Chapter Fourteen

Opening the Wilds

The square in front of Kashgar's Al It'qa mosque is the peddlers' market, where stalls of cheap manufactured goods brought from inland China, from Pakistan (Pear's soap, patent medicines), and even from the USSR, vie with the local pots and pans. The Kashgar branch of the official department store, at one corner of the square, is by contrast gloomy, bare, and almost deserted.

Officials admit that their government commercial bureau, at the end of very long communication lines from the eastern industrial cities, can wait more than a year for orders to be filled, whereas the peddlers, operating their own personal networks of contacts, can obtain goods from the east in a matter of ten days. Ten thousand people hold private trading licences in Kashgar, and two thousand are full-time traders.

It's a profitable sideline for many of the Han who are posted to Kashgar, and to places like it in the outer territories of China. Though they all receive special augmented wages and subsidies to compensate for the extra living costs of their isolation, the Han settlers on the whole do not find life easy, especially where, as in Kashgar, they are in the minority. Zhou Songying is a 40 year-old interpreter-clerk in the Kashgar Grain Administration Bureau. Zhou's parents were of the first generation of communist cadres who followed the Peoples Liberation Army into Kashgar in 1950. Those were wild days, with military skirmishes against local anti-Communists, against Turkic groups holding out for independence, and against remnants of the Nationalist army who took to the mountains rather than surrender to the PLA. The KMT general eventually was shot, the cadres say, after trying to escape to India across the Karakorum pass.

Zhou's parents were sent to Kashgar to push forward the land reform movement. Their job was to supervise the dispossession and trials of local landlords, and to supervise the redistribution and collectivisation of land. Uighur cadres at the time were almost non-existent.

Zia'uddin, a Uighur, is nominally the Director of the Grain Bureau. At a briefing session in the Bureau, over the usual enamel mugs of Chinese jasmine tea, he sat mute and ignored in the second row of chairs, while all questions were fielded by a Han `deputy director' who made no pretence of deferring to him.

I later had a chance to talk to Zia'uddin, and he told me how before `Liberation' there had been no Party organisation whatsoever in Xinjiang. A hasty public recruitment programme in 1951 enrolled him, a struggling and idealistic small-farmer in Urumchi, despatched as part of the Land Reform Team to Kashgar, after a mere ten days indoctrination in communist theory and practice. The duties of `minority cadres', then as now, were based more on obedience and docility than on grasp of the finer points of Marxism. All the Uighur cadres, in the beginning, were from Urumchi, where they had long been accustomed to living with a substantial number of Han in positions of power. In Kashgar, however, the mullahs and the landlords had held far greater power than in Urumchi, and the tasks of carrying out Party policy were both arduous and dangerous.

Zia'uddin was not expected to take much responsibility then, he told me, and I venture that he is not expected to do much today, either, other than sit quietly at meetings and on committees, to boost the `minority' quota.

Zhou Songying's parents, however, were both Party members. They kept their young daughter with them for a few years in the early fifties. This was unusual. Most Han parents of that generation in Xinjiang left their children behind with relatives in the inland, not wanting them exposed to the risk and the hardships of the borderlands. But once Songying was old enough for secondary school, she was packed off back east, to make sure she received a solid Han education. In the mean time, however, she had become fluent in Uighur, though neither of her parents had learned much.

When she graduated from her inland school, Songying was assigned back to work in the Kashgar Grain Bureau - not just because her parents were there (family convenience is seldom decisive in job assignments) but because she had the rare gift of a natural grasp of the Uighur language, learned in childhood. The Grain Bureau is a vital office in China's economic system, controlling the exchange of the staple commodity. It was even more so in the early sixties, when Beijing still expected the state role in commerce to be comprehensive. Zhou Songying was made first a junior clerk, then, as her proficiency in Uighur gained recognition, she became a full-time interpreter.

The Grain Bureau in Kashgar is still held up to be a model of racial harmony between Uighur and Han. As in all key units, the power is held by Han, but there are some 300 Uighurs on the staff, along with the 120 Han. Almost all the Uighurs speak at least basic Chinese (with their distinctive north-western accents), but very few of the Han, even after more than thirty years of administration, speak more than a few words of Uighur. The bureau cannot operate without two full-time interpreters just to handle the communications between the Han and Uighurs on its staff. Zhou Songying is one of these.

