Kashgar is less well known than other stops along the route, such as Samarqand, and it hasn't had the media exposure accorded nearby political hot spots like Tibet and Kashmir. But even here the impact of September 11 was immediate. Visitors stopped coming, and borders closed long before the first snowfall. "For your own safety," explained a local official, refusing my request for permission to hire a jeep for the rough drive through the mountains. Back at my hotel, I was warned that reporters were unwelcome and that "spies are everywhere." It felt like a revival of the Great Game of the late 19th century, when Russia and Britain battled for influence here—more so since my room was at the old British listening post. Yet the intrigue has little appeal for locals.
"We hate the Chinese," a Uighur student told me, spitting for emphasis. "They take our land and our jobs, and try to enslave our faith." Government incentives have encouraged massive immigration to Xinjiang: Han Chinese now comprise about half of the province's population, a tenfold increase since 1949. Every Uighur has tales of discrimination. They are regularly banned from hotels across China and forced to stay in special guesthouses, where it's easier for authorities to monitor them. In Kashgar, they have their own neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and restaurants. Few Uighurs learn the national language, Mandarin, and Han Chinese are baffled by the local Turkic script scrawled on handwritten signs around the Uighurs' mud-brick communities. Han Chinese and Uighurs rarely intermarry. They even run on different time: because Beijing insists on a single time zone for all of China, Kashgar's government offices open in pitch-dark, even though unofficial Uighur time is two hours behind Beijing.
Some Uighurs yearn for a revival of the independent state of East Turkistan, which existed briefly after World War II. In the decades since the People's Liberation Army marched in to liberate—or conquer, many locals say—Xinjiang province in 1949, resistance has periodically flared up, and there have been riots and bombings. The boiling point was reached in 1996 and 1997, when violence between demonstrators and police erupted in several cities, and bombs exploded in Beijing and in Xinjiang's capital, Ürümqi.
Two years later, Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji urged local officials to use an "iron fist" against Uighurs and other separatists. Strike Hard, an ongoing, nationwide anti-crime campaign, was relaunched in April 2001. From mid-September through the end of last year, as many as 20 people were executed in Xinjiang alone, "on politically driven charges," according to a March 2002 report from Amnesty International. The group notes that Xinjiang is the only province in China where dissidents are routinely put to death. Also in the spring of 2001, Beijing mounted a "re-education campaign" for the imams who run state-controlled mosques across China, forcing 8,000 Muslim clerics through the propaganda program by the end of the year. Amnesty International also charges that the "subjective yardstick of 'terrorism' " was used to detain some who may have done "little more than practice their religion or defend their culture."