Rana Saadullah Khan

The Karakoram Highway, completed in 1979, expanded China’s trade opportunities in Pakistan and made the remote Gilgit-Baltistan region more penetrable for the Pakistani state and military.

The central character of the Urdu novel Dastak na Do from 1965 is a “Chinaman” named Safdar Yassin. Safdar is a street hawker from an unnamed, poverty-stricken part of China attempting to send money earned in British India to his mother back home. His Muslim identity never becomes a subject of much curiosity in the novel nor is he identified as Uyghur. But his name, Safdar Yassin, unlike names among ethnic Chinese Muslims, is rooted in Turkic and Persian languages belying his likely identity as someone from Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is the only part of China that Pakistan shares a border with, through the administrative territory of Gilgit-Baltistan. Both territories are, in demographic terms, distinct from their respective heartlands: just about half of Xinjiang’s population is Turkic-speaking Uyghur, as opposed to the Han-majority People’s Republic, just as more than half of Gilgit-Baltistan’s population is Shia Muslim, unlike the Sunni Muslim majority of the Islamic Republic.

The territories are also internally heterogeneous. The other half of Xinjiang’s population is largely Han Chinese, mostly descendants of zealous Maoists who moved to Xinjiang in the 1940s to “liberate” the people from warlords, feudalism, and religion. A more recent wave of Han migrants aspired to reap the benefits of Xinjiang’s economic boom. Significant communities of pastoral Kazakhs, Persian-speaking Tajiks, ethnic Russians and Mongols, and Chinese ethnic Muslims call Xinjiang home too. This is paralleled in Gilgit-Baltistan, where besides the Shia majority, the population is split between Sunni and Ismaili Muslims. Ethnic diversity within the three communities is plenty and as important as religious denomination for one’s identity and worldview.

These were things I knew before I would speak to Gilgit-Baltistani residents who had been to Xinjiang, years before I myself first travelled to Gilgit-Baltistan in 2016. I owned a guidebook—an out-of-print edition of a once-big travel publisher, which covered both Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway (KKH). The KKH technically ends at Xinjiang’s Uyghur-majority city of Kashgar, and the guidebook did a good job of communicating what ambitious travellers should expect of that road trip from Pakistani Punjab (where KKH begins) to Chinese Xinjiang.

But for me, as for most “southerner” Pakistanis, that imagined road trip always ended at Khunjerab Pass, the border-crossing between Pakistan and China. In spite of the “all-weather friendship” Pakistan is said to share with the People’s Republic, Chinese visas are considered somewhat difficult to acquire for visits or tourism by Pakistanis. And unlike Pakistan’s relationships with India, Iran, or Afghanistan, no close history, language, or religion binds the two nations together. Chinese cultural centres have only recently emerged beyond Islamabad, and only two universities in the country have Chinese studies departments. The so-called “Silk Road”, which once ran between the lands of Pakistan and China and is allegedly being reclaimed with developmental projects like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is actually often invoked by the Chinese government in discussing investment in other Central Asian and South Asian countries. In fact, the recent escalation in international coverage of Uyghurs and Xinjiang, with attributions of settler colonialism and genocide, is possibly the first time many Pakistanis are learning of the internal complexities of Chinese society.

However, for the many Gilgit-Baltistan residents I met on journeys in northern Pakistan, China was no distant reality. The Chinese border is about six hours away from Gilgit city, the capital of the territory. And unlike other Pakistanis, those who claim residence in Gilgit-Baltistan are entitled to a border pass, which allows entry in Xinjiang province without a visa. This pass enables a unique level of accessibility to the Muslim-majority province of an ostensibly anti-religious, communist state, albeit one limited to residents of Gilgit-Baltistan—a quirk that makes this movement even more curious.

“What does it mean for these disenfranchised Pakistani citizens to be in such close proximity to a vastly wealthier, seemingly more “efficient” country? ”

 The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are denied representation in Pakistan’s national assembly, and have no access to superior courts in the country. The civil administration and legislative assembly, too, are largely perceived to be token institutions devoid of any actual power. This basic inequality of citizenship is a reality for the nearly 1.5 million residents of Gilgit-Baltistan.

