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Looking For China's Elusive Kyrgyz

A Kyrgyz Village In China's Mountains
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RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Janyl Chytyrbaeva visited the Kizilsu-Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture in western China, where a small ethnic Kyrgyz minority preserves a strong cultural identity.

KASHGAR, China -- Visiting the neighbors isn't easy when you live in Kyrgyzstan and they live in China's Xinjiang Province.

But as a native of a village not far from the Kyrgyz-Chinese border who grew up hearing how my grandfather's generation often visited back and forth, I wanted to see what was on the other side, too.

Particularly since nobody I knew could say exactly what I would find there.

I knew only that some 170,000 Kyrgyz lived in the Kizilsu-Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture abutting the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where they were mostly nomadic herders. Others lived in smaller autonomous villages and some in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang.

Yet what autonomy meant for these Kyrgyz was unclear. Especially since the majority of the population of the Kizilsu-Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture is not ethnically Kyrgyz but Uyghur. And overall in Xinjiang, the Kyrgyz are just a drop in the sea of the province's total population of 18 million people, which is made up mostly of Uyghurs, closely followed by Han Chinese, then Kazakhs, Chinese Muslims, and many smaller groups.

Still, there were things that we heard in Kyrgyzstan from occasional travelers that suggested China's Kyrgyz population had strongly preserved its identity, despite being cut off from the rest of the Kyrgyz lands for more than 100 years.

That cut-off came in the second half of the 19th century, when the Russian and Chinese empires agreed on the border as it still exists today. For decades, traveling back and forth remained easy, but in the early 1960s, when Soviet and Chinese relations worsened dramatically, the border was firmly closed. Only in recent decades, and particularly with Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991, has travel become easier, though the border is still heavily guarded by China.

The Kyrgyz in China, some people said, had kept to the traditional Kyrgyz way of life more closely than we had. But some things would be different. The conical felt hats the men wear -- a symbol of the Kyrgyz nation -- would be smaller and rounder than ours. And they would have their own dialect, which could be difficult for visitors to understand.

On The Road To Kizilsu-Kirghiz

That was what I heard but the only way to know was to go. Individual Kyrgyz can visit China, but someone like me, a professional journalist, must say in advance where she will be each day. I registered instead with a tour company that takes French tourists to the ancient Silk Road cities of Xinjiang. It was a strange, roundabout way to visit my neighbors across the border, but I hoped I would be able to break away enough to pursue my personal interests as well.

Mao Zedong welcomes visitors to Kashgar.

At the Torugart Pass, 3,752 meters high in the mountains between Kyrgyzstan and China, we were met by Nikola, our Chinese guide from the tour agency. Despite his French-sounding name he was in fact a Dungan, or ethnically Chinese Muslim. He was to accompany us as we traveled down to Kashgar and later visited the Kizilsu-Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture.

Much of the way down the mountain road from the border to Kashgar was through the Kyrgyz autonomous region but this part is also a military zone, with no stopping or picture-taking allowed. That already began to give me an uneasy feeling that Xinjiang might be more full of restrictions than I wished and -- sure enough -- confirmation of that was waiting in my Kashgar hotel.

As soon as I entered the lobby a security officer got up from one of the sofas and came straight toward me. He already knew my name and as he greeted me he said he knew when I would arrive because "they phoned us from the border to say you crossed."

That surprised me since I am not famous and, after all, I was just one person in a group of tourists. But the officer did not see things so simply. He knew from my visa application that I worked as a journalist with Radio Azattyk, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and that meant he had a special message for me. "No journalism here," he said in a friendly but no-nonsense way.

As an ethnic Uyghur, he spoke his language. I replied in Kyrgyz, and we understood each other well enough. Suddenly, I had an eerily familiar feeling. This is how I used to feel growing up in the Soviet Union, when foreign visitors arrived in groups and knew they should not speak with us and we knew we should not speak with them. Was this how the Kyrgyz I had come to visit still lived?

Looking For Kyrgyz

Forewarned or not, I was determined to meet the local Kyrgyz. So over the next days, I was happy to visit Kashgar's central bazaar. It was a place where I thought the nomads living in the autonomous area would certainly come to sell their sheep. But while every stall keeper I asked replied, "Yes, the Kyrgyz herders come here," no one seemed to know just where they were. "That way," people suggested. "No, that way."

Lake Kara-kul

Finally I succeeded in finding two middle-aged Kyrgyz men. But our conversation was limited. They had lived so long in Kashgar, they said, they had forgotten their own language. Now they spoke broken Kyrgyz and fluent Uyghur.

Still, there were Kyrgyz hats in the bazaar, where some Uyghur men were selling them to tourists. The hats really were smaller and rounder than the ones men wear in Kyrgyzstan. But there were no Kyrgyz around to ask why.

Then, finally, my chance came to leave Kashgar and travel with the tour group to a picturesque lake that just happened to be within the mountainous Kizilsu-Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture, southwest of Kashgar. The spot where we would spend two nights was the beautiful lake Kara-kul -- in Kyrgyz "black lake" -- overlooked by two mountain peaks over 7,000 meters high and located along the famous Karakoram highway to Pakistan. Nearby was a Kyrgyz village whose inhabitants worked in the scattering of souvenir stores and a cafe beside the water.

As soon as I entered the cafe, I struck up a conversation with two young waitresses. When I told them I was from Kyrgyzstan, they were delighted. We had different accents, but nothing that complicated understanding.

"Do you know any traditional Kyrgyz songs?" I asked as we chatted. Surprisingly, they didn't. So I offered to teach them some my mother taught me and they happily wrote down the words in Arabic script, the script that all Turkic-language speakers in Xinjiang still use. Then, delighted to have made new friends, I went off to tour the lake.

