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The history of the far northwestern ‘autonomous region’ of modern Xinjiang, or Eastern Turkestan as it was once called, is fascinating, little known and bears retelling. It has always been one of the crossroads of Asia, and in the past 100 years has seen endless wars, rebellions and intrigue, with the Chinese, the Russians and the local Muslim population all trying to gain the upper hand.

For most of the past 2000 years, the area now known as Xinjiang has been controlled by a succession of kingdoms, sometimes large, some-times small, but all centred on the string of oases which dot its forbidding deserts. Occasionally, Chinese dynasties have gained control over the area, including that of the Manchus, the last imperial dynasty which established its rule by quelling rebellions of the local Muslims. By the late nineteenth century, however, Chinese rule was slipping as the Manchu dynasty began its slide into oblivion, largely due to the imperialist pressure of the Western powers.

By 1911, when the empire fell and the Republic of China was born, Xinjiang was well out of reach of the government in Peking, and remained so, more or less, until the Communists came to power in 1949. But it was still nominally part of China, and the nationalistic aspirations of the various local peoples, particularly the farming Uighurs and the nomadic Kazakhs, failed to bear fruit. The main reason for this was the warlord Yang Zhengxin, who ruled Xinjiang as his private kingdom from 1911 until his assassination in 1928. While the Soviets were pushing in from the north, many of the local people wanted to try out the newfangled ideology known as nationalism, but by a clever policy of coming to terms with the Soviets and appeasing the Muslims, Yang kept his hold on the region.

In the early 1920s, the civil war between the Bolsheviks and the White Russians was raging across central Asia just to the north of Xinjiang. Yang shrewdly decided to support the Bolsheviks, and when the war ended with their victory, the Soviet Union signed a special friendship treaty with Yang which resulted in increased trade. Moscow was clearly trying to shift Xinjiang into its own orbit, and with the Chinese heartland thousands of miles away and in the midst of turmoil, it was not hard to do.

With Yang’s death in 1928, he was succeeded by an official named Chin who unfortunately did not continue his relatively enlightened policies. Rampant corruption and oppression caused a number of revolts by the Muslim peoples, one of which forced Chin to flee in 1933. Another Chinese warlord rose to replace him, and this one, Sheng Shih-tsai, remained in power almost to the end of the Second World War. He was, by all accounts, a cruel, brutal despot, and was hated by the Muslim population, but he gained the support of the Soviet Union who sent him advisers and technicians in return for huge influence in the region. The Soviets helped Sheng crush the intermittent Muslim rebellions, and the warlord, in emulation of his Stalinist allies to the north, organised purges of his many opponents. By the late 1930s, the Soviet Union had a virtual monopoly on trade with Xinjiang contacts with China proper being limited by the poor roads and the weakness of the central government.

The Soviet Union’s entry into the Second World War marked the beginning of the end for its client, Sheng. The Soviets no longer had the time or the resources to help him, and he was forced to come to terms with Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek, the Nationalist president of China. But Sheng managed to annoy both the Nationalists and the Soviet Union, and he was finally driven from power in 1944.

The local Muslims now made their most serious attempt yet at gaining independence. A Kazakh leader named Osman arose who, by 1944, controlled most of southwest Xinjiang. He was joined by the Uighurs, the Mongols and others, and an independent Eastern Turkestan Republic was established in January 1945. As it happened, the Soviets were at that point trying to woo the Nationalist Chinese, and succeeded in arranging an agreement between the Chinese and the Muslims under which the new republic was abolished about a vear after its formation, in return for a pledge of real autonomy from the Nationalist government. The Nationalists failed to live up to these assurances, but with the civil war against the Communists now raging, they had little opportunity to fully establish their control over the region.

In late 1948, the Nationalists appointed a Muslim named Burhan as the provincial chief, unaware that he was secretly a supporter of the Communist Party. An organisation called the ‘Sinkiang League for the Protection of Peace and Democracy’ was formed by the Muslim nationalists opposed to Chinese rule, but in August 1949, a number of the most prominent Muslim leaders of the xinjiang region died in a mysterious plane crash while on their way to Peking for talks with the Communists. The Muslim nationalist movement never recovered from this blow, although the Kazakh leader Osman continued the fight against the Chinese until he was captured and executed in early 1951.

The Chinese began a policy of resettlement of people from the Chinese heartland into Xinjiang, radically changing the racial mixture of the region’s population. In 1953, Xinjiang had a population of about 4.9 million of whom 3.6 million were Uighurs, and only a very small number were Han Chinese, but by 1970, the number of Hans was estimated to have grown to about four million. According to the 1982 census, Xinjiang’s population is 13 million of whom only six million are Uighurs.

