Xinjiang: A Journey to the Far West

by Adam Jones (1984)

[Originally published in Mengembara, annual travel magazine of the United World College of South-East Asia, Singapore, 1985. The photo below appeared on the cover.]

Central Asian girl (left) and her Han Chinese friend, in Jiayuguan, where the Great Wall ends ...
Photo (unposed) by Adam Jones.

Han and Central Asian Girls, Jiayuguan (Photo)


What remains vivid, months after my travels in his homeland?

In Shanghai we called him the leader - and then The Leader, because whenever he deigned to dine at the sweaty upper-floor restaurant in the city's Muslim quarter, the deference shown to him was palpable. One evening we are chatting in our idle way: he, my classmate Robert, and I. We talk about Xinjiang, about the red tape The Leader had had to surmount to get to Shanghai and stay there, about language and culture and comparative religion.

"Are you Christian?" The Leader asks. "In Xinjiang, we are Muslim. You see? We study religion there, we practice it. We're free! We're not the same as the people here, as the Han ..."

The young Han waiter chips in. Brash, perhaps 25, in a grimy apron; he is between service calls, and he puffs on a cigarette with nervous preoccupation.

"How long have you been studying Chinese?" he asks suddenly, hovering behind Robert. "A year? Two? Hey, you're pretty good! Look at these guys - they're Chinese, and even their accents aren't perfect."

He says it half-jokingly, knowing it will rankle. The Leader pauses with his beer glass halfway to his lips. His eyes widen very slightly.

"They're not Chinese," Robert interjects breezily. "They're from Xinjiang" - and the expression on every brown, Turkic-featured face within earshot lets us know that we have just made some friends for life.

"I think they speak Chinese pretty well," Robert continues. "If you went to Xinjiang, would you be able to speak their language? Not a word!"

"Of course I would," the waiter protests.

"Maybe in your case, because you work around them," Robert concedes. "But the average Chinese?"

"But they're Chinese!" the waiter insists. "You see," he adds, a growing tone of uncertainty in his voice, "we must concentrate not on the part - the minority - but on the nation as a whole."

When The Leader speaks, he speaks firmly. His hands fly around in the smoke-choked air, emphasizing his words.

"No. We are not Chinese. We come from Turkestan. Before that some of our ancestors came from as far away as - Italy! Look: in Xinjiang we have this lifestyle. We play. We sing. We dance. We drink booze. And we have biiiig hearts."

He puffs out his chest comically, dramatically, and forms a shell with his hands still further out. "That is life. And that is not Chinese." He settles back, a little riled.

The waiter seems to enjoy this banter - it beats working - but his words falter in a mire of orthodoxy. "According to the Communist Party principles, there must be more to life than this."

At the mention of the Party, the three Xinjiang men at our table, and a good many around them, explode with laughter. It is an astounding sight; they literally shake. The near-seditious outburst makes the waiter uncomfortable. The sheer volume of the mirth has brought it home that he is badly outnumbered on what is supposedly his home turf. He is floundering.

The Leader finally looks up and says with cool precision, "We Xinjiang people are not this way." In Chinese, the statement is considerably more pungent.

Robert and I leave with them. We all shake hands on the street outside, China's ubiquitous urban night music swirling around us: voluble crowds, the symphonic jingling of a million bicycle bells. The Leader is returning to Xinjiang soon, after three years in Shanghai - far longer than the average - co-ordinating some mildly shady black-market mai-mai ("buy-sell"). It is the activity on which the community thrives, and on which it appears to depend almost exclusively. I wish him a safe trip back to his home town, Kashgar, near the Pakistan border.

"Maybe I'll see you there one day. You're welcome," The Leader responds warmly. He fumbles in his pocket and emerges with a golf-ball-sized chunk of hashish, which he presses into my palm. Then we part.

Over my year of school and travel in China, I visit that little quarter frequently: for the fresh bread, the bonhomie, the feeling of being a foreigner among foreigners. How surreal to have the truly exotic waiting in a little pocket of dusty downtown Shanghai - a city whose name bears more exotic connotations than perhaps any other.


The colourful pieces of the jigsaw, of course. The native garb, so much brighter than drab Han clothing. The aroma of a hundred yards of straw-coloured Xinjiang tobacco, sorted and piled in the marketplace for a connoisseur to sample. The markets themselves, all spice and guttural bartering. The endless burning desert, lapping at the edges of frail human settlement. ...

Hopeless. The traveller observes; he cannot absorb.

Two lasting images, then, of the people of the Far West. A Kazakh or Kirghiz horseman sits astride his steed in the high alpine ranges of Nanshan (South Mountain), near the capital of Urumqi, watching a busload of tourists size up the horses he wants to rent them. He is slouched so deeply in his saddle that he is almost slipping off. With one hand he toys with his riding crop. The other hand brushes along his lip: he is musing, but alert. An aura of absolute confidence, of belonging, surrounds him. The lifestyle of his ancestors might have been nomadic, but you know it could never have been transient. He is in command.

