Xin­jiang Diary禅之旅

That's China - - Contents - Text by / Daniel Plafker

Camels on the cur­tains, Uyghurs in the rafters! My long-awaited ad­ven­ture to the Great North­west is fi­nally un­der­way. Feel­ing some­what like a young Marco Polo in re­verse, I board my ex­press train to Urumqi. We haven’t even pulled away from the plat­form yet but the Xin­jiang mu­sic play­ing from the speak­ers and the heady hodge­podge of peo­ple on the train al­ready makes me feel as if I’ve en­tered an­other world.

DAY 1 Bei­jing Rail­way Sta­tion

Camels on the cur­tains, Uyghurs in the rafters! My long-awaited ad­ven­ture to the Great North­west is fi­nally un­der­way. Feel­ing some­what like a young Marco Polo in re­verse, I board my ex­press train to Urumqi. We haven’t even pulled away nd from the plat­form yet but the Xin­jiang mu­sic play­ing from the speak­ers and the heady hodge­podge of peo­ple on the train al­ready makes me feel as if I’ve en­tered an­other world. A pretty-eyed Gansu lady walks by, hair all tucked away un­der a silky black veil, while a griz­zled old Can­tonese bing­tuan cou­ple grum­ble good-na­turedly to each other nearby, mak­ing their way back to the dusty West af­ter a hard-earned taste of the cap­i­tal. Chil­dren rush up and down the length of the car­riage. Mi­grants re­turn home, set­tlers set off to make their for­tune, and trav­el­ers wait ea­gerly for their taste of ad­ven­ture. I sense that the di­ver­sity of my one small train car is only a taste of things to come.

DAY 2 Urumqi

What a sur­prise! This place is so of­ten writ­ten off as “just an­other Chi­nese city”, which couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth. Mod­ern, crowded, noisy, mas­sive yes – but far from or­di­nary. In­stead of the fa­mous Urumqi smog I was promised and chok­ing Xin­jiang heat I imag­ined, I’ve been de­lighted to find bright blue skies and cool clean air. The full force of the swirling cul­tural slushy that makes up this mod­ern me­trop­o­lis hit me like a desert sand­storm as soon as I dis­em­barked at Urumqi Sta­tion. As on the train, my dark hair, bronze skin, and Semitic fea­tures once again make me the sub­ject of mis­taken iden­tity and I am hit with a bar­rage of Uyghur from an ea­ger Tur­kic tout. The chaotic street­side bus­tle that one can ex­pect out­side any Chi­nese train sta­tion was marked here by a dis­tinc­tive Xin­jiang vibe. One-eyed beg­gars shak­ing coins be­neath wild lines of alien Ara­bic script, the smell of Chi­nese chives and the cuminy aroma of yang rou chuan'er (lamb skew­ers) min­gle in one hy­brid cloud of street food smoke.

DAY 3 Er­dao­qiao (Urumqi)

Tak­ing some time to ex­plore this city, I am struck by some of the amazing things that set it apart. Like many Chi­nese cities, Urumqi has grown at break­neck speed over the past two decades, bal­loon­ing from some­thing of a fron­tier back­wa­ter to a mon­strous set­tle­ment of nearly five mil­lion peo­ple, roughly di­vided into a more mod­ern sec­tion, and an older, more tra­di­tional area dom­i­nated by Uyghurs.

One of the re­ally unique things about Urumqi is that nearly ev­ery­one seems to come from some­where else, whether an­other prov­ince or a dif­fer­ent part of Xin­jiang. The chat­ter of a dozen alien di­alects might be over­heard in the course of a sin­gle bus trip. While this de­gree of ge­o­graph­i­cal di­ver­sity is true to­day of any large Chi­nese city, it is spe­cial no­table here be­cause the no­to­ri­ous di­chotomy be­tween 'wai di ren' and lo­cals, is not at play. Ev­ery­one is to some de­gree an out­sider and so no one’s re­gional quirk is any less le­git­i­mate than the next. The re­sult is a free­wheel­ing, any­thing-goes sort of Chi­ne­se­ness, un­re­strained by any con­form­ist no­tions of lo­cal­ity, and lively nd with fron­tier spirit.

