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Vagabond Journey

A Trip to Xinjiang’s Asbestos City

The long road through the far west of China shows the reality of the Chinese dream in one shocking catastrophe.

Somewhere in the vast stretches of sparsely populated Western China stands an empty building. In fact, there stands an almost endless supply of empty buildings and what appears to be the remnants of long-forgotten factories. A person would be forgiven if they were to land in Qinghai or Xinjiang and thought the Chinese used these empty tracts of land as places to practice building techniques that they could employ in the inhabited parts of the country.

Someone must know why these empty buildings exist. Some were perhaps large projects where funding dried up, or factories that failed to turn a profit, or perhaps some of these abandoned structures were the result of yet another under reported environmental catastrophe. It is easy to daydream about the causes of these blighted landscapes.

After spending the better part of a week schlepping across the southern rim of the Taklamakan desert by bus and minivan there was plenty of empty buildings to go around. The vastness of China is often understated. A trip from Xining to Kashgar through the ‘forbidden’ town of Charlilik looked on a map like it would take 2 days. Instead it took almost an entire week.

There seemed to be only one bus a day that left around 9 or ten am. Five or so hours on a bus and then you were deposited at a random Xinjiang town. Each of these towns had their own distinct cultural flare. Some, like Hotan, truly felt like a Central Asian republic trapped in China while other stops were surprisingly modern, replete with neon lights, cafes, and overactive police officers.

For the most part the scenery was monotonous and unchanging. The sky was a dull grey offering little to no visibility. The flat scrubby brown soil extended flat and unending, not unlike an inland sea. The buses were usually 80 percent full of Uighers, or perhaps Kyrgyz or Tajik, and dotted with a few hardy Han who I imagined were moving west in hopes of starting over or striking it big. Some Uigher college students on one bus told me that out there in the brown ocean beyond our vision there still remained holy places and holy men. These holy men were keeping the Uigher culture alive in face of Chinese repression.

“At night you can see lights coming out of the desert where our holy places are,” one eager student told me. “The Chinese stop us from going there,” he continued. “They do a lot of bad things. They don’t want us to have our culture or our power.”

What kind of bad things, I prodded.

“They keep us from owning our own homes and they take all the wealth from our land and they leave us with poison.”

A day passed and that lonely student’s voice echoed somewhere on the lonely Xinjiang highway. I had almost forgotten that he had told me anything at all. Or perhaps his voice got mixed up with the dozen or so other Uighers who had told me similar stories of Chinese heavy handedness.

The further out into the desert, the buses slowly gave way to mini-buses. Fewer people were moving around. The minivan would pass through towns, usually stop to pick up a passenger, have a smoke, and continued. Sometimes a clever traveller would share a bottle of baijou with the other desert nomads.

The vastness of the Taklamakan desert from the bus

The vastness of the Taklamakan desert from the bus

Before one town, however, the bus stopped and the driver handed out masks for the passengers to put on over their faces. Feeling a bit freaked I simply put on the mask and prayed our bus wasn’t stopping overnight in wherever we were going next.

After all masks were put into place the bus slowly plodded forward. We drove through the remnants and burnt out shells of former buildings. The streets were bare and empty and the ‘town’ was covered in a layer of golden dust. Some of the houses closely resembled worker’s dormitories, like ones seen in coal mining country in Eastern Kentucky.

The golden dust was everywhere. Areas which looked like they should have been schools or storage facilities were half caved in and were almost dissolving under the dust.

The bus continued to plod along and eventually we pulled out of the town and on to the main highway. Only then did people start taking their masks off. I must have looked confused. A young man turned and pointed back to the town we had just left.

“Asbestos,” he said.

Eventually, the asbestos city was behind us and after another week on the dusty road a bus finally dropped me in Kashgar. The town was dotted with military style police. There had recently been unrest, the Uigher population seemed tired of the continual Chinese presence. In Kashgar one could see that the benefits of Chinese urbanization went missing on the Uigher population. The ‘asbestos city’ seemed to crystallize this frustration in one environmentally shocking example.

Filed under: China, Environment, New Silk Road, Xinjiang

About the Author:

Lawrence Hamilton is a freelance journalist focusing on South Asian security situations and border disputes. has written 51 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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