The Chinese have made a point of brushing the ethnic majorities aside in the outer regions of the country, displacing them with Han Chinese from the coastal heartland. Tibet is an obvious example, Inner Mongolia is somewhat less known, mostly because the Chinese managed the displacement quietly, but Xinjian, the western promise, has seen a little bit more international press for the unrest the region has seen over the last decade or so. And though fairly recently over 80 percent of the population was ethnic Uighur, a Turkic central Asian ethnicity, now, it hovers around 50. And the high speed connections with the test of china also sees hordes of national tourists stampeding over the many, and what seems to be as usual in China, overpriced attractions.
Or rather, stampeding in season. The one major site I visited while in Urumqi was certainly geared to mass tourism, some 100 tour busses waiting at the entrance for bringing them pesky tourists to the actual site, but only a few were used during my visit.
The 4000 km journey by train from Shanghai to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, takes only, if you can call it that, 45 hours and though it crossed my trip from Kunming to Beijing, the scenery only started becoming impressive when we reached Xi'an, where the tracks cross and recross the Yellow River. But even then, much of the landscape more resembled an endless connection of open mines and dry river beds, later slowly transforming into typical central Asian scenery; vast steppes, snow capped mountains in the distance, the occasional mud brick structure along the way. And, closer to the capital of Xinjiang, what seem to be wild camels on the side of the tracks, with the occasional ger, or yurt, thrown in for good measure.
A Chinese fellow traveller, perhaps about my age, told me that when she was a child, the journey took four days, while the trains did not have any sleepers.
The appropriation of Urumqi by the Han Chinese is probably why the beating heart of the city is not the sterile wide streets downtown, lined with impressive high rise buildings and the occasional central Asian wedding cake.
The city is alive around the Turkish bazaar. Though the bazaar has been refurbished, Chinese style, pulling everything down and then rebuilding it again, strangely throwing in a copy of the Bukhara minaret from Uzbekistan, itself again under renovation, its visitors and the streets around it are (still) authentic. Walking down the dilapidated streets lined with street vendors and shops, manned by Turkic men with little round caps on their heads, speaking Turkic Uighur, you could mistake the city for some remote town in Azerbaijan or Turkey. Indeed, the outward focus here does not appear to be towards China, but to Turkey, Turkish flags and shop names being an easy find in the neighborhood.
And not just Turkish. Perhaps it's the somewhat older buildings, but its not hard to find shop names and other signage in Russian. Maybe dating from when the Chinese and Soviets had a much closer relationship.
But the beating heart is also neglected. Beggars on china's main streets are a rare occurrence. Not so around Urumqi's Turkish bazaar. Wailing women, men with stumps for legs, mothers with their sick or dying children emphatically shouting for mercy.
Not so heavenly
Probably the most visited site near Urumqi is Tian Chi, heavenly lake, in the Tian Shian, the heavenly mountains, which surround the city. Pretty and, once, idyllic, the area, like so many others in China, has been extensively cultivated. Sure, it is pretty, but not extremely exceptional, even though, after my arrival, the slowly dissipating mist and cloud cover, revealing an Alpine beauty in all its technicolor glory, was quite impressive, similar scenes can be had all over the world.
And the exorbitant entrance fee is downright ridiculous. More so as it doesn't include additional sights like the temples inside the park, for which you need to pay extra.
Somewhere in the last few years, the entrance fee has been nearly doubled. And even though the lake is only some 40 kilometers away from Urumqi, as the crow flies, it takes about 2.5 hours by public transport to get there, three busses from the center of the city.
I had perhaps at least as much fun meandering around Fukang, the town where you have to switch buses on the way to Tian Chi. This middle of nowhere town with its overload of humongous power plants is decidedly Turkic. Taking in the sights and sounds of the Sunday market, eating foods never before seen in my life and watching the world go by, basking in the sun and sipping coffee, was a great way to see a tiny bit of the veil lifted from Uighur city life.
Also interesting, though Fukang had more than its fair share of power plants, both sides of Urumqi have fields covered with hundreds of industrial power generating windmills.
Then, with the stark blue sky holding, the views of the heavenly mountains, God's peak in particular, looming over Urumqi, is near spectacular.
Urumqi is built around the banks of the Urumqi. Already closed up in the downtown area, workers were constructing even more of a tunnel to hide the river from sight. Or rather, to build a sewer for the non existing stream.
The ethnic mix
The ethnic mix of peoples in Urumqi is fascinating. The high streets are dominated by Han Chinese, the coastal Chinese trying to ethnically standardize China as a whole. But, the Turks, Uighurs, are everywhere, some indistinguishable from their Turkish brethren on the far western tip of Asia, some even with light blue or green eyes.
Then there are the obvious Kazakh, Mongols, Tajik and Kyrgyz. All blended together in one huge mix, it's a shame Central Asia is so extremely Balkanized. Banding together they could rule the world. It wouldn't be the first time.