What does it mean for these disenfranchised Pakistani citizens to be in such close proximity to a vastly wealthier, seemingly more “efficient” country? How does the access to China granted by the border pass and the Karakoram Highway affect how the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan perceive their relationship with the Pakistani state? And most of all, how do those who travel along the Karakoram Highway view recent developments in Xinjiang?

The “Idiots” Who Left

Gilgit is the smaller of the two cities in Gilgit-Baltistan (the other being Skardu), but it is far more ethnically and religiously diverse. Shina, Burushaski, Pashto, Pahari, Kho, as well as some Balti, Kohistani, Hindko and Wakhi languages can be heard in its bazaars. When I first arrived in Gilgit, I did not know 8,000 ethnic Uyghurs were a part of the citizenry too. That’s something Sabir would introduce me and my companions to in 2016. When we entered his souvenir store, which sold handicrafts from Xinjiang rather than from Gilgit-Baltistan, he concluded we were too bookish and young to be potential buyers. Instead, he took us to the cherry orchard behind his store and began to talk about himself.

Sabir’s parents were one among several thousand “Turks”—as Sabir called Uyghurs—that fled Xinjiang in 1949, when it was absorbed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It would be misleading to say Uyghurs were the dominant powerbrokers in Xinjiang before the PRC: the Bolsheviks were trying to incorporate Xinjiang into the Soviet sphere of influence through communist Uyghurs, while the anti-communist Kuomintang were also attempting to maintain a foothold in China through a last stand of sorts in Xinjiang. The communists of Mao Zedong eventually won, and with them came droves of Han men and women charged with the passion of Maoism.

“My parents were idiots,” declared Sabir, “and made the mistake of coming to Gilgit.” For Sabir, his parents departed a land at the cusp of bountiful progress and development and ended up in a marginalized, peripheral part of a much more “hopeless” country. Most Uyghurs in Gilgit, almost exclusively Sunni Muslims, are descendants of those that fled communist-driven religious persecution in Xinjiang to live a safer life in Pakistan.

But Sabir dismissed these difficulties as those typical of a fledgling nation. For him, China had ultimately delivered on its commitment to Xinjiang’s citizens, transforming a backwater of Central Asia into one of China’s wealthiest provinces—actually, the wealthiest amongst all the other provinces it borders and second only to Sichuan in Western China. “Pakistan should give all this away to China,” he said of Gilgit, “they’ll change everything here.”

Sabir’s impressions of China were based on constant travel back and forth between Gilgit and Xinjiang. He was in awe of cities like Kashgar and Urumqi, which he said boasted skyscrapers taller than the mountains of the Karakoram range around Gilgit. He also claimed to have received reparations for the land his parents evacuated and had been trying to reclaim the Chinese citizenship his parents chose to forego. Although his attempts were not successful for himself, he said both his son and daughter were granted Chinese citizenship and in 2016 were studying in “top class” undergraduate universities free of cost in eastern China. Sabir’s shop and home were in Gilgit’s most expensive neighborhood so his claims of compensation and benefits may well be true.

But in 2016, there were reports that China was seriously constraining Uyghur Muslims’ practice of Islam—preventing fasting in Ramadan, forbidding veiled women from using public transportation. Sabir would keep disputing these reports as misrepresentations. If China was persecuting Uyghurs in any part of Xinjiang, Sabir maintained it was right in doing so: those being jailed and sent to the detention centers were all people like his parents—ungrateful for all that China had given them… And how could China possibly stop people from fasting?

For Sabir, the intense, mostly uninhabitable geographical terrain of Xinjiang was evidence that the Chinese could do much better for Gilgit-Baltistan than Pakistan had ever tried. While Xinjiang may be farther away from Beijing than Gilgit-Baltistan is from Islamabad, it is astronomically ahead in all indices of development. It also has a greater presence in the Chinese imagination than Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan’s. Dao Lang, one of China’s biggest pop stars made his career appropriating Uyghur and Kazakh music and incorporating the aesthetics of Xinjiang into his music videos. Figures like “Uncle Kurban” and “Brother Alim” are Uyghur icons for Chinese masses while the Oscar-nominated Taiwanese film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon portrays savage bandits from a “West” quite obviously coded with the visuals of Xinjiang. In contrast, while the natural scenery of Gilgit-Baltistan may have inspired droves of Pakistani tourists to travel north, they know little about Gilgit-Baltistani culture or histories, nor do people like Sabir occupy the imagination of any popular or creative industries. With such perceived blessings, Sabir could not understand what made the Uyghurs of Xinjiang so uneasy with Chinese rule.

