Xinjiang—A Beautiful Place

We gathered for another one of those lunches. The expansive circular table was high-gloss mahogany with a glass spinner in the middle. The group was a mix of American and Chinese—and me, Chinese American, though officially I was on the American side: an American citizen, a government employee, GS-15. By this point, I had been in government a few years and thoroughly jaded. I expected nothing to come from this lunch except a few thousand calories and an overdose of my daily FDA-recommended sodium limit. For a table reserved by the Embassy, the chef would have prepared these dishes with special care. I focused on eating well.

I sat next to a pleasant bespectacled fellow from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At some point, I couldn’t resist myself.

I have always loved the way the dark tantalizing sauces of oil and ginger and scallion in Chinese stir fry soaked into rice—each soft white grain is a virgin waiting to be corrupted.

“What do you think about Andrew Yang?” I asked him.

“Who?”

“Andrew Yang, a candidate for the US presidency?” I figured the Chinese would have some passing interest in the only Asian presidential candidate ever to gain any traction, even though Yang’s parents had immigrated from Taiwan.

“I have never heard of him,” the Ministry guy said.

“Really?”

“We all think Trump will win again.”

“Okay.”

I turned my attention back to the spinner. I have always loved the way the dark tantalizing sauces of oil and ginger and scallion in Chinese stir fry soaked into rice—each soft white grain is a virgin waiting to be corrupted. The dilemma was that, in these banquets, the hosts (always Chinese) often chided, “Eat more dishes! Eat less rice.” The rice was an afterthought, often not brought to the table until the main dishes had cooled. But some dishes are just xiafancai—destined to be spooned over rice in order to reach their full perfection.

Chinese banquets are all about food and yet never about the food at the same time.

As I chewed thoughtfully on a gamey piece of jumbo shrimp, a lively conversation was emerging on a perennial “safe” topic: the incredible ability of white people to speak Chinese. Samuel Johnson once said, “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It’s not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Most Chinese people share this view about foreigners speaking Mandarin.

“John’s Chinese is so good,” gushed the Chinese Counselor, the highest-ranking person at the table. “If I close my eyes when I talk to him, I can feel like I’m talking to a Chinese person!”

John was an amiable State Department foreign officer with blond hair and blue eyes.

“John, where did you learn Chinese?” I asked.

“Oh, in Tianjin and Beijing. And Urumqi.”

A collective pause settled over the table. Urumqi was the capital of Xinjiang, or to be specific, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In recent months, the New York Times had published a series of articles describing the Chinese government’s mass imprisonment of Xinjiang’s Muslim Uyghur population into “re-education” camps.

The Chinese Counselor cleared his throat politely. “When were you in Urumqi?”

“Around 2009.”

“That was when we had those terrorist attacks,” the Chinese Counselor said with tender concern, as if he was John’s elderly relative.

“What?” John widened his baby-blue eyes as he realized where this conversation was going.

The rest of the Americans around the table, including me, also widened our eyes like innocent children and looked around with contrived confusion. Terrorist attacks? Really? We’ve never heard of such things. 

“Yes,” the Chinese Counselor continued. “Then there was that stabbing at the Yunnan train station. And then in Beijing, there was a guy who drove his truck into a crowd. Terrorist attacks. Horrible. Took many lives.”

I wondered if we should say something, but no one did. Including myself. This was not supposed to be the point of this lunch. No one had emailed talking points on this issue beforehand. The correct State Department bureau was not present. What would I say? Hey, it’s pretty cruel to lock up people for no reason and break up families. 

Hey, America, you’re no saint.  

Taking our silence to be assent, the Chinese Counselor concluded calmly, “But things are much better now.”

At the end of the lunch, we took a group photograph together. Then, the Chinese Embassy folks handed out their gifts. As usual, the Americans were empty-handed. This time, the gifts we received were calendars and planners, maroon hardcovers with these words embossed in gold letters: Xinjiang—A Beautiful Place.

“Do these guys understand irony?” a colleague joked as we exited the restaurant.

I examined the words on the cover of my calendar, but I could not bring myself to open the notebook to view the stock photographs of jolly peasants, hairy yaks, and scenic mountains. Suddenly, I remembered that I too had been to Xinjiang.

*     *     *

In late summer of 2007, I stood in the swirling yellow dust outside the main entrance of the Lanzhou rail station. I was looking for my uncle. I was twenty-four years old, traveling after my first year of law school, supported by a modest fellowship to research China’s developing “rule of law.”

2007 was only thirteen years ago, but looking back, it was another era altogether. It was one year before China hosted the 2008 Olympics. The president of China was Hu Jintao—mild and bespectacled and smiling with jet black hair—not Xi Jinping, who, to his credit, has stopped dying his hair. The Chinese Constitution still had a provision that limited the president to two terms, just like the United States. Expats and China watchers thought, some insignificant differences aside, China would be just like America soon enough, except with better food and cheaper labor.

I carried around my blue Nokia phone and Canon digital camera in a sporty fanny pack. I was sick with a cough and a low fever, but I didn’t want to cancel this trip. I must have known in my bones that this would be my last adventure. After this summer, I had to fly back to New York for law firm interviews, drab navy suits, three-course lunches at Balthazar, and small talk about the US Open. The conveyer belt of my life would never lead me back here again.