In Urumqi itself a consummately beautiful Uyghur woman sells the foreign traveller his onward bus ticket. The traveller is a little overwhelmed by perfumed, bracelet-bedecked femininity after so long among the puritan Han. He offers her an elaborate compliment, in Chinese. Something that would send the average Han lass into fits of astonished spluttering or blushing coquetry. The Uyghur woman gives a slight nod of acknowledgment, and smiles gracefully. "Xie-xie ni." Thank you. Also in Chinese.

A people clinging tenaciously to a durable national entity / identity: Turkestan. They always pronounced the word with a kind of defiant reverence in that little Shanghai eatery. Turkestan: a desert empire sprawled across Central Asia, a tangled skein of oases astride the ancient Silk Road routes linking Chang'An (modern-day Xi'an) and Peking, in the east, to Antioch and Tyre in the west. For the better part of two thousand years, the empire's fortunes waxed and waned, relative to the strength and vigour of successive Chinese dynasties. When their empire was ascendant, the Chinese surged into the deserts, conquered, and held sway in the best imperial tradition of divide-and-rule. When imperial authority slackened, the Chinese flooded out again. Barbarian attacks on the heartland mounted, and the tribes of Turkestan fought among themselves for the spoils, with a gleeful viciousness that gave even the Chinese pause.

Chinese Turkestan. The Central Asian empire is now divided between two great imperial powers, divided by a boundary so artificial and so recent that everyone you meet on the Chinese side seems to have not-so-distant relatives in the Soviet Central Asian Republics. Not to mention packets of their cigarettes. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang, for short. Let it hiss and resonate between your teeth: "Hsin-dzhaang." The imperial authority once again is ascendant. In 1949, the Han Chinese share of the population stood at six percent. It now hovers around fifty, and riots by locals protesting that trend with all it symbolizes have erupted as recently as 1983.

Travellers, many of them archaeologists, came to this region from the West only in the latter half of the last century. Xinjiang - Sinkiang as it was then known - was sandwiched between two decaying dynasties at a time of intense competition among the western imperial powers. It became a storied den of intrigue. Spies mingled openly in the streets and bazaars of Urumqi, conspiracy was in the very air, and as the Englishman Peter Fleming commented at the time, the death-rate at fancy banquets was appalling.

For 30 years after Liberation, Xinjiang, which had been first a nominally independent republic and then an even more nominal "protectorate" of Chiang Kai-shek's tottering régime, was closed to all but a select few foreigners. Today the traveller's vistas expand almost daily, as Chinese Public Security relents and grudgingly adds a few more sites to the list of "open cities."


Two rail lines take you in Xinjiang's direction. One runs from Shanghai through the ancient heartland of the Middle Kingdom (Xi'an, Luoyang, Kaifeng - all imperial capitals, at one time or another). The other - mine - meanders from Beijing through the moody grasslands of Inner Mongolia and the forbidding wastes of Ningxia Autonomous Region. At Lanzhou, a massive and uninteresting industrial city, the lines converge. From then on just two slim, sun-scorched rails link the Far West with the powers that be. The line, sandwiched for much of its length between the formidable mountain ranges of the Gansu Corridor, essentially follows the path of the old Silk Road as far as Urumqi.

The Chinese have conveniently provided two towns in Gansu Province, five bone-shattering hours apart by local bus, to mark the boundary with the barbarian realm of the Far West. Their names indicate their past functions. Jiayuguan, "The Pass Under Heaven"; Dunhuang, or "Brilliant Beacon." These were frontier posts - staging areas when the empire was strong, fortified lines of retreat when the tide turned.

Dunhuang, looted relentlessly by waves of western archaeologists, is sometimes a sad place. In the once-magnificent caves, the Bodhisattvas dance without heads, the Buddha beckons with only a stump of a finger, and the frescoes fade where they have not been hacked out of the wall. Jiayuguan, by contrast, is one of China's most pleasant surprises: an ideal place to relax and acclimatize to the dry, wasting heat. Centuries ago, imperial warriors must also have paused and wondered, with rather more foreboding, what lay ahead of them.

The town is planted smack in the middle of the Gobi Desert, but somehow Jiayuguan has managed to avoid the gruesome shanty-like appearance of other railway settlements along the route. It's a neat town, well-ordered, with a pleasant foreigner's hotel built of cool concrete, ideal for midday refuge. It is also almost entirely Chinese, though the marketplace gives hints of things to come: the dark faces of the few non-Han residents; the Bactrian camels, lazing and munching, humps drooping; and of course the peerless bread of Central Asia, pressed flat and baked fresh and steaming.

