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Published: September 5th 2013
When this trip was first mentioned I had no idea what I was getting into. The landscape, the people, the food, the languages, everything is so unexpected and mixed up. Prepare to be surprised.
The 5 hour flight from Shanghai to Urumqi crosses some of the most exquisite topography. If you are lucky to be flying there on a clear day, as we were, on the later half of the flight, you could see glimpses of the Tibetan plateau and the rugged mountains of the Tian Shan change into the forbidding Taklamakan (In Hindi one could translate that as bald man's house :P) desert. The significance of this region on the silk route suddenly rings loud and clear. This was the buffer zone between Europe and China. The traders, merchants and travelers all trans versed this region to get to the more fertile lands of Eastern China.
As I walked out of the Urumqi airport and first looked at the beautiful Urdu script along side the Chinese characters, I was in awe. Its not like I haven't seen other languages written along side Mandarin in China. Korean and Japanese are quite common. But I had never imagined a world
where Urdu and Mandarin will get a chance to be alongside each other. Urdu is a script i'm used to seeing in India. Not that I can understand it, but I'm familiar with what it looks like. I'm used to seeing things written in Urdu in various places in India. But in China??? I guess, it comes down to how aware one is. Back at home in India... China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea are all grouped together as if they are one block different from India and the middle Eastern countries. They are the oriental countries, the people with weird eyes and flat noses. Never in my wildest of dreams had I imagined a place where the middle eastern countries and the Oriental(far East) countries actually come together! And how beautifully they do !
Last December in Nepal, I felt like it was a country where India and China came together. Their culture, religion, practices were all mixed up and halfway between Indian and Chinese practices. Now I think Urumqi is a city similar to that, a mix of Chinese and middle eastern features. With over 3,500,000 Uighurs (Eastern Turki) living in China, Xinjiang province has the maximum no. of
these people in the world. There are significant populations of Uighurs living in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc. The people of this region have been fighting whichever dynasty or state was ruling China for a country of their own for a long long time. Chairman Mao made this region the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, but i don't know how much of autonomy these people are actually entitled to.
The Uighur and the Han live in separate areas in Urumqi. You can clearly make out if you are in the Han part or the other part. I say 'other' and not just Uighur because there are several other minority groups living in the 'other parts'. One can also see Russian, Kazakh, Mongolian and Afghan people.
The Xinjiang Autonomous Museum is a must visit. Its a great place to get an introduction into the history and demography of this region. It talks of 12 different ethnic groups living in Xinjiang. Very colourful and interesting displays of the yurts(homes), animals and clothes of these people. There are also mummy's that were found in the desert that have very Indo European features. It must have been very difficult for the Chinese government
to accept the presence of the various ethnic groups and the mummy's proving existence of these people in this region from ancient times. A poster in the lobby of the museum emphasizes how all of these people including the Han have lived together happily under the Party Rule. This after only recently, there was news about 'terror' attacks in Xinjiang.
Walking along the streets in the Uighur areas was very strange for me. On the one hand, I was still in a daze from how I had landed in Central Asia, this hot pot of ethnic backgrounds. And on the other hand I was struggling with this sudden familiarity with the Uighur. After being a total outsider in Shanghai for 3 months I was suddenly not so different. The Uighur guessed my dad and I were from Pakistan and they weren't entirely wrong. My grandfather moved to Chandigarh after the partition from Lahore.
We had been warned of dressing like we would in any Muslim country and it proved true. The women here wore clothes that covered their arms and legs and yet they looked so beautiful in their lovely fabrics and beautiful deep set eyes. We ate
at a muslim restaurant that served the most delicious mutton Pulao i've ever had! They knew what the word chawal and kebabs were still kebabs. There are many Urdu words which we use in our daily language not realizing they aren't Hindi. And when the people in this strange land knew what they meant, it was thrilling! The waiter spoke to us in Urdu and even knew some Hindi words for numbers. For the first time in China other than in Shanghai we didn't have to use a calculator or menu card to communicate at a restaurant.
This familiarity although very thrilling was both disconcerting and heartwarming. We weren't neutral any more. We by our roots belonged to some place. Suddenly my prided 'global citizen' status seemed to have been snatched from me. They were classifying me and I didn't know what to do about it. Would they feel threatened or angry and assume that I had gone over to the other side and wasn't supporting them in their cause for a new state. Would they realize that i'm actually Hindu and they would hate me, not because I was economically better off but because I was their religious
arch enemy, would that take precedence in their reaction to me.
There were Chinese soldiers at every corner in the Uighur area ready with Lathis standing in a circle all looking outwards, ready for an attack from any side. I don't know if they were there to keep an eye out for a riot or what.. but they looked like they were the mice standing guard to protect each other in a land of carnivores smirking at their lame efforts.
Walking along the streets seeing the minarets and mosques dotting the skyline, the Islamic domes and pointed arch motives were everywhere. Windows, doorways, malls, shopping complexes even flyovers were decorated with Islamic patterns. A very touristy grand bazaar was also there with a Carrefour in its basement. We came across a Russian supermarket called 'free as the wind', with some interesting imported products from Russia I hadn't noticed anywhere before. People around us talked in this lovely accent very Arabic or Turkish in its sound. It was beautiful. Could hear the Arabic music too.
This first day in Urumqi left me highly uncertain and excited. So many thoughts coming into my head. I was still absorbing the
flavours and sounds of this new land. But we had somewhere else to go before I could come back and answer all these questions.
We ended the day with the train to Liu Yuan in Gansu province. There was another shocker waiting for me on the train. My father and i were in different cabins!!. We tried exchanging seats with an old Chinese man, but some mis-communication only made things weird. It didn't work. I was disappointed at first, but the day had been such a whirl wind I slept instantly and only woke up the next morning at day break. Since China follows Beijing time throughout the country, in spite of spreading so far and wide, day break was at 6.30 am!
All this while, I was unconsciously referring to this place as separate, travelling through these frayed edges of China.
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