The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Unrest in Xinjiang

A year ago to the day, I met a Uighur shoemaker in Kashgar (read about it here and here). He loved foreigners, because a few years ago, a Westerner found him, a drunkard living on a park bench, and helped him set up a small shop where he now lives.

But he also loved foreigners for the simple fact they weren’t Chinese. Until the Chinese government hires white Americans to spy on its minorities, I was one of the few people he could safely complain to. Like many Uighurs I met on the trip, he was bitter and frustrated. The city he grow up in was being destroyed and replaced by Chinese suburbia. He wasn’t religious, but he felt the only people helping Uighurs were the Islamic groups and an occasional foreigner.

The English-speaking shoemaker spoke about (and sometimes embodied) the disorders like alcoholism and physical abuse that go hand in hand with social disintegration, and Chinese policies are only making the situation worse.

Mäshräps—grass-roots, Islamic social groups designed to supply substitute activities for drinking—were banned in 1995, and today, China banned group prayer in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. Underemployed, oppressed minorities with nothing to do can lead to violence anywhere in the world, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that riots broke out, though I would’ve expected it to happen in cities like Kashgar or Yarkand where tensions were much more palpable a year ago.

I’ve found myself these last few days since riots erupted in Xinjiang imagining what the shoemaker is up to. He’s a sick middle-aged man—not someone you’d think would get involved in something so rowdy as a protest. But he also has nothing to lose. His happy years of playing in Uighur rock band are over. Last year, I saw Chinese troops march through the centre of Kashgar’s Old City everyday, and the shoemaker told me the sight never ceased to anger him.

Listening to Country in China

I was listening to music and watching Chinese countryside whiz by when a nine-year-old girl with her hair tied up in buns with pink ribbons approached me. After I communicated with her all I could—which was mostly the fact that I couldn’t speak Chinese—I offered her one of my headphones. I played for her every genre I had on my iPod, and it was clear that she found everything from The Blow to Beethoven boring. Resigned to the fact that she just might not like my music, I played one last artist: Townes Van Zandt.

The moment I put on the Texas troubador the girl shot me an enthusiastic smile and gave me a thumbs up. Though famous in Texas and in country music circles, I’d never heard of Townes Van Zandt until recently. I had no idea which songs the young girl might like so the two of us listened to every song of his on my iPod—forty in all. At times the girls would move her arms and shake her head to the beat, and at other moments, she would concentrate intensely trying to decipher what the song might be about. Townes’ music humorously touches on the usual country music themes—love, loss, and alcohol—but without understanding the lyrics, it was clearly Townes’ cracking, bending voice that fascinated the young Chinese girl. Perhaps it’s microtonal wavering was reminiscent of traditional Chinese music.

Growing up in Portland, I hated country music. After all, I only knew the likes of Shania, Garth, and Kenny Chesney, and it was easy to feel superior to the places where people listened to country. During the Cold War, the US sent out musicians—most famously jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—to counter Soviet propaganda depicting the US as a cultural wasteland, and throughout the world, people found something to like about the US. With the American election coming, the US doesn’t just need international ambassadors but also domestic cultural ambassadors to bridge the divide between people who wear trucker hats in earnest and in irony. Now that the America is in the middle of a so-called “Culture War,” the red states should send their best country musicians to places like Portland to counter the Country Music Channel’s portrayal. In return, Portland will issue a public apology for Courtney Love.  After eight years of George W. Bush, the US needs some real post-partisan rhetoric from a Texan, and the tunes of Townes Van Zandt are a good place to start.

From Urumqi to Hong Kong: Seventy-Two Hours on the Iron Rooster

On my first morning on the train back to Hong Kong, I woke up to sound of a virtuosic accordion player. I rolled out of my hard sleeper and walked down the train car searching for the source. I imagined a wizened Slavic man playing the Russian folk tunes he learned long ago. But when I turned the corner and peered into the cabin, I saw a Han Chinese boy—eight years old, at most—playing Eastern European dance music with a stern face. After his song, he passed the accordion to a girl a couple of years his elder,  slouched, and frowned. The young boy was clearly disappointed with his performance, but I was rapt. I had no idea the accordion could sound like that. His nimble fingers were as quick and accurate as any concert pianist. Then, the young girl who grabbed the accordion from him preceded to play an even more technically challenging song. When she was finished she passed the accordion on to another person who played a darker tune, full of sadness and loss—this musician who played so emotionally must have been ten years old. The accordion was then passed on to three other people. Even though most of the songs were joyful dance tunes, not a single musician smiled while playing; accordion music was serious business. I lucked out—for almost forty-eight hours, my train carried an accordion troupe of six intense children aged about eight to thirteen.

