The Xinjiang Uihgur Autonomous Region
(formerly spelled "Sinkiang") is the northwesternmost province of the
People's Republic of China. The province can be divided into four
The northern slopes of the Kunlun Mountains, through which the fabled
Silk Road passed for millenia. Several alluvial fans on
these slopes receive enough water from Kunlun snowmelt to allow agriculture;
oases which support a string of cities through which the road passed:
Kashgar ("Kashi"), which would have been the first stop for caravans
who had just crossed the Pamir mountains from the west (or the last stop,
going the other way).
- Yarkand ("Suoche"), which gives its name to a river that flows into the desert and disappears;
Khotan ("Hetian"), once the center of a Hindo-Buddhist culture transplanted
from India; its relics suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution.
The road once continued eastwards past the Lop Nor area into Kansu.
The area is bordered on the south by Tibet and Qinghai. Attatched
to this area, on the south side of the Kunlun, is the Aksai Qin area,
occupied by the PRC in 1962, and uninhabited except for the Peoples'
Liberation Army. India and Pakistan separately claim the area
as part of Kashmir.
The Tarim Basin, which is taken up entirely by the Takla Makan Desert,
the driest, most inhospitable place on Earth outside Antarctica.
A few towns eke out an existence where the Tarim River turns south
before petering out in the desert. At the eastern extreme of
the Takla Makan is Lop Nor ("Luobu Bo"), a lake which appears to have
migrated over the past few centuries. On the shores of its most recent
location lie China's primary nuclear missile testing facilities.
The Tian Shan ("Heavenly Mountains") which stretch all the way across
the province from Kyrgyzstan in the west to the three-way meeting with
Kansu and Mongolia. Again, oases on the slopes of the mountains
support several communites. The northern slopes of the Tian
Shan contain the province's most industrialized cities and most of the
population. On the southern side an alternate route for the Silk
Road left Kashgar, then passed east through
A gap in the mountains connects Turfan with the capital, Urumqi ("Wulumuqi").
Urumqi has more than 1.5 million people, one-fourth of the province's total
population. Shihezi lies about 130 km northwest of Urumqi.
The western Tian Shan form an eastward-pointing "V", separating the
Ili River valley from the rest of Xinjiang. The principal city of the
Ili Valley is Khulja ("Yining"). The Eastern Tian Shan eventually
fall intio the Bei Shan in Kansu.
The Dzungarian Basin, to the north of the Tian Shan. ("Dzungar"
is a name for the western Mongol tribes). The basin is closed on the northeast
by the Altai Mountains. On the west, gaps between several parallel
mountain ranges. Dzungaria was traditionally viewed by the Chinese
as China's "back door", through which various nomadic peoples invaded the
Xinjiang is a patchwork of ethnic groups: Kyrgyz and Tadzhik
in the area around Kashgar, the majority Uighur in the Kunlun and Tian
Shan oases, Kazak throughout Dzungaria, and Torgut Mongols in northern
Dzungaria. Han Chinese settlement is most extensive in the oases
on the north slopes of the Tian Shan, primarily around Urumqi. Yining
is a center of the Tungusic Sibo people. A large number of Hui (Han Chinese Muslims)
live east of Urumqi.
Xinjiang was occupied in stages by Qing Emperors in an
18th Century race against Russia to snap up as much of Central Asia
as possible. Dzungaria was conquered in 1757; the Tarim Basin
in 1760. Urumqi was expanded from a small Silk Road town in 1763
into a center of Qing control. The area controlled by China extended
several hundred miles to the west, to the shores of Lake Balkhash.
This was new territory for China, and it is named as such: xin
While China lay in the grip of various Western powers at the end of
the 19th Century, Xinjiang was within the Russian sphere of influence,
although The Great Game ensured that the British would have a hand in
affairs. The Tsar's army captured what is now Kyrgyzstan in the
wake of the Taiping Rebellion, between 1864 and 1881. An 1884
treaty between Moscow and Beijing allowed Xinjiang to be set up as a province.
After 1912, the area was under the control of the military governor Yang
Zengxin, with the Ma Zhongying and exiled White Russian troops thrown
into the bargain. In 1930, the expulsion of the Kumuliks from their
land triggered a bloody rebellion which lasted until 1934. In truth,
Xinjiang in the 1930's was like the rest of China, under the control of
After the Communist takeover of China, Xinjiang was once again viewed
as China's back door, a bastion against the Soviet Union. The first railroad
from Lanzhou was built in 1968. Urumqi
and Shihezi developed into large industrial centers. In order to
assert greater control during the Great Leap Forward, the PRC government
forcibly moved ethnic Han Chinese to Xinjiang in the 1950's and 1960's.
During the Cultural Revolution, many Kazaks fled to the Soviet Union.
Xinjiang became a zone of relative economic freedom after Deng Xiaoping's
reforms of the 1980's.
Both of the writeups above so oversimplify the situation from their
various viewpoints as to be offensive. The situation (no, I haven't
been there) is more like the American Wild West of the late 1800's, complete
with robber barons. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980,
combined with resentments generated during the Cultural Revolution, created
a desire for a national identity in many of Xinjiang's non-Chinese peoples, one beyond autonomy handed down from Beijing. Part of the expression
of this was radical "Islamic" militancy. Various separatist groups,
claiming all of Xinjiang as an "East Turkestan", have indeed exploded
terrorist bombs in Urumqi as well as Beijing.