Too Many Questions

But what a surprise when I came back to the cafe no more than an hour later. Suddenly, I was amazed to see both my new friends pointedly ignoring me.

What could have happened in the meantime? Had someone ordered them not to speak with me further? As I looked around, I realized I was surrounded by unpleasant possibilities. The cafe was owned by a Han Chinese -- perhaps he had warned them. Or perhaps it was my guide, who constantly came and went from my side? This did feel familiar: being watched and being watchful.

Kyrgyz in China seem to cover their faces more.

Next, I approached some of the young Kyrgyz men shepherding their flocks around the lakeside. They at least seemed carefree, happy to show off their motorbikes when I asked them if these were their "iron horses." Their bikes had mobile-phone chargers powered by generators, something I had never seen before.

Then a young man came riding by on a real horse -- what in Kyrgyz we call the "wings of a man." I eagerly went to speak to him. After exchanging some pleasantries, I wanted to know more about his village, which was deep in the autonomous area. Did the village have a doctor? Was there a teacher? Was the teaching in the Kyrgyz language?

His answers became more and more monosyllabic. "Yes, yes" he replied to everything, until I began to realize that was all I would be entrusted with. I was a stranger and an inquisitive one. And while that is fine among Kyrgyz usually, it did not seem to be a comfortable combination here.

A Kyrgyz and his "wings of man"

A Hard Life

When I returned to Kashgar, I was full of mixed impressions. On the positive side, the Chinese had clearly brought this remote mountainous area excellent roads, mobile-phone service, and even the Internet, although access to Facebook and similar social networks was banned.

But progress also had its costs for traditional life. If the local Kyrgyz had motorbikes and roads, I wondered how -- without horses -- they could move their sheep and yaks up to higher-altitude grazing pastures where motorbikes can't go.

And, if life in the Kizilsu-Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture was good, I thought, the guarded behavior of the people there did not confirm it. Nor did their appearance. Almost everyone I met seemed thinner than on the other side of the border. Striking, too, was how both women and men used shawls to protect their faces from the sun, because sun lotions -- which people commonly use at home -- were apparently unavailable.

No, they appeared to have a harder life than in Kyrgyzstan and the faces of the elderly showed it. One man of about 60 whom I met could easily have passed for a person 20 years older.

Building The 'China Man'

With no possibility of wandering around the autonomous area alone, I continued with the tour as it went on by train to Turfan, a 24-hour journey along the northern edge of the vast Talklamakan Desert at the base of the soaring Tien Shan, or Celestial Mountains. In those 24 hours, we dropped from an altitude of almost 4,000 meters at the Chinese-Kyrgyz border to a depth of 150 meters below sea level in the Turfan Depression.

Turfan, an oasis town, is a hub for visiting many of the ancient Buddhist ruins that draw tourists to this historic crossroads region of Central Asia. But while my fellow travelers marveled at the past, I also listened for signs of the present. And in my hotel room, that included an opportunity to listen to the only Turkic-language programs on Chinese television, including in Kyrgyz.

What I heard saw and heard in the programs was some local coverage but an enormous amount of material from mainland China that was simply dubbed into the local languages. Again I had the overwhelming sensation of being back in the Soviet Union. There Russian culture dominated the airwaves of all the republics as the Soviet Union sought to forge a common Soviet man from the empire's many ethnic identities. In China -- no less an empire -- the same process was still at work.

But probably that should not have come as a surprise to me. After all, it simply mirrored the very physical presence of mainland China on the streets of Xinjiang's cities. Since 1949, when the People's Republic of China was formally established, Beijing has encouraged massive immigration of Han Chinese into the Turkic-speaking province. In 1949, some 5 percent of the population was Han Chinese. Today, it is more than 40 percent and soon will be half.

Did the local Turkic population resent this demographic upheaval? It was not a question to ask people directly but the signs were never far below the surface. When I asked a taxi driver in Turfan if he was happy with life in the city, his answer was a simple one. "What can we do," he said with resignation, "this is our life."

'No Journalism Here'

My final goal was to travel from Turfan to Urumqi, where the province's cultural elite lives. So, after making a couple of phone calls to a contact who promised to introduce me to Kyrgyz writers, artists, and other intellectuals there, I hired a taxi to make the two-hour trip.

Kyrgyz burial mounds

However, once again I was due to be disappointed. As soon as I arrived and met my contact in a restaurant, it became clear that his enthusiasm for helping had vanished in the meantime.

As I asked when I could meet so-and-so, and so-and-so, names we had agreed upon previously, his answers became all one and the same. That person was suddenly called out of town on business. That other person -- a famous Kyrgyz epic-story teller -- was unexpectedly now in Kashgar to help with making a documentary about his life. And....

"How is it possible no one is here?" I finally blurted out in exasperation. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly, "This is our answer to a journalist from Radio Azattyk."

There was no need to say more. Journalists were not welcome in Xinjiang and whether one came officially or unofficially, the results would be the same. An officially invited journalist would have a minder who controlled the itinerary. An unofficial journalist might or might not have the minder but she or he wouldn't need one. Just being a journalist was enough to make people afraid to meet and speak with you.

On the way back to Turfan, and then on the 24-hour return trip to Kashgar and on across the mountains to home, I had plenty of time to think about my experiences.

I realized that I might not have been able to meet my neighbors across the border and ask them much about their life. But their own reticence to come forward and describe their life told me volumes.

Photos taken by Francois Bouet

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