Last month, I took a trip to Xinjiang — specifically, Urumqi and Kashgar. My trip was booked for 10 days, from January 27 to February 5. I have wanted to go for a number of years, just as a tourist. Of course, these days, when you think of Xinjiang, it’s not tourism that comes to mind; you think of mass surveillance, police everywhere, political indoctrination, de-extremification, religious oppression, and China’s version of a war on terrorism and separatism. I just wanted to see for myself.
It wasn’t easy to simply wander around with a camera. The military presence in Xinjiang can indeed be rather intimidating. Some parts are also clearly dressed up — there’s a feeling that you’re in a flimsy Disneyland, without the candy cotton and fuzzy mascots. Instead, you’re part of a gilded tour in the image of the Chinese dream. Foreigners I met along the way in Kashgar’s old city and other tourist destinations told me to be careful and watch out, as they had been asked to show their passports and asked about their stay at various police checkpoints.
Indeed, I had my own experience with the police, as I was harassed by plainclothes agents and forced to delete some pictures at my hotel, where authorities grilled me about my whereabouts and intentions and my line of work. But I left with these photos below, among others — to say nothing of a better sense of the scrutiny the people over there are living under, every day.
A police officer clears snow in Urumqi Bazaar, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.
An old lady and young children walk past a construction site for a new Uyghur community, with ads on the wall promoting civility, communal living, and nationalism.
A local shop owner slides his stock across the front of his shop in the Uyghur shopping district, decorated for Chinese New Year, with a plate portrait of President Xi Jinping and his wife.
A family crams into a booth to keep out of the cold.
The beautification project is in full swing in Tianshan District, Urumqi, as an old Uighur man walks past a shop window.
A farrier in the old city of Kashgar making horseshoes; this residential area is now a tourist attraction.
A child plays in the side streets of Kashgar.
An abandoned part of the old city.
A girl walks past propaganda graffiti that reads, “Resolutely remove forces of evil, strengthen sense of collective gain, happiness, and safety.”
A date-seller parks his bike next to a part of the old city in the process of being demolished.
A man makes bread outside his house with his kids.