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