A divided city

Urumqi Travel Blog

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Urumuqi was a busy time for us and what we experienced of this city's life was interesting; Brilliant when it was good and truly horrible at times: It is a city with deep ethnic differences and many minorities, financial inequalities are ripe and its political history is one of violence and suppression.  At the same time it is a positively lively place, it is beautiful, very progressive, very modern and its people are incredibly kind.  Our most important goal was still to try to obtain Kazakh viasas which turned into a farce.

The first glimpse of Urumuqi was one of chines poverty at its worst. It is not like Lao's or Cambodias poverty, where families live in tiny huts or on the streets.  Here, people generally have homes and jobs, all planned and provided by the government. Industry is booming, especially in the autonomous regions; With land and labour being cheaper they are the backbone of eastern chinas wealth and huge industrial cities have sprung up. They must be run by someone and people  are jammed into huge getthos unsuitable for healthy living. There is no privacy, no clean water, no clean air, no clean anything and no opportunity to leave because they have a steady job in a factory and the pastures are no longer there or to poluted to use. To see this and to see the children roam amongst all this crap is sad and to know that the government arranges this intentionally is even worse. Since Yunnan in the south of china we hadn't seen the price of having 'the fastest growing economy this clearly. A communist country where capitalism has gone wild... In inner Mongolia it is worse. National geographic, China (April issue) reported on a shepherd whose sheep had gone black and on cities where there is no daylight in the afternoon due to smog... 

The outskirts of urumqui are just like that. At least the Cambodians love their Mekong and the laotians have fields. In China the poorest are slaves to the government making cement for the new builds without protection , mining for coal in state run mines that regularly collapse because safety regulations are ignored, building roads or assembling plastic bits in factories that employ thousands and thousands of people and putt them all into small doorms. (Foxconn for example where this year alone 12 people have thrown themselves out of the windows -now they have bars infront of them!). in Urumquis outskirts there was nothing positive and like two aliens from another planet we passed trough. However amongst the rubbish and dust we stopped to eat the best meat pies in the world with a friendly Uighur baker, and watched life go by...

It is a city of many layers and many strong contradictions. The center is vibrant, lively and noisy: Skyscrapers and  nice apartment blocks dominate the horizon whilst parks, squares and leafy streets make the rushing city a pleasant place to be. The skyline is no doubt a statement of chinas power to transform this Islamic backwater into a mega city. However, walking into the old and exceptionally busy Uighur area, where markets stretch way off into back streets, is like reaching a place where the Chinese glitzy busyness couldn't go. Their army is here, marching about with big weapons on display but not their shops, not their dress sense and not their food or architecture. Here are old and new Islamic domes, almond shaped windows and mud brick houses. There are kebabs and old men gambling in the shade.  It is like two cities which are both intriguing but entirely different from another. To see these cities unfold like a beautiful patchwork blanket of colourful cultures and peoples, yet knowing that the threads that hold it together are a heavy army presence and a promise of severe punishments for any incitement of unrest is disturbing.

I didn't know how what to make of it at all. The outskirts were horrendous and the Chinese 'progress' has pros and cons... But we got stuck in to our mission: Soon we were getting priority treatment at the Kazakh embassy. No more elbowing the crowd outside the gates, just catching the eye of the guard and he would let us in with a sympathetic look. He let me, let myself out at times. Even the personality-less suit behind the glass we got to know well enough to realize that he, indeed, did have a personality and that he too, really wanted to help us. But it was out of their hands: The problem was with the ministry of foreign affairs in Kazakhstan, who were unable to type in Daren's letter of invitation correctly. His passport number was wrong and when that was fixed he would have to leave before he entered. We were in urumqi 19 days and Daren visited the embassy 6 times. Then we gave up. I had a 2 month double entry visa worth 170 US dollars, Daren had a single entry visa worth 20 US dollars. With this our time in Kazakhstan was shortened by a month and we will have to fly out.  

But ou time here was in no way wated as we went for long walks and eventually got under Urumuqis schtzofrenic skin. We both loved the city:  We found food we'd never tasted (I found a exceptionally stubborn stomach bug and had to explore the confusing world of Chinese medications. A mixture of clay and some ancient antibiotics did the trick eventually!) We watched boardgames being played everywhere and played the Uighurs at pool. And  we went to the parks where everybody meet. Big groups of mainly chinese, old and young, come together to sing and play instruments and 'air' their singing birds; People come to dance together and to enjoy the numerous funfair games, calligraphy drawing and boat rides and we even meet Phil and Del from London. First travellers we've meet properly since hong kong! 