During the 1950s, there were continuing problems with the Muslim people, particularly the nomadic Kazakhs, who were greatly angered by the institution of the communes in 1958. ‘Fortunately for the Party,’ wrote one historian, ‘the Lanzhou4o-Hami railway was com-pleted in 1959 and brought in its wake a large-scale influx of Chinese settlers.’ About 60ooo Kazakhs crossed into the Soviet Union in 1962.Full-scale rebellions and uprisings by the Muslim people of Xin-jiang may be a thing of the past, but there is still friction between Han Chinese and locals, and occasional reports of trouble.

Another source of problems for the provincial government in Xinjiang is the huge number of Han Chinese who were settled in the region during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960S. Most of them were put to work on state farms, and many, particularly those from Shanghai and other urban areas, are very unhappy and would dearly love to return to their homes. There have been reports of demonstrations and strikes by these people, particularly in late 1980 when a large number returned to Shanghai illegally and refused to go back. These two ‘contradictions’, as the Chinese would put it – friction between the Hans and the Muslims and problems with the educated youth forced to stay in Xinjiang against their will – are not going to be solved quickly.

And what of the future? ‘China’s future lies in China’s northwest,’ said the Peking university professor, Chen Changdu. xinjiang is rich in natural resources, Professor Chen declared, but lacks manpower.

‘Population emigration to the northwest from other areas should be actively encouraged.’ virtually all of xinjiang is still closed to foreigners, and is likely to remain so for some time to come for several reasons – lack of facilities, poverty and the various problems of social order.

Of the places still not normally ‘open’, the most interesting is certainly Kashgar, a lively Uighur city with a long, colourful history in the extreme west of Xinjiang, only a few dozen miles from the Soviet border. It is a five-day bus or car ride from Urumqi, but has been visited in the past few years by a handful of foreigners in one capacity or another. One visitor said he was told by the Kashgar police that the city may be ‘opened’ in 1983.

The climate in most of Xinjiang is diabolically hot in the middle of summer and just as cold in mid-winter. The best times to visit the area are spring and autumn with late September best of all, if for no other reason than because that is the time when the famous grapes and melons are available.


Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang. In the 1930s, two nuns, Mildred Cable and Francesca French, described it in their book, The Gobi Desert: ‘The town has no beauty, no style, no dignity and no architectural interest.’ It hasn’t essentially changed much since then although it has grown from a small settlement to a city of more than 800000 people.

About three-quarters of the city’s population are Han Chinese, and the rest Muslims, but Urumqi has always been a Han town in a sea of Muslims.There is little to see and very few historical relics. A few old mosques can be found, particularly around the small ‘ethnic’ section of the city near the SOUTH GATE (Nanmen; take a No.1 bus to its terminus) but none of them in is in good condition. One of the most impressive buildings in town is the FORMER RUSSIAN CONSULATE, now used by the provincial song-and-dance troupe. There is also a MUSFUM, which basically used to detail the history of the Chinese occupation of Xinjiang. At last report, the displays were being ‘re-adjusted’ to give a greater place to the history and culture of the local Muslim peoples.

How to get there and where to stay
Urumqi is connected to Peking and Lanzhou by regular air services, and there is a railway line all the way from central China. The train journey is very long (three days or more from Peking) but some of the scenery is magnificent – the track passes through long stretches of the Gobi desert.The usual hotel used by foreigners is the Eight-S torey Hotel (Ba Lou Binguan; take a No.2 bus from the railway station). Dormitory beds are available for five yuan.

It is possible to book train tickets back to Peking or Shanghai at the hotel, but do so a couple of days in advance to be sure of a place.


The main excursion from Urumqi is to Tianchi (heavenly lake), an hour’s bus-ride northeast into the mountains. Towering over the pretty lake is a snow-capped mountain known as BOGDA FENG (the peak of God), and the area’s alpine look is reminiscent of Switzerland. If you intend to go by local bus, buy your tickets the day before from in front of the People’s Park (Renmin Gongyuan). Buy only a one-way ticket if you intend to spend the night at Tianchi, which is highly recommended. The bus leaves from outside the park at 7.00 a.m.

Up at the lake, there are a number of accommodation possibilities. The guesthouse is cheap, clean and comfortable, although there is no running water. There are also tourist versions of the local herdsmens’ yurts available at about two yuan a night, and if you hike up into the mountains, you can probably stay with a Kazakh family in a real yurt for just a little more. If you plan to try the last idea, take some nuts, fruit and sweets with you to give to your hosts in return for the goats’ cheese and salted tea they will offer you.