Here was Lanzhou—the capital of Gansu province, just north of Sichuan, east of Qinghai, and gateway to Xinjiang. On a map, Gansu is shaped like Italy, and Xinjiang looks like the entire rest of the European Union put together.

My motivations for going to Xinjiang were both pure and base. I had a genuine curiosity for a place that was renowned for its physical beauty and the ethnic groups that lived there, mainly the Muslim Uighurs. But also, among travelers to China, there is a subtle but intense competition to see who has traveled far enough outside of Beijing and Shanghai to experience the “real” China. It is a stupid and pointless competition because nobody experiences the real China, except for the people who actually live there, permanently, who have no option of leaving when the political winds change. Still, in this silly game, players get bonus points for Tibet and Xinjiang, and I wanted to rack up a few.

In 2007, Tibet was the political hotspot and closed to US citizens. After a series of calls with my dad, the family decided I could go to Xinjiang with my uncle. I would have been offended that the family effectively assigned me a chaperon, except this uncle was the “cool” uncle—if by cool, you mean, he’s really good at Bridge and Go.

I was worried whether I would be able to find him. I had taken the train in from Qinghai, where I was doing my research for the summer. My uncle took the train in from Guizhou, where he lived. In the crowd, I spotted the close-cropped spikey white and black hair on his almond slender head and I just knew I was going to be okay.

*     *     *

They say men marry their mothers and girls marry their fathers. I think this is largely true. Every man who has ever been attracted to me had an aggressively competent mom—moms who were professors and doctors. I’m not a professor or a doctor, but I have that vibe.

Every man I’ve ever been attracted to has resembled not my dad, but my uncle. I like men who don’t talk a lot. This is their distinguishing feature. My dad is a gregarious jokester who monopolizes the dinner conversation with anecdotes about the Cultural Revolution or his latest trip to Home Depot. My uncle never talks about politics. He is the guy sitting in the background, quietly smiling, probably thinking about his cats.

I lived with my uncle and my aunt from the ages of three to seven in Guizhou, when my parents were in America. During that time, his mannerisms and habits imprinted themselves into my developing preschool female brain. This is Man. He rides a bicycle and puts you on the handlebars in the front. He blinks a lot when agitated but never raises his voice. He swims in the river every morning. He does not smoke, even when everyone else does. 

I sincerely believe that because of my uncle’s presence in my early childhood, I never developed any romantic crushes on total assholes. For this, I will always be in his debt.

*     *     *

The train out of Lanzhou was crowded, but then every train I’ve ever taken in China has been crowded. Each seat is filled and so is every square inch of the aisles. For a ticket fare cheaper than a hard seat, people can buy standing space. For this trip, my uncle and I splurged on sleepers. Each cabin had two sets of three-tiered bunk beds opposite a narrow table, so six people could sleep in one cabin. I slept in the top bunk, hard as stone and covered in dark green vinyl. The horizontal jolting motion of the train violently induced me into a trance-like slumber every night. When I gave birth to my son seven years later, I believed all his sleep issues could be resolved if only someone could invent a crib that mimicked the lurching rhythm of a Chinese train.

We took the overnight train from Lanzhou to Dunhuang. Then to Urumqi, and then another overnight train across the Taklamakan desert to Kashgar. My fever faded and my cough subsided, washed away by the hot sandy wind that gusted through the open windows.

Each morning, I woke up to a landscape that was ever more vast, arid, and colorful. The sky was blue here. Perhaps that is a facile thing to say—the sky is blue—but in China, it is special. By 2007, most cities in China, even in the provinces outside Beijing, never had blue skies. When a sky is not blue, it has no color. You can’t even complain that it’s grey or brown. You look up and just feel totally numb, like all your senses have vanished. Something so cliché as a blue sky can suddenly become rare and meaningful when it disappears from everyday life.

Life on the train had its own particular rhythms and customs. It was like living in a hostel with 300 roommates. The Chinese trust in boiled water. You can drink boiled water. Everything can be washed clean by boiled water. By the bathrooms, a faucet released boiled water. Each morning, people lined up to get hot water for their tea. Everyone traveled with a miniature thermos and a washcloth. They soaked their washcloth with hot water and carefully wiped down their face, their necks, and their armpits.

My uncle traveled with his thermos, washcloth, and a utility knife, which came in handy on numerous occasions. I vowed then that I would always travel with a knife, just like him; TSA rules be damned. The knife was mainly used to cut up Hami melon that we purchased during brief station stops. Hami melon is an oblong orange cantaloupe that is a specialty of Xinjiang. It is like any other cantaloupe—a mystery until it is cut open and tasted. It could be sweet and tangy and moist; it could be bland and hard. Sharing one Hami melon between the two of us was a full meal: it was our fruit, our protein, our bread, and our dessert.

