Traveling to the “end” of China (Xinjiang) was, in part, an quest to find the meaning of Chinese diversity. Xinjiang is home to the Uigher population and various other smaller ethnic minorities from Central Asia. And it is the location of a very delicate balance of ethnic tensions. This is somewhat unique in China (with other examples being the still-closed Tibet region and less famously the Miao people) because China as most Olympics-loving people know it is all about the relative homogeneity of the Han ethnic group.
Urumqi, my first brief stop in Xinjiang, is a fascinating city simply because this is where the ethnic balance has flipped. This provincial capitol used to be primarily Uigher and now “boasts” a majority of Han Chinese who have moved out to help “develop” this part of the country. In my Chinese newspaper class, we studied an article that described the incredible investment of the Chinese gov’t to help Han Chinese move out to Xinjiang to teach, hold gov’t posts, administrative jobs, etc. because the West coast needed to experience the same economic growth as the Chinese East coast. Today, the balance is tense. I developed a system for telling where the ethnic “line” was: language of signage. That is, when you see a sign for a restaurant or building or museum or park, etc., the question you should ask is how big is the Uigher script in comparison to the Chinese script. Some signs have just Chinese or just Uigher and that tells you where the owner of the building, restaurant, government, etc. stands. It should be noted that most signs and announcements are bilingual. Up until recently, Xinjiang schools only taught Uigher simply because of the lack of Chinese teachers. Now, schoolchildren all learn Chinese. It’s fun to see schoolkids mixing and using Mandarin as their base language. I don’t see many Chinese kids learning Uigher, that’s for sure.
Kashgar is another world entirely, perhaps a glimpse into pre-Chinese Xinjiang. Although you can get into a taxi and speak Chinese to go to the bus station, most here don’t speak Chinese. The chances of others speaking English outweighs the chances of others speaking Chinese. I can’t say that I felt entirely comfortable here in Kashgar. Maybe it’s because I had to go back to not being able to tell if people were talking about me or not. I was a seemingly-Chinese American in a sea of Uighers. I never got discriminated against once. But there was an unease about looking Chinese. Most Chinese visit Kashgar in tour buses and drive away after looking at a mosque and some donkeys.
Karakul is four hours south of Kashgar and is not a Uigher town. It’s mostly Kyrgyz, and there ain’t many of them in China. The couple who I stayed with quickly mentioned that the people who sold me my ticket to the national park (for 25 kuai, student rate) were Chinese, not Kyrgyz.