Saturday, October 06, 2007

Urumqi, Xinjiang province, China

Howdy from China's wildish West.

I got here after one of my most scenic train rides since Sichuan. This is due to the capacity of the local people to develop an oasis when they can find one. Rock strewn desert, dunes and strange small canyons flicker past and keep you mesmerised then you go through a tunnel and on the other side it's all greenery, cattle and water. Another tunnel and it's back to martian landscapes. The arrival to Urumqi was heralded by more frequent pathes of green and some large ugly industrial buidings.

For all the guidebook hype, this town is Han. The Uygurs (I'm not sure how to spell the name) are there but seem to be in second place numerically. Anyways, Urumqi displays the usual characteristics of Chinese cities. Huge, insanely large population and, of course, a healthy dose of pollution.

I am kind of stuck here as I have to juggle with the entry date on my Kazakh visa, the availibility of trains and the wonderful Chinese National holidays. For those unfamiliar with the middle kingdom, national holidays are sort of a mix between a love parade and the 6th circle of hell. There's lots to do but the usual Chinese overcrowding gets pushed to absurd limits. Tickets are a nightmare to obtain, anything interesting will be ringed by a few zillion people and it's hard to get anything done.

I faced this when trying to go to Tian Chi (one of the many, many Heaven lakes in this country). The plan was to get a bus early, find a yurt, and chill out for a couple of days by the lake. All this fell apart when I got to the bus station. The jolly sights of thousands of tour groups complete with baseball caps made me do a quick about turn and decide that I will have all the lake and tent time I need in the Stans.

I know that I convey this image that Chinese tourists are somewhat like strange and loud herd creature. To a large extent this is true but of late I have been seeing some new breeds. Maybe due to my capability to hold a crap conversation in Chinese or maybe it's just a new trend but I have recently met a few of a species that many thought was but a myth: the lone Chinese backpacker. These are of the same cloth as the rest of the Western dorm denizen. Students whose situation allows them to sod off for a few months, youngish people in between jobs and folks who have good careers but decide to put them on hold for a while or just sod it and go as life is to short to spend it in meetings.

These rare and wonderful lone travellers should not be confused with a more common, albeit still unusual group who seems to have taken the hostel I am in. The halfway house types. Strong communal instincts make it uncomfortable for a lot of Chinese people to venture in unknown parts on their own. However, more and more people realise that being shuttled about between photogenic spots, restaurants and karaoke joints in a bus while listening to some young thing drone on endlessly about the beauty of what they are going to see for 5 minutes is, to put it bluntly ; shit.

Therefore a sort of copromise is reached. A lot of folks will go out as a group of reassuring size ( 10people minimum) but will locate hostels by themselves and sort out their own transport. They also have the quasi alpine gear of the backpacker but have not realy grasped the finer points of packing. Many times I have wrongly deduced from backpacks twice as heavy and large as mine that the bearer of this burden was in it for the long term. As it turns out they are only away for a week but often admit they got a bit carried away on the shopping. Tempora mutantur, China et mutamur in illis .

So what is there to do in the world's most landlocked city? Not much to be honest. As weird as it seems I am enjoying the familiarity of China. I can go to the park knowing that I will have lots to see, I can still odrer food and I can even chat to people in the street (mainly Chinese tourists as lost as I am). Confort crapness if you will.

What is nice here is the food. I had promised myself to stay clear of the mutton as I know I am going to eat a lot of it in the near future but I can't resist. In a way I am in the homeland of a type that has served me well in China. Wherever you go in China you can rely on good lamb kebabs from the muslim vendors (identifiable by their hats if you are crap with ethnic facial features). Xinjiang is the mothership of these purveyors of meaty goodnes and the shashlyk is brilliant. Another yummy treat the China Hand is unnacustomed to is decent local bread. The Uigurs bake big slabs of Nan type bread in tandoori type ovens and you can buy one of these huge sesame-covered treats for a kwai.

Also of note is the local museum. Unlike most chinese museums it is coherent, informative and the English is quite good. That is untill you reach the section that deals with the communist period. That's all in Chinese as they might be trying to prevent foreigners from walking about and sniggering. In my case they failed.

When I say the english is good and informative they do have a few lapses An introduction to the histroy and pre-history of the area is preluded by a statement to the effect that Xinjiang is, and always has been, an inalienable part of CHina. A display of Kazakh, Uighur or Mongol traditional dress and homes has to be highlighted as an example of how the various cultures of China work together for social harmony and the motherland.

The reason for this strange display of national assertion is not just mediocre English skills but a result of the strange sitch of this region. In a way, Xinjiang is the Tibet no one gives a fuck about. The background is different but the methods used by Beijing to keep the Uighurs in check are similar to those used on Richard Gere's favourite ethnics.

