From the top of the Prince of the Sky's high tower, the pavement below is a vertigo-inducing abstraction, a coarse grey expanse dotted with people-like specks. But the Prince, one of the best tightrope walkers in the world, doesn't think about the pavement. He looks towards his destination – another high tower on a distant hillside – and contemplates the thin steel cable strung across the expanse.
For Aisikaier Wubulikaisimu, 41, tightrope walking is more than a circus act – it's a national sport with two millennia of history, the core of his cultural being. Aisikaier, hailed as the Prince by his publicist, is Uighur, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang in China's far north-west. He has friendly, wide-set eyes, a burst of knotty dreadlocks and a gnarled scar just below his jaw, from when he fell from a low wire as a child and impaled himself on the protruding end of a metal coil. In his native language, tightrope walking is called dawaz, and like all dawazperformers, he refuses to use safety equipment. Every walk is a dance with fate.
"I represent the people of Xinjiang," Aisikaier says in stilted Mandarin. "If I fail, people will think I'm a joke. So I don't think about failure. Either I succeed, or I die." He laughs, flashing a row of white teeth. Suddenly, Xinjiang music blares from the speakers below – a sweep of hand-drums, fiddles and lutes – and he steps on to the wire.
Aisikaier is, by most metrics, a success. He works for a small theme park in rural south-west China, which pays him well. He has broken four Guinness world records, most of them for speed–mad 100-metre dashes across dizzyingly high wires, and frequently appears on Chinese television. Yet for Aisikaier and other Uighurs, navigating Chinese society is itself a tightrope act, fraught with an equal degree of peril. They are China's most beleaguered ethnic group – feared, misunderstood and economically marginalised. Cosy up to Han society and they could be ostracised. Struggle against it and they could be jailed.
"I think [dawaz] is a nice metaphor for the sort of place that Uighurs find themselves in, between Chinese society and central Asian society, between Islam and Chinese secularism," says Dru Gladney, an expert on China's ethnic minorities at Pomona College in California. While the Chinese government supports traditional Uighur music and dance, staging elaborate shows to showcase the country's ethnic diversity, it barely touches dawaz. The sport is too rugged, too individualistic. "You can say it's a weapon of the weak, but it's also a very effective way of showing the resilience of Uighur culture," he says.
Every month seems to bring news from Xinjiang underscoring the troubled region's entrenched ethnic divide. In November, 11 people died when a Uighur mob attacked a police station. On 15 December, a late-night clash between gun-toting police and machete-wielding Uighurs took 16 lives in the region's arid west. The unrest reached Beijing in October,when an SUV ploughed through pedestrians in Tiananmen Square and caught fire, killing five people and injuring dozens. Authorities quickly identified the driver as Uighur and described the incident as an act of terrorism, motivated by "religious extremist forces". Uighur activists abroad called it a cry of desperation, a last-ditch protest against religious and cultural constraints.
Tensions in Xinjiang reached boiling point in July 2009, when knife-wielding Uighurs rioted in the region's capital, Urumqi, indiscriminately killing scores of Han Chinese. Since then, authorities in Xinjiang have kept up a relentless campaign of surveillance cameras, internet monitors and paramilitary troops. They pressure women to remove their veils, discourage fasting during Ramadan and prohibit young Uighur men from visiting mosques, fearing they will organise protests. Han and Uighurs frequent different restaurants and nightclubs. Intermarriage is rare.
The tradition of dawaz is rooted in resistance. Thousands of years ago, performers say, a Xinjiang city was invaded by repressive ghosts. Uighur warriors could not push past its high wall and moat, so for a long time, the ghosts ruled unabated. But one brave warrior fixed a rope between a tree and the city wall and walked across, using two heavy swords to keep his balance. Ultimately, he scaled the wall, vanquished the ghosts and liberated his people.
