Any traveller to China's western most province, Xinjiang, will come to personally know what is called by the locals, "Xinjiang Time." Xinjiang time is 2 hours behind that of the time in Beijing, the austerely grand capital of the People's Republic of China. Unlike the red coin of a sun which barely perforates the grey, polluted, humid Beijing sky, Xinjiang's bright desert summer sun finally fades into its long, clear horizons around Beijing's midnight. Such an odd discontinuity between what should be and what is reminds me of the arbitrariness of "time" in general, and makes me more aware of its intuitional nature, rather than some kind of natural nature. All of China, a country the size of 17 Frances, theoretically spans 5 time zones, but has been under the unifying clock of Beijing Time since 1949. And for far west Xinjiang and Tibet, they bear the most weight of Beijing's hefty institutions. But speaking only of time, trains, buses, hotel breakfasts, museum times, countless other pseudo-business oriented endeavors will require you to re-jigger your circadian intuitions against what the environment and its predominantly Uyghur people will otherwise prove in their daily goings-on-- that is, what will happen on their clocks, on Xinjiang Time.
Xinjiang, despite its meaning "New Frontier" in Chinese, is not really Chinese, and it's absolutely not new. Yet the factories and brooms of the Chinese mode of production are re-facing this traditionally ethnic Uyghur, Kazakh, Mongol, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek -inhabited region, the illustrious lands of the Silk Routes. Without being too political or too general, it is not an overstatement that our 2-week circumnavigation around the Taklimakan Desert, staying in most of the oasis cities and villages along the way, eventually gave us the eyes to barely make out the imminent double-nature which is here and is to come: the tensions between the Han and the Uyghur; the steamroll of modern "Progress" versus enduring traditions; the moneyed versus the poor; the gendered delineation of Islamic space and activities; the authentic versus the packaged and contrived; and the literal line in the sand.
All the contrasts of one people meet starkly with the other, just as the green lush oasis villages end abruptly, and without transition the seemingly lifeless and empty rock and sand begin. And where History has been both harmonious and disharmonious, what is happening now can only be judged by the children of future generations and not by Present Time us, as we are too encumbered by the prejudices of our feelings, wants, ideologies, and emotions. This is China's story and it's the Uyghurs' story in modern China, and the story of the human race, as a matter of fact.
Unfortunately, in our short time in Xinjiang there was the time before and the time after as well. We had arrived in Kashgar, the unofficial heart of Uyghur civilization, to what seemed like bustling normalcy, on the eve of the Holy Islamic month of Ramadan and tragically, as it happened, on the eve of what is now called the Kashgar Attacks.
The 2011 Kashgar attacks were a series of knife and bomb attacks in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China on July 30 and 31, 2011. On July 30, two Uyghur men hijacked a truck, killed its driver, and drove into a crowd of pedestrians. They got out of the truck and stabbed six people to death and injured 27 others. One of the attackers was killed by the crowd; the other was brought into custody. On July 31, a chain of two explosions started a fire at a downtown restaurant. A group of armed Uyghur men killed two people inside of the restaurant and four people outside, injuring 15 other people. Police shot five suspects dead, detained four, and killed two others who initially escaped arrest. The government says the attackers confessed to Jihadist motives and membership in the terrorist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), while an overseas pro-Uyghur independence group says the attackers were frustrated by a lack of options for nonviolent antigovernment protest. Businesses temporarily closed down and riot police patrolled the city until August 4.
On the morning of our departure from Kashgar we passed through the transformed, heavily policed city. The pedestrian areas in front of the Idkah Mosque were occupied by military police, the open space in front of the largest Mao statue in China was defensively filled-in with city buses. The bus station was completely packed with eager-to-leave people. We lucked out, but many weren't as lucky. On the 11-hour bus to Hotan, a city in the south of the Tarim Basin, we were stopped at no fewer than 12 check points. The passengers had to exit the bus and line up at makeshift police check points in the small oasis villages. It seemed like a long ordeal at the time, but it was short compared to the foreseeably permanent ordeal for the people of Xinjiang.
I spent my 30th birthday under a comforter, under an air conditioner, on a 24-hour sleeper bus undulating over the pale yellow shifting sand dunes of the Taklimakan Desert. The Tarim Basin Highway cuts the desert in half and was necessitated by the region's burgeoning petroleum industry. Another marvel of China's sprint to Progress, it's one of the longest highways in the world, and flanking its sides is an equally "marvelous" and extensive irrigation system which keeps alive a mitigating barrier of vegetation between the two-lane road and the desert sands that would otherwise surely swallow it...
I lay in my levitating bed and looked out onto this desert scene--wistful, I'm sure, as significant birthday moments tend to be. At some point I decided that it doesn't matter that I'm 30 now, and that I will make that same hesitant determination at 40, 50....and at every milestone in my life...
Desert, like time, erases all contrasts. The ruins of countless ancient glories testify that controlling time is like watering this small sliver of desert, it's all cosmically irrelevant. As for history, the story of time, there is only the will of the desert versus the will of those that struggle against it, or accept it.
These are only pictures of a trip.
August 11, 2011