City of Jade / City of Anger
Hotan is remote. It is one of those end of the world places beyond which begins one of the world’s largest deserts, the Taklamakan, an enormous area of sand dunes and barren rocks forming some of the most hostile terrain on earth. Boiling in summer, freezing in winter, towns like Hotan hang precariously to the desert’s outer ring, hemmed in by the looming Kunlun Mountains that rise up to the Tibetan Plateau. Over the centuries, many other once thriving oasis towns like Hotan have succumbed to the advances of the Taklamakan, and their half hidden remains lie buried in the sand, a poignant testimony to the harshness of the environment.
Hotan was once part of what was known as the Southern Silk Route, the route that branched off in Kashgar and veered to the South. The Northern route, the most popular, continued towards Turpan at the foot of the Tianshan mountains. This Southern route went through the legendary oasis towns of Yarkand and Kargilik before passing through Hotan and the even more remote Chargilik and then on into Qinghai province. During the heydays of the silk trade, this was the harshest route merchants could take. The unpredictable Takalamakan, a place so desolate that the rivers run until they evaporate in the blazing heat, is renowned for whipping up devastating and deadly sand storms, known as Kara-buram. Many trade caravans were completely lost, swallowed up in the tremendous storms that swept in from nowhere, burying their hapless victims in a matter of minutes. It is a route that still takes days, sometimes weeks, to complete even using modern vehicles.
As for Hotan today, silk, produced in small traditional factories, and jade still form the backbone of the economy along with agriculture. Tourism is in its infant stages. The massive Sunday market, far less touristy than its more famous counterpart in Kashgar, entices a few foreign travellers, but seldom more than can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Market, in pure Central Asian style, is a hive of frenetic trading from early morning until early afternoon. The sounds of the Turkic Uighur language dominate in the shouts of traders and buyers alike. You’ll only hear Mandarin in the areas where Hotan’s famous jade is sold. For it is jade, and not the colourful market, that attracts the well-heeled Han Chinese to this dusty backwater.
However, these days Hotan is not quite so remote or backward any more. At first glance the city looks like another typical Chinese boom town in the making: the cross- Taklamakan Highway to Urumqi has made Hotan much more accessible in recent years and has brought with it a huge influx of Han Chinese settlers, many encouraged by the Government. Nearly all the Chinese I spoke to came from the over- populated province of Sichuan, or from the poorest areas of Anhui. New buildings are going up everywhere, Chinese style hotels, restaurants and banks are beginning to dominate the centre of town, squeezing out and dwarfing the traditional Uighur old town, which is rapidly falling victim to the wrecking ball.
In fact, what lies underneath all this supposed prosperity and modernity is nothing less than a classic example of how the Chinese government is aiming to bring the outer reaches of its empire under control. Despite the boisterous carnival ambience of the market and the overall modernization drive, it is clear that ethnic tensions are simmering just beneath the surface in Hotan. By enticing immigrants from China’s over-populated and poorer areas, the Chinese government is seeking to reduce tensions in those areas, but far more importantly, to outnumber the local inhabitants who belong to, potentially troublesome, ethnic minorities. It is the same policy seen in Tibet and the Tibetan areas of Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu. In the case of Hotan, it is the Muslim Uighurs who are being reduced to a minority in their own land.
underlying inter-community relations when we witnessed a blazing row between a young Uighur university student and the Han Chinese manager of our hotel, who was incidentally trying to find a hire car and driver for us. The Uighur girl, who spoke excellent English, spat out a stream of vindictive comments at the Chinese manager, turned to us and said that the Chinese were taking everything from them and that we should avoid using or buying anything Chinese during our stay. This obviously included the services of a Han Chinese driver. I had already come across the same feelings in the bazaars of Kashgar and Kargilik, where traders had pounded their chests and raised their fists in a salute to their Muslim brothers in Turkey, after I had mentioned that I had been there.
This year with all eyes on the troubles in Tibet, Xinjiang had all but vanished from the news. However, it seems that a few weeks after the rioting in Lhasa, on March 23, a group of several hundred people, mainly women, protested in the centre of Hotan against a supposed ban on the wearing of headscarves. Other rumours have suggested that the protests were for Xinjiang independence. Reports are sketchy on the number of arrests and nobody seems to be sure as to what actually happened. But these events certainly underpin the argument that all is not well between the Uighurs of Hotan and the recent Han settlers.
For more on the riots in Hotan go to:
For More on Travelling in Xinjiang go to: