Thursday, 11 July 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2o: Urumqi (III)

world-map urumqi


And finally, the last installment of Part II of Across Asia With A Lowlander and the end of our Trans-China journey! But fear not, for Part II is up next as we then plunge ourselves in the Stans of the former Soviet Union.

And talking of travelling, I’ve just booked my next trip, in September, from Berlin to Lodz in Poland. Berlin was a city which I really enjoyed on my last visit there as can be read here, whilst I enjoyed Poland greatly too when I visited last year. And this time I’ll be with the same travelling companion, Mike. And as always, when it’s written up it’ll be posted here first. In the meantime though, I’m still getting over the twin shock of decent weather and a British winner at Wimbledon whilst enjoying an Ashes series. Time for some camping me thinks!

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



11th - 12th August, 2002 – Urumqi, China

And so we had but two days left in Urumqi, and we had of course already exhausted all its attractions. In Dunhuang that prospect would have been loathsome, but here we did not mind too much. The truth was, we actually quite liked the place, with its gaudy parks, towering office blocks and Uyghur influences. In few cities on earth do the forces of East and West collide in such a way as they do here. Urumqi, the furthest city in the world from the sea, truly was an international crossroads and it fascinated me.

Our first task however, was to get money which meant another trip to the bank to change fifty euros. From then on, we were free agents.

During our visit to the Hongshan Gongyuan, (remember, the park with the neon palm trees), the other day, we'd noticed a tall TV tower akin to those in Seoul, Pusan and elsewhere, with a restaurant at the top. The Lowlander, being a man who shared my love of getting as high as a kite whilst in a strange city, agreed with me that a trip up it might well be a good idea, so we hailed a taxi and wrote out 'TV tower' in Chinese. Our driver nodded furiously and off we went, darting in and out of the backstreets before pulling up outside a large grey building with a small mast on the top. 'Hmm... this is not quite right,' thought I. The taxi driver however insisted on its TV tower authenticity. The mistake was an obvious one; this was the headquarters of the local TV station.

Undeterred, we returned to the city centre and tried to locate the tower by remembering roughly where it had been positioned, and eventually, after wandering through countless avenues of apartments, it appeared before us, thrusting proudly towards the Heavens. Unfortunately, being closer up, we now realised why our taxi driver had been confused. It was clearly now disused and that little ol' restaurant at the top aserving meals no longer. Boo!

urumqi16 Urumqi’s TV tower

And so that day we returned to the Hongshan Gongyuan and sampled the many other delights of those pleasure gardens. There was a waterfall that one could walk under and get extremely wet (we did), dodgem cars piloted by spoilt fat kids, a tiny pagoda and a functioning temple that contained some unspectacular reliefs.

Far more fascinating was the Uyghur district. Our taxi drive to the TV station had had one fortunate side effect in that we had driven through an area of Uyghur town that we previously didn't know existed, and that seemed to be undergoing a massive revival, with smart apartment blocks being constructed in large numbers.

We returned on foot to check it out, and were most pleasantly surprised. All around us huge construction projects were underway; apartment blocks, mosques and other amenities being erected in abundance. What impressed us most though, was that all these new buildings were being built in the Uyghur vernacular style, with tiles and arches reminiscent of Iran or Turkey, creating a district that was more Jeddah than Jiayuguan. The icing on the cake was a shopping centre of unbelievably mammoth proportions that was designed to look something like an ancient caravanserai. Once again, we were amazed by this city, capital of one of China's poorest regions, yet marching onwards at a great rate of knots, and glorifying, not suppressing the local culture. We wandered for hours amongst the bazaars and hijaab-filled streets, purchasing skull-caps, headscarves and other souvenirs; imagining ourselves not in China, but in Baghdad, (though without the threats of war of course). And yet, walk but a hundred metres or so down the road and we were back in the land of Mao, pagodas and egg-fried rice. Magic!

