A Uyghur, wearing a traditional cap, drives a bus from Pakistan into Xinjiang along the Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway.
The land of the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim people long resident at the middle of the fabled Silk Road, is now part of the People’s Republic of China. As is so often the case at geographical crossroads, control of the territory has shifted many times. In the 19th century, the region that came to be called ‘East Turkestan’ was buffetted by the imperialist ambitions of the British Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Chinese Empire. By the middle of the 20th century, Mao Zedong secured a communist regime in Beijing that brought a new reality to the Uyghurs, this time as residents of the ‘Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.’ (The term ’Xinjiang,’ apparently selected without irony, literally translates as ‘New Frontier,’ since for the Chinese the region was, in fact, new.) Massive internal migration – enabled by military operations and a new railway -- brought millions of Chinese to settle in the west. After six decades, the population is now effectively half Uyghur and half Chinese (plus a few minority communities of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks). As a result, a Uyghur diaspora argues China is pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang; China argues it is bringing development to an impoverished region. Though the Uyghurs have never formed an insurgency, various mobilizations, especially by student groups, have challenged the status quo, often leading to ethnic riots. The images presented here were taken in 2001 along the southern route of the Silk Road, where Uyghurs maintain a strong majority, from Kashgar south along the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, leading ultimately to the Tibetan Plateau.