Although Adili Wuxor has never vanquished any ghosts, his rise to national stardom has, for many Uighurs, comparable significance. Adili, 43, is Aisikaier's friend and only rival, a sixth-generation tightrope walker whose ancestors performed for Qing dynasty emperors in imperial Beijing. He is a darling of the state-owned media. In 2010, Adili performed on a wire strung over the Bird's Nest Stadium for 60 consecutive days, sleeping in a tiny cabin on its roof. In October, he walked between two guard towers on the Great Wall. "I'm of the sky. That's what I do," he told the China Daily newspaper afterwards. "And the Great Wall is a place particularly symbolic."
One evening, Adili walks into a Beijing hotel dressed in a powder-blue button-down shirt and pressed black slacks. He has just finished dining with a Malaysian oil magnate. Despite his boyish visage and compact frame, he carries himself with the air of a triumphant underdog. "If I never studied dawaz, it's very possible that dawaz would cease to exist," he says.
Adili began practising dawaz at the age of five and spent so much time on the wire as a child that it left permanent grooves in the soles of his feet. He recently opened a dawaz school for orphans in Xinjiang, and says he directs half of his RMB 6m (£605,000) annual income towards keeping it afloat. "Fewer and fewer people are studying dawaz," he says. "You know China has a one-child policy, and if you only have one child, you're not going to let her study something so dangerous."
Despite his status among Uighurs, Adili enjoys a friendly relationship with the Chinese state. His school's promotional materials show a group of students draped in a giant Chinese flag. He was a torch-bearer for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and has repeatedly served as a deputy to the National People's Congress, the national legislature. In 2004, Adili was touring in Toronto with an acrobatics troupe when seven members broke away from the group, went into hiding, and applied for political asylum. "We performed for the government and they used us to create this image of ethnic unity," one told the Toronto Star. "We didn't have a choice. We had no right to oppose." Adili returned to Xinjiang with the remaining five. Xinjiang's Communist party bosses quickly claimed the defectors had been tricked by "overseas separatists" and Adili publicly appealed for their return.
"He walked this weird line between knowing that he was a symbol of nationhood on one level, and even of independence, I guess – but at the same time, he was very comfortable in this coddled position as a performer," said Deborah Stratman, a Chicago-based documentary film-maker who lived with Adili as he toured Xinjiang for three months in 2001. "It could have been that he was an activist on some level, but he would never reveal that, especially to a foreigner."
Aisikaier's theme park is tucked away among lush, low-lying mountains an hour's drive from Kunming, the quiet capital of south-west China's Yunnan province. He says he couldn't find suitable work in his childhood home of Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road city of knife-carvers, naan bread and stucco courtyard homes – the only available positions are with government acrobatics troupes, restrictive and poorly paid. It's a sensitive subject for him. When pushed for details, his eyes dart away, and he begins picking at his fingernails.
Aisikaier's life at the park is placid, if not slightly purgatorial. The park's main attraction is the Kingdom of the Little People, staffed almost exclusively by people with dwarfism (it's like a fairy tale, its property mogul founder once said). They put on two variety shows a day for tourists, mostly office workers from the surrounding countryside. Aisikaier towers above his colleagues, many of whom he considers close friends; they spend most of their time chatting idly and playing cards. He lives in a mildewed dorm room and cooks halal food for himself, subsisting on a steady diet of vegetable fried rice. He plans to stay for another decade.
Occasionally, Aisikaier puts on elaborate performances organised by an agency in distant Anhui province. Last summer, his team strung a 700-metre-long cable between two cliffs at a geological park in central China and the Prince, seeking a new challenge, decided to cross it backwards and blindfolded. On the day of the performance, he wore a white tank top and pants. Although he had completed the walk in practice, that day was insufferably hot – 40C (104F) – and after about 50 minutes of shuffling backwards, he began to feel queasy. His balancing pole swayed uncontrollably, nearly tapping the sides of his feet. With 40 metres to go, his legs gave out; he desperately tried to grab the wire, missed and plummeted.
When Aisikaier came to a few seconds later, he was tangled in the branches of a tree. "When I was falling, my mind was blank. But once I realised what had just happened, I thought: 'I don't want to die. God, don't take me now. Give me another chance,'" he says.
Aisikaier went home that night shaken, but unhurt. Four days later, he was back on a wire.