Saturday, 6 July 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2n: Urumqi (II)

world-map urumqi


Since we’re still in Urumqi this week, I decided to look up a bit about the city and what has happened to it since our visit and I learnt a couple of interesting facts. Firstly, the huge mosque which we saw under construction, (see photo in the text), was in fact no mosque at all but instead the International Grand Bazaar which, at 4000 square metres is the largest bazaar in the world and has over three thousand stalls. It opened less than a year after we visited. Typical.

Still, as this post reflects, we both rather liked Urumqi which is surprising as it often gets bad reviews off travellers. What we both liked though was how it was a meeting place between two worlds, Islamic and Chinese. Stroll down a street and you could go from one to the other which is truly something to behold. However, when two cultures meet it is often not harmonious. As we wandered the streets of Urumqi we noticed that the Chinese and the Uyghurs rarely seemed to mix and indeed in 2009 tensions between the two groups erupted into horrific riots which left, according to official Chinese figures which are much disputed, over 200 dead. A sobering thought for multiculturalists like myself.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna



9th August, 2002 – Urumqi, China

We awoke that morning hungry, and to the sad realisation that we had little under Y10 between us to alleviate that hunger. Our last money had been foolishly spent the night before you see, on a Matrioshka doll, (you know, the Russian ones that fit inside each other), that boasted Communist leaders instead of portly Slavic wenches on the front. It was rather good actually, starting with Mao (who else?), then a grinning Deng Xiaoping, followed by the people’s favourite, Zhou Enlai, before reaching the father of the modern Chinese nation, Sun Yat-Sen and then culminating in a tiny representation of their great ideological daddy, Mr. Karl Marx.

But good or not, it still didn’t change the fact that we were now skint, and so had to walk all the way across town to the bank, a distance that turned out to be much further on foot than it had seemed in the taxi. Nonetheless, we eventually got there, and changed our euros, but by that time we were famished so we quickly got rid of some of the yuan we’d just acquired on a taxi into the centre of town for some grub.

Urumqi’s commercial centre, like those of Lanzhou and Yinchuan, felt rich and prosperous, with tall glass towers lining the busy streets. My initial impression from the train of a Stalinist town was proving to be very wrong. The epicentre of it all was the Renmin Guangchang or ‘People’s Square’, another mini Tiananmen, though this time without a Mao portrait on the regional parliament building. What caught our interest most of all though was a beautiful flower and rock display in the square’s centre, no doubt connected to the same festival as the floats that we’d seen in the park the day before.

We dined down a shabby backstreet on lamb and onions in a delicious gravy with Uyghur bread; a local staple that we very much enjoyed. I found how the two cultures, so diverse, existed in the same town fascinating, and whilst the Chinese beat their Turkic brothers hands down in making money and economic progress, the Uyghurs surely held the upper-hand as regards cuisine. In fact, in my opinion, the further west that we’d travelled, the better the food had become, from the weird yet bland Japanese, to the spicy yet overpowering Korean, to the tasty fried Chinese and now the mouth-watering Uyghur kebabs. But there again, I ask you, isn’t that perhaps only understandable when to the very furthest west lies the land of chip shops, fried breakfasts and steak pies?

Following lunch I went to email and search on the internet for more about the Qinghai to Tibet railway line that I’d heard about in Dunhuang. Annoyingly however, soon after my arrival, the connection broke down. To pass the time whilst it was being restored, I ordered a drink and got talking to a very boring Chinese computer nut and another fellow who had once worked in Kazakhstan, and who reckoned that Urumqi was far better off. And from what I’d seen so far, I could imagine it.

