kyrgyz, and he even called me his “lakshma doosh,” or good friend. After we’d circled the lake, he invited me into his home. Inside, every surface of his two-room house was covered with red carpets and tapestries, some beautifully hand-woven and others machine-made with kitschy, red roses. The house smelled of camel poop, sheep, and chai—a surprisingly pleasant aroma.

His family, however, was considerably more excited by my camera than by me. I didn’t have my flash with me so none of the photos turned out, but they didn’t care. I’d snap a photo or let one his kids take one and immediately the whole family would crowd around the camera looking at the screen giggling and pointing.

We moved to the other room in his house and sat cross-legged on the carpet, while his wife and teen-aged daughter made yak milk tea for me and four his friends. In the background, a television played black and white Kyrgyz rock videos. Abruptly, the five men left, leaving me with his three kids and wife.

I thanked his family in Kyrgyz and reached into my backpack. I happened to have three stickers from my kickball league team back in Portland, Dolph and the Accusers, which I gave to each of his kids. There’s a family in Xinjiang right now who thinks Dolph and the Accusers is a hip American band instead of a motley team of French teachers, photographers, and editors. Though with the singing talent I demonstrated, it’s probably best that it remains just a kickball team.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Karakul and the Wireless Sublime

In 18th and 19th century, German Romantic poets and painters would venture into the Black Forest to experience the “natural sublime,” that feeling of the immeasurable vastness of nature overwhelming the viewer with grandeur and power. If Germany’s Black Forest could make Caspar David Friedrich and the rest of his Romantic ilk swoon, then surely, if one of them had ever set foot by Karakul, they would have exploded.

To say Karakul is a big lake surrounded by big mountains doesn’t really justice to it. In one direction is Kongur Tagh, a 25,095 foot mountain, and in another is Muztagh Ata, which has an elevation of ‘only’ 24,757 feet. Everything feels proportionate to these peaks—the talus fields and ridges are twice as long and twice as high as anything I’ve seen trekking in the US. Needless to say, it’s a good place to experience the natural sublime.

This is where I spent two nights alone in a yurt with my Kyrgyz host, Anidin. But even amidst these grand mountains and plateaus, there’s cell phone reception. I found this out, because Anidin calls his wife in Kashgar everyday—usually twice. Not understanding Kyrgyz, I have no idea what they talk about, but it’s easy to hear the timbre of Anidin‘s voice change and to see him smiling long after their talks. Maybe making the “lovey-dovey” voice when you care about someone is a cultural universal like laughing when happy or crying when sad. Regardless, you don’t have to be an expert anthropologist to see that Anidin is still head over heels for his wife, Bezura.

After spending time in his yurt, I was as overwhelmed with the connection between Anidin and Bezura as anything coming from the Pamir mountains. For the two of them, there’s nothing more sublime than a cell phone.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Kashgar

Note: Serik does not exist. In order to protect the people who talked to me in Kashgar, I’ve created a composite character: Serik. The quotes in this piece are real, but they are not from a single person and not all from Kashgar. Obviously, details have been changed, and the story altered.

Serik is frustrated. No one was buying his hats anyways, and then, his sewing machine broke. But one gets the impression that Serik is often frustrated.

“Everyday I see Uighurs line-up—starving—at the mosques hoping for some food, but I only see Chinese at the China Construction Bank.”

He’s also frustrated, because he sees Chinese money coming into Kashgar and not benefiting the Uighur population that still makes up 80% of the city. Serik, like many Uighurs, is struggling to make ends meet. He lives in an eight foot by nine foot room—just large enough for a small bed, a sewing machine, and a chair for guests.

Serik misses the old Kashgar, when there was no such thing as the Old City because all of Kashgar was the Old City.

“The area around the Id Kah mosque used to be interesting. There was a beautiful clock tower, and someone was even living about the clock! Now the area looks like other areas.”

Serik—now in his late 40s—isn’t hoping to live an old-fashioned or religious life. He drinks beer and smokes the local tobacco. He was even the guitarist in a Uighur rock band. After injuring his wrist six years ago, he’s been unable to play, but he still has the tapes. Every now and again, he pulls them out and listens to them, thinking of a time when Kashgar was “interesting.”

