Seattle photographer Ron Wurzer recently visited China's northwestern-most province, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and returned with this photo essay. Home to the Uighurs...

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Seattle photographer Ron Wurzer recently visited China’s northwestern-most province, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and returned with this photo essay. Home to the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group of Turkish descent, the region is difficult to get to for most foreign visitors.

After reading about the group following the U.S. Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Wurzer decided to visit anyway. (The former Seattle Times staff photographer has made a habit of visiting newsy hotspots, from Israel and the Palestinian territories to Cuba, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia and Iran.)

“I read a news story about how the Chinese government was using the attacks as an excuse to step up suppression and persecution of a little-known Muslim minority group of their own, the Uighurs (pronounced wee-gurs),” Wurzer said. “That was the first that I had ever heard of the Uighur people. Might make an interesting place to visit, I thought.”

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Here’s an excerpt from a note he wrote about his visit: “The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is China’s largest and yet most sparsely populated province. It’s about the size of Alaska and home to 15 million people.

A Uighur family prays together at a cemetery in Kashgar, the traditional center of Uighur culture, during the annual Muslim New Year Korban holiday.

“It’s geographically diverse — it includes the Taklamakan Desert, numerous mountain ranges and is rich in minerals. Xinjiang shares borders with (several countries, among them) Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The Uighurs are ethnic Turks, speak their own language, and have a culture different from the majority Han Chinese.”

Many of the Uighurs want self-determination; there has been sporadic violence.

“While I didn’t see any political activity when I was there, I met a warm, generous and traditional people that seemed to be coping with the mass influx of Han Chinese and the development and modernization that comes with it.

“But many Uighurs feel left out, I was told. Two Uighurs whispered the words ‘East Turkestan’ to me. Later I was told they could get into trouble with authorities for uttering those words because they’re associated with the separatist movement.”