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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 October, 2003, 20:21 GMT 21:21 UK
China's Uighurs mourn way of life
By Louisa Lim
BBC correspondent in Kashgar

My first view of Kashgar's old city was from above, from a 10th floor hotel window.

And the bird's eye view shows how the old Muslim quarter is hemmed in on all sides by the encroaching Chinese city.

Kashgar street scene
Modernisation is changing the Uighurs' way of life
The rough yellow earth courtyard houses of the Uighurs stand in stark contrast to the big shiny white-tiled, mirrored buildings that have sprung up around them, encircling them like harbingers of modernity.

Down on street level, I walked through the Uighur quarter.

My progress through the bustling alleyways was slow, but only because every few metres something caught my eye.

The knife-makers sharpening their fearsome blades amid the whine of the machine and showers of sparks, the blacksmiths forging their copper pots right on the edge of the path, and the musical-instrument makers playing their two-string guitars to entice prospective buyers.

It's a vivid example of living culture - right in front of your eyes.

The faces around me looked as if they had been transplanted from the plains of Anatolia to this desert oasis in north-west China
Further into the maze of narrow paths, I stumbled into a goldsmiths' alley, then a market, its stalls piled high with enormous grapes, dried apricots, great discs of flat bread and lamb pasties.

Everyone was speaking Uighur - a Turkic language, and the faces around me looked as if they had been transplanted from the plains of Anatolia to this desert oasis in north-west China.

In fact, it was easy to forget that we were in China.

I was heading for the Id Kah mosque, the largest in Xinjiang province.

My book described the square outside it as the true heart of the city, where people gathered to buy and sell shoes and clothes, drink tea and gossip.

But when I got there I was baffled - there was none of the activity I was expecting.

In fact, the square had become an enormous concrete construction site, peopled by Chinese migrant workers in big straw hats, who were rebuilding the steps to the mosque.

The mosque itself was spectacular in the evening sun, its mustard bricks glinting against the deep blue sky.

But right beside it -- the only other building of an equal scale -- was an enormous white Chinese department store.

It was a concrete representation of the clash between two different value systems -- the temple of God alongside a temple to the new religion of consumerism.

What I was seeing was part of a city modernisation scheme.

About a month before, 1,000 families had been moved to new flats in the suburbs with running water and lavatories.

There were two diametrically opposed ways of looking at this.

Most Han Chinese saw it as modernisation and the way forward. Most Uighurs had an entirely different perspective.

We like to have our feet on the ground, and nothing above our heads but our God
'Mohammed'
During my enquiries, I met a man I'll call Mohammed.

I asked him how he felt about the redevelopment, expecting more platitudes and slick answers about how dangerous the old houses can be during earthquakes and fires.

Instead, eyes darting nervously around him, he replied: "It's a very bad idea indeed. No-one likes it."

After a week of government obfuscation and evasion, I could hardly believe my ears. Why? I asked.

"Well we don't like living in flats," he said. "We like to live in these courtyard buildings. We like to have our feet on the ground, and nothing above our heads but our God. In the new flats, we'll have six or seven floors of people scurrying around over our heads.

"For us, it's not just a city renovation programme, it's the destruction of our culture. We know everyone who lives in these lanes. When we move to the new place, we'll be surrounded by strangers.

Every day a crowd of Uighurs gathered, gazing silently through the bars of the gates as if in mourning, their faces hard and closed
"And these buildings have been in our families for generations. What will we have now to leave our children?"

Then I began hearing more sinister stories of families being offered less compensation than their houses were worth, of people refusing to leave their homes and going only when soldiers were called in for a show of force, even of old people hanging themselves rather than losing their property.

I couldn't confirm any of these tales officially.

But there was the physical evidence too - beside the mosque, a long, deep scar in the ground, the construction site where houses had once stood.

It was behind padlocked gates, and every day a crowd of Uighurs gathered, gazing silently through the bars of the gates as if in mourning, their faces hard and closed.

It's not the end of the story though.

Next year, 5,000 more houses will be knocked down to make way for a new road.

And if what I saw was any indication, the dissatisfaction of Uighurs in Kashgar at the gradual erosion of their culture could turn out to be more of a problem than the Chinese Government imagines.

SEE ALSO:
Language blow for China's Muslims
01 Jun 02  |  Asia-Pacific
China's fearful Muslim minority
08 Jan 02  |  Asia-Pacific


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