During my travels, I noticed that this lack of sympathy was also shared further north, in Hunza.

Karaoke Bars and Beers

Hunza was one of the last additions to the British colonial sphere of influence in India in 1891. Previously, the Mirs of Hunza (chiefs of this valley) perceived themselves as nominally independent under Chinese suzerainty. When the battle for Hunza was lost to the British, the Mirs escaped north to Xinjiang, but the promise of more power and privilege accumulated through colonial endorsement drew them back. Nonetheless, Hunza paid tribute to the Chinese as late as 1936, and in the ‘50s also became the subject of minor border disputes between Pakistan and China.

Hunza’s Burushaski-speaking inhabitants, the Burusho, are very aware of being at the crossroads of different worlds. They joke about this showing in their diverse physical features—European-featured Burusho are said to have “Russian blood” leading to bouts of emotional recklessness; Chinese-featured Burusho are considered excellent money-makers clever with business and investment. Few in Hunza take such classifications too seriously and with the highest levels of educational attainment within Gilgit-Baltistan this is understandable.

The high visibility of women in public among the Burusho, their generally “liberal” views, and greater access to developmental infrastructure is all credited to their predominantly Ismaili faith, both by outsiders and proudly by the Burusho themselves. So for many Burusho who travel to Xinjiang, their own rural culture feels fundamentally constraining: “Hunza has nothing on China.”

A series of Sunni bureaucrats from beyond Hunza, particularly those transitioning from the military, are said to have made life in Hunza stifling. Just a few years ago, alcohol from Xinjiang in the form of canned beers and rice-based liquors was sold in select grocery stores in Karimabad—the idyllic town popular among tourists. This was more convenient than hauling booze from the refineries of Quetta or Murree hundreds of kilometers south. While alcohol consumption is forbidden for Muslims in Pakistan, hotels in Karimabad could justify their trade with foreign tourists mainly from Korea or Japan. But the new bureaucrats allow none of this: they believe the people of Hunza have wayward morals, their “Muslim-ness” as Ismaili Muslims is itself questionable.

 “Now they make us close restaurants for Ramazan,” a Burusho hotel-owner complained. “No one fasts over here!”

Although many men in Hunza begrudgingly acknowledge Chinese persecution in Xinjiang, they consider Uyghurs to have values similarly conservative and judgmental as the Pakistani bureaucrats. “It’s not like Kohistan or Chilas,” areas in Gilgit-Baltistan where Ismaili Muslims are often discriminated against by not being sold items or served food, “but you can tell [the Uyghurs] don’t like us. They’re not a very friendly people.”

Few in Hunza were as obsessed with Kashgar as Sabir, extolling instead the historically Han-majority city of Urumqi. An Uyghur Sunni bureaucrat stationed in Hunza did not appreciate this aversion to Kashgar, calling them prejudiced perceptions, and claiming most “Turks” in Xinjiang were more “modern” than any person in Hunza. “You should go to Kashgar,” he said to me in particular, “the ladies there will make a man out of you.”  

Kashgar, unlike Urumqi, is supposed to be a defiantly traditional Uyghur city in southern Xinjiang, a region almost exclusively Uyghur and constituting the largest population of detainees in Chinese camps.

“Rubbish!” the bureaucrat said aggressively, dismissing the detained as “miscreants.”  For him and others, the mere fact that China had swiftly transformed the conservative, oasis town of old Kashgar into what they perceived as a metropolitan city made any “rumors” of brutality excusable.

“In more inaccessible parts of Hunza, the Aga Khan Foundation and its organizational network—not the Pakistani government—has provided amenities like paved roads and electricity.”

Another Ismaili hotel owner defending China’s heavy-handedness in Xinjiang said, “It has given everything to the Uyghurs: hospitals; schools; universities; roads; highways…what has the Pakistani government done for the people of Hunza that it has decided to impose Ramadan on us?” This is a common resentment against the Pakistani government. Many schools in Hunza and further north are privately owned, operated by the Aga Khan Foundation. Given the volume of students from this region admitted to prestigious universities in Karachi and Lahore, they do receive an education better than government schools in Gilgit-Baltistan.