Amongst the singers an English speaker appeared. "Why do you wear those shoes?!" was the very first question the crowd asked, pointing to my chinese slippers (Only the poorest of the poor wear these) "Because they are comfortable and cost 10 yuan." I answered. The crowd nodded "True true, that couldn't be argued" they all agreed. "But why do you ask that question?" Daren asked the crowd. Here our poor translator disintegrated in nervousness; I guess now that they have some money and some freedom they don't understand why somebody with as much money and freedom as me would wear shoes like a road worker. Many of the people singing in this group would have been forced to wear maos blue suits and tire sandals. And actually both Uighur and Chinese women have a serious love for shoes and big hair. High heels are a must and whilst the uighur women show off their big hair Chinese women que outside the hairdressers for wild perms. This is quite unique to Urumqi and it was nice to see some common ground.

Shoe question settled, the crowd asked us to sing. We refused. But then our interpreter who had been so nervous sang an english song, loud and clear, all alone with impossible pronunciation. We couldn't refuse any more and sang yellow submarine, wich they found curious. Then we sang jingle bells and a small chinese boy surprised us by singing along in chinese wich was even more curious. 

Here in the parks especially, the cities child friendliness, and it's many peoples love for a sunday in the park shone through much clearer than the ethnic divide.

However it was in the proud old uyighur area that Daren and I found ourselves as a minority: My grandmother belonged to the orthodox church for a long time and she traveled to Greece and Italy to learn the art of making mosaics. The orthodox church in oxford has one of her mosaics, the danish queen has one and at her home, where i lived for 8 years, there was the most beautiful Maria and Jesus icon. One of my fondest memories is of the peace in the mornings:  At 6 am i would go downstairs for my breakfast before going to college. Although it was still dark outside incense would burn, the candles would be lit and she would sometimes stand in front of the Maria icon to say her prayers in silence. Then we'd have coffee and toast together, as it was slowly getting light outside. On the 28th of may it was a year ago she died so Daren and I set out to find the orthodox church in urumuqi. We asked and asked using what we thought was international sign language for christian prayers, pens and paper and our useless phrase book and everybody was incredibly helpful; busy women with children, old grandmothers that couldn't understand anything we said, muslim men and women and even the police. But we couldn't find the church and instead ended up infront of a small catholic church on the edge of the uighur area. So on the 28th we went there and listened to the service.

Although we didn't get our visa the 19 days were well spent. To become part of daily life was a treat! I realized that the army and the political supression are, afterall, probably not the only threads holding this city together. Whilst the peace was enforced about a year ago, now, especially in the parks, the friendly feel that the ordinary people give off doesn't feel neither forced nor superficial.

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"You must not leave today. Leave tomorrow! It will be windy." Dooms day predictions seem to have become the norm when we try to leave so normally we don't listen. But this taxi driver had powerful reinforcements:
"Allah told me so." And then just to cover all possible protests he added: "...and I heard it on the radio." The air was yellow with sand so we took his word for it and checked back in. No doubt he would have given us the same advice the day after but the dust had settled and he was gone, so we too, finally left Turpan.

Before 1 pm we had done 56 lonely but easy km and then suddenly we must have reached the famous bottle neck; It felt like somebody grabbed my front wheel and shook it! we both had to get of and pushed at 3 km pr hour, at times having to stop completely as to not loose balance. As I faught to hold my bike upright it repeatedly just twisted round with a gust of wind, digging its pedals into my ankels and leaving me with deep bleeding wounds.

Here it is barren, uninhabitable and always windy. I imagined that this may be the home the winds that regularly travel over the Gobi and batter it and that we were wandering straight into it. Trespassing into an area where humans shouldn't be. Luckily it blew down on us and no dust was picked up, the peaks around us were clear and we needed no masks. Rather than just being shut into a world of wind we could see. Having nowhere to shelter we trotted on for another 9 km through windfarms until we reached the most desolate junction in the world: If you come from the mountain the left road will take you over 1000 km through the Gobi and if you take the right road you will go equal distances through the Taklamakan dessert. Surrealistic as this place was, we found a toll station with the greenest vegetable garden, a little further up; A Chinese built gate between normality and the illusionary world of the desserts. We waited for 5 hours in the garden but the wind refused to die down. Then we checked into a litlle truckers motel with an inch of grease on all walls.

The next morning the wind was still howling but after a short time a river appeared, grass and trees and then a village with about 3 ancient Uighur inhabitants. As chinese toll and petrol station staff obviously don't have it in them to man a gate to the desserts (They usually just build a concrete staircase and a fence and charge some entry if there is something a litlle magical) maybee theese 3 old Uighurs were the original keepers of the desserts winds and dusts, their mirrages and colour games, because here the wind finally stopped completely. It even turned.

An easy ride took us higher up into a valley which surprised us with grand views: A snow peaked mountain range in the north, an old fortress, yurts, sheep and a village all surrounded by the lushest green. We spent the night amongst big green hills. Urumuchi and it's 2 million inhabitants were only 16 km away but out here you wouldn't have guessed it. This was still the world of shepherds, farmers and nomads.
photo by: AndySD