Xinjiang, China's final frontier

Source: Beijing Today [12:15 July 12 2009]

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By Tom Carter

"He's from Pakistan.""No, no! He's Japanese." A lively group of Uyghurs orbiting around me at the Hotan marketplace in southern Xinjiang were vociferously debating the nationality of the 196cm foreigner standing before them.

I am in fact a first-generation American of a hybrid Scandinavian-Mediterranean-Hispanic lineage, my dark brown features and unkempt travel whiskers often causing confusion amongst Asians who can't quite place my nationality. Ironically, Han Chinese often mistook me for a Weiwuerzu someone from Xinjiang.

If there is one province unlike any other in the People's Republic, it would have to be Xinjiang. Categorically different from the rest of the country in every conceivable way, the Muslim-dominated Xinjian in the distant northwest is at once China's most intriguing and intimidating travel destination.

Xinjiang Autonomous Region is China's largest, sharing international borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan andcentral Asian countries. This geographical proximity resultingly accounts for over half of China's 12 million Muslims, perhaps Xinjiang's most obvious characteristicMuslim followers of Islam, the second largest religion in the world, are a devout people who believe in the oneness of God, called Allah in Arabic, as opposed to the Christian doctrine of a holy trinity. Muslim adherents can be seen throughout Xinjiang carrying venerated copies of the Qur'an (Islamic holy scripture) and faithfully dashing off to he mosque five times a day for a congregational series of Mecca-facing prostrations and prayer.

Xinjiang's predominant nationality is the Uygur, a vibrant and outgoing culture of Central Asian descent whom this writer affectionately likes to refer to as The Desert People. The Turkic-speaking Uyghurs traditionally attire themselves in simple, loose-fitting robes to accommodate the harsh climate, with the men wearing either plain white or brilliantly embroidered dopi skull caps and the women veiling themselves in a hijab headscarf. A shaved head and long beard further distinguishes the Uyghur men while the ladies take pride and pleasure in dyeing their hands red with henna.

Geographically, Xinjiang offers starkly different topography and climate throughout the vast region, ranging from the cool alpine mountains of the northern Altay region to the arid southern sands of the Taklamakan, the second largest desert in the world. And while Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, is a gleaming northern metropolis of skyscraprs and department stores, the remote cities bordering the south-western Tarim Basin, including the famed Silk Road oasis of Kashgar, are known for their more traditional way of Muslim life.

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