One curio that we found, located halfway between the city centre and the Uyghur district, was a tiny Catholic cathedral, constructed in a style that suggested that it didn't know whether to lean towards Rome, Beijing or Tehran. I went in and knelt down on one of the pews, dedicating a string of rosary to my family in what must surely be one of Christianity's most isolated outposts.

urumqi cathedral Urumqi Cathedral

Perhaps the most surreal (and laughable), of Urumqi's many sights, is the town's main square, (before the Tiananmenesque Renmin Guangchang took precedence), as this is obviously an attempt at European elegance gone disastrously wrong. At one end was an ornate building, somewhat akin to a Victorian town hall or library in some English provincial town. No centre of admin or book-lending was this though, but instead the local cinema. And what more apt to put in front of this Euro-style temple of celluloid? Why, nothing else but a big glass pyramid! Move over Paris, Urumqi is the cultural capital now, (even if its pyramid has more than a few cracked panes). It was hilarious and all we needed now was a Chinese guy with a stripey T-shirt and beret to show us around.

urumqi glass pyramid Urumqi’s Glass Pyramid: Not quite Parisian

Yes indeed, that was Urumqi, a city that many dislike, yet I, (and I suspect the Lowlander too), fell in love with. Its culture collision, tackiness, extreme location and general diversity appealed to my strange senses. My home city advertises its pottery industry as Do China in a Day! (see where I get the cheesiness from?), yet here one could get China, Turkey, France and the Stans in one, and still have time for a Mass at the incongruous Catholic cathedral at eventide. I loved it, but it was time to move on, so on the evening of the twelfth we dined Uyghur for the very last time and headed back to the railway station hotel to pack, before moving onto the station itself to wait in the large temporary waiting room. Sat there, we saw signs of what was to come; amongst the dark-skinned Uyghurs and the bronzed Han Chinese, sat some with complexions akin to our own, and speaking in a language that I partially understood. They were the Russians, and we were about to enter the old Soviet Union, dominated by a culture different from both those that held sway in Urumqi.

So that was it, the end of our trip to China. From the east to the west in just under a month. The memories and experiences from even that far too short time were seemingly endless; the meditative monastery at Xiahe; the Harry Potter haircut in Yinchuan; the German church in Qingdao and undecided one in Urumqi; Email at the Great Wall; sipping eight auspicious tea on the peaks above Lanzhou; the long, long train rides with six to a compartment; the great rip-off city of Dunhuang; the fascinating Uyghur Quarter in Urumqi; a boat ride on the Yellow River and bashed up taxis of the same colour with drivers who knew not the way; a crumbling statue of Mao in a Gansu schoolyard and a pristine one in the People’s Liberation Army Museum; Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Bingling Si... what a country!

China had surprised me. Friends had told me that they'd found her people to be intolerably rude, yet both the Lowlander and I agreed that we had not found that. Instead we'd been impressed by the lack of overt corruption that one finds in Asia's South East or in Africa. That corruption exists, and crime too, we do not doubt, (after all, is not charging Y60 to see a lake a crime?), but we as travellers never felt threatened, in danger or under scrutiny. Walking the streets felt as safe as Japan, and considerably more so than home, and unlike in the countries that were to come, I never felt afraid to approach a policeman.

Of course there were problems, but these were due more to the language and writing system than anything else; the former being unpronounceable and the latter incomprehensible. Never before in my life have I actually used a phrasebook or possessed such a well-thumbed guidebook, without them we'd have been more than lost. But there again, was not that all part of the fun, guessing at menus and drawing pictures to inform taxi drivers? And besides, if I'd wanted an easy vacation, well, there's always Blackpool.

And then there was the politics. I'd read Wild Swans and the Western Press, and didn't know what to expect. Stalinist wonderland? Communism in name alone? Repressed minorities desperate to escape from the Han yoke? Or instead millions of happy workers marching forward towards a bright future? And I found a bit of it all I suppose, though overall I must admit to being a bit impressed. No, that's wrong, very impressed.

