Ali the tour guide seemed nice enough and his English flowed with grammatical perfection — a useful attribute in a city where most people speak a Turkic language that sounds nothing like Chinese.
“Sure, I will take you wherever you want to go, but first I have to call my friend and see if he will drive us,” Ali said, turning away.
After a quick exchange, he hung up the phone and politely announced that his friend was actually a government minder who would soon be arriving to guide the would-be clients away from any potential trouble.
The destination his “friend” had in mind?
The airport, where the reporters, subject to a ban on foreign media, would be escorted onto the next flight out of town.
“Sorry,” Ali said as the journalists prepared to flee in a taxi. “But if I didn’t make that call, I would get in big trouble.”
Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road oasis and backpacker lure, has been besieged by fear since ethnic rioting two weeks ago claimed at least 197 lives in Urumqi, the capital of this northwestern expanse known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Although the two cities are separated by about 1,100km of punishing desert and snow-draped mountains, the authorities are especially anxious about potential unrest in Kashgar, a city of 3.4 million that is 90 percent Uighur, a Muslim minority that has long had a mercurial relationship with the Han Chinese who govern Xinjiang.
The authorities have good reason to be skittish.
Last August, at least 16 military police officers were killed in an attack in Kashgar, unnerving the government just as dignitaries and athletes were arriving in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. The police called it a terrorist strike by two Uighur men armed with explosives and machetes, though some witnesses later challenged that version of events.
In the early 1990s, Kashgar was also the scene of bombings and demonstrations; at least 21 people were killed and thousands were arrested during one particular army crackdown. The city has long been a crucible for Uighur self-determination, even if nationalist aspirations were never the same after a Chinese warlord vanquished the newborn East Turkestan Republic, a short-lived nation that called Kashgar its capital for a few months in 1933.
Although it is rapidly being bulldozed in the name of modernization, Old Kashgar and its ancient dusty warrens remain the heart of Uighur culture and a beguiling draw for tourists. To China’s leadership, however, the city is also an incubator for those seeking to create a Uighur homeland by the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and a handful of other predominantly Muslim countries whose names end with “stan.”
This time around, Kashgar has been relatively quiet.
During the turmoil in Urumqi, a crowd of 200 people tried to protest outside the city’s Id Kah Mosque, the largest of its kind in China, and they were quickly dispersed by the police, Xinhua news agency said.
But in contrast to Urumqi, where journalists can roam with relative freedom, the few foreign reporters who made it to Kashgar were promptly hustled out of town.
“The situation may look calm now, but it could change at any second,” a local government official told Mark MacKinnon, a writer for the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, as he and his colleagues were sent off to the airport.
The uncertainty and sense of isolation have been only magnified by the continued shutdown of the Internet, text messaging and international phone service that has severed communications in Kashgar and the entire region.