While I was watching and listening to these kids—moreso than any other moment on my trip—I wanted to drop all my plans and devote myself to learning Chinese. No one in my car spoke English so I couldn’t get anything translated. I wanted to know about these immensely talented children. Where did they come from? Where were they going? Why the accordion? Who was training them? How were other random people on the train familiar with the songs written for the accordion? To kill time on the train, I imagined elaborate and sometimes fantastical answers to these questions, but one thing I’m certain about: there’s a huge underground accordion scene in China, and if I spoke Chinese, I would be able tell you about it.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: History in Hotan

Norlan, my volunteer Uighur guide in Hotan, has read carefully every piece of tourist information about the Xinjiang. He has underlined, circled, and annotated passages on nearly every page of his numerous pamphlets and guides. He even has an old, well-worn copy of a book illegal in China—The Lonely Planet.

At the bus station in Hotan, he reads to me from his LP, “It’s fairly certain that the Tang dynasty never had absolute control” and then he skips to “In 1911, Xinjiang came under the rule of a succession of warlords over whom the Nationalist Party had very little control.”

Earlier in the day, he had told me that in school he never learned any Uighur history, just the history of the Communist Party like everyone else in China. Norlan had only vague ideas of Uighurs fighting in the “1930s or 40s” for independence which he learned from relatives old enough to have fought against the Chinese. It was only after he learned English and read the Lonely Planet that he discovered a longer account of Uighur history—nearly two pages.

Besides being naturally curious and exceptionally bright, Norlan got lucky. China’s imposes a sanitized history of long-standing control to justify its rule of Xinjiang.  I don’t think most Uighurs buy into this narrative, but with China’s regime of information censorship, no competing accounts of history can readily emerge—leaving Norlan to accidentally uncover it in an illicit tourist guide. Without the ability to form any sort of civil society and without a believable history, it’s no wonder many Uighurs feel dispossessed.

Right before I got on the bus, he looked right at me, tapped his finger to his Lonely Planet, and said, “This is real history.”

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Searching for Jade in Hotan

China has inserted a ring of jade inlay in the 2008 Olympic medals. It makes perfect sense—for thousands of years, jade has represented all that is desirable in a person and a ruler in China. The value of jade transcends mere money—there’s a Chinese saying that “Gold is valuable, but jade is invaluable.” It’s so invaluable, in fact, that Hotan jade sells for a whopping $120 a gram. Confucius wrote that the stone has eleven virtues which people should emulate to ensure a harmonious society. Today, it also represents a twelfth idea: to get rich is glorious.

The jade from the Yorungkash, the river that flows through Hotan, was given directly to the Imperial Palace. Emperors often sought out Hotan’s “mutton-fat” jade as symbols of the wisdom of their rule. In the Book of Rites from about 300 BC, Li Ji wrote, “If a ruler perfectly observes the rites of the state, white jade will appear in the valley.” Not wanting to take chances, the Ming Court paid exorbitant amounts for Hotan jade to ensure the appearance of receiving tributes of white jade—proof that the Imperial Court had followed the proper rites. People have been overpaying for jade ever since.

Today, next to the Yorungkash River is a used-car lot. Norlan, my Uighur guide in Hotan, told me that people have discovered large pieces of jade and then walked out of the river bed and immediately exchanged it for a car. Thousands of people for thousands of years have walked in and along the river turning over rocks looking for the precious stone.

