The Uyghur photographer capturing his homeland’s natural beauty — before it’s too late

Ablikim Amat’s photos document the natural beauty that hangs in the balance in the Uyghur region, where China is extracting the land's abundant natural resources.
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Photos by Ablikim Amat

There’s a saying in exiled Uyghur photographer Ablikim Amat’s motherland: Without land, there is no life.

In the last decade, the vast politically contested region which its indigenous Uyghur inhabitants call East Turkestan, and which Chinese authorities call Xinjiang, or “new frontier,” has become known to the world as the site of a brazen genocide

Under Chinese control, the Uyghur people and their way of life face an existential threat. But so, too, does the land itself.

From 2000 to 2015, Amat traveled across the region to capture the desolate beauty of East Turkestan’s mountain peaks, oases, deserts and grasslands — landscapes which hang in the balance as Beijing works to extract the region’s abundant natural resources.

Researchers say Beijing’s exploitation of its so-called “new frontier” has depleted lakes and waterways, endangered plant biodiversity, and polluted the air. With the expansion of oil refineries, coal conversion plants, migration and development, and China’s multinational Belt and Road Initiative, the region’s local ecologies, public health, and access to clean air and water are all at risk.

“In recent years, my homeland and its people have become the target of unprecedented state-led oppression, and has gained the attention of the world,” says Amat, who now lives in Boston and is exhibiting his photography at the Harvard University Asia Center this spring. 

For those with “a modicum of care and conscience,” he says, “I hope that through my photography, I can help you gain a clearer understanding of Uyghur homeland, its geography and its unique cultural heritage.”

The Junggar Basin is in the north of the Uyghur homeland, between the Tengritagh and Altai mountains. The Qurban Tungut Desert is situated in the Junggar Basin. There are also rivers and lakes such as Irtysh River, Ulungur Lake and Ebinur Lake. The basin is home to wild animals such as Mongolian khulan, antelopes and wild horses. It is abundant in oil, coal and natural gas reserves.
Ablikim Amat
The Teklimakan Desert, sometimes known as “The Sea of Destruction,” is in the center of the Tarim Basin. It is one of the 10 largest deserts in the world and the second largest shifting sand desert in the world. The entire desert is roughly 1,000 kilometers long from east to west and 400 kilometers from south to north, spanning approximately 330,000 kilometers squared. It receives about 100 millimeters of annual rainfall.

An award-winning photographer and calligrapher born in the Uyghur town of Khoshut, Amat dedicated himself to documenting his homeland’s haunting natural beauty before it’s too late. Amat worked from the ground and the air to capture East Turkestan’s unique geographical landscapes, from the lush Altai Mountains to the golden hills of the Tarim Basin to the Uyghurs’ unique irrigation system.

But under Chinese authorities, groundwater and glacial water reserves, among other natural resources, are being depleted. Longstanding sustainable agricultural and water preservation practices, based on indigenous inhabitants’ vast knowledge in adapting to the region’s harsh and dry climate, have been abandoned and dismantled. 

China’s recent moves are part of a long legacy of imperial encroachment into Uyghur land. The race to extract and exploit the ecologically fragile land’s strategic geographic location and abundant resources — oil, cotton, coal, natural gas, gold, minerals, grains and medicinal plants — has led to centuries of Soviet, Russian and Chinese efforts to control East Turkestan.

“Xinjiang’s rich natural resources were a siren song attracting the attentions of foreign powers, Chinese planners, and provincial officials,” historian Judd Kinzley writes in his book Natural Resources and the New Frontier. “The campaigns to gain access to natural resources left a firm imprint, the outline of which remains visible on Xinjiang’s landscape.”

The Uyghur homeland is in the center of the Eurasian continent, far from oceans, with a dry and semi-arid climate. Rivers, lakes and wetlands like the one pictured here are therefore some of its most valuable resources. In the Ertish River Valley, birds glide softly above the burbling, clear river waters.
The Tarim River, sometimes known as “The Wild Horse,” is the mother river of the Uyghurs. The Tarim River flows along the northern edge of the Tarim Basin. Its water source is the Karakoram and Tengritagh mountains and is 2,179 kilometers long. One of the five largest inland rivers in the world, the Tarim River once flowed into Lake Lop Nur before the 1960s. Later, as humans began to manipulate the water in the upper and middle reaches to expand agriculture to uncultivated lands, the water sources for the lower reaches were cut off, and Lake Lop Nur dried up. The ecological environment of the Tarim Basin has vastly deteriorated.

From mining to hydrofracking to unsustainable agricultural practices, Beijing’s resource extraction “aims to maximize profit at the expense of the environment, with little benefit or even consultation with indigenous Uyghur populations,” the Uyghur Human Rights Project’s 2016 report found. 

Today, the South China Morning Post reports, the region’s Tarim Basin is China’s largest oil and gas-bearing area, with an estimated 16 billion ton of reserves. And, in an effort to decrease dependence on foreign oil and energy, the drilling continues.

Researchers say East Turkestan has been the site of ongoing settler colonialist programs, which in spurring migration, tourism and development are fueling a water crisis. It’s also the site of decades of nuclear weapons testing, which exposed over a million inhabitants to nuclear fallout and spurred environmental degradation including the drying of the Lop Nur lake. 

The Kucha Red Mountain Gorge, sometimes known as Kucha’s own Grand Canyon, is located to the north of Kucha City and south of the Tengritagh Mountain. The Kucha Qiziltagh Jilghisi, which reaches 2,800 m above sea level, has unique geological attributes: Its mountains are a deep red, and some parts resemble rocky forests, while others have narrow, long ravines. The layers of this mountain are beautiful and mysterious and fascinate all who view it.
Mount Telke is an important cross point on the Urumchi–Ghulja road. The Sayram Lake is situated to its north. Mount Tekle is interspersed with high snow-capped peaks, dense forests, green meadows and flowing streams.

That increasing desertification under Chinese water policies has in turn led to ecological loss, including the depletion of the poplar tree. Per the UHRP, official sources document that poplar forests were reduced by about 60% from the 1950s and to the 1970s.

As one researcher described in the report, “destruction of East Turkestan’s ecosystem destroys the Uyghur culture itself.” The poplar tree is iconic in the Uyghur culture. As Amat notes, there is a saying that Uyghurs sometimes tell their elders: Live as long as a poplar tree.

For both East Turkestan’s indigenous inhabitants and natural environment, human rights advocates fear the clock is ticking.

The Uyghur people have a deep love for the poplar tree, which are widespread in the middle and lower reaches of the Tarim River and are also spread throughout the Jungghar Basin. Poplar trees appeared 135 million years ago and is one of the oldest deciduous tree species in the world. The tree that grows in the dry and salty desert conditions of the Tarim basin. Wooden objects found in ancient fortresses and cemeteries in the Tarim basin were discovered to be made of poplar tree wood and had been well preserved for thousands of years.
Tengritagh is one of the seven major mountain systems in the world and spans through Uyghur homeland as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. At is 2,500 kilometers long, it is considered the largest independent mountain system in the world. Tengritagh is the world’s farthest inland mountain system from the ocean. In 2013, the mountain ranges were included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Aysha Khan is the deputy managing editor at Analyst News. Her reporting on the Uyghur diaspora has been published in the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, Religion News Service and other outlets.