Xinjiang is the western-most province of China, and a so called autonomous region, which borders on Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. Its population is 43 percent Uighur, who speak a Turkic language and practice Islam, but Han Chinese are almost as many, 41 percent, and the remainder are Kazakhs and other ethnic groups. Less than 5 percent of Xinjiang is suitable for human habitation, the rest consists of deserts and mountain ranges. The region used to be known in English as “Chinese Turkestan,” and although various Chinese dynasties, including the Han, made incursions, it was conquered only in 1759, during Emperor Qianlong, and it is only since 1884 that Xinjiang has constituted a Chinese province. Historically there were two quite distinct regions here: Dzungaria in the north which was inhabited by nomadic peoples likes Tibetans and Mongols, and the Tarim Basin in the south, inhabited by Uyghurs who lived in oases and practiced farming. Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin are separated by the Taklamakan Desert – a notorious obstacle to all travelers on the Silk Road – where the temperature in the winter can go down to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Two thousand years ago, a Buddhist kingdom, Khotan, was founded on the southern edge of the Taklamakan. The caravan trade made Khotan prosperous and thanks to rivers running from the Himalayas straight into the desert it was possible to grow fruit and cereal here. The people of Khotan cultivated silk and carved jade; they were devout Buddhists, loved literature, and spent a lot of their time singing and dancing. Some spoke Chinese, others Tibetan and Indian languages. Then in 1006 CE, the kingdom fell to Muslim invaders. Much, much earlier – around about 1,800 BCE – there was an even more powerful culture here, but next to nothing is known about it except for the dessicated mummies that keep on turning up in archaeological digs all over Xinjiang. Some of the mummies have European features, have blond hair, are over two meters tall, and wear clothes similar to those found in European excavations. Extracting DNA from the bodies, however, it has become clear that the mummies too were a mixed bunch. As befits this intersection between East and West, North and South, they came from all different directions – some from Europe and some from Mongolia and India.
Reacting to what they see as attempts to turn the region increasingly Chinese, Uyghur nationalists have recently raised demands for independence for Xinjiang, and some have fought for their cause by violent means. In July 2009, thousands of Uyghurs clashed with Han Chinese and some 200 people died, although Uyghur nationalists argue that the real death toll was considerably higher. Rioting has since repeatedly taken place and Xinjiang nationalists have been blamed for terrorist attacks throughout China, including an attack in a train station in Kunming in March 2014 in which some 31 people died. Rebiya Kadeer, the leader of the independence movement, the World Uyghur Congress, is a businesswoman and mother of 11 who now resides in the United States. She insists that the movement only relies on peaceful methods and that she has no connections with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which the US government has classified as a terrorist organization. Yet there have been reports that fighters from Xinjiang have joined Al Qaeda, and in 2006, the US army captured 22 Uyghurs in Afghanistan and sent them to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. After an investigation, however, they were reclassified as “no longer enemy combatants,” but could neither be returned to China nor be released in the United States. Instead several of them were resettled in Palau, an island state in the Pacific Ocean, 800 kilometers east of the Philippines.