That evening we decided to dine once again at the Uyghur restaurant, yet to our annoyance we struggled to locate where it was. We did however enter the Uyghur district which we found out to be far larger than we’d originally supposed. Our restaurant the previous night had apparently been on the very edge and its heart was something else entirely. The streets were thronged with people and stalls which sold every kind of goods imaginable. It was like a Turkish bazaar and a world aware from the sophisticated yet somewhat staid Chinese centre less than a kilometre away. Here the people were darker skinned with an almost European look about them, all the men sported skullcaps and the women, brightly-coloured headscarves. Indeed, I was surprised to see a significant percentage wearing niqaab, (the full face veil, often including the eyes), something only seen in the most conservative of Muslim countries. But religion here was obviously a big part of people’s lives. On every street stood a mosque, or one under construction, including one that we passed that was enormous beyond belief, easily two hundred metres square! The West might talk of the Chinese suppression of religion and identity, but it certainly wasn’t an issue here. Nowhere in all my travels have I seen a level of religious fervour equal to that displayed here. As I dodged covered women and marvelled at the huge new prayer houses, I was amazed. This I had not expected! The question that intrigued me however was, would Uzbekistan be the same? We dined in a restaurant (that did not serve alcohol) on one of the main streets that surpassed the other in décor, but not in taste, before catching a cab back to ‘China’.


urumqi15 More Baghdad than Beijing: Urumqi’s Uyghur District

Having done the People’s Park the day before, it was now the turn of the city’s other pleasure garden, the Hongshan Gongyuan, or ‘The Hong Mountain Park’, and the lights of the sky were dimming as we passed through the entrance. Now Renmin Gongyuan had been, as I said, veritably tacky and cheesy, but compared to its Hong Mountain brother it was positively classy. Fake waterfalls cascaded down the rocks and coloured lights danced on the pools, whilst in amongst the flowers statues of heroic workers stood proudly. We ascended the steps up the mountain, and admired the flashing lights that ran by our side and the plastic neon palm trees, moving onto the park’s main attraction and the main reason behind our visit; the city’s other big wheel.

urumqi18 Hongshan Gongyuan

And on that wheel did we ride, the whole panorama of Urumqi unfolding before us, a vast modern city of twinkling lights more akin to Las Vegas than Lanzhou. We spied a TV tower to our left with a restaurant at the top (definitely somewhere for later), and trace where we’d been the past two days.

But alas wheels go round and we were descending now, back to ground all too quickly. We got out the backgammon and drank overpriced soft drinks underneath the neon palms before heading to the not-so-high summit of Hongshan and watching a performance of dancing. Amidst the flashing lights, plastic rocks and plastic palms, this gaudy display of Chinese disco moves seemed perfectly apt, and we descended that Hill of Hong contented gents indeed.

10th August, 2002 – Urumqi, China

We’d decided the previous evening that pleasant though Urumqi was, it might be a good idea to get out of town for a change and see a little of the surrounding region. However, like Dunhuang, Urumqi did not seem to be particularly blessed with things to do out of the city itself, and our intensive search in the end revealed but one, Tian Chi, a ‘heavenly lake’ surrounded by mountains and the yurts of the local Kazakhs. Well, many things we had seen so far in our lives, but never once a Heavenly Lake with yurts, so why not? And besides, the asking price according to our trusty guidebook was a mere Y24. What were we waiting for?

And thus it was that we arose early that morn and headed down to the People’s Park where the minibuses bound for the Pool of Paradise waited for customers.

The journey of around a hundred kilometres was an interesting one. Firstly we were amazed at how far Urumqi stretched, (this really was a big place!), and then we were impressed by the well-engineered and maintained road that took us most of the way. Near to the lake, the scenery started to get steep and spectacular and then in a small valley we stopped besides a ticket office.

Ok, so we should have been prepared, or at least warned by our Dunhuang experience but no, of course we hadn’t learnt our lesson. A big Y60 sign was posted by the window and all the locals were handing over just that amount for their tickets.

“Jesus!” said the Lowlander, normally the most understated or Dutchmen.

Once again, a price rise of well over a hundred percent in two years, to see something that in our opinions, you shouldn’t really have to pay to see anyhow.