In more inaccessible parts of Hunza, the Aga Khan Foundation and its organizational network—not the Pakistani government—has provided amenities like paved roads and electricity. It is due to this lack of state interest in ‘developing’ Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan that many Burusho do not sympathize with Uyghurs. Xinjiang for them is a constant reminder of what their part of the country could have been under an efficient, proactive government. They do not otherwise care for the Chinese closure of Uyghur-language schools or suppression of Uyghur culture: state-led interest or preservation of culture and values is something they have never had.

However, the Burusho do not share a language with any of Xinjiang’s communities, and thus, do not have more than a visitor’s or trader’s perception of Xinjiang.

That perspective comes from the Tajiks further north on the KKH.

Persianate in Xinjiang

“If the Chinese think a Uyghur has had any contact with a separatist or a fundamentalist, they arrest them, their wife, their brothers and sisters—anyone that has ever spoken to such a person is a Uyghur they interrogate.”

Abdullah* was among the few people I met in Gilgit-Baltistan that believed what the Chinese government was doing to the Uyghurs was cruel, a phenomenon of horrific proportions. He is a resident of Islamabad, but spends his summers in Gulmit. He is a Wakhi Tajik. Like the Burusho, the Wakhi are Ismaili Muslims with high levels of educational attainment and a similar abundance of Aga Khan Foundation-sponsored infrastructure. While Burusho live primarily in Hunza proper, Wakhi Tajiks are Persian-speaking communities in north-eastern Afghanistan, southern Tajikistan, Gojal (Wakhi area of Hunza district), and Xinjiang. Thus the Wakhi are most aware of happenings in Central Asia than most others in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Wakhi dialect of Persian may be among the world’s oldest living forms of the language.

A tiny museum in Gulmit pays homage to some of their history. Bizarrely, a burqa makes for one of the more eye-catching exhibits. It is displayed in homage to a purported culture of brigandry once targeting caravans of Hajj pilgrims from Xinjiang unfortunate enough to cross Gojal. The burqa made of a horsehair material unique to the veiling culture of Central Asian cities like Kashgar is supposed to testify to a successful raid.

Although the Wakhi Ismaili are a minority among the mainly Sunni Tajiks of Xinjiang, many Gojal residents including Abdullah’s nephew pursue work and business in Xinjiang. In Hotel Blue Moon of Sost, the last Pakistani town before the Chinese border, the Wakhi chef would serve intensely aromatic pulaos inspired by flavours he picked up as a chef in Urumqi. Since 2017, he has permanently moved there.

Things have changed. “We are a tiny part of Xinjiang,” said Abdullah in Gulmit, “but we Tajiks do very well for ourselves. Many prominent positions in the Xinjiang bureaucracy and the Chinese Communist Party leadership are filled by Tajik men and women.”

Abdullah attributed this to the enthusiasm with which Tajiks integrated into Chinese society. Statistically speaking, Tajiks are one of Xinjiang’s most segregated communities, choosing to live in enclaves even more than Uyghurs. But their small numbers meant that the Chinese government never invested in separate schools or universities for Tajiks, as they did for Uyghurs and the Kazakhs. Tajiks went to Chinese-language schools and are considered more adjusted to the wave of Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang. Until 2020, Abdullah had not heard of any Tajiks being sent to internment camps, and no news reports since indicate otherwise.

“Of almost 14 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, over a million are believed to be detained in internment camps. Models, pop stars, party cadres, academics, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Uyghurs have disappeared into these camps.”

“Uyghurs are much more conservative than Tajiks, and far less compromising,” says Abdullah. Like Burusho travellers, Abdullah also felt Uyghurs were quietly hostile to his status as an Ismaili Muslim. But he did not believe the Uyghurs were Islamic fundamentalists, or that most Uyghurs had any separatist ambitions. “There is great contempt for the Uyghurs among ordinary Han Chinese. They are thought of as backward, like Taliban,” he said, “So many Uyghurs die because of the torture [by police], sometimes only because they attended a birthday party of a suspicious person.”