Zhou is one of the few Han in Kashgar who feels at home there. Her interpreting often involves cross-cultural diplomacy, not language alone. The Kashgar Uighurs take their Islam quite seriously, and become very angry if their religious principles are offended. Chinese who wish to keep pigs (as all who can, do) must keep the offensive creatures out of sight, and smell, of their neighbours. The Chinese habit of public spitting, especially in the early mornings, must be curbed. Spitting in front of a Muslim who has washed himself for the Mosque is highly offensive, as are various other common and casual customs of the Han. Pork carried home from the butcher must be carefully wrapped - not like the casual inland custom of carrying your meat home unwrapped, dangling on a piece of string.

Songying seemed genuinely to enjoy her colonial life, though it had not provided her with a lifestyle any more luxurious than she might have achieved in the inland. Her home was the same cement cuboid any urban clerical worker might expect, though the relative spaciousness of the region allowed for the addition of a small courtyard. Her grasp of the language enabled her to enjoy the Uighur movies - a vigorously sentimental genre produced in the Tien Shan studios at Urumchi - and she professed not to be afraid to sit alone in a darkened cinema, the only Han present. Zhou Songying is exceptional in that regard, and she could not risk sitting alone in Urumchi.

But her local identification goes only so far. When it came to marriage, she was quite clear. Her parents would not, for a moment, have considered allowing her to marry anyone but a Han. Once she came of marriageable age, they kept their eyes peeled for a suitable candidate among the newly-arrived technicians and junior cadres assigned each year to the district. Eventually, their choice fell upon a young mechanic, and the match was made.

The Grain Bureau has many times won the annual local award for Unity of the Nationalities, but its leaders told me that, in its thirty years of existence, there had not been a single mixed marriage between Han and Uighur.

Zhou Songying did not think to comment on her marriage relationship, other than that her husband was `very suitable'. None the less, almost immediately they began living together, the new groom committed one of those cultural faux-pas Zhou had spent her life sorting out. After washing his clothes one day, he tipped the dirty water, Chinese-style, out the window - directly in the path of a group of newly bathed Uighur men on their way to worship at the mosque. The compound was invaded by an angry mob demanding apologies, which the green-horn was easily persuaded to give.

Uighurs in Kashgar live as Uighurs. They adopt, as they have always adopted, those elements of Chinese culture and material providence that suit them, or are forced on them, but they disdain those which are neither compulsory nor appealing.

Kashgar, like every sizeable settlement in China, had been mobilised to build a Peoples Square during the long years of Maoism. Since the old city is built on hilly ground, the square was built, mercifully, on the outskirts. Orchards on one side of the main road to the airport had been flattened and gravelled over. The usual concrete reviewing-stand and gargantuan concrete statue of Chairman Mao looked out across this expanse, from the other side of the road.

These days, it is little used, but as I passed through on one occasion the square was filled with a massed parade of the Young Pioneers. Squads of schoolchildren, marshalled by their teachers, marched up and down to the sound of drum and bugle bands. Chosen representatives uttered shrill dedications to the cause of serving the Party and building the nation.. in that order. In almost all cases, Uighur and Han children were in separate troops. Being 1983, the cult of Mao had almost vanished, and the gross statue across the busy road seemed irrelevant, now, to the proceedings, isolated from the children by the busy flow of highway commerce, both public and private. Most of the children were too young to have many clear memories of the Cultural Revolution and the fierce communal fighting the Red Guards had provoked in Kashgar. The rally seemed no more militant than a Boy Scout jamboree.

It was International Children's Day, and the kindergarten children of Kashgar had been led into the Palace of Culture - an echoing, auditorium with a cavernous stage, in the unvarying utilitarian architecture of provincial cities across China. The kindergartens, too, are largely segregated according to the child's ethnic background. No Han would consider sending their child to a Uighur kindergarten. But some Uighur cadres, ambitious for their children's future in a Chinese world, send them to the Han pre-school. Only units close to the administration, in any case, have kindergartens at all.

The children's troupes performed in turn. According to the Chinese convention for such performances, bizarre to western eyes, the children are daubed in lurid pink rouge and eye makeup, and encouraged to sing with an exaggeratedly shrill voice and coy mannerisms. Conformity to this type brings the greatest applause, the most beaming congratulations from teachers and parents.

