Published: November 9th 2009November 9th 2009
To tell you the truth, I am in actual fact not writing this blog in Urumqi. This would be impossible for me to do since the Chinese government has cut all internet connections to the outside world, all international phone calls and any other means of communicating beyond the province of Xinjiang. Why? Well Xinjiang like Tibet is rather sensitive and like Tibet it has a rather restive native population who from time to time shatter Beijing's dream of a glorious unified motherland where all nationalities live in peace side by side with one common goal in mind, which is to help China in its path towards development and progress. That is the theory, the practice is rather different, and in August there were some serious riots in Xinjiang and in Urumqi in particular between the native Uyghur's and the migrant Han Chinese. It started due to an incident in the east of China between Uighur workers and Han Chinese workers at some factory, it proved to be the trigger for major unrest in their own state. Long held frustrations boiled over and before the government knew what was happening mobs armed with sticks and stones were rampaging through the streets
of Urumqi attacking anybody who looked Chinese as well as Chinese owned stores. Needless to say this was not a very good time for the Chinese in Urumqi, and they were rather shocked and angry about the whole business. It is also not their fault, they came to Urumqi to make a better life for themselves because this is where things were happening, here was where the money lay and the Chinese government stimulated them to come here. The problem is maybe not those Chinese coming here (after all everybody wants to make a better life for themselves), but the fact that the native Uyghur's were largely overlooked and ignored by the government. Job opportunities abound, but not for the Uyghur's. Money was to be made, but somehow the Uyghur's didn't benefit. This could only last that long, eventually it was bound to reach a turning point and resentment towards the newcomers who were seen to usurp their jobs and skim away money meant for them would come to a head. And that time was August.
After a week of different approaches the government decided enough was enough and cracked down on the demonstrators. The result of both the
initial riots and the crack down were a load of dead people on both sides and no real difference in the situation. So now Urumqi, like Lhasa, is full of security personnel, both military and civilian. There also are groups of elderly men and women walking around with batons and wearing red arm bands, who somehow remind me of pictures I have seen of the Red Guard back during the day of the cultural revolution. Looking at the age of those groups I imagine that they once were just that, enthusiastic Red Guards. And now the opportunity has arisen for them to dust off their uniforms and wear them again.
Of course I wasn't in Urumqi the whole time. I left Lhasa by train to Golmud, a fantastically scenic journey through the Tibetan plateau and over snowy mountain passes, all the while extra oxygen would be pumped into the carriage at the higher altitudes. And than I arrived in Golmud, once a city at the end of the world, described as a rather dingy place by some. But that was long ago, now it looks like what I would imagine perhaps Bozeman, Montana might look if it where Chinese.
It has leafy and broad streets, shopping malls, fast food restaurants and is a tad boring. In fact after visiting several of midsized towns on my way to Urumqi I discovered they all look like this, as if Bozeman was copied and pasted around the country, for say every town below half a million inhabitants. China seems to be rediscovering itself into a midwest shopping mall! But it is too early to tell, I have only visited a few of its smaller cities and only been here for three weeks. At the moment I won't have time to test my hypothesis, because I am leaving again. But sometime next year I will be returning to China for hopefully a six month stint and I will be able to find out whether I am wrong or right or maybe both.
After Golmud, some bureaucratic hassles and a night bus to Dunhuang I arrived in this city, my last stop before Urumqi. Dunhuang looks like Golmud at a lower altitude with some minor additions and changes. It is lying at the edge of the desert and just outside town are some major sand dunes, which as expected are also big tourist
Train from Lhasa to Golmud
The railroad making its way towards Golmud
attractions. I however came for the other tourist draw card, which is the Mogao Buddhist caves. No photo's allowed inside the caves and only ten of the several hundred are open to the public at a time. To make up for the lack of pictures I bought some postcards and took a photo of them so that you can get a little impression of what the caves looked like on the inside. It was all very interesting, but after being to the Ajanta and Ellora caves which I could visit at my leisure, it was somehow disappointing. Not that it wasn't beautiful, but having to rush through a selected few caves with a guide isn't really that pleasurable. It is of course a lot better for the preservation of the caves, and I fully understand the need to restrict access to them.
Finally having spent all the money I was willing to spend in Dunhuang I left for Urumqi and encountered those quaint old men and women in their best Red Guard uniform patrolling the streets with their batons. And I would meet them every day for the next week or so, while I waited for my Kazakh visa
to be processed. And so you can guess where this blog is actually written and about which country the next one will be.
There are more photos below