ON PAPER, the Karakoram Highway stretches from Kashgar in China’s far western province of Xinjiang to Islamabad. In reality, it unfolds like a ribbon across China’s westernmost border before its tarmac comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass on Pakistan’s border—the highest spot on the world’s highest paved international highway. China scholars often point out that domestic concerns colour Beijing’s foreign relations, but the multifarious stops and diverse communities along the Karakoram reveal that China’s domestic concerns are anything but uniform.
Our journey starts in Ürümqi, a grubby metropolis of more than 2.3 million people that looks like many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities. Large boulevards cluttered with imposing buildings are filled with frenetic construction as the city rushes to erect more shopping malls to appease insatiable local consumers. As the capital of an autonomous region which is China’s largest political subdivision, and home to a substantial portion of China’s natural wealth, it is also a draw for poor fortune-seekers from neighbouring provinces. A taxi driver from the adjacent province of Gansu boasted how opportunities in Ürümqi are plentiful, with girlfriends to match—one for each day of the week.
The driver who picked us up in Kashgar, about 1,000 km south of Ürümqi, had a very different story to tell. A local Uyghur who had developed a substantial business in the region, he complained instead about the ineptitude of the local police as he pointed to the visibly heavy security around the airport. Kashgar distinguishes itself as majority Uyghur—the Turkic ethnic group that claims to be the original inhabitants of the territory that is Xinjiang. Traditional Uyghur culture and history is perceivable at every turn. The Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, sits on the edge of what is left of Kashgar’s old town, a warren of mud-brick houses reminiscent of Kabul or the dusty trading centres of Central Asia.
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