Inside out: My visit to China's Muslim majority Xinjiang province

They came over to my table and bowed their heads in respect. It was unusual, to receive such a positive reaction after saying I am from Pakistan

China’s northwestern province, Xinjiang, has a bad reputation. For outside observers, it is unstable and violence-plagued, home to an estimated 23 million-strong Muslim Uighur minority struggling for its rights. But not everyone who lives here agrees with the definition. “Look at me. Do I look oppressed?” asks Dilshad, an ethnic Uighur, who lives in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Clad in a T-shirt and jeans, the 21-year-old is out with his friends tonight to watch a movie at a local cinema. “Trust me, our life is good,” he adds with a smirk.

Yet, media reports out of the province are never good. In April, according to the US-funded Radio Free Asia, China banned parents from picking Muslim-sounding names. Uighur rights activists often complain of restrictions on practicing their religion. Young men, they claim, are banned from growing full beards and women forbidden from wearing face veils.

One of the larger Mosque's in Urumqi

But Dilshad and his friends insist there are no such curbs. They signal in the direction of a street lined with small and large mosques in downtown Urumqi. On any given day, Muslim men, and sometimes women, can be seen offering their prayers and preforming other religious duties. “Most of our mosques have been built with donations from the state,” Tahir, Dilshad’s friend, tells, “Why would they let us build mosques if they don’t want us to enter them?”

It’s a cold weekend night. Downtown Urumqi is well lit by a block-long arcade of shopping malls, cinemas and billboards. The atmosphere is lively and energetic. Yet, at every corner lurk uniformed officers and security check posts. Visitors are frisked outside markets, hotels and even mosques. Escalating violence and clampdowns here often make headlines everywhere. Authorities blame the unrest on separatists and extremists couched within the area. Social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter and even the search engine Google, are banned. The Internet is painfully slow, down to a crawl, and there are no 4G services offered for smartphones.

In the otherwise thriving China, Xinjiang is a less developed province. But even this underdeveloped region can give Pakistan's most developed areas a run for their money, in terms of infrastructure and facilities.

As for the shored up security measures, they don’t bother Dilshad and his friends. They insist that security is needed for safety. After graduation, Dilshad is hopeful he too can join the police service. “I want to be a cop. I want to prove that Muslims too are playing a role in China’s development.”

A local restaurant is overflowing with customers. Three women in traditional headscarves hurriedly serve hungry customers dishes of lamb-fried rice.

“Assalam-o-Alikum,” I greeted the women on entering the eatery.

“Walikum Salam,” one of them replied. And then curiously asked: “Where are you from?”

“I am here from Pakistan,” I replied.

That caught the attention of the other two women as well. They came over to my table and bowed their heads in respect. It was unusual, I must say, to receive such a positive reaction after saying “Pakistan.”

As I walked out, a dozen or so Muslims men could be seen offering their Zuhr prayer behind an Imam. Nearby, at a large, bustling market, Uighurs are busy selling dried fruits, warm shawls and hand-made souvenirs. It is easy to tell them apart from China’s Han population. The Muslim men have long beards while the women often don scarves.

Of the people I interacted with at the market, few spoke of any clampdown on their rights. Others changed the topic.

A police station in Urumqi

When I first arrived in Xinjiang, surprisingly, my passport was given much importance. Immigration officers were chatty and polite. While other nationals were made to sit for an eye-scan, I was waved right through. “We have a name for Pakistanis,” a Chinese officer at the airport told me, “We call you ‘Pa Ties’ in Chinese, which means ‘iron brothers.’” There is also a common joke in China that Pakistan is the only friend Beijing could cultivate in 70 years.

Originally published in The News