There was a notable difference in the children from the Uighur kindergartens. Their teacher had made them up in the Chinese style, but their singing and their gestures were their own.. expressions of an individuality and a cheek notably absent from the schooled routines of the little Han children. Song and dance are part of the adult Uighur culture, which children can learn with dignity.. not just childish, educative games.

There were roughly equal numbers of Uighur and Han children in the Palace of Culture that day. There were also rows and rows of beaming, nodding mothers in the auditorium, clapping the children through their routines. But more than nine out of ten of those mothers was Han. For some reason, the Uighur mothers had chosen to stay away.

In many ways, the small Han community in Kashgar are better off than their far more numerous Han compatriots in places like Urumchi. This may be because their very lack of numbers in Kashgar keeps them wary of provoking those amongst whom they live, so that daily tensions, on the whole, are low. But the Han have such a well-established monopoly of power in Urumchi that many are blasé and arrogant in their attitude to the local peoples, and the communal antipathies are more bitterly entrenched.

There was a nation-wide frenzy of public construction just before the tenth anniversary of the Peoples Republic, in 1958. Beijing threw up an array of monolithic public buildings in record time, including the Great Hall of the People and the Beijing Railway Station. Provincial governments, as usual, sought to emulate with grandiose projects of their own in descending scale. At this time, Urumchi also got its Museum of History. A giant columned central entrance and stairway, intended to awe, and symmetrical exhibition halls on either side : I could almost have found my way blindfold for its conformity to the museums of its vintage.

Inside the doorway, two mature ladies sat at a small wooden table to collect the entrance fees. One was a brisk Han, with a rim of tightly permed curls around her tidy hairstyle. The other was a jolly Uighur in a headscarf. A symbol of the unity of nationalities, I thought. But when I approached them to enter the Museum, their division of labour became an even stronger symbol of the unity of nationalities. The Han woman collected the money and handed me the ticket, torn off a roll. She put the coins in a cashbox and made a note in her account book. The Uighur woman then took the spent ticket from me, and dropped it into a waste-bin. That was the limit of her responsibility. That image has stayed with me.

The museum itself, however, could not have been a clearer demonstration of Han chauvinism. Labelled a museum of the history of Xinjiang, it turned out to be a history of Han relations with Xinjiang, excluding almost all reference to any other element of the complex Central Asian culture. Hall after hall of artefacts supported what is not disputed: that Chinese trade and military influence have been significant in the region over more than two thousand years.

Missing, though, was any real acknowledgement of the Persian, Indian, Mongol and Turkic cultures which predominated in the region for almost all of its history, until the last two hundred years. A single alcove in the whole museum contained grudging references to the greatest of the region's indigenous historians and men of letters: Turkic scribes known throughout the Islamic world for their scholarship. And this was in a region which has yielded some of the world's richest archaeological finds.

On the outskirts of Urumchi, the traditional mudbrick courtyards of the Uighur people have been overtaken by the pressure of population. Beijing says the region must grow by immigration, but not much money is spent on improving the lives of the local people. There have been years of neglect, and the money is still not available. In the old days it would be four or five rooms per family, with their own courtyard, vines, and chickens, even within the city. Now families with more than one room are lucky. Courtyards are filled with `temporary' shacks. New brick buildings clamber up the crumbling hillsides, stacking people on top of each other. But there are no roads between the buildings, no plumbing inside them. People live in the concrete boxes, building their own brick coal-stoves, or cooking over kerosene burners. Rubbish accumulates around the feet of the buildings, and the soil is saturated with the urine of those who can't make the long walk to the nearest public latrines. Drinking and washing water is carried from the standpipe at the bottom of the hill. When it rains, the soil itself runs away, leaving deepening gullies where the construction workers had left cart-tracks down the hillsides. No postman is ever seen, but pairs of policemen, one Uighur, one Han, are quick to pay a call when anyone has an unfamiliar visitor.

Foreign visitors stay in a section of the Yenan Guesthouse, forty minutes bus-ride outside the city limits. Tourists stay two days, others longer - engineers from Mitsubishi giving courses in motorcycle maintenance, a French computer programmer processing data for oil prospectors in the Junggar basin, around Altai. It's comfortable, isolated, and guarded by a platoon of soldiers who live there, raising their own pigs, supposedly out of sight of the Muslim population.