“Maybe the young people learning Chinese will have a better chance,” he tells me hopefully. Serik speaks only Uighur and English and feels left behind with the increasing importance of Chinese.

I asked him what he thought the chances of young Chinese-speaking Uighurs were in Kashgar. His response was less hopeful: “I’d prefer not to talk about that.”

FEERful in Xinjiang

I have a short first person account of the military presence in Xinjiang up on the Far Eastern Economic Review website.

It’s my second piece for FEER, but this is the first that you don’t need a subscription to read.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Manas

The Epic of Manas is twenty times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. The hero, Manas, is a Luke Skywalker type hero to the Kyrgyz people: a quasi-magical protagonist that united a people against a vast empire a long long time ago. There are still Kyrgyz people whose sole occupation is to recount Manas’ rebellion against the Uighur Empire twelve centuries ago.

In contrast, the city of Manas is neither epic nor vast and is still largely Uighur. What brought me to this ho-hum Xinjiang town? Suntime Wine–China’s drinkable wine–has its headquarters in Manas. While on the bus ride to Manas, I found out that the interview I was depending on for my wine article fell through–China wouldn’t let me interview anybody, even for a soft piece on the future of the Chinese wine industry. I was left in a small town, regretting my decision to have come when I could’ve spent a night in a yurt next to the aptly named Heavenly Lake.

But it’s amazing how much difference a beer, three skewers of spiced lamb, and a walk can make. Manas was my first foray into a small Uighur city, and I was a rare American. The taxi-driver communicated to me that he’d driven French people before but never an American. The waitress tried to flirt with me in her very limited English—it involved mostly very attentive service and lots of giggling. The cook grabbed my notebook and tried to make sense of it by staring at the Roman alphabet as if it were a Magic Eye. A student, who’ll be attending university in Sichuan next year, walked with me across town just to practice his English. Once I relaxed, I realized that Manas provided exactly what I wanted from this trip, even if the stories were hardly epic.

Announcement Time!

I received an email from Princeton in Asia. They’ve offered me a position at a daily paper—

—in Cambodia.

I’d already decided I was going to stay in Hong Kong. I was absolutely sure. I’d made great friends, had great experiences, and even had a roommate lined up. I wasn’t ready to leave.

But, a job as a reporter at the Phnom Penh Post is just too good of a career opportunity, too good of an adventure to pass up. Plus, I hear one can watch the Tonle Sap River change colors at sunset from one’s choice of beer gardens.

I’ll be sad to leave Hong Kong, but I’m looking forward to hosting couch-surfing visitors in Phnom Penh. See you in Cambodia!

Dispatch from Urumqi 2: Xinjiang Autonomous Museum

The Xinjiang Autonomous Museum focused on two things: Xinjiang’s history and its minorities. Unfortunately, the these two aspects of the region are kept completely separate from each other.

The Xinjiang Autonomous Museum is in a beautiful, newly renovated building with all the ingredients of a world class museum: impressive textiles, well-preserved mummies, and even a two thousand year old mooncake. But, the presentation of its wide-array of artifacts illustrated not just the Party line but also one of the ways minorities in China are disempowered by the presentation of an incomplete history.

The first exhibit to the left of the entrance is simply entitled, “The Minorities.” The exhibit is chocked full of beautiful textiles and hand-crafted instruments. Of course, the information about these groups is rather sparse. Even with new English translations, the only thing that comes across is that minorities really like to sing, dance, and wear colorful costumes. There are no words devoted to the history of the groups or dates on the pieces of art. Minorities in China, it seems, are completely ahistorical. Uighurs like to dance in circles, and Russians play the accordion—the way it has always been.

This is lack of history is further emphasized by the exhibit across the hall: “The History of Xinjiang.” In it, there is no discussion of minority ethnic groups, but the information placard does regularly include non sequiturs about how for over two thousand years Xinjiang has been an inexorable part of China. After all, there is a two thousand year old mooncake.

