The Man from Ashgabat – Xinjiang’s Key to Central Asia

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A unique combination of Islam and Russia blends to produce a unique Asian trade opportunity

Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Nov. 24 – Xinjiang has long held the fascination of the exotic-minded businessman. Fabled for its association with the ancient Silk Road and Western legends through the travel exploits of Marco Polo, as well as with Chinese mythology through the epic classic “Journey to the West” mixed together with more recent shades of Britain and Russia playing out their “Great Game.” All the while set to the Oriental Islamic mysticism of veiled women, Turkish coffee, silk magic carpets and water pipes, hubbling and bubbling with pure hashish. If Xinjiang didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it as the setting for the ultimate Indiana Jones movie. Perhaps one day Spielberg will set foot here, and if not, Daniel Craig should in a remake of the 19th Century adventures in Imperial espionage that took place in Kashgar.

Flying into Urumqi meanwhile, is a five-hour jaunt from Beijing. To put that into perspective, that’s damn near intercontinental. It’s just 60 minutes more to reach Paris from Toronto. Everything changes this far West. The airport signage is in Cyrillic and Arabic, alongside Chinese. That’s a collision of three major empires, right there, and indicative of the melting pot – sometimes reaching boiling temperatures – that this region has always been. The airport destination boards are telling, and hint of far off lands, of caravanesi, camels and rose water. Almaty, Astana, Baku, Kashgar, Samarkand. Forbidden lands all, the legends of 1,001 Nights made real in the 21st Century. There are six independent Turkic States, and they push progressively east from Turkey until they border China in the shape of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Putting it another way, if you followed Turkic culture west from Xinjiang, the next border you’d meet would be with Greece.

The men and women next to me as we take the bus from the aircraft to the terminal building are speaking Turkish, and some Uyghur, the form of Turkic spoken here. The women are Central Asian to the core – headscarves, green eyes. The men – swarthy, dark, but not at all Asian, wearing gold watches. As we wait for our baggage, I talk a little to them, they’ve been selling goods from Turkmenistan in Beijing, and have purchased boxes of electrical products to sell back in their capital, Ashgabat. I catch a glimpse of the group of women, and spot a Chinese ID card. I’m used to discussing cities like Shanghai, Wuhan, Mumbai, Hanoi and Singapore, but this is a different world. I let it seep in, as the trade routes I am familiar with become replaced with more ancient destinations. Ashgabat is a city of nearly 1 million, with a massively growing economy built on gas fields. Kabul has 3 million people, and although mired in conflict, still requires goods and has a population hungry for the modern. Lorry drivers leave from Urumqi and drive across part of the Hindu Kush before dropping down into the Kabul basin. Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, has 2 million inhabitants. The list of exotic destinations stretches, quite literally, from here to the Caspian Sea, home of the world’s finest caviar.

While it is the Han Chinese that dominate, the impact of history runs deep. Mandarin is the language of commerce in China and needed to do business with the Chinese merchants in Xinjiang. But elsewhere, the unifying language is Russian, a legacy of the Soviet years of Central Asia. In fact, if Stalin hadn’t been so amenable, Xinjiang may have joined them – it was only after Mao persuaded him the Chinese could manage Xinjiang and dilute any possibility of an Islamic State emerging that Stalin acquiesced. But to trade in Central Asia, you need Russian. I speak a little, and visited the lorry depots and goods warehouses. Signage, all Cyrillic, again that encyclopedia of exotic destinations: a really lonely planet mapped out in mountain passes, diesel fumes, and Turkish tobacco. Elsewhere, hand in hand with Russian, go Islamic sensibilities.

These are the lands of the Koran, mostly moderate, yet fiercely passionate in defending their religion. A knowledge of the mosque, of Mohammed’s sayings, prayers and fasting sit side by side with cross-border trade. The latter cannot exist without the former. Possibly fatalistic, a strong belief in God is needed here when traveling the mountain passes. I’ve been along the Karakorum Highway many times in the past to Taxkorgan, China’s border with Pakistan. On one journey alone, we passed three trucks that hadn’t made it, and tumbled over the side into the ravines below. Mangled, unsurvivable wreckage lay 100 yards down. “I knew him,” was all my driver would say, with a sigh and a long draw on his cigarette. Comradeship is a survival necessity here, and Islam bonds man in the face of adversity. The Karakorum is all but a modern day version of crossing the Taklimakan Desert, and on both sides of that travelers left images of their gods, prophets and saints as well, enshrined still today in ancient sites such as Bizeklik and Dunhuang. “You go in and you won’t come out” is the Uyghur translation of Taklimakan. And if you were to travel it, you’d want to pray to your God for survival too. The Karakorum Highway is the same, with Mohammed the Prophet the supreme protector.

The Chinese have done a lot in upgrading the infrastructure in Xinjiang, and are helping with developments across Central Asia too. Road, rail, and air links have all been significantly improved. But they can only do so much, and key to this are the Uyghurs. Yet they remain a defiant culture, and diminishing. Marriage to non-Uyghurs is out of the question, while preserving their identity manifests itself by refusing to learn Chinese. Women in China famously hold up half the sky, Uyghur women upon reaching puberty are often shunted away, veiled, and out of sight of other men. A pretty, Chinese and English-speaking Uyghur girl worked in my Beijing office for several years. She left to return to Xinjiang because her family insisted she marry a Uyghur boy. But he doesn’t speak Chinese or English, and works in a market as a porter. She has one baby girl, and couldn’t see me when I visited. “I’m sorry Chris – it’s just my family would find it improper.” She’s lost to the workplace, a sad case of Uyghur culture eroding the very talents that could lift them up to become the wealthy Central Asian traders of a region that stretches to the borders of Europe. Backward cultures breed suspicion, and many Uyghurs remain in denial of the need for modern education. It’s a tribal mentality in a globalizing world, resulting in a Uyghur tragedy that is largely self-inflicted.

That evening over a bottle of local Xinjiang wine at the famous Fubar in Urumqi, I met a Han Chinese trader from Qinghai. He wore an expensive Rolex, quoted Rumi in Urdu, and was getting fat from arranging rail logistics between China and Pakistan. He showed me a photo of his wife, she was a model, and dressed in Gucci. The man I’d met the day before from Ashgabat also showed up. Speaking Russian, he told me of the growing middle classes in Central Asia.

“We get it,” he said. “We need Mandarin to deal with the Chinese. Everywhere else, Russian. Plus Arabic we know from studying the Koran. God is good to us.”

Chris’ interview on CNN Global today concerning Xinjiang trade and commerce can be viewed below:

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner and principal of Dezan Shira & Associates, and the publisher of China Briefing. Dezan Shira & Associates was founded in China in 1992, and provides corporate establishment, tax, accounting and business advisory services for multinational and small-medium clients in the country. The firm has expanded in recent years into emerging Asia, and in total has eleven offices in China, five in India, two in Vietnam and one each in Hong Kong and Singapore. Please email the practice at for business advisory or other services throughout Asia, or visit the firm’s web site at A weekly subscription to the best of Asia Briefing news can be obtained free of charge from our subscriptions page.

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