May 7, 2007 - Urumqi, China
Crossroad in the Desert
The flight from Yinchuan to Ulumuqi was only two and a half hours but it crossed some of the most desolate land I have ever seen. There were no telltale signs of human activity.
No thin white road threads snaking along the auburn desert. No of the irregular patchworks of fields flowing over the land. No star-like twinkles of houses switching on their lights at dusk. Only the altitude-smoothed blanket of sand and white peaked mountains under the airplane wing.
And then, out of this dusky brown, a city.
Urumqi, also known as Wulumuqi in Mandarin, still plays much the same role it has historically - trade center - although it has become the largest manufacturing center in Western China. The region has been home to countless rulers including the Turks, the Khans, the Manchus and the Qing Dynasty. Consequently, the province that Urumqi governs, Xinjiang, is quite a mixing pot.
Covering a sixth of the entire country, the Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Region is home to nearly 35 mingzu including the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Mongols, Russians, Hui, Xibes, Tajik, Uzbek, Tatars and the Manchus. Comprising roughly 45% of the population, the Uyghurs dictate much of the cultural and social activity . Much like my province of Ningxia there is measurable tension between the minority groups and the Han Chinese.1
The city itself is large - over 2 million - and feels as modern as the other Chinese cities I have visited save for Hong Kong. It seems each street corner has a small stand selling dried fruits and nuts - raisins, apricots, pistachios, almonds, plums, dates, figs, apples, walnuts and other unrecognizable ones.
Even though my flight didn’t land until after 11PM the city was still very much alive - probably due to the two timezones in effect. Officially China has one timezone but this can cause some difficulties - namely that the sun doesn’t rise in Urumqi until after 7AM and doesn’t set until well after 9:30PM. To combat this there is the local time, Xinjian Shijian, that runs two hours later than Beijing Shijian.
The city that appeared out of the desert under the wing of my plane distinguished itself from China as soon as I had spent 10 minutes walking around. There was none of the Chinese shyness. If people were interested, they turned and smiled, otherwise they went on their business. None of the wide-eyed, jaw-dropped staring that I have become so accustomed to.
Perhaps it is the strong Central Asian and Western influence. The heads moving along with me in the crowd were quite the mixture - brown hair, red hair, scarf-covered, curly black hair, white hats, green hats and more - certainly not the usual homogeneous black.
Wanting to top off the tank before bed I stopped at one of Urumqis’ famous food stands - a chuar roast - and was treated not as an interloper, strange foreigner or alien sprouting forehead tentacles, but rather a customer.
The chuar wasn’t bad either.
Unreal. I consider myself a champ in geography (I even humiliate my students with map quizes), but that's apparently another of my conceits. If truth be told, I never heard of Urumqi. If you asked me where it was, I would have guessed Africa. Maybe the mayor there has never heard of Alfred. If so, we're even.
Maybe Urumqi had some sort of childhood allure for me - maybe it was the entire Silk Road route - but I can now say I've been to a small part of it.
What a place!