With this manipulation of history, it should be no surprise that many Han Chinese see Xinjiang’s minorities, in particular its Uighur population, as ungrateful. The PRC is pouring money in Xinjiang, and many Hans don’t understand what the minorities have to be unhappy about.

One Chinese tourist told me that Uighurs are “the blacks of China. He meant this in an extremely negative way—but perhaps unintentionally, he has a point. Some Americans, consciously or subconsciously, think of American blacks as being preternaturally attracted to music and dance. Some Americans even think of blacks as ungrateful for what America has given them. Some of this came out in veiled language during the Reverend Wright debacle.

The United States is getting better—Obamania is one example of increasing tolerance. One reason for this improvement is the reinsertion of black figures into the teaching of American history. Increasingly, African-American history is not placed in a separate exhibit focusing on their musical and kinesthetic prowess, but rather, it is included as part of American history. An understanding of the successes and failures of the Civil Rights movement or the Black Power movement is necessary to understanding current day activism in any field. Today, WEB Dubois is taught to every Columbia student right between Nietzsche and Freud—and, the philosophical disagreements between him and Marcus Garvey are still being played out in minority politics. To know history is to know that it—whatever “it” is—can be done and what methods have been used in the past. It’s to know where people have been wronged and done wrong, and how the residues of this still affect policy. It’s to know that people can bring about change.

In Xinjiang, however, these understandings don’t look likely across any wide section of the population. China’s smart to focus on controlling the presentation of its history. The PRC’s claim to Xinjiang rests on the idea that the region has always been part of China or at least since the first century BC. A knowledge of the role minorities groups and leaders have played through the millennia would surely undermine this notion. For China, it’s best to show minorities as friendly people who enjoy dancing and not to bring attention to Xinjiang’s history of actual autonomous control by people labeled as minorities.

Dispatch from Xinjiang 1: Urumqi

As I read Shadow of the Silk Road—a recent travel book by Colin Thubron where he traces an ancient trading route from China to the Mediterranean—I was struck by what didn’t match up with my own entrance into Xinjiang. Before Thubron embarks on his trip to Xinjiang, he meets a young Chinese man who warns that the train stations are full of “drifters and criminals,” and he must not go out at night. Thubron’s lesson from this chat: Xinjiang is a scary, exotic place even for the Chinese.

My students, on the other hand, are enthusiastic about my trip: “Great mountains and great minorities!” one student told me. Even the vice-president of Shue Yan University showed me his photos of Xinjiang that line the walls of his office. He even recommended that I go the swan reserve.

Sitting next to me on my plane from Shenzhen was not Thubron’s young man afraid of the people of Western China, but a young, Chinese lady who lived in Xinjiang. She wore a lovely perfume and matched her pale blue skirt and blouse to her dangly earrings. This was somebody who would fit in with my hippest Hong Kong students—not the exotic figure anticipated in Thubron’s book.

In Shadow of the Silk Road, Thubron discusses the role Xinjiang plays in the Chinese imaginary. It was considered a place filled with barbarians; after all, the Great Wall was built to keep them out. Though threatening to Han Chinese, Thubron paints a portrait that the minorities are now poor and disgruntled. In a section that makes Xinjiang sound a little like a people zoo, Thubron writes that the province is full of “threatened minorities.” Unlike the previous impression Thubron gives, this one is backed up by my students’ comments: “great minorities!”

But on the plane to Urumqi, I was the only minority; everybody else on the place was Han Chinese. Getting off the plane I hardly found the city that “still stokes the imagination of the Chinese population.” Urumqi, the capitol of China’s Wild West, is more like modern Denver crossed with New Jersey than Denver during the Gold Rush.

Xinjiang’s history would be exhausting to memorize. Parts of the current day Xinjiang have been captured and recaptured by Hans, Huns, and Hephthalites; Turks, Tokharians, and Tibetans; Yanqis, Yarkands, and Yuezhis. But never in its long history has the area been so sinicized. Urumqi is a lovely Han city not unlike other Chinese cities.

Maybe all of Xinjiang was once considered exotic, but today, there are more Han Chinese than Uighurs. Xinjiang has become part of the domestic tourism circuit—and why not? It has beautiful mountains, lakes, deserts, and—of course—“great minorities.”