The Xinjiang is a China Autonomous Region, in which the original population is Muslim. It was the territory for the Great Game, between UK and Russia for the control of Central Asia, on the second half of XIX Century, while the region – nominally Chinese or independent – was ruled by different warlords.
The Xinjiang was independent for two short periods in the XX century, under the name of “East Turkestan”. Only since 1950 China straightened his hold, and took over the control of the region, sending waves of Han settlers.
When Peter Fleming travelled there, in 1936, situation was not under control, and this is what he wrote:
“You never know what to expect at a banquet in Kashgar and each of our official hosts had prudently brought his own bodyguard. Turkish and Chinese soldiers lounged everywhere; automatic rifles and executioner’s swords were much in evidence, and the Mauser pistols of the waiters knocked ominously against the back of your chair as they knelt over you with the dishes.”
So, in historical terms, the Xinjiang is not yet really a Chinese region, but more an occupied area. Han Chinese are either newly arrived, or, eventually, are second generation only, with parents which were settlers. They attain higher rankings in the Administration, the Police and the Army than Uyghurs.
Fifty years are not enough to calm down political tensions, and get an homogeneous society. Uyghurs felt Chinese Han as invaders of their land, and Chinese consider the Xinjiang, and all its riches, as Chinese territory. Xinjiang subsoil is rich in minerals, and petrol. China does not want to have a new Tibet in the Xinjiang, with Muslims instead of Tibetans. Moreover, Uyghurs may receive help of other Muslim countries in case of uprising.
This is the position of Xinjiang in the map. It is a region with borders with Muslim countries in the West, and with Tibet in the South, and far away (4.000 Km) from the capital of China.
Going back to the trip, in all Xinjiang (probably a little less in Kashgar) Chinese Police and Army are everywhere, and the controls are strict for residents (facial identification, scanners, control of photos in the phones, police control and patrols everywhere). Control for foreigners, always a little suspect, were continous. We were often questioned, in Chinese, of course. My translator app had ready the scenario of answers
– we are tourists which follow the Silk Road
– we follow the South Branch because we love deserts
– we started x days ago in Kashgar, and we go east
– from there we go to the Qinghai
– we leave China from Xining, on June 6, these are my tickets
We needed to explain this several times a day. Often the questioning finish with a lot of smiles and some selfies, but the fact is that we were under constant scrutiny.
In any street in towns of Xinjiang you may see at whatever hour, night or day, the red and blue lights of some Police post and/or Police car (there are Police posts on the streets every 300 to 500 meters, more or less), or eventually, Army posts. Although they are labeled as “Police”, nor their weapons, nor their attitude, nor their (armoured) cars where Police like.
This was a constant view (photo credited to the Internet, of course)
Apparently Police do not had a centralised database (which I really it is difficult to believe), so we needed to answer to the same questions again and again which was not big deal, as we were saying the truth. The problem arose when the Policeman that questioned us was not willing to take the decision, and he needed to talk to someone with his phone. Sometimes he sent a “face mug” with us holding our passport open to who knows who.
Yecheng police was not happy to see us there. No foreigners, no international witnesses :). The Xinjiang is not under a declared “State of Emergency”, it is worse than that, because it is a region where the Police makes the Law.
And Yecheng is one of the focus of territorial tension. In 2013 clashes between Police and local people left 5 dead (although some news say that the number of victims was nearer 100.). Police is present everywhere, conspicuously present, I should say.