Hiking is one of the best things to do at Tianchi, and a good way to start is to hire the guesthouse ferry to take you across the lake. You can also arrange for it to meet you again at sunset. Buses returning to Urumqi leave Tianchi at 4.00 p.m., but get there early to be sure of a seat.Another excursion from Tianchi is northwest to the town of SHIHEZI (stony creek), which is even less attractive than Urumqi. It is perhaps only interesting as an example of a Han colony: almost all its inhabitants are Han Chinese. It is possible to visit a state farm in the area.

Turfan (Turpan)
Of all the places which foreigners are allowed to visit in Xinjiang, Turfan is undoubtedly the most interesting, and is worth three days on its own. It is the one ‘open’ city with any real Uighur history, having served for several centuries as the capital of an Uighur kingdom over-run in the thirteenth century by Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes. Like other oases in the region, Turfan served for hundreds of years as an important staging post on the northern Silk Road. It was originally a centre of Buddhism, but became converted to Islam in about the eighth century.During the periods when the various Chinese dynasties expanded their control into the region, Turfan was an important garrison town, and the TURFAN CEMETERY, a few miles from the town, contains hundreds of graves of Chinese officials and soldiers who died there, including some from the Jin dynasty (A.D. 265-420) and the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). Some of the tombs are open with the mummified corpses inside on display. Outside town, you will also see some Islamic-style tombs being built in the hills.

Turfan is a good town to walk round because of its authentic Uighur character. The FREE MARKET-CUM-BAZAAR (across the street and down the alley from the bus terminal) has a definite Middle East feel to it. Buy one of the Hami melons or get your own personal chop carved, ‘while-you-wait’, in Arabic, Chinese or English for less than three yuan. The night bazaar is good, too. Try some of the food on sale, particularly the mutton kebabs roasting on long, open barbecues, the flat Uighur bread known as nan, or polow, a mixture of rice, meat and onions known throughout much of the Middle East and India as ‘pilau’. The famous Turfan grapes are tasty, but wash them before eating.

As a thriving Muslim town benefiting from the Communist Party’s more liberal policy on religion in recent years, Turfan has a number of mosques open to worshippers, and local people are building more themselves. The IMIN PAGODA to the west of the town is a long walk or a short donkey-cart ride. Try to get the old caretaker who lives at the back to let you climb up the minaret/tower to get a good view of the area.

There are a number of excursions to take from Turfan, the best-known of which is the ruined town of JIAOHE (confluence of rivers) about ten miles (16 kilometres) east, which was a Chinese army camp until it was destroyed by Genghis Khan. Many of the mud-brick buildings are still reasonably intact, and visitors can walk around the streets of this long-dead town.

Another town which fell to the Mongols is GAOCHANG, similar to Jiaohe but in better shape. Not too far away from Gaochang are the Buddhist caves at BEZEKLIK, which were defaced by Muslims or robbed of their remaining art treasures by Western adventurers around the turn of the century. Particularly active was Albert von Le Coq, a German who removed whole frescos from the stone walls of the caves and transported them back to Berlin where they were placed in the Berlin Museum and largely destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War.

Most foreigners visiting these sites will take a taxi, or join a bus tour organised through the guesthouse. But it is also possible to take a local bus from the bus station (destination: Yalkuntaq) which only goes as far as the junction at which the roads to Gaochang and the Buddhist caves diverge. It is about a three-mile (4.8 kilometre) walk to either site from there (not recommended if it is hot), or else try to hop a ride on a passing donkey cart. An old woman lives at the crossroads who sells tea and meat dumplings (jiao-zi), and you can wait there for the public bus on your way back.For those of a scientific bent, it is worth investigating Turfan’s WATER SYSTEM, which consists of a huge network of underground tunnels stretching out under the desert, draining the water table in what is said to be a unique fashion.

People visiting Turfan during the summer should keep in mind that it is 504 feet (154 metres) below sea level and the hottest place in China. Temperatures in July can reach ii60F (470C).

How to get there and where to stay
The main railway line through to Urumqi passes to the north of Turfan. The bus from the station to Turfan leaves from a nearby bus depot – walk out of the station, take the first road on the right and the depot is about 100 yards (90 metres) along on the left. There are also local buses to and from Urumqi.

The Turfan Guesthouse is on the main road quite a way from the bus terminal: it’s a stiff walk or a 10-30 fen ride on a donkey cart (watch your valuables).

Lop Nor

Out in the desert wastes of Xinjiang, 1300 miles (2090 kilometres) due west of Peking, is the depression known as Lop Nor, the lake of Lop, an area of salt flats into which empties the occasional waters of the River Kongqi. Once there was a number of oases and cities in the area which were stops on the great Silk Road into central Asia. But the desert claimed virtually all of them in the end, leaving them buried and forgotten until the European explorers of the late nineteenth century came through the area looking for traces of the past.

After the Communist victory in 1949, Lop Nor took on a new significance: it be came China’s principal nuclear and missile test site. The story of how China joined the nuclear clan is a fascinating one, and although the Soviets gave the Chinese some assistance before the break in the early 1960s, the tale really revolves around two men, both brilliant Chinese scientists resident in the United States, who decided to return to their homeland and make it a military superpower.

One of the scientists is Zhao Zhongyao, a nuclear physicist, the other Qian Xuesen, an expert on rocketry and missiles. In the early 1950s, when McCarthyism and the Korean War made life a misery for many Asiatic residents of the United States, both men and a few dozen other Chinese scientists decided they would prefer to return to China under Communism than to stay in the West. Their primary motive was, apparently, nationalism.Professor Zhao left in 1951 because the American authorities could find no excuse for detaining him. But Qian had to wait four more years, having been accused, along with so many others, of being a Communist.

Qian was born in Shanghai in 1912, and went to the United States in 1935. He studied aeronautics at both the Massachusetts and Califor-nia Institutes of Technology, contributing, among other things, the ‘Qian formula’ for jet propulsion. During the Second World War, he was director of the Rocket Section of the US National Defence Scientific Advisory Board and, in 1945, headed a team of scientists sent to dismantle the German rocket centre at Peenemunde for shipment back to the United States. In 1949 he became the director of the Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and probably knew as much about rocketry and missiles as anyone else in the world.

In 1950, he decided to return to China, but was prevented by the FBI from leaving the United States. He went to see a friend of his, who was Under Secretary of the Navy, to try to get clearance to leave, but he declined to help.

‘I’d rather shoot him than let him leave the country,’ the Under Secretary is reported to have said. ‘He knows too much that’s valuable to us. He’s worth five divisions anywhere.’

At a typical McCarthy-era trial, Qian was accused of having been a secret member of the American Communist Party, a charge he denied. His testimony revealed how such a man as Qian could decide to return to help the Communists.

‘Do you owe your allegiance to Communist China?’ the prosecutor asked him.
‘I do not,’ Qian replied.
‘To whom do you owe allegiance?’
‘I owe allegiance to the people of China.’
In 1955, Qian was finally allowed to leave the country. The reason for the timing is unclear. Some say that the US government had decided that what Qian knew was already outdated; others say that he was, in effect, swapped for a number of American pilots released by the Chinese at about the same time.

Qian made his way to China via Hong Kong, and virtually disappeared from sight. He became a Communist Party member in 1958, and survived the Cultural Revolution, when so many other intellectuals were attacked and persecuted, without even being criticised. During those years, it is believed that he was in charge of China’s nuclear missile programme, centred at Lop Nor.

In recent years, Qian has been best known for his public statements in support of research into para-psychology, centring around children found in various parts of China who reportedly have strange supernatural powers, including the ability to ‘read’ or visualise words and characters with their ears. In 1981, a senior Communist Party official denounced the research into the so-called supernatural powers, which he said was just carnival trickery. Qian, however, has conspicuously refused to retract his previous statements.

Lop Nor, a place shrouded in mystery, became even more mysterious in 1979 when another prominent Chinese scientist, Peng Jiamu, disappeared into thin air while on an expedition into the area. Peng, a well-known biochemist, was with a number of other scientists who left him alone with a jeep while they went off into the sand dunes to do some tests. When they returned several hours later, Peng had disappeared. All sorts of rumours grew around this vanishing act. People speculated that he may have been kidnapped and taken over the Soviet border, 500 miles (805 kilometres) away. Another wrote to a Hong Kong newspaper reporting that he had seen Peng alive in a restaurant in Washington with Deng Zhifang, the son of Chinese strongman, Deng Xiaoping, who is studying in the United States. Peking denounced the report as a ‘vicious fabrication’.

The search for Peng continued for many months with huge numbers of troops and aircraft mobilised to try and find some trace of him. But no clue was ever found, although the official press, trying to sound convincing, said ‘investigations prove the theory that he lost his way while lo6king for water and that his body was buried by the shifting sands.’

How to get there
Of all the sensitive areas in China closed to foreigners, Lop Nor is probably the most sensitive and the least accessible. It is situated in the eastern part of Xinjiang on the edge of the Taklimakan desert and the nearest substantial town is Turfan, about 150 miles (24o kilometres) to the north. I have to admit that I have included it here simply as an excuse to tell the stories of Qian Xuesen and Peng Jiamu…

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