Of almost 14 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, over a million are believed to be detained in internment camps. Models, pop stars, party cadres, academics, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Uyghurs have disappeared into these camps. Despite knowing all this, Abdullah did not condemn China. He insisted the reports of rapes and death in detention were not part of Chinese policy; that, at most, they were an example of the sharp racial divides between the Han and the Uyghur, which reflect in racialized policing. He did not believe the Chinese government sought to exterminate Uyghurs. “China has done a lot for Xinjiang,” he said, “and China has done a lot for Uyghurs. They’ve ended COVID-19 in Xinjiang, haven’t they? It’s better than the Pakistani government does for us.”

I had this conversation with Abdullah in October 2020, in Gulmit. 10 years earlier, Gulmit was the capital of Gojal district—a district that no longer exists. It was subsumed into Hunza after the Attabad disaster of 2010 when a landslide caused a massive flood, drowning villages and submerging much of Gulmit under 300 ft of water. Though residents desperately begged the Pakistani government to intervene and prevent the disaster, it did nothing. While water levels were reduced, the economy of Gulmit never recovered. Protests demanding government compensation for the victims (numbering 6000) were met with state violence and two protestors were killed. Baba Jan, a local leader demanding action from government, was incarcerated for ten years under anti-terror laws and only just released in December 2020.

“My nephew lives in the atheist republic—the only way he can live a comfortable life,” Abdullah said, “He’s a minority here, but a better minority there.”

The Frontier Province

“This difference is so profoundly felt that most travellers from Gilgit-Baltistan to Xinjiang are inclined to trivialize the experiences of Uyghurs, despite their awareness of a tyrannical nature of governance in Xinjiang. ”

Until 2009, the region of Gilgit-Baltistan was blankly labelled “Northern Areas” by the Pakistani government. The word Xinjiang may also literally mean the “New Frontier”. But as these travellers’ perspectives reveal, there is a difference between being a frontier of the Pakistani state and that of the Chinese government.

This difference is so profoundly felt that most travellers from Gilgit-Baltistan to Xinjiang are inclined to trivialize the experiences of Uyghurs, despite their awareness of a tyrannical nature of governance in Xinjiang. This seems to have been made palatable by the perception of Uyghurs as a “conservative” people, especially among Ismaili Muslims. As Chinese Muslims and other communities in Xinjiang, like the Tajiks, have been left largely unaffected by the camps, concerns of Islamophobia or genocide were not treated very seriously.

At this time in Xinjiang, Uyghurs are joined by ethnic Kazakhs, the second-largest Muslim community in Xinjiang, as a targeted population within the camps. This is especially troubling as the Chinese government justifies its policies to international observers by claiming that Uyghurs are associated with networks of “Islamic fundamentalism” but has no such pretence for the Kazakhs. Similarly, Gilgit-Baltistanis also positioned Kazakhs along with Tajiks and Chinese Muslims—that is, as Muslim communities that were not particularly “conservative.” Kazakhs are otherwise not known to be part of separatist movements or Islamic militant groups— their only guilt appears to be that they are not Han.

Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities are indeed much more “visible” in Chinese society than any community in Gilgit-Baltistan is for other Pakistanis. Uyghurs and Kazakhs did once receive special privileges: Uyghur and Kazakh language educational institutes; an exemption from the one-child policy once strictly applied to Han Chinese; easier entry into the extremely competitive Chinese university system with lower requirements than those for Han Chinese.

It is unclear how many of these “minzu” (i.e. non-Chinese ethnicity) benefits still apply to minorities in Xinjiang, but they are relevant to how travellers from Gilgit-Baltistan interact with the politics of Xinjiang and justify the brutalities of the Chinese regime.

With shutdowns of Tibetan, Mongolian, and Kazakh language schools across the country, China may very well be headed in the direction of a majoritarian-ethnic politics without space for identities and cultures beyond the Han. Minzu benefits are perhaps already an idea of the past.

James Millward, perhaps the most prominent historian of Xinjiang, warns that Chinese policy in Xinjiang could eventually be applied to other restive parts of China, like Tibet, and ultimately, Hong Kong. But for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, suffering their own deprivation, neglect, and erasure at the hands of a dominating Pakistani state, the millions detained in the camps of China have not yet been able to dispel the allure of Xinjiang.

Rana Saadullah Khan is a writer and researcher working in the field of history education in Lahore, Pakistan.
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