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Published: July 17th 2013
I arrived in Urumuqi very early on July 1 and Becky met me at the train station. No need to say how great it felt to see her smile again and hold her hand after a month on the road. I often try to imagine how different this journey would be if we were traveling together, both riding a bike. Riding a bicycle through the mountains and the desert has been tough, challenging, exhausting both physically and mentally. Could she keep up? Will we travel this way together someday?
The big step for me in Urumuqi was to meet Becky’s Mom. I think it went well and we talked a lot from the very first day. She is a nice and caring lady who spoiled us with great food of all kinds. She baked bread for me every morning. She prepared the best meat I have had in a very long time: beef, lamb, horse (don’t choke!), chicken and she made sure I left the table full and content, and she did succeed every single time! These few days in Urumuqi felt amazing. Becky and her Mom took care of everything and I was able to relax and enjoy the
smooth ride: long walks in the city parks and other touristy places around Urumuqi, nice little naps, delicious food, nice conversations (after so many days alone on the road) and a lot of tenderness from my girlfriend. Gotta love having a Chinese girl as a girlfriend! ;-)
Becky’s Mom is very protective of her daughter and she asked me a lot of questions about the future. I knew she would and I tried to answer as earnestly as possible. The problem is that Chinese parents want stability, comfort, security for their child, and that her daughter chose a foreigner who left his job, who is taking a year off to ride a bicycle, who doesn’t really plan on buying a house in China, and is considering moving to another country (in the future) to work… So… Yeah, it’s gonna take some time for her to accept me! Chinese people do not speak their minds out straight so I’m not sure exactly what she really thought about me, but I guess she didn’t dislike me at least. Who would, right? ;-)
Let’s get back to traveling now. I really liked Urumuqi. First of all the weather was great in
July and the sky was blue almost every day. And the sun rises so early and goes down after 10pm! What a long day; plenty of time to do all sorts of things. I enjoyed the food there: lots of fruit, lots of meat. It’s a colorful mix of flavors from Central Asia with the spices of Chinese cuisine. I loved it! And as you will see on the pictures we spent our days eating apricots, grapes, nectarines, peaches, cantaloupe, almonds, raisins, and the sweetest little honey raisin-tarts! Yummy!
Urumuqi is a big city and it’s extremely spread out. When I left the city to go west, it took me more than an hour to get out of it. Urumuqi’s city center seems to be divided into 2 different areas: the typical Chinese city where the Han live and shop. You can find all the modern shopping malls, restaurants and other franchised shops just like in every other city in the country. And then you walk a block away and things change as you enter the Uygur quarter. Shops sell colorful headscarves for women, barbecued food, raisins, and nuts of all sorts EVERYWHERE! Men wear little green or dark
square hats on the back of their heads; mosques’ minarets can be seen from far away and in every direction, signs are mostly written in Uyghur language (a Turkic language with an Arabic-derived writing system). As I was walking through this area I felt like I was abroad again (I often think of China as my home, having been here for 7 years now). It reminded me of my trips in the Emirates when I saw the carpets and the tea sets being sold on the sidewalks. I loved the energy of the place and the variety. It’s so colorful (second time I use this term to describe my impressions on Urumuqi) and a little mysterious for someone like me raised in a small town in France.
In 2008 there were some riots in Urumuqi between the Uyghur and the Han. Many people died and since then it seems like everyone is extremely careful of what they say and how they act in the street. Armed policemen (dressed as the army) patrol all around the city and you cannot walk 200 meters without seeing a group of cops standing by the road, ready to intervene at any time. It’s
a bit of a weird feeling but I did feel pretty safe in Urumuqi (because of the armed force?). Now how do the Uyghur react to the intense security around? I’m not sure but there are definitely serious issues in this part of China.
One evening I went for a walk alone in the Uyghur area. I was the only foreigner there: no Han, no other white man around. I definitely stood out, especially with my bright shirt (I only have bright shirts to be seen on the road when riding!) whereas the local men wear very dark clothes usually. I was very careful of my surrounding because of all the bad stories I have heard about Xinjiang. And at one point something didn’t feel right and I realized there was a hand in my pocket! I slapped it away and turned around very fast, facing a group of men in their 40s. I felt like one hand had grabbed my phone but the person realized it was a piece of junk (or was it because I had realized? I’m not sure, everything went so fast) and the hand let go off it. My heart was beating so fast,
I wasn’t thinking anymore and I pushed one of the men, which didn’t seem to surprise him or anything. He just told me in Mandarin, that it was okay and that my phone was still in my pocket… As I am writing this, I left Urumuqi a week ago and on the road I have been talking to many Han who always ask me why I am traveling alone here and whether I am afraid. One Chinese man even told me that I should get a gun because the Uygur will try to kill me… (Han people believe in clichés of all sorts and tend to believe any story they hear). I am being careful but so far Uygur people have been very friendly with me, especially older men. They try to guess where I come from and they seem happy to see that a Frenchman is willing to come visit their area. More to come soon on Xinjiang!
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