“Looking For China’s Elusive Kyrgyz”

Did anyone know there are Kyrgyz in China? Xinjiang borders Kyrgyzstan, and the few Kyrgyz living on the China side of the border constitute one of China’s vaunted minority nationalities. Janyl Chytyrbaeva, a Kyrgyz from Kyrgyzstan, went to China to look for them, and wrote about her experiences for Radio Free Europe:

Visiting the neighbors isn’t easy when you live in Kyrgyzstan and they live in China’s Xinjiang Province.

But as a native of a village not far from the Kyrgyz-Chinese border who grew up hearing how my grandfather’s generation often visited back and forth, I wanted to see what was on the other side, too.

Particularly since nobody I knew could say exactly what I would find there.

I knew only that some 170,000 Kyrgyz lived in the Kizilsu-Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture abutting the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where they were mostly nomadic herders. Others lived in smaller autonomous villages and some in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang.

Yet what autonomy meant for these Kyrgyz was unclear. Especially since the majority of the population of the Kizilsu-Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture is not ethnically Kyrgyz but Uyghur. And overall in Xinjiang, the Kyrgyz are just a drop in the sea of the province’s total population of 18 million people, which is made up mostly of Uyghurs, closely followed by Han Chinese, then Kazakhs, Chinese Muslims, and many smaller groups.

Forewarned or not, I was determined to meet the local Kyrgyz. So over the next days, I was happy to visit Kashgar’s central bazaar. It was a place where I thought the nomads living in the autonomous area would certainly come to sell their sheep. But while every stall keeper I asked replied, “Yes, the Kyrgyz herders come here,” no one seemed to know just where they were. “That way,” people suggested. “No, that way.”

An interesting read. Her conclusion:

As I asked when I could meet so-and-so, and so-and-so, names we had agreed upon previously, his answers became all one and the same. That person was suddenly called out of town on business. That other person — a famous Kyrgyz epic-story teller — was unexpectedly now in Kashgar to help with making a documentary about his life. And….

“How is it possible no one is here?” I finally blurted out in exasperation. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly, “This is our answer to a journalist from Radio Azattyk.”

There was no need to say more. Journalists were not welcome in Xinjiang and whether one came officially or unofficially, the results would be the same. An officially invited journalist would have a minder who controlled the itinerary. An unofficial journalist might or might not have the minder but she or he wouldn’t need one. Just being a journalist was enough to make people afraid to meet and speak with you.

On the way back to Turfan, and then on the 24-hour return trip to Kashgar and on across the mountains to home, I had plenty of time to think about my experiences.

I realized that I might not have been able to meet my neighbors across the border and ask them much about their life. But their own reticence to come forward and describe their life told me volumes.

Remarkably similar to the experiences people have talking to certain other minorities here.

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