The reason Urumqi is more Han than Uighur is that the Chinese Government has been encouraging Han people to come and settle the place. Like in Tibet they have rigged the game to make sure one group progressed and the other stagnated.

One subtle sign fo this can be seen on any street corner in Urumqi. The Pinyin (latin alphabet version of CHinese) that I had relied on everywhere in CHina is gone and has been replaced by Arabic. This might look like a nice concession to local culture but in fact it's a result of a massive Fuck You. Uighur is Turkic and up to the mid 80's they used the latin alphabet. This was discontinued and Arabic was imposed by Beijing. The reasons for this are unclear. The Lonely Planet claims that this was because the Uighurs had a huge advantage over the Hans in learning English. More likely is that to impose restraints on a language restricts the written culture to all but a very educated (and very monitorable) few.

Another visible sign of Peking's nastiness is just as widespread and innocuous: Children. When the bell rings, Chinese cities are taken over by hordes of sprogs wearing their school uniforms (aka: shellsuits). They make noise and clutter up the pavement when buying horrible snacks. Urumqi is no different than any other city in this respect and that's the problem. The annoying pack of kids here look exactly the same as the ones in Changchun, Beijing, Kunming etc. I would expect a certain percentage of the little blighters to be Uighurs but it was a couple of days untill I spotted one. This tells me that the educational opportunities might be slightly biased towards the Han.

The last of the trivial signs of what is happening here is something I do many times in a day. I glance at my watch. This seems like nothing but it has some significance. In the pursuit of the myth of a unified China, all clocks in he country are set to Beijing time. The snag is tha Urumqi is a fair few thousand miles West of BJ and the utter darkness circa 7am reminds you off this. Opening hours are mindfull of daylight hours and the strange result is that banks close at 8, schoos kick out around the same time and fuck all happens before 10am. The Uighur restaurant next door to my hostel has set their clock to local time (2 hours behind official time) and I understand that a lot of locals do this. The upside of this silly situation is that Urumqi is a town that respects my natural body clock. Wake up at 9, coffee-up until 11, lunch at 2 and dindins around 9.

The above are the things visible to any visitor but behind the scenes a lot more bastardry goes on. The government in this case follows the lead of industry by seeing something developed in the West, making a piss poor copy of it and hoping no-one will realise the difference. The ever trendy boys in Beijing have justified their recent clampdowns on Xinjiang by invoking that wonderful American concept of the War on Terror. The Middle Kingdom has seen the benefits of this stupid notion and have seen the way cowardly statesmen around the world have used it to excuse a state power grab.

On this one the West has played along probably since all moral highground was thrown away along with a large batch of individual liberties. The Chinese have been quite savvy on this. They have tried to palm off the Dalai Lama and the Free Tibet lot as terrorists in the past but got rightly mocked as a result. Muslim clerics and separatists are easier to portray as jihadis nutters and they have bumped off a fair few of these with a thumbs up from the West. Another brilliant result of TWOT.

In a way I am glad that this is my last stop in CHina. I have grown fond of the place and it's easy to forget what a shower of cunts the rulers of this country are.

I guess I should do a last "What now for the Dragon?" post but in a sense I already have. My views on the political aspect of this place have not changed and I have covered these in previous posts. What has changed is that the future of China will matter to me on an emotional level.

If China becomes the nemesis of the West aswwe all want the same resources for our bloated countries than I will have to remember the people I have met here when the happy demonisation process begins back home.

If CHina supplants the US as the biggest fish in the pond and does an even crappier job at ruling the world I will have to remind myself that behind the policies are lots of people I care about.

Finally, it's also possible that China will cock things up. Their economic strength is built on their capability to produce a lot for very cheap. The snag with this is that they have now reached a catch 22 situation. The reason Chinese products are so cheap is that they pay the workers close to bugger all. They can also build factories willy nilly and not give a stuff about the environmental impact. Inflation here has crept up quite a bit and wage inflation will soon follow. The Chinese are also aware that if they don't want to lose a million workers a year to health problems they have to impose some sort of limit on what can be dumped into the atmosphere and the water. If they do this, goods won't be so cheap and other countries, such as Vietnam, are all to keen to step in.

If all goes tits up for China I don't think I will be able to snigger to much as an economic downturn means that a lot of good folkare going to get it in the neck. I will however laugh at the chappies learning Mandarin in London and New York just as I laughed at the ones who where convinced Japanese was the new language of business.

Anyways, That's all for my last post in CHina,

Next stop, Almaty

Take care,



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