Xīnjiāng means ‘New Frontier’ and the province’s far-flung geography has placed it in the bull’s eye of competing powers for centuries. Fiercely independent, the people of the region have never really been independent. Today, Xīnjiāng ‘belongs’ to China, having been inextricably tethered to the Middle Kingdom for centuries in an endless push-pull relationship, one which China today maintains in strict form.
Xīnjiāng is like a whole other country enclosed within China’s borders. Here the language is not just a different dialect, it’s a completely different linguistic family; and it’s no longer about whether you dip your dumplings in soy sauce or vinegar, it’s how you want your mutton cooked.
What lies within such desolate lands that motivates faraway Beǐjīng? A thumbnail sketch: it’s larger than Alaska (one-sixth of China’s territory); hyper-rich with Silk Road history; populated by a mixed salad of nearly 50 ethnic minorities; geopolitically crucial, as it borders eight nations; and encompasses a geographical palette of shimmering desert aquarelles, taiga pastureland dotted with flocks of sheep and grand mountain ranges. Oh, and it sits atop 30% of China’s oil reserves.
It’s also woefully underappreciated by most of the tourists hopping off planes in the friendly invasion that is the modern Grand Tour of China. But this is quickly changing, as China ramps up the region’s infrastructure and tourism PR. The ultimate goal, far down the line, for Běijīng, is to reestablish ‘caravans’ of travellers along the old Silk Road.