Abduweli Ayup did not come back to Kashgar since 2015, and the chances of doing so anytime soon are slim. He said the Chinese government had canceled his passport.
Sometimes he watches videos on YouTube of his hometown. They don’t make him better. It feels compulsive, he said, “like eating bad food.”
“You know, you want to eat it, but then your stomach gets upset,” she said. Speaking to a BuzzFeed News reporter as he watched a video, Ayup pointed to a giant sculpture of a traditional stringed instrument near the city’s gates. “Look at that, it’s only for tourists,” he said.
The city is now full of photogenic additions like these. There are giant teapots at the main junction near the city gate. Elsewhere, murals show maps of Xinjiang or carry slogans like “Xinjiang Impressions,” where visitors stop to take vacation snaps. A new entrance to the Metalwork Market has been added, featuring a large sign with silhouetted figures of iron hammers. The anvil statue in the corner now comes with projection-mapped fire, as well as sparks and a metal pipe shot soundtrack. Camel rides are also available.
In the videos he watched, Ayup observed scenes of people dancing in traditional Uyghur dress — costumes they may have worn more than a century ago. Figures like these can be seen on Chinese state television and during the country’s annual rubber-stamp parliamentary session. Ayup said that no one wears that outfit anymore except for performance.
Tourism in Xinjiang is now booming. Last year, despite global numbers falling as a result of the pandemic, 190 million tourists visited the region – up 20% from the previous year. Income has increased by 43%. As part of its “Xinjiang Wonderful Land” campaign, the Chinese government has produced English-language videos and programs to promote a vision of the region as peaceful, newly prosperous, and full of dramatic landscapes and rich culture.
Chinese state media have portrayed it as an economic growth engine for Xinjiang natives. One article described how a former camp detainee named Aliye Ablimit received hospitality training after her release. “After graduation, I became a tour guide to the ancient city of Kashgar,” Ablimit said, according to the article. “And then, I turned my house into a bed and breakfast. Tourists love my house a lot because of the Uyghur style. All the rooms are fully booked these days. Now my monthly income is about 50,000 yuan,” or about $7,475.
The facade holds up less well with the mosques of Kashgar. Smaller neighborhood mosques appear disused, their wooden doors damaged and padlocked shut — and others have been completely demolished or converted to other uses, including cafes and public toilets.
Many cameras have disappeared inside the Eid Kah Mosque, including inside the prayer halls. But as might be expected in the past five years, many worshipers have disappeared, from 4,000-5,000 at Friday prayers in 2011 to just 800 or less today.
The mosque’s imam, Mamat Juma, admitted in an April 2021 interview with a vlogger who produces videos supporting Chinese government narratives. Speaking through a translator, not all Uyghurs are Muslim and to downplay the role of religion in Uyghur culture. “I am really worried that the number of believers will decrease, but that should not be a reason to force them to pray here,” he said. ●
Additional reporting by Irene Benedicto