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A Hard Pill to Swallow

“If they won’t assimilate, chew it harder, and then you can swallow.” – Noam

Xinjiang is definitely a hard pill to swallow. I had heard murmurs about how the Chinese government oppresses the Uyghurs, but to what extent, I wasn’t sure, nor did I know what to expect.

I was giddy with excitement as we left Rebgong for Turpan. Since the start of the course, the instructors hinted at how impressionable and transformative Xinjiang would be. Xinjiang felt like such an enigma; I was eager to uncover it.

And then my heart broke. As we arrived at the guesthouse in Turpan, Noam warmly embraced the manager, a longtime friend. I would later find out from him that the guest house would soon meet its untimely end, just like the rest of Turpan. The Chinese government has determined to destroy any residue of Uyghur history left in Turpan and rebuild from the bottom up.

The village surrounding our guesthouse was a ghost town, completely dead. The traditional houses are being reduced to dust; all that is left are small placards on the front door that read “harmonious family”, but the families are nowhere to be found and harmony means replacing locals’ longstanding houses with repulsive, “modern” highrises.

The gas station was appalling. A thick security gate circumscribes the station where menacing-looking Han officials stand tall at the entrance. There are only four cars in line, but interestingly enough, it takes our driver forty minutes to fill up the van with gas. Meanwhile all the passengers from these four cars sit and wait behind the dumpsters because they are prohibited from staying in the car during the whole process. As we wait with the Uyghurs, we witness a handicapped man who suffers from cerebral palsy, be forced out of the car. No exceptions allowed.

In that same day, we pass through four security checkpoints where we are stopped at each and every one. At first we are approached my Uyghur officials who soon bring out the head honcho Han security guard. We give in our passports and take as many photos necessary for them to let us go, solo and as a group, no questions asked.

Throughout the whole day as we ride in the van, we see police everywhere, and every time, we flip down our sunglasses and turn our heads to avoid being stopped.

We arrive in Kashgar only to encounter even more of the dark, sad truth.

We see Uyghurs live [secretly] in despair as their mosques, places of worship, vanish. Even worse, we visit a mosque-turned-bar that is filled with alcohol and vulgar pictures of women; the manager of the bar, wearing a revealing dress, says a quick hello before disappearing. My stomach growled with discomfort and nausea at the idea that such a holy place, where alcohol used to be sorely condemned, has been transformed into a business that uses liquor and hookah to entice. We walked out of the bar embarrassed, with our heads held low, as we saw Uyghurs glance at us.

This was just one example of what Kashgar represents: a tourist trap that uses the Uyghurs as an entrepreneurial tool. “Look at these exotic people with their fascinating history and dress. Watch them dance happily in the streets, and see how China respects their culture,” screams Kashgar.

But take a deeper look, and you are met with sullen faces. At any business you come across, you notice that a Han is always at the top, overseeing the Uygur locals. Restrictions are becoming stricter: Uyghurs are banned from wearing burkas or “abnormal” beards. A woman with Whatsapp on her phone was arrested and sent to a “re-education” center, or internment camp, which is the trend now when any Uyghur commits a minor “aggression”. At these centers, they are taught China’s ideal of “correct thought”; in other words, they are beaten, tortured, and brainwashed. When China invites the rest of the world to visit these centers, we see Uyghurs with glassy eyes, ingenuine smiles, and black eyes dance and sing, praising the Communist Party.

If this wasn’t enough to take in, Noam hit us with some upsetting news the other day. We are now in Kyrgyzstan, where the group is relieved to catch a break from the heavy and depressing situation of Xinjiang. This does not mean we stop reflecting nor discussing, however. Noam tells us that one of our drivers was arrested soon after we did business with him. It could have been for other reasons, it could have been because of us [it was probably, most definitely because of us], but either way my heart sunk. We had nicknamed him “DJ Driver” as we sang, danced, and laughed in the van with him all day. To think that such a kind soul was arrested right after spending time with us, hit way too close to home. I thought of him and his family and how he suffered consequences at our hands. Of course it was his choice to drive us, but still, the idea that we caused this makes my stomach churn.

I try to imagine what it would be like if I had absolutely no freedoms, no human rights, no political leverage, and I am left completely dumbstruck. All I have is my religion or faith to console me–and then I realize that is the very reason I am under attack. So what am I left with? What am I to do? No one can hear me and no one can help me. If I speak out, I’m dead, if someone tries to reach out, I’m dead. Eyes are everywhere, watching, waiting to “re-educate” me. Soon enough, my history, my heritage will be gone as we are forced to return to the “Motherland”, a whole people erased.

If they won’t assimilate, chew it harder, and then you can swallow.

The Uyghurs are being gnawed at and gobbled up before our very eyes.

But we are the keepers of truth. We have learned and seen the story of the Uyghurs, and we are eager to share. We can spread awareness, bring it to the forefront. Perhaps it won’t do much, or perhaps it will start something. We will do what we can.