Abduweli Ayup did not return in Kashgar since 2015, and his chances of making it anytime soon seem slim. The Chinese government canceled his passport, he said.
Sometimes he watches YouTube videos from his hometown. They don’t make him feel better. It’s compulsive, he says, “like eating bad food.”
“You know, you want to keep eating it, but afterwards your stomach feels upset,” he added. While watching a video while speaking with a BuzzFeed News reporter, Ayup pointed to a giant sculpture of a traditional stringed instrument at the city gates. “Look at this, it’s just for tourists,” he said.
The city is now full of these sorts of photogenic additions. There are giant teapots at the main crossroads near the city gate. Elsewhere, murals show maps of Xinjiang or bear slogans such as “Xinjiang Impressions” where visitors stop to take vacation photos. A new entrance has been added to the Ironwork Market, with a large sign featuring silhouettes of figures hammering iron. The anvil statue in the corner now comes with projection-mapped fire, as well as sparks and a hit metal soundtrack. Camel rides are also available.
In the videos he saw, Ayup also noticed images of people dancing while wearing traditional Uyghur clothing – costumes they might have worn over a century ago. Figures like these can be seen on Chinese state television and during the country’s annual parliamentary session. “No one would wear those clothes anymore unless it was for show,” Ayup said.
Tourism is now booming in Xinjiang. Last year, even as global numbers plummeted due to the pandemic, 190 million tourists visited the region, an increase of more than 20% on the previous year. Revenues increased by 43%. As part of his “Xinjiang is a wonderful countrycampaign, the Chinese government produced English-language videos and organized events to promote a vision of the region as peaceful, newly prosperous and full of spectacular scenery and rich culture.
Chinese state media has also described it as driving economic growth for Xinjiang natives. An article describes how a former camp inmate named Aliye Ablimit had, upon her release, received hospitality training. “After graduation, I became a tour guide for the ancient city of Kashgar,” Ablimit said, according to the article. “And later, I turned my house into a bed and breakfast. Tourists like my house very much because of its Uyghur style. All rooms are full these days. Now I have a monthly income of about 50,000 yuan”, or about $7,475.
The facade is less resistant to the mosques of Kashgar. Many smaller neighborhood mosques appear to be out of use, their wooden doors damaged and padlocked – and others have been completely demolished or converted to other uses, including cafes and public toilets.
Inside the Id Kah Mosque, many cameras, including inside the prayer halls, disappeared. But as you might expect given the past five years, many worshipers have also disappeared, 4,000 to 5,000 at Friday prayers in 2011 only about 800 today.
The mosque’s imam, Mamat Juma, acknowledged this in an interview with a vlogger who often produces videos that support Chinese government narratives, published in April 2021. Speaking through a translator, it strives to emphasize that not all Uyghurs are Muslims and diminish the role of religion in Uyghur culture. “I really fear that the number of believers will decrease,” he said, “but that shouldn’t be a reason to force them to pray here.” ●
Additional reporting by Irene Benedicto