By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen
First published in Caravan September 1, 2012
A Kyrgyz guide takes his horse for a drink in Lake Karakul, roughly halfway between Kashgar, in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, and the Pakistan border. By Sue Anne Tay
On paper, the Karakoram Highway stretches from Kashgar in China’s far western province of Xinjiang to Islamabad. In reality, it unfolds like a ribbon across China’s westernmost border before its tarmac comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass on Pakistan’s border – the highest spot on the world’s highest paved international highway. China scholars often point out that domestic concerns colour Beijing’s foreign relations, but the multifarious stops and diverse communities along the Karakoram reveal that China’s domestic concerns are anything but uniform.
Our journey starts in Ürümqi, a grubby metropolis of more than 2.3 million people that looks like many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities. Large boulevards cluttered with imposing buildings are filled with frenetic construction as the city rushes to erect more shopping malls to appease insatiable local consumers. As the capital of an autonomous region which is China’s largest political subdivision, and home to a substantial portion of China’s natural wealth, it is also a draw for poor fortune-seekers from neighbouring provinces. A taxi driver from the adjacent province of Gansu boasted how opportunities in Ürümqi are plentiful, with girlfriends to match—one for each day of the week.
The driver who picked us up in Kashgar, about 1,000 km south of Ürümqi, had a very different story to tell. A local Uyghur who had developed a substantial business in the region, he complained instead about the ineptitude of the local police as he pointed to the visibly heavy security around the airport. Kashgar distinguishes itself as majority Uyghur—the Turkic ethnic group that claims to be the original inhabitants of the territory that is Xinjiang. Traditional Uyghur culture and history is perceivable at every turn. The Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, sits on the edge of what is left of Kashgar’s old town, a warren of mud-brick houses reminiscent of Kabul or the dusty trading centres of Central Asia.
But the Han presence in the city is becoming increasingly visible. In the wake of violent clashes between Han and Uyghur that claimed more than 200 lives in 2009, the government in Beijing called for a reordering of its strategy towards the underdeveloped region. Part of this was the designation of Kashgar as a Special Economic Zone in May 2010, and the command that more prosperous provinces in China aid in developing Xinjiang. Shanghai, for example, is responsible for four areas within Kashgar Prefecture. But the most visible aspect of this partnership can be found on the first part of the Karakoram Highway on the way out of Kashgar. Immense construction sites with names of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) companies fill either side of the road with large billboards advertising the modern wonders to come. One high-class establishment advertises a luxury experience complete with an English butler service. Another artful rendering of a shopping mecca under construction was surrounded by a list of the famous Western brands soon to be on offer.
Our Uyghur driver was a younger chap still trying to find his way in the world, preoccupied with the demographic shift likely to come with the construction. According to his figures, some 600,000 Han were expected to flood in, overwhelming the Uyghur population and changing the face of Kashgar. The reality of such numbers is impossible to confirm, but watching carts pulled by donkeys hauling farmers and their wares to and from the city in front of these billboards, there is a sense of the rapid, monumental change underway. For Han moving out here to escape poverty in China’s interior or the crowded southern provinces, this change represents a new beginning. For our Uyghur driver, it is an ominous symbol of cultural erasure.
According to Chinese officials, the end goal of this construction is far less menacing than it seems. The current policy, they say, is directed at connecting one of China’s less developed regions to the country’s regional neighbours—the hope being that trade will bring prosperity and soothe some of the tensions so often on display between the various communities in the province. This means revitalising Kashgar’s historical role as a key trade hub on the old Silk Road, 35 years after the Karakoram Highway opened up a direct route to Pakistan.