Freedom, democracy and independence are laudable ideals, but my trips to the Third World have shown me that they are virtually worthless if there is no economic success to back it all up. And in my opinion, the Chinese or Uyghur is without a doubt far better off than the Cambodian, Albanian or Indonesian, who possesses all those things, but lives in a shack without reliable running water, electricity or a sewer system. Despite its many faults, the Communist government is creating wealth for its people, and on an unprecedented scale. We couldn't believe the levels of economic advancement that we encountered, and yet we travelled largely through the poorer regions of the country, going nowhere near the likes of Shanghai or Guangdong. And whilst much is written about the growing gap between rich and poor, and the seaboard and inland, it must be said that the government does seem to be doing more to redistribute that wealth than a purely capitalistic one would. Indeed, according to the World Poverty Statistics for 2002, China is the only country where poverty has actually decreased dramatically.[1] And that to me is worth far more than the colour of your flag.

Of course poverty still does exist, and it does seem to be higher amongst the minorities. The Muslim area that we passed through on the way to Xiahe was almost Third World in its standards, although I must not that all their agricultural transportation seemed to be mechanised, whereas even in Eastern Europe, the horse and cart is still a common sight.

Perhaps one of the main reasons why China is doing so well, is that it is doing it by itself. Not in a North Korea or Hodja Albania kind of way, but in that the neo-colonialism, sadly all too evident across the Third World, seems largely absent here. Western companies are free to come in, but they must do so on a far more level playing field.

Nonetheless, problems do remain. At internet cafes, I failed to gain access to any Geocities or BBC website, doubtless due to government censorship. Yet there again, do we not have our own, more subtle forms of regulating what information our citizens receive? We hear plenty about the trials of the Tibetans or the persecution of Falun Gong, yet little about the fact that most Chinese have a far higher standard of living than their compatriots in the developing world, and are largely satisfied with the direction in which their country is headed. We are bombarded with reports of the evils of the Cultural Revolution, yet little of how the Chinese government now admits the mistakes that it made, and is doing its best to rectify them. Would you find the Conservative Party making a public apology for its conduct during the Great Strike or the evils of the Thatcher Era? Not bloody likely, think I.

Here's another few example. The railway line to Tibet, the greatest railway project in the world for fifty years, a masterpiece in engineering. How much did you know about it? Did you also know that the Chinese have recently embarked upon the biggest tree-planting project in human history, attempting to improve air quality and reduce flooding by covering an area the size of Poland with greenery? Had the US government done this, there'd be an entire edition of Time dedicated to it. Since it's the Chinese, there's five lines. No, we censor too. The secret is, we're better at it.

And then there's the minorities, foremost amongst whom are the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, both of which we'd encountered on our trip. Should they have their own states as Brad Pitt and the other Hollywood celebrities argue? From what I saw, I'm unsure. Both regions now have very mixed populations, and independence would cause immense demographic problems. And then there's the economic side to it. The Dalai Lama might be a nice bloke, but can he create prosperity? Even with the tourist money it gets, the Tibetans near neighbours, the Nepalese are as mired in poverty as ever: Hardly an advert for change.

mao dalai lama Spot the good guy 1: Mao and the Dalai Lama

And Xinjiang. What can we look at as a model for them? The five post-Soviet Stans, with their demographic difficulties, economic stagnation and (Kirghizstan excepted), dictatorial regimes. Or poverty-ridden, military-ruled Pakistan, getting by on an ever-aging, creaking British infrastructure. Or what about conflict-mired, theocratic, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, (well, that was until the Western Heroes came in and blew up everything that moved, stood or bleated). Now, I'm sorry, but to me, the rule of Beijing, whilst far from perfect, seems more than a little preferable.

Of course, I may be wrong. Other travellers tend to think differently, and I recommend fellow-voyager Brian Connellan's (more about him later), travelogue Japan to Ireland as an excellent contrast, as he stands in the pro-Uyghur independence camp, and we enjoyed several debates on the subject in Kazakhstan and Bulgaria.

But I stand by my opinions. China is booming, China is not all bad and China is waiting for you. If you can, go there and do so soon. You may like it, or you may not, but whatever, you'll find it fascinating.

I drew the curtains in our compartment that night as the Soviet-built train rumbled on through the steppe. When I opened them the next morning, the view would be of Kazakhstan.

Next part: 3a: Druzhba to Almaty

[1]For figures see

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