Heading west out of Urumqi, buses speed along a newly paved highway littered with Sinopec gas stations, and head straight out into the wide open spaces of Xinjiang’s northern frontier area. The modern and well-maintained transportation network in these far-flung regions of China is not only a clear measure of China’s rapid economic growth, but also an indicator of Beijing’s determination to develop and keep a firm grip on its Western regions. Striving to bolster Xinjiang’s economic development potential, deflect social and political unrest and increase trade with Central Asia’s markets, China has not only built up local infrastructure, but is also involved in constructing roads in neighboring states, including the Dushanbe-Khojand highway project in Tajikistan.
These gleaming new roads comfortably lead west out of Urumqi towards Yining, the capital of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. Yining lies on China’s most western edge, a mere 100 kilometers from Kazakhstan’s border. The Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture is the largest Kazakh region in China. According to the 2000 census the prefecture covers almost 300,000 square kilometers and is home to 4.08 million people, a quarter of whom are Kazakh. The same 2000 census showed that 45 percent of Ili Prefecture residents are Han Chinese, while 16 percent are Uighur. Ili River Basin is one of the most prosperous regions of Xinjiang Province — endowed with rich mineral deposits, abundant water supplies, and fertile agricultural land.
More than 5,000 km from Beijing, the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture is understandably inclined to trade not with Beijing, but with its western neighbors in Central Asia. Since China’s reforms in the early 1980’s the prefecture’s capital city of Yining has again become a natural gateway for Chinese trade with Central Asia – Kazakhstan in particular. Many of the Kazakhs across Xinjiang Province say they have friends and relatives who regularly travel on business or who study in Kazakhstan. Today’s visa regulations for China’s Kazakhs (unlike those for China’s Uighurs) are lax and inexpensive. Thus, it is relatively easy for local Chinese Kazakhs to travel to Kazakhstan.
Yining has been a significant commercial hub for centuries. In the 18th century, as the Russian and Chinese empires were expanding, Yining was an important garrison and trading town. In the 20th century, Yining was part of the second independent Eastern Turkestan Republic, which separated from China and remained autonomous from 1944 – 1949. More recently, Yining was also the center of serious rioting against Han Chinese in 1996. Locals like to tell stories about cross-border ties in the Communist era. For example, during the Soviet collectivization campaign of the 1920s and 30s, Chinese Kazakhs helped their ethnic kin survive by providing food and other essentials. Less than a decade later, the favor was repaid as goods imported from Soviet Kazakhstan helped Ili residents endure a famine during China’s early revolutionary era.
Importantly for music, Yining and its surrounding area is not only home to a large community of Chinese Kazakhs, but has served as a cultural haven for Uighur, Mongol, Xibo and Kyrgyz peoples, among others. Over the past 50 years, Ili has also seen a large and persistent rise in its Han Chinese population (a trend common throughout Xinjiang). These demographics have clearly influenced Kazakh music, infusing it with the sounds and melodies of several cultures