As we continued along the highway, the presence of China’s regional neighbours became more visible. Opal, a small hamlet about 60 km southwest of Kashgar, is a dusty crossroads with fruit-sellers and donkey carts whose main claim to celebrity is the mausoleum of Mahmud al-Kashgari, the Turkic languages’ own Samuel Johnson. Born in Kashgar in 1005 AD, al-Kashgari studied in Baghdad and drew up not only the first Turkic dictionary, but also the first known map of the areas inhabited by Turkic peoples. Today he rests down a beaten track off Opal’s main thoroughfare. His statue stands in front of a weather-beaten museum. The grim-faced Uyghur guard looked up from her knitting to tell us not to take pictures as we enjoyed its limited pleasures. Al-Kashgari’s mausoleum is a whitewashed 1980s renovation watching over a vast mud cemetery with the Kunlun Mountains barely visible in the distance veiled by a sudden dust storm.
Along the side of the road leaving Opal, set apart from the desolate landscape of scrub and red-clay mountains and near one of the occasional open-pit mines that reveal the natural wealth of the province, a group of coal miners watched as one of them packed up to leave. Their faces were haggard and stained with soot. One burly Qinghai-native complained about the bad working conditions as a Yunnanese family gathered their belongings for a bus ride to Kashgar and then on to Ürümqi, where they hoped better times awaited them. Our Uyghur driver, too, had thoughts of leaving. He had been trying to find a way to move to Turkey, he told us, where he hoped that the chance of a common ethnicity would help open doors for him.
About halfway between Kashgar and the Pakistan border, we came across Lake Karakul. On its banks, a hut owned by local Kyrgyz herders provided some refuge from the howling wind. Our driver had heard stories that the Kyrgyz in this area were known to have helped authorities find a group of wanted Uyghurs who sought to cross the mountainous borders that surround the lake.
Further down the road in Tashkurgan, he told us a similar story about the local Tajik community, highlighting how tense relations can be between the various ethnic groups in this part of China. On the Chinese side nearer the country’s border with Tajikistan, this Persian-Tajik community speaks a different language to their ethnic brethren across the border.
Our driver became tenser the closer we got to the border regions. The area is very ethnically diverse, and the languages used are neither Mandarin nor his native Uyghur. Security is also a more visible concern, with regular army posts visibly stamping Beijing’s dominance. The notably empty town Karasu marks the Chinese side of the Kulma Pass, the way into Tajikistan. A brand-new customs post sits awaiting business with plastic still covering most of the furniture inside the building.
At Daptar, our driver was hesitant to stop. Another Pamir village, it is home to the last civilian inhabitants on the Chinese side of the Afghan border. Off in the distance, a ‘V’ in the mountains denotes where the Wakhan Corridor runs into Afghanistan. Locals were clearly on high alert given their location and the road that leads to the border with Afghanistan is a poor brother to the spotless and new Karakoram Highway. Here the highway is festooned with cameras, tracking the progress of all non-military vehicles. In the vicinity and visible from the road, large stone writing on the sides of hills instructs in Mandarin, “Protect the border; protect the country; protect the people.”
The Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass, at the top of a hillock, leading to a more dilapidated path on the Pakistani side. White markers define the border and an imposing arch emblazoned with the Communist Party of China symbol straddles the road. On a previous visit there, a gaggle of Chinese domestic tourists eagerly took photographs of one another. One middle-aged woman decided she wanted to explore Pakistan for herself. An agitated young private from Hubei in distant central China whom we had been chatting with frantically ordered her back. But she waved him off with “mei guanxi (no worries)”, eager to explore for herself. Having noted disappointedly that the Pakistani guards were not leaving their hut that day, she returned to Chinese soil.
The locals tell stories of those who try to cross the border permanently, how they often lose their way in the snow amongst isolated peaks. At more than 4,000 metres, the border itself seems more porous than it likely is. Long empty valleys lead to rugged, snow-capped mountains with no clear fence to demarcate one side from the other. Recently, there has been a spike in Chinese concerns about security across the border, something reflected in our Uyghur driver’s attitude as we got closer. He became quieter and more visibly tense, only really calming down when we got back to Tashkurgan and sat down to dinner. Back here at a strategic peak in the middle of a valley leading to Pakistan, it was easier to objectively consider our journey along the Karakoram Highway, through the patchwork of peoples along the route binding two close allies together. The nations it brings together may be ‘higher than the mountains’ but for those living in the valleys, the differences remain strong.