The worst Hami melon we had was in Kashgar, a city in western Xinjiang, close to the border of Kyrgyzstan. The taxi driver who took us to a mosque outside the city also pledged to bring us to his cousin’s fruit stand—his cousin who sold the sweetest Hami melon in all of Xinjiang, he pledged earnestly. The car pulled to a stop on a dusty empty road and we saw a man with a wooden cart full of Hami melons. My uncle and I got out. The man by the cart quoted us a rather high price. The taxi driver stayed by the car smoking a cigarette and didn’t make eye contact with us. Why didn’t he say hi to his cousin? Suddenly the scene turned ominous and we bought a melon quickly. Back at the hotel, my uncle cut it open with his utility knife and we sampled the dull, tasteless orange cubes.

“Aya,” my uncle laughed merrily. “We were tricked. That taxi driver must get a kickback from that melon stand.”

For the next few days, my uncle and I stayed near the city center of Kashgar, getting around on foot and by public bus, avoiding taxis.

I now revisit the photographs from this trip with trepidation. The Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar looms over the town square; it is a dignified symmetrical edifice even though someone whimsically painted it bright buttercup yellow. We paid a small fee and went inside. I snapped pictures of the prayer rooms with crimson carpet and green columns and white walls.

Seven years later, in 2014, the imam of this mosque was killed in the square by three men after leading sunrise prayers; he had been a controversial figure in the Uighur community because he was perceived as being too supportive of Beijing’s policies. But this mosque is no stranger to bloodshed. In 1933, even before the Chinese Community Party seized control of China, a general of the Chinese Republic beheaded a Uighur leader and displayed his head on a spike at the mosque.

In 2007, I took a photograph of this elegant mosque, with a scripted cursive sign above the door that I couldn’t read, and a cluster of crimson umbrellas on the steps to the right of the entrance, under which venders sold snacks and water. I bought a bowl of tangy freshly made yogurt, lightly dusted with sugar on top.

My uncle and I wandered around the old city section of Kashgar—a network of two-story mud and straw houses, with surprising turns, tunnels, and balconies. In a tea house, elderly men with beards and caps clustered around café tables on the upstairs veranda. Lavender embroidered curtains hung elegantly from the carved arches. We climbed up the stairs and were seated at a red and black checkered table. My uncle ordered tea and some snacks. The food came out on a silver tray—a white pot of tea, an orange bowl of sugar, and a pastry that looked exactly like a sesame seed bagel from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side.

We took a public bus to visit the Sunday bazaar. The bus only had about ten other passengers, which is already a rarity in China. When an old woman with a black headscarf boarded at one stop, all the men in the bus immediately stood up to offer her a seat, even though there were ample empty seats for her to choose from. All the men, that is, except my uncle—he seemed as baffled as I was at this excessive courtesy. We could not have been more surprised if a purple unicorn suddenly leapt aboard the bus. We were used to getting shoved and pushed in buses. When I was six, a bus driver closed the door on me as I was boarding, crushing my small shoulder blades. I had learned from a young age that the bus was a war zone where you had to temporarily put aside your humanity in order to get to school or work on time.

This is the only instance in my life I can remember when my uncle seemed to fall short in comparison to the other men around him.

“The Uighurs seem like nice people,” he concluded that evening in our hotel room.

*     *     *

Now, I’m not even forty, but I find my own thoughts taking the same repetitive backward turns, too often leading to a swamp of self-indulgence, but occasionally giving me a newfound appreciation for what was then mundane and quotidian.

When I was young, I was annoyed by the way old people ruminated endlessly and obsessively about the past. My parents could reminisce about the most exciting historical event ever, like getting persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and I would find it tedious because they are just my parents. Besides, every Chinese person of their age had crazy Cultural Revolution stories, just as every American has some stupid college drinking story. After a while, all the anecdotes blended together. I couldn’t understand what was so bad about the Cultural Revolution if it was the source of so many hilarious youthful adventures, like Woodstock or spring break in Tijuana, only with more Communist Party propaganda and less sex and alcohol.

Now, I’m not even forty, but I find my own thoughts taking the same repetitive backward turns, too often leading to a swamp of self-indulgence, but occasionally giving me a newfound appreciation for what was then mundane and quotidian.

I linger over the photographs I snapped in 2007 of Uighur people going about their everyday lives: here are six adults and two children outside the gates of a mosque. The three women in headscarves are talking to each other, one carrying a girl wearing a purple ruffled skirt in her arms, another woman holding three shopping bags. The boy is picking at his nose by the gate. Of the three men, two men are wearing Muslim head caps, but one is not. They are all laughing together, and one man is giving another an affectionate hug from behind.

Xinjiang—a beautiful place. This is not my story to tell. I was only a brief visitor to this land. Today, I read that the old town of Kashgar has been torn down and modernized. The Id Kah Mosque is closed to both visitors and worshippers. The city is rife with police checkpoints, and security cameras with facial recognition technology are installed at every street corner. No, I did not experience the real Xinjiang. The only people who experience the real Xinjiang are the people who live there, who cannot say anything, who cannot go anywhere else.

Daien Guo is a writer based in Washington DC. She has published her writing in Furious Gravity: D.C. Women Writers, Little Patuxent Review, 3Elements Literary Review, Columbia Journal of Asian Law, and Merlyn’s Pen.