Now this presented us with a problem. Of course we’d pay the money, after all, we’d come all this way to see the Lake of Heaven, and besides, what else was there to do? Indeed we’d pay it.

If we had it.

Problem was, we didn’t. In fact, if it had still been but Y24 we’d be struggling. Stupidly, (no, extremely stupidly), we’d not checked our money situation at all and the vast sums that we assumed that we had, we in fact, did not. Actually, to be more precise, we had very very little indeed. Oops.

So no Heavenly Lake for us then, and what’s more a very long wait until 5 p.m. when our bus returned. Well, always look on the bright side of life, or at least that is what Michael Palin had once said, and isn’t he an intrepid traveller too? There was nothing else for it, we were going hiking in the mountains! Back to nature, boys!

And what mountains they were; green, lush and a very refreshing change after several weeks in the desert. This was more like Wales than West China. Problem was, they were also very steep, and I’m not the thinnest of God’s creations, and what’s more my travelling companion used to be the 14th fastest runner in the Netherlands (I lie not), but to be fair, he didn’t rush too far ahead of me.

urumqi11 The mountains near to Tian Chi

No indeed, this was not too bad. The sun was shining and we crossed over a gurgling stream and passed by the promised Kazakh yurts before ascending the steep slopes. The birds sang and the views were spectacular. And when we tired we found a nice grove where we sat and I read The Walled Kingdom, a history of China by a Polish scholar. Indeed, so idyllic was the whole scene that we were feeling positively glad that we had not been able to go into Tian Chi, since here we were enjoying ourselves and we had the satisfaction of knowing that no one was ripping us off in the process.

Problem was, two hours later, the novelty began to wear off. The Lowlander started to pile stones across a dry streambed and I put down the book and got out the backgammon.

Four hours later the novelty had definitely worn off, not only of the place, but also the book, the backgammon, the five-dice game and the Lowlander’s attempt to recreate the Three Gorges Project in miniature. What’s more, we were starting to feel hungry…

And by half three we could stand it no longer, and we descended the hill back into Yurtville and the ticket office where we searched for some fodder. Restaurants however appeared to be in short supply, but there was a shop staffed by a shy young girl with some English who sold us a pot of spicy noodles which sufficed to keep the wolves at bay.

urumqi12 Yurtville

I go talking to the noodle-selling girl who turned out to be an eighteen year old named Wang Rui. Once she got over her shyness her English turned out to be rather excellent indeed and our conversation evolved into one of the most interesting that I had in China with someone other than the Lowlander. She came from a nearby village she said, and was ethnic Chinese, not Kazakh or Uyghur. The shop was her grandfather’s, the man in the back, and she was helping him out in the holidays.

Did she go to school then, I asked?

No, since she’d just finished. Actually in September she was off to a prestigious university in Shanghai to study English and German. About this she was of course, very excited, yet also a little nervous as she’d never travelled before and Shanghai was such a long way away. I assured her that it indeed was, though I’d never been to the city myself, I can imagine that compared with tranquil Tian Chi, it is a different world entirely.

We talked of other things, of Mao who she surprisingly hated, (the first Chinese barring our Kiwi friend who admitted this), because of the Cultural Revolution. But the Communist Party she did not detest and indeed, like Lu in Lanzhou, she admired Jiang Zemin for his ‘smoothness’. Her passion however, was not politics, but football. Despite China’s poor performance, the World Cup had been great and China would of course improve, this had after all, been their first-ever appearance in the finals.

“And Beckham?”

“Very handsome,” she said with a blush.

We swapped addresses and I promised to write; a promise that I did fulfil, but alas a reply I never received.

urumqi13 Wang Rui

That night, due to our careful money-management at Tian Chi, we dined out at the Uyghur restaurant, (which this time we could locate), but that was all that we could afford, and so it was back to the hotel early to play five-dice and backgammon, and to read. A quiet night, but as they say, ‘No money, no honey.’ True words indeed.

Next part: 2o: Urumqi (III)

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