Travelling from sight to sight; variety, beauty, adventure and other delectable contrasts to life in the daily grind; the raison d'être of one’s touristic existence can captivate and beguile in both the positive and negative sense. However, there are times when one takes a break from the extravagant exaggerated and ornate that one can experience a humbler more earthy existential. Oftentimes it is difficult to predict the merit or location of such places; those in-between, out-of -the-way, travel-hub type destinations the guidebooks may pay no heed; a shrug of the shoulders; or furnish with a sneer. For ultimately the appeal of these places is the specific reflection of a state of mind and the location aligning, the precise ingredients of the mix thus non-predictable and non-replicable. Places in which I have personally experienced this phenomena are few and far between; Mek'ele in Ethiopia, Tarija in Bolivia, and in this example Gulja, East Turkestan (aka Yining in Xianjiang, China).
Ghulja is located in the far west of China near the border with Kazakhstan, and about 700km west of Ürümqi. Xinjiang is a large central-Asian region within the People's Republic of China, and a place I had passed through some four years
previous on my journey between Kyrgyzstan and Tibet: Communism's dead! Long live communism?
It comprises numerous minority groups: 45% of its population is Uyghur and 40% are Han Chinese. Ghulja mirrors many larger towns in Xianjiang in that Beijing offers financial incentives for ethnic Chinese migrants to come to the province and set up businesses. Ethnic Han Chinese dominate nearly all big businesses in the region, and now form the majority population in most cities.
Without going into too many details we decided to cut short our planned trip to Kazakhstan in order to stay in this captivating, charming, warm and welcoming place called Ghulja, for well over a week. A place we’re at pains to admit we’d never previously heard of, our ignorance all the more reprehensible due to the city’s recent history. A history that gets scant mention - if mention at all - in most guidebooks.
“On 5 February 1997, peaceful demonstrations took place in the city of Gulja (Yining) in XUAR. Hundreds, possibly thousands, lost their lives or were seriously injured. Large numbers of people were arrested during the demonstrations and their aftermath. Many detainees were beaten or otherwise tortured. An unknown number remain unaccounted for. During the
crackdown, the Uighur community living in the XUAR was targeted” Amnesty International, February 2007.
“Thirteen years later, mothers, wives and children of many who disappeared in the Ghulja Massacre do not even know if their loved ones are dead or alive,” said Uyghur democracy leader Rebiya Kadeer. “The families of those who disappeared deserve to know what happened to their loved ones. It is incomprehensible that so many years later, the truth of the Ghulja Massacre continues to be hidden from the people of East Turkestan. Our grief is only compounded as we mourn the disappearance of countless others who have been arbitrarily detained in the wake of unrest in Urumchi.”
The anniversary follows a year in which an untold number of Uyghurs and Han Chinese were killed during riots in the regional capital of Urumchi. Police and military forces conducted mass arrests and arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs throughout the city. Human Rights Watch documented 43 cases and said that this was likely to be "just the tip of the iceberg"
In an apparently shrinking planet of 24 hour globalized media there is so much still to be learned and uncovered about the world we live in beyond
the spectrum of opinion and the filtered lens of information. Keep on travelling.
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