Published: September 3rd 2010August 31st 2010
[written in Xi'an 3 Sept 2010]
Like all other western Chinese cities we have visited, Urumqi is in the midst of an economic boom, fueled by resource development, domestic tourism, and migration of people from the eastern part of the country. The central and northern sections of the city could almost be anywhere else in China with much new construction of apartments, food from all parts of the country, trendy shops reminiscent of Robson Street in Vancouver, and some opulence in the form of four- and five-star hotels and even foreign restaurants that serve sashimi in this place that is farther from the nearest ocean than anywhere else on Earth.
But the south side of Urumqi is another city altogether. This is the city of the Uyghurs and some Hui muslims with different language, food, religion, and manner of dress than the northern part. Since the conflicts of 2009, which was basically a race riot with people killed on both sides, Han Chinese keep away from all but the small tourist-oriented portion of this part of the city. In the half-hour walk from our hotel in the central part to the south end, we saw the sudden transition firsthand.
Even though it's been a year since the last outbreak, the tension between the two groups is palpable. Attempting to prevent a recurrence of last year's events, Chinese police and military personnel are everywhere, marching on the street, guarding public buildings like the Xinjiang museum with riot gear at the ready, and operating checkpoints at all entrances to the city.
When we first arrived in the city a Han Chinese travel agent who we asked about hotels discouraged us from staying in the south end because "they speak Arabic there." (It turns out that, due to the heavy restrictions throughout Xinjiang now, there might not be a hotel in that district that could accept foreigners anyway. Also, they don't speak Arabic, they speak Uyghur, which is a Turkic language, although they use Arabic script to write it.) At the hotel where we finally stayed, the staff were upset when we asked whether they used official Beijing time or the more realistic informal local time, which is two hours earlier to conform to the actual longitude of Xinjiang. In the current environment, even how you set your watch is seen as a political statement. On the other side of town,
the few Uyghurs willing to converse with Jacob in Chinese talked about the exiled Uyghur leader, Rebiya Kadeer, as soon as they found out we are from the USA (she is currently in Virginia). Some also made disparaging remarks about the Han.
The Xinjiang museum has a great display of the history of the autonomous region with many interesting artifacts, taken mainly from graves excavated at abandoned city sites. The collection includes a number of well-preserved mummies, some nearly 4000 years old. Some of these have become a focus for the Uyghur independence movement, presumably because they document early non-Chinese occupation of the region. This is the main reason the museum is heavily guarded. This museum also includes a lot of propaganda about the great harmonious relationship between the Chinese and the several ethnic groups of Xinjiang, including statements about how the leaders of the walled cities in the desert welcomed the Chinese 800 years ago as protection from raiders coming form the north and west. The propaganda is repeated on signs and murals throughout the city, in Turpan, and presumably throughout the autonomous region.
Despite the above, we enjoyed both cities of Urumqi. The Uyghur part of
In the shop where bread stamps are made and sold
Our friend in the back led us here and translated from Uyghur to Chinese so we could negotiate the purchase.
town, especially, enchanted us, mainly because of the great food (see next post), but also because of the friendly people we encountered there. After buying some silk scarves at one of the tourist-oriented shops, we asked about where to find the bread stamps used to keep the middle part of the distinctive Uyghur flat bread from rising. They told us that this would be in a Uyghur part of the market, well out of the tourist area, but we were still interested. So, the young niece of the shop owner led us through the buildings and back alleys of the market until we finally reached a wood and metal fabrication shop where we found bread stamps, a variety of cooking utensils, and many other things inside.
As had happened in the Tibetan areas, we again had a three-language negotiation with our friend translating Uyghur to Chinese and Jacob translating Chinese to English. In this way we worked out the purchase of two beautiful bread stamps and two small rolling pins, two of the things needed to make the round naan that is flat and cracker-like on the inside and puffy around the circumference. The other thing needed is the
Tian Shan mountains and Heaven Lake from the north
The snowy mountain in the photo is Bogeda Feng, 5445 m.
cauldron-like Uyghur bread oven. This is something we weren't able to purchase or take home.
We also made the day trip to Heaven Lake in the Tian Shan mountains north of Urumqi. The main attraction to us was the high mountain scenery, an incredible contrast to the desert environment we had been travelling in. We were also interested because these highlands are populated by Kazakh herders, a very different group from the agricultural Uyghurs of the lowlands. However, the only Kazakhs we saw has set up yurts for tourists, where our bus stopped and we had to wait 45 minutes before finally proceeding to the mountain and the steep hike up to the lake. Although we didn't see any real Chinese Kazakh herders, a few days later we did meet a real person from Kazakhstan as part during our airline ordeal, which I will relate in a subsequent post.