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Published: October 21st 2013
My last day in Urumqi was spent wandering around the city.
On the onset, Urumqi looks like any other Chinese city. A city that has been pumping up development, especially in the last few years and is relatively young. According to wikipedia it used to be a major part of the silk route and since the 1990's has been developed economically and is a transport node. It is the gateway into China from the West. More than anything else, Urumqi's unique location and its influence on the city, can be understood by taking a closer look at its demography. As I mentioned in a post before this,'The other side of China', there is a 75.3 % population of the Han chinese, 12% Uighers and others, Mongols, Kazhaks, Uzbeks, Russians, Tibetian, Manchu among others make the rest. The fact that Urumqi is in fact a Mongolian word meaning 'beautiful pasture' itself brings home the multiple ethnic background of this city. Being the biggest city in western China it is strategically important for being so close to Mongolia, Russia and Central Asia.
The city is divided roughly into areas occupied by the Han Chinese and the rest. It is easy to
figure out which part you are in simply by observing the people around you. The transitions between different neighborhoods is smooth, and yet, the economic conditions, quality of roads and presence of army personnel can make the distinguishing easy. The increase in the number of onion domes in an area can only help.
One needs to invest some time to be able to see behind the glitz and glamour of the recent development to be able to see its uniqueness. As you walk from the Northern side of the city to the south, you can feel the presence of Han Chinese decrease. The bazaars become full of grapes and raisins and the curd is displayed out,fresh and cold. Narrow lanes come to dead ends at unexpected places, sharp turns, sometimes lead into very pleasant lanes covered with grape vines. Butcher shops hung with freshly skinned meat. It's noisier, rather exuberant and you can see so many different faces. So much so that, every time I looked at one, I couldn't help but wonder what their ethnic background is. Its like a program in my brain. Checks each face against its likely ethnic background, then automatically confirms with their dress
and mannerisms. Oh that lady looks Russian, but hold on, maybe just a glimpse of Kazakh?, but the covered head suggests muslim?!? And then I'd come to my closest approximation. I don't know if these people could see how I was categorizing each of them, but I sure could see the bewilderment on their faces on seeing me. On most occasions it wasn't that, they didn't recognize where I was from, but it was more of a 'what are you doing here??'. Don't get me wrong, wasn't like I din't feel welcome, they just seemed surprised that an Indian would be roaming the streets in Urumqi.
After the morning's wanderings, I made my way to one of the big gardens of the city. This one is called People's park. A major road system/highway, right next to the park, divides the city for pedestrians, but makes the city smaller for vehicles. It has some very large well maintained gardens, where the elderly and the kids like to spend most of their time. Men and women play chess, carrom and cards lazily under the wutong trees gently swaying in the breeze. The fast expressway right next to the garden is in
absolute contrast to the calm and shady garden. While walking along, I happened to chance upon a local orchestra, they'd arranged themselves in a pavilion of the garden and had quite an audience patiently standing all around them listening. As I walked further on in the garden the notes of another band, transformed from the one I was leaving behind. The garden had several groups of people, sincerely practicing their instruments. As the day progressed and it started to get dark, more n more people were coming to the garden. It became difficult to walk without making way for other people every few steps. The division in community could be seen in the garden as well. On the northern side were more tai chi masters and several groups of Han Chinese dancing gracefully to their typical string instrument tunes. While on the southern side were a larger, but single group of the others dancing on a fast paced Turkic song.
We ended out day with pizza in the only western run cafe in Urumqi. It is also known to be the only place Uigher and Han Chinese both frequent. While chatting with the chief chef, a Spanish
man, who has also been running a business in China for the past 7 years, I felt like Urumqi used to be more of a wild place. Several people called it their own. And yet most of the people who are here, had come here on business and somehow stayed back. It felt like it used to be a port city, a neutral zone where not too many laws applied. And suddenly at the turn of the decade, it was realized that it has now become settled. I had beautiful images of people crossing the oceans of the desert and finally reaching Urumqi after travelling for months. Now, it is one of China's newer commercial districts and all those people who came here years back, are fighting to call it their own.
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