Even across the ur­ban di­vide in the pre­dom­i­nantly Uyghur Er­dao­qiao neigh­bor­hood, a fes­ti­val of mul­ti­cul­tural moder­nity is in full swing. Whereas else­where in China, eth­nic cul­ture is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with an­ti­quated cus­toms and con­trasted with progress and de­vel­op­ment, the mi­nor­ity cit­i­zens of Urumqi join with their Han com­pa­tri­ots in build­ing on Silk Road tra­di­tions of cul­tural ex­change to forge the rugged 21st cen­tury iden­tity that is the cor­ner­stone of Xin­jiang’s spirit.

Here in Er­dao­qiao, tra­di­tion seems to weave ef­fort­lessly with the mod­ern. Ob­ser­vant Uyghur mom­mas mask their faces with one part se­quined veil and one part Chanel shades. Stylish youth walk the weath­ered streets in skinny jeans. Bearded mer­chants in white caps hag­gle loudly into touch­screen cell­phones. The dy­ing bleats of a ca­sual street­side slaugh­ter are all but drowned out by the blar­ing sounds of the lat­est Turk­ish pop.

DAY 4 Blend­ing in

Grow­ing up, as I have, in a major Chi­nese city, I am no stranger to the constant cu­rios­ity and at­ten­tion that for­eign­ers can ex­pect in this coun­try. Though the de­gree of this fas­ci­na­tion has var­ied over time and place from a full-on pa­parazzi photo-blitz to ca­sual novel in­ter­est, any in­ter­ac­tion is al­ways coloured, for bet­ter or worse, by a base­line recog­ni­tion that other party is a for­eigner.

In a place as di­verse as Xin­jiang, how­ever, where ap­pear­ances vary tremen­dously and be­hav­ioral pat­terns are so wide-rang­ing, I find my­self en­coun­ter­ing the wholly novel ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing able to nav­i­gate the streets un­no­ticed. More of­ten than not, I find I am pre­sumed Uyghur on ar­rival in most en­coun­ters, and be­cause of the wide range lin­guis­tic back­grounds at play, even pro­nun­ci­a­tion quirks don’t give me away. Walk­ing the streets, I feel as if I have been trans­formed into a new kind of su­per­hero: The In­vis­i­ble Laowai, an un­der­cover cul­tural com­mando (as it were), on the prowl for noo­dles and ke­babs. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing new per­spec­tive on Chi­nese in­ter­ac­tions that grant in­sights that never could be gleaned in even my own home­town.

DAY 5 On the move

Iwoke up (rel­a­tively) early yes­ter­day for my first at­tempt at Chi­nese hitch­hik­ing. I was very proud of the bilin­gual sign that I had made that said “KORLA” in both Chi­nese and (poorly spelled) Uyghur on a piece of old card­board. Many of the Chi­nese trav­el­ers I’d en­coun­tered had been get­ting around this way but, de­spite my best ef­forts, I could not seem to get it right. I boarded no fewer than five city buses try­ing to find the high­way south be­fore fi­nally mak­ing it there, af­ter which I had to walk 4km in the hot Urumqi sun to find the south­bound on­ramp. It was al­ready past noon and I had yet to leave the city. Even the naang I bought for sus­te­nance turned out to be stale and mouldy. When I even­tu­ally did find the spot though, my ef­forts paid off and within 20 min­utes, I found a ride.

The man who picked me up was a pi­ous Uyghur from Kash­gar; mid­dle-class and mid­dle aged. He had stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture in uni­ver­sity and now worked trav­el­ing the re­gion, build­ing mosques in dif­fer­ent towns. The man made a good pace across the Tian­shan Moun­tains – stop­ping only to make his even­ing prayers at a high­way rest stop amidst the sun­set peaks – and in no time had us de­scend­ing into the north­ern edge of the Tarim Basin where the oil boom­town of Korla lies.

My Xin­jiang ad­ven­ture is only just be­gin­ning and all the Tarim Basin stretches out be­fore me with its for­mi­da­ble deserts, an­cient ru­ins and sto­ried mar­ket towns. I’m ex­cited for what lies ahead, here at the edge of the realm.

Grand Bazaar, Urumqi

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