Other sections of the Yenan Guesthouse accommodate privileged visitors from the inland. The oldest section is guarded by a two-metre brick wall topped by five strands of electrified wire, and with sentry-posts, now neglected, every few yards. The wall has fallen into decay, but the gates are still locked. On an evening stroll, I hear sounds from inside the compound, walk up to the gate and peer through a crack. A stream of irrigation water runs noisily through a wood of poplars, passing under the garden wall. A large, cement-built villa is visible, introduced by a circular sweep of driveway, strewn with twigs and leaves. A silver-haired old Chinese gentleman in a grey suit leans on a walking stick, watching a young man and a young woman play shuttlecock across a bed of white lilies where the driveway circles in front of the villa. Tranquillity reigns in that grove of poplars, willows, and sand-dates.. the tranquillity of a secure colonial outpost.

Not all the immigrants are privileged. Wang Guorong works as an interpreter in the External Relations Bureau of Urumchi, and is often given the task of shepherding critical foreign reporters. It's an unenviable role, being the meat in a sandwich, which he fulfils with more grace than most.

Wang was born in Xinjiang, of inland parents, but in the Han custom he still introduces himself as a native of Henan. He is a tall, thin man in his early thirties, with large ears, close-cropped hair, and the usual tough blue-cloth trousers clamped high on his thin waist by a substantial leather belt which passing almost one and a half times around his body. I never got to the bottom of this particular sartorial custom of young Chinese - wearing extra-long leather belts. Perhaps it was simple economy: a leather belt as an investment early in life, expected to last forever, with prudent room for middle-aged expansion.

It was inevitable that Wang Guorong's work assignment would keep him in Xinjiang: the provincial Party boss, Wang En Mao, made clear on his return to the province in 1981 that his brief, from the Central Committee of the Party, was to `make Xinjiang a strong bulwark against hegemonism and defend the national borderlands.' At a meeting of all local government officers and military commanders, he chided those who longed to return to their inland homes:

`Han cadres must show willingness for long term settlement', he told them.

`I know all the peoples love socialism, love China, love the Party, and want national unity'.

From henceforth, immigration is to be speeded up, and no Han who have settled in Xinjiang shall be allowed to transfer back inland.

Wang Guorong's wife is also a second-generation settler in the region, born of fifties migrants. She is a school teacher. Though both very well placed, for a young couple, they lived, when I was there, in a single room with no central heating, relying on a smoky coal stove to keep themselves and their small child warm through the long sub-zero winters. Simply getting food was a continual problem. The Muslim peoples customarily ate a lot of meat, so, in the interests of racial harmony, there was a local regulation giving Muslims priority in the meat rationing system. Han had only a small meat-ration, plus what they could buy on the free market at three times the state market price. Wang himself had the advantage that his work often required him to eat with foreigners, thus supplementing his own meat intake.. but the advantage was not shared by his wife, or indeed by the majority of the young Han middle-class in Urumchi.

I asked Wang Guorong why he didn't keep his own chickens, as many of the local people seemed to do, feeding them on scraps?

Wang looked at me with that smile of embarrassment Chinese cadres use when complaining about their own situation.

`How could I ever buy a chicken?', he responded with some feeling. `And if I had one, how could I afford to feed it? Since the free markets re-opened, the small farmers on the edges of town are becoming very rich, by selling their produce and paying little tax, while we government workers on fixed salaries still have almost nothing to eat.'

In Wang's case, I knew this was not a propaganda performance for my benefit. I had met him several times over a period of years, and he was one of the best examples of a Han who showed some feeling and respect for the non-Han character of Xinjiang, and for the issues involved in colonising it. Not that he ever questioned the basic two-point creed for the immigrants : "Xinjiang has always been part of China", and "Only Socialism can save China". It was simply that he recognised the integrity of the culture which had existed there before large-scale Han immigration began, and the wrong done to those Turkic peoples (like the Turfan tour guide Munever) who had been taught, by less sensitive Han colonisers, to feel shame for the inheritance of their own blood, their own history.

In the cool of Kashgar's evening, the dancers swoop and strut on the concrete threshing-floor, poplars behind them. Musicians sit behind them on folding chairs, their instruments and their music seeming almost more Celtic than Chinese. They play flutes, hand-drums, and the plangent, long-necked saz, a stretched member of the mandolin family. Male and female dancers alike move with subtlety and with vigour, exchanging the ritual banter of humorous courtship routines.