There is only one thing to "see" in Jiayuguan, which generally serves to keep the hordes of package tourists away. It is the superbly-restored 16th century fort, all Han symmetry and imposing watchtowers. Here, exactly here, the Great Wall - having snaked thousands of miles across the North China plains - crumbles under the attack of the desert elements. Beyond once lay barbarian country. In the minds of most Chinese it still does. I pass a couple of hours clambering over the low spine of packed mud that is all that's left of the wall at Jiayuguan. I pick away at the flaked earth, hastening the wall's inevitable demise.

One day I walk a few miles into the desert and climb a low hilltop. I sit for hours in meditation, feeling the desert flaying away streams of molecules from my fragile frame, and tack on a few more, immeasurably ancient. Below and away sits the low lattice of Jiayuguan, shimmering in the heat. Over time a couple of trains shuffle across the landscape from the east, hooting distantly. The stop briefly in Jiayuguan, then move on past the grand old fort, into the now-mundane territory beyond.


"Turfan; July. The combination is not a happy one," and Vikram Seth, the Indian student who wrote those words, was used to the oven of Delhi.

It is my last stop in the Far West. From here I will begin the 90-hour train journey back to Shanghai, arriving weak and ill courtesy of an unwashed market vegetable or two. I have spent a week in the capital, Urumqi, and its alpine environs. "No one enjoys life in Urumchi," a couple of western missionaries warned fifty years ago; "no one leaves the town with regret, and it is full of people who are only there because they cannot get permission to leave." Today, or at least until recently, Urumqi's few foreigners were there because there was nowhere else in Xinjiang they were permitted to go. The city remains much-maligned, and there's no denying that it's a sprawling, squat Chinese outpost. But I have enjoyed myself there nonetheless: strolling through the markets, licking at sticks of street-corner ice cream, and guiding a flatulent old nag around the shores of Heaven Lake, sparkling and lovely a few miles from town.

Turfan is probably the most fabled settlement in this region. It's a vast, lush oasis in the middle of feral desert, nestled in a basin - the Turfan Depression - lower than any point on earth apart from the Dead Sea.

The fertility of the place is astonishing, as our two missionaries also noted, "and the effect on the traveller, when he steps from sterility and desiccation into the luxuriance of Turfan is overwhelming." Imagine how much greater the pleasure today, when the Turfan Guest House has managed to acquire what must be the only industrial-strength refrigerator for a hundred miles around, and keeps it well-stocked with a fine local beer! For this reason among others, and with the temperature at midday nearing 125 degrees Fahrenheit, I am in no great hurry to explore. In a few days I'll be out of China. I am letting the rigours of the tensions of the Middle Kingdom work their way out of my system. Where better than Turfan, where strangeness and exotica and simple human warmth seem all-pervasive?

In the early morning and late evening, I weigh the risks of heat prostration and stroll around. Children dive ecstatically into the surging froth of an irrigation channel, writhing and splashing in Turfan's life's blood. Hordes of dusty tykes follow me down one of the axial roads out of town, screaming, "Bye-bye!," becoming instantly stiff and sober when I line them up for a photo. In one of the satellite villages, a few wheat-threshers stop their sifting of the harvest and invite me into the hushed and shady realm of their grape vines. (Turfan's wine is cloying, packs a powerful punch, and is famous all over China.) They speak no Chinese, and we end up smiling and shrugging a lot. Three fantastic old men, Uyghur villagers, pose comfortably on their donkey-cart for my camera. When the shutter has clicked, they ask if I've any foreign currency I wouldn't mind changing. ... I swish away the flies, practising for Australia, my next stop. Hard to believe, in this world apart, that modernity and cosmopolitanism are only a plane flight away.

On my last day in town I sign up with a minibus that flits with frustrating speed among Turfan's obligatory sites of interest. The last stop is at Bezelik, the Thousand Buddha Caves. But I am tired of Buddhas, and I trot off on my own to where the desert opens up for me. A vast sand-dune rises ahead, hundreds of feet high, pale bronze under the wispy blue of the desert sky.

Xinjiang's "is not an everyday beauty," claimed the travel writer Basil Davidson, obviously awed. "Made to be loved or loathed, this is the take-it-or-leave-it beauty of a great and savage wilderness." Perhaps he never stood here, where the beauty is graceful, almost fluid; where from the raw material of harsh desert the wind has fashioned a mutable monument of sand and sunlight. In the relentless heat of the day, it is somehow cool.

I look at it for a long time. A Japanese tourist decides to climb it, and for a few minutes he is an insect silhouetted against the massive face of the dune, moving gamely upwards. But the bus is leaving, our guide is stern, there is no time for this sort of foolery. A shout rings out. Down he comes - legs churning, kicking up a spray of sand grains; smiling, no doubt, all the way.

Still life with sunflowers, Turfan Depression, 1984. Photo by Adam Jones.

Still Life with Sunflowers

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Last updated: 10 October 2000.