In the center of Kashgar, China's westernmost city, stands a seven-story statue of Chairman Mao. It's practically the only Chinese thing about this historic gateway to the Silk Road. Kashgar is the top tourist destination in Xinjiang province, just over the mountains from Afghanistan. Xinjiang, a sprawling mass of peaks and desert, covers one-sixth of China's landmass but holds less than 2 percent of its population. It is home to a dozen ethnic groups linked by centuries of dogged survival and Muslim faith. The largest, though still a mere blip on the nation's population chart, is the Uighur (wee-gur), an ancient people that has been waging a separatist campaign since long before Mao's day—making this region on the border between the Far East and the Middle East China's most turbulent.
In the past year, reports of increased repression and even executions of Uighur activists have brought Xinjiang global attention. Since September 11, Beijing has been capitalizing on the West's campaign against terrorism, adopting similar rhetoric and branding local Muslims part of the "bin Laden clique." Last October, President Bush, visiting Shanghai for a regional summit, delivered a warning against regimes that were using the anti-terror mantle to crack down on minorities. I visited Xinjiang to see how the international war against terrorism was affecting the people here, at the edge of the Muslim world.
Uighurs trace their ancestry to the indigenous people of the Tarim Basin, who settled around one of the world's largest deserts, Taklimakan (roughly, "desert of death"). To irrigate their crops, they funneled glacial melt from the mountains through thousands of miles of karez, ancient underground aqueducts, creating a land of milk and honey. The karez are still in use around Turpan and Yarkant, where you can stand with one foot in a vineyard filled with ripe grapes and the other in desert sand.
On Sundays, many in the Uighur community head for Kashgar's outdoor bazaar. Donkey carts laden with figs and furs rattle down dirt alleys in what could pass for a biblical metropolis. The air is strong with the aromas of cumin and grilled mutton. Old men bargain for sheep, prying the animals' mouths open mid-baa to check their teeth. Pausing in one of the tea shops—which, like the mosques, donkey carts, and lamb kebabs, lend a Middle Eastern flavor to this unconventional Chinese outpost—I watch a circle of men taking turns test-driving camels. It's easy to understand why each year 20,000 foreign tourists trundle by van or camel along the ancient Silk Road, the world's first superhighway, which once connected Rome with China's imperial capital, Xi'an.