A stumpy young man with red cheeks steps forward as the music pauses. He wears a western-style suit, to which the idiosyncrasies of a local tailor have contributed an irremediable lumpiness. At least one extra pair of trousers is evidently being worn beneath this stage suit's tight but shapeless bags. The young man opens his mouth and casts on the night air a rich, controlled baritone, like a concert trombone, lifting the music again in a magical transcendence of his costume. His song commemorates old Kashgaria's renowned scholar, Mahmut Kashgari, compiler of Central Asia's greatest encyclopaedia, famous to the Mediterranean, but ignored in Beijing. In lyrics cleared by the commissars, the song ends with Mahmut praised as a "Builder of National Unity".

A comic duo step forward, one dressed as a smart young Chinese cadre, the other as a caricature of an old Uighur. Their duet ridicules the suspicion of the old Uighur toward the benefits offered him by Chinese medicine. It is sung in thickly accented Chinese. Art is propaganda, propaganda is art.

In the histories of China, Russia, and the USA, the Frontier has always loomed large. At the Frontier, and beyond it, the world was wild, promising, threatening, and meet to be tamed. Xinjiang has always been China's Wild West. With the pressure of population upon the Chinese heartlands, the cry is `Go West, young man, and Open the Wilderness.'

Until the fifties, Xinjiang had seen only three types of Han settlers: traders, officials, and soldiers. Successive dynasties had all practised the permanent settlement of Han garrisons on their border territories.. it was the only practical solution to supply problems, and, when it worked, it made the garrisons loyal to their territory. (Frequently too loyal, in fact, as time and time again weak emperors were overthrown by generals who had built up their own power-bases on the frontier, rather as happened in the Roman Empire.)

If garrisons survived, they would settle, eventually either inter-marrying with locals, or bringing their own women from the inland. This process of settlement accounted for much of the expansion of Han territory over more than a thousand years.

Two formidable barriers - the Gobi Desert and Islam -prevented this occurring in Xinjiang until now. Inter-marriage is still extremely rare. But transmigration is proceeding apace. It began as a military operation, had a phase of attempted civilianisation, and has now been re-instituted as a military project. Defence and development are seen as parts of the same enterprise - Opening the Wilderness - and the instrument for this is called the Production and Construction Corps.

Two and a half million soldier-settlers and dependants had settled in Xinjiang between 1954 and 1982. With massive state subsidies, they had ploughed and irrigated a million hectares of crops on what had been marginal grazing lands before their arrival, and protected it from encroaching sands with hundreds of miles of windbreaks. In 1983, an official survey claimed there was a further twenty-four million hectares of land in Xinjiang suitable for the Production and Construction Corps to colonise.

During the sixties, their military role diminished. Children were born and grew up with the poplar windbreaks. As they responded to Beijing's demands for impressive production statistics, the military colonies looked more and more like the thousands of State Farms throughout China. The difference between a State Farm and a Commune is that the State Farm workers are salaried, and deliver all product directly to the state, whereas the Communes and other production units have a `commercial' relationship to the state. They trade their products for materials and money, and pay their workers according to shares of the profits - so runs the theory. Until recently, it made no difference to a State Farm worker whether the farm was financially viable or not. State Farms were built because policy said they should be. Many, naturally, were sink-holes of public money.

The road to Farm 148 is a hard one, nine rough hours' travel north-west of Urumchi, beyond Shihezi (`Stony Creek'). The area is a sensitive one, traditional territory of Kazakh herdsmen, now heavily colonised by Han. Along the way, you pass giant radio-jamming antennae, intended to block continuous propaganda broadcasting from the Soviet Union in the Turkic languages of the non-Han.

It's an unnecessarily hard road, too, because its engineers, for some unknown reason, ignore principles accepted elsewhere for at least a hundred years. For mile after mile, teams of labourers are laying a roadbed of round, unbroken river stones and pebbles, covered only with soft soil. Wherever there is water or rain, the round stones shift and the roadbed collapses - but the works continue. Driving over this travesty of construction was jarring to the mind as well as to the bones, as one realised that those miles of road, sooner rather than later, would have to be laid again, almost from scratch.

I discussed this with the driver, Mr Liu, a wry middle-aged Han with strong north-western accent, perhaps the equivalent, in English terms, of a Yorkshireman. He accepted that I was most likely quite right about this, but his reply testified to the values absorbed from a lifetime of negotiating through a completely state-owned economy.

`In the West, you're good at repairing roads', he conceded, `but in China, we're good at repairing vehicles.'

