KORLA, CHINA—IT WAS MORNING WHEN I arrived in Korla, the nexus of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s oil boom, and the sky was dark, the sun obscured by a thick cloud of dust from the adjacent Taklamakan Desert. Many people on the street wore masks against the dust—the Chinese favoured surgical-style versions, while many Uyghur women wore delicate white cotton masks with lace trim.
Most of the inhabited parts of Xinjiang – a region that are dotted around the Taklamakan, an utterly lifeless expanse larger than Maharashtra whose name, roughly translated, means, ‘Go in and don’t come out.’ It is a graveyard for countless Silk Road caravans and was one of the last unexplored frontiers on the planet—the first time anyone crossed it the longer, east-west way, was in 1993. These days, rather than being an obstacle, the Taklamakan is the attraction. Oil was discovered here in the 1950s, and over the last decade, China’s speeding economy has created an oil rush in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is the traditional home of the Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gur) people, a Muslims minority who speak a language related to Turkish and whose Central Asian features and olive skin easily distinguish them from the country’s Han Chinese, who represent more than 90 percent of the people in China but who are outnumbered in this province.