Very early work—Xinchiang, Western China, formerly known as East Turkestan, October 2001.
A little over a month after the September 11 attacks, I was sent on one of my very first magazine assignments to document the Muslim minority Uyghurs in Western China. I was in Japan then when the photo director called me and asked if I would be willing to go there at once. The idea of being in this legendary part of the Silk Road had been a dream for years and the assignment was music to my ears. I said “yes” right away without thinking much. Once on location in Kashgar, while the allies were getting ready to invade Afghanistan just across the border over the Pamir Mountains, I would hear the occasional loud engine of a fighter jet flying at low altitude. I walked through the sleepy town endlessly, meeting people, stopping at teahouses, and was invited to peoples’ home to share a meal or attend a wedding.
At the time, there were no Chinese police or secret service tracking any foreigner’s moves, there were no restrictions. The old part of Kashgar felt like it had not changed much since the Silk Road trade era: there were old dusty red brick houses and narrow streets full of vendors trading all sorts of cheap imported items. As the border with Pakistan was about to close, the town was completely empty of foreigners except for a handful of Americans who were staying in the same “foreigners” hotel the writer and I were staying at.
I felt a sense of unease around those Americans. They had a somber energy and were spending their entire days seemingly “waiting” for something. They had long beards, were wearing a Keffiyeh, dressed in full robe and were a stark contrast with the mostly casual looking local Uyghurs Sunni Muslims. The writer I was with was convinced that they were trying to enter Pakistan through the Chinese border to join the Taliban forces in Afghanistan to fight along them. He turned out to be right. A few months later, once back in New York, I received an email from the FBI requesting to meet me. Those Americans I had met in Kashgar a few months earlier, were known as the terrorist group “Portland Seven”. (To be continued in the message section below)