He smiled thoughtfully to himself about this, as he drove the car with some force into another swathe of football-sized boulders arranged across our path.

Farm 148 itself could have been almost anywhere in China, apart from a certain spaciousness lacking in the inland. Three thousand Han live on Farm 148, growing cotton for the state mills in Shihezi and for export. There are 170 other farms like it in Xinjiang alone, so the scale of the development can be understood. The layout of the farm headquarters, the style of the briefings, all were indistinguishable from the inland. Two and a half thousand miles from Beijing, its residents live in considerable isolation - but then the great majority of China's 800 million peasants do live far from any major town. From Farm 148, the workers could catch, if they were lucky, a daily bus over that atrocious road to Shihezi. Most, in fact, make that bone-breaking six-hour ride, when they need to, on the back of an unsprung goods trailer, dragged by one of the farm's diesel tractors.

There was a difference, though. Most of the officials on the farm held positions roughly equivalent in rank to the military ranks they had held when Farm 148 was set up by the Construction and Production Corps. These included one Team Leader Wang, a colourful character who had been one of those Nationalist officers who held out in the mountains against the communist advance. He had eventually surrendered and after many years of `re-education' was now a Model Team Leader. Since mid-1982, Beijing had decreed that all those farms like 148 which were military in origin would resume their military status. All were to be re-issued with appropriate equipment, and the winter months were to be spent, for the men, in military exercises and training. Farm leaders would be addressed, once more, by their military ranks.

This move served to re-emphasise the sad position of the remains of that failed transmigration scheme, that of the Educated Youth, dealt with elsewhere in this book. It worked out that some of the most urbanised youth, from the great metropoli of the eastern coast, were the ones sent to most desolate regions of Xinjiang. A minority - the better endowed, the most astute, and the fortunate - found a welcome and a productive role to play in `Opening the Wilderness' as teachers, clerks and so on. The majority lapsed into an embittered servitude which proved a seed-bed for crime, rebellion, and alienation. Cut off from the group welfare of the communities they had been foisted upon, many faced near-starvation. The rate of failure was so high that when, in 1981, the Shanghai Municipal Manpower bureau held a ceremony to congratulate those Shanghai youths who had settled successfully in Xinjiang, only one hundred and six names could be found, from the many thousands who had been sent over more than a decade. Though no more were being sent out by that time, it was still an extremely difficult matter for an exiled youth to gain a transfer back home.

My most pathetic exposure to the problem was on the road to Farm 148. At a point where that appalling road emerged briefly above the marshy terrain it had been crossing for many kilo-metres, we passed a mud-brick hovel, marooned in the marsh, a twist of grey smoke dribbling from its makeshift chimney. Three bedraggled young men sat against the wall of the hut, two picks and a shovel lay beside them. No other tools or equipment were to be seen. Daubed across the front of the hut in white paint were the words `Educated Youth Construction Team' - but I found it hard to imagine anything less constructive than the heart-breaking stone-breaking they would face until, somehow, they found a way out of it.

In Shihezi, at the junction of two broad, straight avenues, I stand with a small group of foreign colleagues and a crowd of Han officials, while a Farm Deputy-Director uses a pointing-stick to explain a large map on a hoarding erected there. It tells of the plans for ever-increasing crop production and expanding irrigation, with neat accommodation barracks for the workers already painted in. Bar-graphs beside the map claim spectacular success. In the fields behind the hoarding, teams of Han workers, mainly women, toil through the cotton-fields, handpicking the ripe bolls and emptying their tally-bags onto a growing mountain of snowy fibre. There's an unhurried tap-tapping on the road behind me, and I turn to see an old bearded Uighur in an embroidered skull-cap draw up, sitting cross-legged on his flat donkey-cart. He takes little interest in the briefing - probably he does not understand Chinese. When he notices my foreign face regarding him, he breaks into a toothless smile, and, looking around, raises his eyes in a mute dismissal of the grand schemes surrounding him. Then he flicks the donkey's rump with a switch and they trot off into the heat, hooves and wheels raising small puffs from the road, which lightly dust the old man and his personal cargo of five watermelons.

It happened that my last departure from Xinjiang was by train. There had been a recent domestic plane hijack to South Korea, and in the resulting severe clampdown on internal air travel, flights were frequently cancelled at short notice. The train travel, however, was no cause for complaint: such journeys are prized by curious, Chinese-speaking foreigners, as an opportunity to see otherwise inaccessible corners of China in reasonable comfort, and to fraternise over an extended period with Chinese one would normally never meet.

