A stranger in my own motherland

Today we transferred from Xi’an to Kashgar some 4000km west. Kashgar is closer to Turkey than it is to Beijing.

The flight was excellent, and thanks to David we travelled business class (thanks again, Dave), which meant that we had a separate mini bus to take us to the plane, and that we jumped the queue of everybody else waiting to get on. It was one of the more embarrassing aspects of business class travel. The plane left exactly on time, and arrived some 4 hours later exactly on time.

Whilst waiting for take off, we checked the map in the seat pocket (the magazine with lots of useless information and duty free – only there isn’t any) to see what we were flying over, and where we were going. We couldn’t find Kashi, which is what the Chinese call Kashgar, even marked on the map let alone that the airline flew there. The very pleasant hostess told us in broken English our time of arrival, but unfortunately she mistranslated so that the flight was taking over an hour longer than we had expected. Not finding Kashgar on the map, and being told that we arrived somewhere later than we thought, and seeing that all the flights went East of Xian (see above – we wanted to go west) we both had the dreadful/amusing thought that we were on the wrong plane. More embarrassing than jumping a queue is asking the hostess to point on the map where we were going, as if we didn’t know…. Comments about the need for a “memory upgrade” etc etc are completely uncalled for, and very unhelpful.

Needless to say we arrived at Kashgar – where we expected to be – exactly on time and was duly met by our guide and driver.

Kashgar is very different to Xi’an. Our guide Abdool, told us that the population was about 1 million souls but that the make up is very different to other parts of China. The majority of the population are Uigars (pronounced weegars) who are considered by the Han Chinese to be a potentially fundamentalist minority that have carried out terrorist attacks in pursuit of their desire of independence from China. It is national policy to import large numbers of Han Chinese to this area of China to stabilise the border with Russia and Russian influenced states. It has taken a similar policy with Nepal and the Dali Lama.

Leaving the airport we were searched/scrutinised a couple of times by police, and the second time our guide made the point that they were “strangers in their own motherland” – very much his own words. He explained that whilst the rest of China is Buddhist and populated by the Han, in Urumqi region – where we are – the local religion is Islam, and that the population groups are Uigars, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Turkics.

The result of this national policy is that in Kashgar there are large numbers of police and military checking everything several times. To get into our hotel we had to go through a car park barrier that wouldn’t have disgraced 10 Downing Street, followed by Broadmoor style searches to actually get into the hotel. He also told us that he had a problem with the authorities (or they with him?) so that they wouldn’t let him leave the city, so we would have a different guide tomorrow.

The hotel is new, and completely staffed by Han Chinese. Lots of private guards inside and out. While we have no evidence one way or the other, we are fairly sure that we are “not alone”. We feel it necessary to talk on bland issues only, planning the next day’s agenda, when to go to eat, really exciting things like that. The plan is not to post this blog until we have left China, and got up to Karakol in Kyrgyzstan so it may be several days before you get the chance to read this. The plan is to post lots of photos, but to keep the text to a minimum.

Our evening meal was a buffet – which apparently is very popular in China. Whilst deciding what to eat, I was approached by an avuncular if not portly Western gentleman who introduced himself as Peter the hotel manager. Apparently he was originally from Hamburg, spent some time in Kensington as a hotel manager, in the 1990s, and then after travelling, ended up in China where he has been for over 20 years. He has been manager at the hotel since it opened. He was just beginning to “open up” about what it was like and what has been happening recently – when he was called away. I think that he would have had an interesting perspective on local politics – but I never got the chance to hear it..

The same evening we got the headline about the terrorist bomb at Parsons Green Tube station – it seems ironic that while we were worrying about politics and policing in Kashgar, a bomb goes off in London. The same day that North Korea fired yet another missile over Japan’s north island. It all seems very unstable wherever one is.