I spent three days in Kashgar, the scene of yesterday’s attack on some Chinese police, and where I took this photo in its famous and busy market, a couple of months ago.
It’s a city with a long and glorious history - first as one of the key trading points on the ’silk road’ with a famous international trading market - and then in the nineteenth century as a key location in the ‘Great Game’, the epic power struggle between the British in India and Russia, for control of Central Asia. The opening of a Russian consulate there nearly provoked full-scale war between Britain and Russia (in the end it didn’t survive long as a consulate, but you can still stay in the building, as one person I travelled with this year did).
Kashgar now finds itself in the ‘Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’ - a huge and sparsely populated province which forms the whole north west of the modern state of China. But although it lies east of the massive Tian Shan range of mountains which forms China’s western boundary, bringing it naturally geographically into China, its people are not Chinese and have much more in common with the central Asian peoples west of the Tian Shan. The Uighurs of this region are ethnically central Asian, have been Muslim for many centuries, and speak a language, Uighur, closer to Uzbek, and which is written in the Arabic script. At various points in history they have attempted to assert their central Asian identity, most recently around the time of the second world war, when the ‘Republic of East Turkestan’ was declared (Turkestan being the whole huge central Asian territory of the peoples of Turkic descent going back to Genghis Khan and beyond).
Ethnically, they are clearly right that they belong to Turkestan rather than China.
But equally clearly the Chinese state, like any great power, is not at all keen to have unstable breakaway regions outside its control sitting on its borders. This is hardly something new from the post-1949 communist period in China - emperors two thousand kilometres away in China proper have long sought to have this region and these people under their control.
And so in many ways the Uighurs in Xinjiang (the Chinese name for the province, which I understand means something like ‘border province’) pose a similar challenge to their Tibetan neighbours.