Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Tuesday, 29 July 2008 17:30 UK

Uighur boxer seeking Olympic glory

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Yizebah, Xinjiang

Boxer Mehmet Tursun Chong (Image: Daniel Tetlow)
Mehmet Tursun Chong has been training in regional capital Urumqi

In the far west of China, there is a place called Yizebah. It means Orchard Village in the local Uighur language.

One of China's Olympic boxers, Mehmet Tursun Chong, grew up on a farm in Yizebah.

There are cotton fields and wheat, and an apricot orchard. High poplar trees line many of the fields.

In the distance to the south, there are the snowy heights of the Karakoram Mountains and the Hindu Kush in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mehmet Tursun's family said he was so keen on boxing when he was a little boy that one day he filled a sack with sand and attached a rope to it.

But he could not reach the branches of the apricot trees to hang it up, so his uncle did it for him.

Now that little boy has grown up to be one of the best boxers in China.

His training regime is ferocious. In the past it has included running at altitude in Kazakhstan and climbing a mountain carrying iron weights.

Mehmet is planning a strict diet when he gets to Beijing - no more of the tasty but high-fat Uighur lamb; his coach is planning a high protein diet, including a lot of seafood.

Proud parents of Mehmet Tursun Chong (Image: Hugh Sykes)

The opponents he expects to provide the toughest competition in the Games are the boxers from Cuba, Russia and Kazakhstan.

His father, Chong Mehmet, plans to travel to Beijing to watch his son box.

He estimates the journey of about 4,000 km (2,500 miles) will take him five days, by bus and train.

The boxer's mother has reluctantly agreed to stay at home and look after the rest of the family - despite complaining to her husband: "I've been doing that for 30 years!"

Separatist groups

The Uighur people of western China are Muslims, and they speak their own language.

Uighur has Turkic roots - some of the words are the same in Uighur and in Turkish. "Bir, Iki, Uech, Doert, Besh", for instance, are one, two, three, four and five in both Uighur and Turkish.

Most Uighurs live in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region - where Han Chinese now outnumber the Uighur population by about 60% to 40%.

Some Uighurs still want a separate country, and the Beijing authorities believe they may try to disrupt the Olympic Games to draw attention to their cause.


The Chinese authorities have recently cracked down on Uighur separatist groups they regard as terrorists.

They have killed at least five alleged activists in the past month, and claim to have broken up a dozen militant cells in Kashgar, the remote western town where Uighurs are still in the majority.

Analysts believe that militant Uighur separatism only has the support of a small minority.

But it is hard to establish definite facts about this - whenever I broached the subject replies were quickly and defensively "on message".

For example, one man said "The Chinese help us. They are more educated than us, they are helping us develop."

But another man metaphorically accused the Chinese of "stealing our bread; if someone takes your bread, will you not take it back?"

He then went on: "I don't like violence, but we need a revolution, and you cannot have a revolution without blood."

'The Motherland'

It is estimated that a third of China's oil reserves are under the Gobi desert in Xinjiang - and that is the "bread" that some Uighurs want for themselves.

But I think most Uighurs are opposed to violence - knowing that protest would almost certainly be suppressed by the People's Liberation Army, and accepting that investment from Beijing is providing work, development and greater prosperity for Uighur people.

The orchard where Mehmet Tursun Chong first boxed (Image: Daniel Tetlow)
Mehmet Tursun Chong began his boxing career in the family's orchard

And I detected no tension or heavy security in Xinjiang at all, certainly not at Mehmet Tursun's family farm in Yizebah - where they have lived for so many generations that they have lost count.

I met Mehmet in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, 1,000 km from the Yizebah farm. He was training in front of a banner that read "Above All Else, the Motherland".

He has not seen his family since February. They laid on a feast for the BBC visitors.- mutton soup, delicious cold chicken, fresh apricots, water melon and flat round Uighur bread.

Yizebah is a magic place - absolutely silent except for birdsong, the rustling of poplar leaves in the breeze, the lowing of the family's single milking cow and the bleating of sheep.

And - for the time being - there is no sound of a boxer bashing a bag full of sand hanging from an apricot tree.

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