Nine years ago, I had a chance to ride along the northern rim of the Tarim basin, cut cross the Tianshan Mountains, and pass through the southern rim of the Turban basin in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
As the new century began, the region was enjoying an economic boom, with burgeoning border trade, bumper grain harvests, and steady improvement in the local people's standard of living. Urumqi was fast becoming the sophisticated metropolis it is today.
Across Xinjiang, per capita income in rural areas and disposable income of the urban residents more than doubled between 2000 and 2008. Over the years, more refrigerators and color TV sets have entered local people's homes. The number of private automobiles from mini buses, trucks to sedan cars has more than doubled since 2000 to surpass 900,000 early this year.
On Sunday, however, mobsters attempted to ruin it all, stoning and beating pedestrians and bus passengers, torching cars and buses, and ransacking shops and other buildings.
I hope their attempt to fan ethnic hatred fails. I do not believe their criminal behavior can erase the long history of ethnic mingling and shared development in Western China.
On the road nine years ago, my fellow tourists and I visited almost every major archaeological discovery in the region, most of them made since the founding of New China in 1949.
At one site after another, from the ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang to the great Kizil Grottoes, we were told of the rise and fall of tribes and tiny kingdoms that once inhabited the region along the Silk Road.
Researchers have worked for decades to piece together the history of the Western Region, as it was called during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220). They have collected a vast store of ancient documents, most of them written in Chinese but others in Kharosthi, Khotan, Tocharian, Chaghtay, Uygur, Arabic, Sanskrit, and ancient Tibetan.
From these ancient relics, it is obvious that the lives and cultures of people from multiple ethnic groups have been so intertwined for thousands of years that no single group can claim exclusive ownership of this region.
During our trip, I had many opportunities to dine and talk with local people, whether they were Uygur farmers, Kazak herders, Mongolian hunters, or Hui cooks. They told me about their lives and their goals. These conversations only increased my conviction that this part of China has always been multi-ethnic and must remain so.
Not all the people I met had easy lives. Nor were all of them happy with the changes in the region, such as the booming tourist business. A Tuwa Mongolian musician told me he didn't want to be used as a money machine, meaning that he would refuse to play if he didn't feel like it.
In Turpan, we visited the tombs of five legendary Arabian sages who are said to have reached there in search of a "heavenly message" before the birth of Islam.
In a nearby village, I met Mamati Rajep, who led us deep into the mountains to show us the caves where ancient Buddhists from across China and Central Asia painted murals and created statues during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Mamati Rajep, a Uygur, took his job as guardian of the Buddhist relics very seriously. He laughed when asked if the job conflicts with his beliefs. "I take all the murals and other relics in the grottoes as our own because our ancestors believed in Buddhism at one time," he told me. "Both Islam and Buddhism teach us to do good and to be useful people, so there is no conflict."
(China Daily 07/09/2009 page9)