Before the camps

The Uighurs of Xinjiang are one of 55 minorities in China, but they are ethnically and historically closer to the Muslim Turkic groups of Central Asia. In 2008 the Chinese government was starting to cement its hold on the resource-rich Xinjiang by suppressing cultural and religious differences in schools and workplaces and by resettling millions of eastern Chinese into the wild western region.

Racism, language requirements, and lack of higher education prevented many young Uighurs from getting jobs in the new economy while their traditional roles as traders and farmers became unprofitable. As Han Chinese influence increases, many young Uighurs feel they must adapt, immigrate to coastal business centers, or be left behind economically.

Many young Uighurs saw opportunities in learning English to become international businessmen or studying the Quran in Arabic so they could go on to study at Al-Azhar. But I’m afraid that travel restrictions quashed these dreams.

Locks hung by couples in a park above Urumqi. Some have names inscribed in the distinctive Uighur script while some have names inscribed in Chinese. This particular lock has the name in UIghur, the date in Chinese, and the numbers in English.

A statue in Hotan’s main square shows Mao Zedong shaking hands with an old Uighur. As the story behind this statue goes, Kurban Tulum, also called Uncle Kurban or Uncle Kuerban was a Uighur electrician, born in 1883 in the Keriya oasis. When the People’s Liberation Army marched into Xinjiang, a few years after the 1949 revolution, Kurban Tulum wanted to show his appreciation so he rode more than 1,500 km around the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang to the provincial capital of Urumqi on his donkey to bring grapes or a melon as a symbol of appreciation for Chairman Mao.

Party officials saw the public relations opportunity and flew him the remaining more than 3,000 km to from Urumqi to Beijing to meet with Mao Zedong. They first met in 1958 and the handshake was reenacted some time later in front of a Communist party meeting, where the famous photo on which these two monuments are based was taken. The government likes to hold up Kurban as an ideal for Uyghurs, who they believe should welcome the government’s policies in Xinjiang.

A nearly empty bus winds over massive sand dunes as it passes through the Taklamakan desert.

One of the largest infrastructure projects in Xinjiang is a highway running through the middle of the Taklamakan desert connecting the southern road to the northern road and the capital Urumuqi.

I arrived in Xinjiang about 5 months before the 2008 Olympics and spent that time learning the language and slowly traveling around the region. My plan was to be in Xinjiang during the Olympics in case something broke out. A few weeks before the Olympics started I was in a rural area near Kazakhstan looking into reports of a torched police station. While in the small town of San Gong the police picked me and revoked my Visa, kicking me out into Kazakhstan.

center: The olympic torch was greeted by large crowds as it traveled around China but in Xinjiang residents were told to stay inside and and the streets were lined with police and a select few groups of workers and school children. In this picture police and military watch an Urumqi alleyway that runs parallel to the route.

right: Immediately after the olympic torch passed through Urumqi groups of workers line up for a photo.