The fellow-traveller in my compartment was topping up his jasmine tea from the regulation railways vacuum flask as we hauled through the grimy foothills out of Urumchi. He was a Han military officer whom I took, on age grounds, to be a colonel. No rank badges were worn, and etiquette forbade me asking him, but the railway staff soon confirmed my guess, by addressing him respectfully as such.

My colonel seemed a little disconcerted to be sharing his compartment with a foreigner. It was very likely the first time he had ever been alone with one, and the PLA has extraordinarily cautious regulations forbidding contact with foreigners. I made a few innocent remarks about the weather, to let him know that I was able and willing to converse, then sat back to let him set his own pace for our conversation. For some time this consisted of the colonel making elaborately weighty movements of his limbs, gazing out the window at the stony wastes we were by now entering, sighing heavily, and saying "Ah, Gobi Desert" in a tone of deep fatalism.

The colonel's opening conversational gambit with me was the standard Chinese enquiry as to my marital status, followed by warm congratulations on hearing that I was the father of a young son. Later, he was hugely amused when, in answer to his query, I told him roughly what my salary was (about twenty times his own), then further astounded as I outlined the costs of living that I would face on my return to Australia. `Why', he asked me, `if foreigners are so rich, do they all wear those faded old labour-cloth trousers, instead of high-class wool or nylon.'

My reply that many considered jeans to be both comfortable and good-looking did not fully convince him, sitting in his extremely roomy green drab uniform. He was not satisfied until I suggested that the extreme hairiness of foreigners' legs made it uncomfortable for them to wear the synthetics favoured in China. It was a long time since my colonel had travelled by train. Military officers seldom have trouble getting flights on the internal airline. As it was, I had to show him, myself, how to control the fan, lights, and public address system in the compartment. He had been in Xinjiang for twenty years, and had raised a family of four children there.

I asked him how they were placed for jobs, knowing the difficulties that faced many young Uighurs in finding work.

`No trouble at all', he said proudly. `I found them all good jobs within six months of leaving school'.

A little later we were joined by a man named Zhang who wanted to practice his English on me. He had been sent to Xinjiang as an Educated Youth, from the sophisticated industrial city of Wuxi, near Shanghai. His posting was at Altai.. a Kazakh town in the north, now centre of an important and growing oil field. Like an extraordinary number of these exiled Chinese, Zhang had taught himself a quite passable level of English simply from the lessons broadcast on China's internal radio network, supplemented by short-wave sessions on the Voice of America and the BBC.

Zhang had married a girl from his home town who had been sent out in the same batch as himself. They accepted Altai, now, as their home, as much as a continental European can accept migration to the New World. They had a son, however, and were concerned that his barefoot and fancy-free upbringing in Altai should not exclude him from all chances of advancement in a highly competitive later life. When he was eight years old, they followed the common practice of sending the boy back to his grandparents home in Wuxi, there to become a proper Chinese and learn his ancestral dialect.

Within six months the boy was back in Altai. He had felt suffocated by the over-crowded city life of Wuxi, and had been jeered at by the city children for the north-western accent to his speech. Zhang had no regret that his son had rejected the inland, and, to him, Xinjiang would always be his home.

In 1982, Xinhua reported that 5,535 Han had volunteered to work in the Karamay oilfield, answering a `Help Wanted' advertisement placed, in some desperation, by the oilfield's management in the national Peoples Daily. These volunteers in search of a challenge were reported to include engineers, geologists, teachers, and doctors from major cities. But few of the Han settlers in Xinjiang are volunteers. Many resent their exile unrelentingly. Others make the best of it. And there are some who take to the land with love, and make it their own.

For twenty solid hours the train ran east across Gobi desert.. the endless expanse of rounded pebbles broken by the rarest of dry tussocks. Approaching the Gansu corridor to the inland this became saltbush country, then, over another twenty-four hours, sloped up and narrowed into wrinkled valleys, until we crossed the end of the Kun Lun ranges through a mountain snowscape.

Of eighty hours travel between Urumchi and Beijing, only the last twenty-four pass through country that is what the world thinks of as typically Chinese.. the densely populated, intensively cultivated flats and hill-slopes of the Yellow River and North China plains.