The day I searched for jade, the sky was grey; the ground was grey; even the river was an opaque grey. There was no foilage on the banks of the river—the entire scene was just grey. But as I found out, when you immediately pull a rock from the water, its colors look brilliant—every white rock looks like “mutton-fat.” Jade comes in shades of brown, green, red, and black—which means every rock that had even a hint of color appeared to have real jade hues. Norlan, my volunteer guide, and I slowly built up a pile of rocks that might possibly be jade, but as soon as the rock dried, the color disappeared, and we were left with a pile of grey rocks. We didn’t find anything—let alone something we could exchange for a car. I guess after thousands of years the jade is pretty picked over.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Uighur Food in Hotan

Fatty lamb spiced with cumin, chili peppers, and an herb called zir brought me to Xinjiang. While there, I happily put myself on a spiced lamb and starch diet.

For hundreds of years, cooking practices and spices flowed along the Silk Road from Central Asia to China and back again. At the center of this trade was what is now Xinjiang. Not surprisingly, Uighurs developed a cuisine that reflects the region’s history as a bridge between cultures. This delicious hybrid cuisine differentiates itself from neighboring cuisines with its masterful use of spices. Cumin and saffron arrived from the west and star anise and Sichuan pepper flakes came from the east. Uighur cooks will carefully mix these spices from around the globe and put them on big, fatty pieces of lamb.

You can eat this lamb most famously with hand-pulled noodles and peppers (laghman), in a rice pilaf (polo), or on skewers. In each of these the lamb is prepared differently, and each of these is delicious. Typically the lamb skewers have one piece of meat that is just a hunk of spiced fat—somehow though, it’s tender and not chewy.

In Hotan—a city along a southern Silk Road route—I ate polo, a Uighur rice pilaf. The lamb had been steamed with the rice, making the rice oily with fat. Two softball-sized chunks of lamb were then plopped on the bed of rice. The cooks mixed in some shredded carrots, a small amount of yogurt, and spices. It’s a simple dish, but in its mix of spices one can taste the history of Silk Road.

And it’s delicious.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Yarkand

In Yarkand, a city southeast of Kashgar, about a dozen members of the People’s Liberation Army were loitering outside my hotel with wooden clubs.

By this point in my trip, I was fed up with the Chinese military. Max and I were supposed to spend the night in the Taklamakan Desert instead of a dodgy hotel filled with middle-aged prostitutes (it was the only hotel allowed to take-in foreigners), but the government changed the rule the day we arrived, prohibiting foreigners from overnight treks in the desert. We’d been told that the military was taking up the entirety of a desert larger than the state of Oregon looking for terrorists sneaking in to spoil the Olympics. I’d lucked out at Karakul—two days after I’d went to the lake, the military started turning people away who didn’t have some special stamp.

From the taxis of Urumqi to the donkey carts of Kashgar to the camels of Tashkurgan, one travels in all sorts of ways, but one thing remains constant—no matter the mode of transportation: military checkpoints. From Urumqi to Kashgar, the bus stopped at least six times at police or military checkpoints; from Kashgar to Tashkurgan I went through two more military checkpoints, and from Kashgar to Yarkand, I went through three more. Generally, an army or police officer would simply glare at the Uighur passengers, leaving me in peace—though I was hassled on a couple of occasions.

Frustrating tourists and trying to intimidate its Uighur population will not win China any friends nor will it deter terrorism. Encouraging tourism in Xinjiang would better increase China’s national security by bringing revenue to struggling Uighur cities. Poverty and resentment breed terrorism—not Americans taking photos of camels in a desert.

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Kashgar #3

In Ugandan English, there are three terms for going to the bathroom: short call, long call, and fast call. Short call and long call mean exactly what you think they do, and fast call means that you need to find a toilet—immediately.

One night in Kashgar was dominated by fast calls. Max, a fellow PiAer who I’d met up with in Tashkurgan, and I were planning to ride camels in the Taklamakan Desert the next day—that is, until he told me his idea for an Imodium commercial:

Two strapping young lads are riding camels in the middle of the desert, laughing and chatting while bobbing up and down on their respective dromedaries. Suddenly, the camera zooms in on the man with brown hair. His eyes grow wide. The frame freezes, and the Imodium slogan appears on-screen: Where Will You Be?

We decided to stay in Kashgar one more day. I watched Die Hard 4 in my hotel room.

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.