“Xinjiang is a nice place”, reads the slogan in a promotional video shown at a convention centre in Ürümqi, the capital city of Xinjiang.
Seeing the vast mountainous landscape of Xinjiang from the sky while on the flight in from Guangzhou had already given me a favourable early impression of this land at the heart of the ancient Silk Road.
Bordered by the Altai Mountains to the north and the Kunlun Mountains in the south, with the magnificent Tianshan range in the middle dividing the Junggar Basin and Tarim Basin, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China is a marvel of wild beauty.
As part of a six-member Malaysian delegation of journalists and representatives of youth organisations invited by the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia, I had the opportunity to visit Ürümqi, Changji and Turpan in Xinjiang recently.
Our visit came on the heels of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Ürümqi, where he reportedly stressed on the positive promotion of the region to show an open and confident Xinjiang.
Xi also called for Xinjiang to be opened more widely for tourism to encourage visits from domestic and foreign tourists.
One of our stops was the Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar in Ürümqi, where thousands of tourists flocked the shops and stalls to enjoy the food and wares of the diverse ethnicities living in Xinjiang.
Salty milk tea, mutton kebabs, juicy Hami melons and stacks of freshly baked naan are sold while cultural performers entertain visitors with dances and shows.
Amid the bustle of the bazaar, I observed the locals conversing freely in the Uyghur language and Mandarin as well.
The following day, we visited the Shaanxi Mosque, which serves the Muslim Hui community in Changji. The mosque was built during the Qing Dynasty, and has elements of Chinese architecture such as the “bagua” or eight trigrams.
Kou Jinfa, the imam, said the Hui people migrated to Changji from Shaanxi province and thus named the mosque after where they came from. The mosque is a major congregation spot for local Muslims during Ramadan.
While on our way to Turpan, some 200km from Ürümqi, the view of shops with signboards in written Uyghur and Chinese eventually turned into fields of wind turbines and mountainous terrain. To break up the monotony of the long ride, our guide and interpreter Gulnur Sibihat, a Kazakh woman, sang us a song about birds in her mother tongue called Qustar Ani.
The city of Turpan soon came into view, with its many grape vineyards standing out in contrast to the desert scenery. The long hours of sunshine and good wind have made the area ideal for planting fruits, which are touted to be exceptionally sweet. The Uyghurs here were originally nomadic before they settled in the Tarim Basin and turned to agriculture.
Although Turpan’s primary economic activities are agricultural, it is also complemented by tourism. The warm and hospitable nature of the locals was on full display when we were invited into the home of a Grape Valley villager for lunch. Enjoying a feast of noodles, steamed dumplings and a spread of mutton dishes among other local Uyghur fare under the shade of grape trellises and fig trees in the courtyard was such an enjoyable experience.
Hua Changqing, leading party members’ group secretary of the Turpan Foreign Affairs Office, said opening up the homes to visitors was an effort to help the villagers earn some extra income, aside from the usual agricultural work.
“Most of the time, the residents’ homes are empty and are only fully used during festivals. I thought that their homes could be opened up for tourist visits, which in turn can improve their income,” said Hua, adding that traditional homes in the Grape Valley have unique characteristics, such as their courtyards.
“As for households which cannot open up their homes, they will be assigned to clean up tourism sites instead. At least, they will still be able to earn some extra income,” said Hua.
There was such a peaceful and prosperous atmosphere in the places we visited that it was hard to imagine that the region was in the grips of deadly violence just a few years ago.
At the convention centre, we were given a tour of an exhibition on terrorism and extremism in Xinjiang from 1990 to the end of 2016.
According to the displays at the exhibition, multiple religions have long coexisted in Xinjiang with Islam being introduced in the late ninth century and early 10th century. By the early 16th century, a religious structure came into formation in Xinjiang, characterised by the predominance of Islam and the co-existence of multiple other religions.
However, at the turn of the 20th century, the ideas of “Pan-Turkism” and “Pan-Islamism” started being seized upon by extremists leading to separatist activities by “East Turkistan” forces. Beginning in 1990, thousands of terrorist acts took place, severely threatening the social stability and the lives of the people in the region.
An arsenal of improvised explosives, knives, swords, pistols and rifles seized from terrorists were on display at the museum while videos and images showed the atrocities committed in the name of ethnicity and religion during that period.
Ultimately, the Chinese government began implementing counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation measures such as establishing vocational education and training centres to curb the spread of terrorism and religious extremism. The terrorist attack in Moyu County on Dec 28, 2016, was the last incident.
Despite these measures and in contrast to accusations by Western countries of religious and cultural persecution in Xinjiang, Islam continues to be practised freely in the region.
Abdureqip Tomurniyaz, head of the Islamic Institute of Xinjiang, explained that the freedom to practise religious beliefs is protected under Article 36 of China’s Constitution.
“As Chinese citizens, the freedom to choose whether to believe in a religion is a private issue of the individual. No state, organisation, association or individual has the right to interfere or discriminate. All of us are equal before the law to believe in religion,” he said at the institute’s campus in Ürümqi.
Abdureqip, who sports a beard and wears the traditional Uyghur headwear doppa, said besides providing Islamic education to students, the institute also serves as a resource centre for scholars who wish to understand Islam. in Xinjiang.
“Our hope is to foster peace and better understanding among the people,” he said.
Gu Mei, press and culture division director of the Xinjiang Foreign Affairs Office, also dismissed Western media reports of Uyghurs being oppressed.
“The Chinese government is only against criminal acts, separatism and terrorism. We do things by the law here in dealing with such threats just like any other country in the world.
“If we are oppressing the Uyghurs, then how is it that the government is still providing them with many beneficial policies to improve their livelihood? The Muslims here are also our citizens. Why would we oppress them?” she said.
Gu said one of the best ways to counter the negative perception is for the Chinese government to continue doing its job in improving the social and economic development of Xinjiang.
“The most important thing is to believe your own eyes and only then criticise us. Xinjiang’s doors are open. We hope people from all over the world will come see the real situation in Xinjiang for themselves,” she said.
Xinjiang is a place rich in heritage and culture, blessed with natural resources and spectacular sceneries.
Although Xinjiang was racked by unrest in the recent past, stability and order have since been restored and the Chinese government is eager to show that to the world now.
As I stood on the ferry, taking in the breathtaking sights of Tianchi, I recalled the slogan at the convention centre.
It can be easily disregarded as just a promotional slogan but there is truth to it – Xinjiang is a nice place.