The Beautiful Pasture


Map of Urumqi


If you prefer your holidays gazing out over an azure sea, feeling the ocean breeze on your face and watching an orange sun melt into a golden horizon, Urumqi is probably the worst city on earth for you to visit.  It is the farthest city from the sea in the world, being at least 2,250km from any chance of a refreshing dip.  However, in the week I was there I took to it rather well. 


For all the personal drama of managing to reach Urumqi that first morning, in fact I had made remarkably good time to get to this, the literal heart of Asia, exactly 35 days after leaving my winter home of Xi’an. 


Because of this, I was in no real rush to leave the place now that I’d arrived.  While the rest of the city carried on its usual Tuesday morning, I rolled slowly and wide-eyed along a busy road to one of the hostels recommended in the Lonely Planet, admiring the rock formations and parkland that broke up the rushing urban traffic.  The hostel turned out to be an unassuming but clean place in the heart of the Han area of the city


Delighted to unload my stuff, get clean and even trim my beard, I felt relieved and satisfied to be here on a bright and warm day.  Almost immediately, I made contact with a couple of other travellers.  One was another Englishman who was leaving that day.  Although he didn’t have a bike with him this time, it turned out he had a couple of years previously completed a circuitous cycling trip from South Korea home to England, covering much of the ground through Central Asia that I intend to. 


I’m not sure after a conversation with him whether I was more reassured or daunted.  He could certainly relate to my bemoaning of the winds of Turpan, and indeed he told me that the stretch I had just ground to a halt on was a legendary “graveyard” for touring cyclists.  But the flat wilderness of western Kazakhstan is no picnic either apparently.  Even less so crossing in July – the heat of summer – and heading west against the prevailing winds.  “Ditch as much weight as you can before you set out” was his advice.  Which I intend to follow!


The other traveller was a German architect from Munich, who’s been living in Paris for the last 11 years or so.  He was around for a couple of days and I spent quite a bit of time with him.  He was a charming and interesting companion, and I was very glad to have run into him by the time we parted company the following evening.  He was crossing Central Asia by train and was on his way towards Dunhuang and then Tibet, Nepal and India. 


Together with him, I began to get a sense of the city.  We visited the Xinjiang Provincial Museum on that first afternoon which has some interesting things to see.  In particular, a considerable collection of mummified bodies, found in a number of different desert sites dotted around the Tarim Basin, the massive area that makes up the southern half of Xinjiang which is mostly now the deserted and uninhabitable wastelands of the Taklamakan Desert.  But a little over 15 centuries ago, there was still sufficient water in the river systems through the heart of the basin to support a few settlements that linked the now-abandoned “middle route” across Xinjiang. 


One of these was in city of Loulan, in the Lop Nor region of the desert, which more recently has been where China has carried out all its nuclear weapons testing.  But before the Chinese government set to work making big explosions, archaeologists had managed to extract a remarkably well-preserved woman from this site (along with quite a number of other bodies).  She is known as the “Loulan Beauty” and one doesn’t even need a reconstruction of her face to see that indeed she must have been quite attractive when alive – with a full head of thick long dark hair and a very fine straight nose.  In fact, the reconstruction they have made is of a young woman who looks something like a cross between Linda Carter (a.k.a. Wonder-Woman) and Liz Hurley.  Slap a pair of expensive high heels on her and give her a pair of big sunglasses, and she wouldn’t look out of place strolling down the King’s Road in London today. 


Loulan Beauty As She is.jpg

The "Loulan Beauty" - as she is today


Loulan Beauty.jpg

...and as archaeologists imagine she would have looked.


As most of the other mummies found in the region show, the people that inhabited Xinjiang up to as late as the 8th century AD were Indo-European of origin – some of them even having ginger hair, (there are blondes and brunettes too).  The Uighurs, a Turkic people, who now represent the “indigenous” population of Xinjiang with their characteristic features, only began to spread down from the Mongolian lands to the north into this area in the 9th century AD.  The details still visible on these bodies, some of which are over 2,000 years old, are quite surprising.  For example, one can see on the neck of one man the traces of a surgical operation: the incision has been stitched up with sutures made of horsehair; and some of their clothing could still be worn even now – though you might get some funny looks.  Indeed, two of the mummies have earned the label the Witches of Loulan on account of their pointy black hats (and some other odds and ends). 


Witch hat.jpg

One of the Witches of Loulan


A different section of the museum exhibits the costumes and cultural accoutrements of the various ethnic minorities who live together in Xinjiang.  There are (of course) Uighurs, but also the Han (the majority group in China), the Hui, the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Mongols, Tibetans, Russians and a collection of other minorities.  So although this is the provincial capital of the so-called Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, in reality it is a complete melting pot of different people groups, as you might expect at the crossing point of so many different overland trade routes.  The Uighurs only represent about 15% of the city’s population, while the Han are closer to 70%. 


This is in large part a result of a concerted effort by the Chinese government to relocate large numbers of Han from the east of China to this western region to dilute the concentration of the U1ghurs (and their pol1tical influence).  This policy has been going on since the 1950s and was probably a response to decades of unrest under the leadership of various Muslim warlords throughout the 19th century and into the 20th – and then the Uighurs’ alignment with the forces of Chang Kai-Chek and the Kuomintang against the Communists in the Civil War, which only came to an end with the expulsion of the Kuomintang to Taiwan, and the establishment of the new People’s Republic of China in 1949.  But there has been a natural migration of enterprising Han heading west to seek their fortune as well.  Oil and all the associated petro-chemicals industries is big business all across Xinjiang – and it is not unusual to spy the nodding oil-pumps at the well-heads off in the distance from the highway, or gas flares that draw your eye even in the shimmering heat of the midday sun.  As you might expect, a commodity this important is largely (if not entirely) controlled by the government, which means the Han, which is presumably one of the substantial economic grounds for the Uighurs wanting autonomy or even independence.


On the other hand, it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the vast amount of development investment, not least in infrastructure, that the Han have brought with them from the east.  I for one can tell you of literally armies of Han construction workers, engineers and labourers I have passed along the way whose job it is to build and maintain the growing vein of new expressways extending to the west.  The difference between there being a new road and using the old one, whether you’re a humble cyclist or driving the latest 4x4 is to be projected from somewhere in the 1950s into the 21st century. 


Filled as it is with Monty Python claptrap (amongst other things) my mind immediately launches off into imagining a covert meeting of Uighur insurrect1onist conspirators huddled around a table, raising the vengeful question: “What did the Han ever do for us?”……. (Pause) ..."The aquaduct?” 

(Actually I haven’t seen one of those.)


Of course it is no secret that ethnic tension continues to exist between the three main groups: the Han, the Uighurs and the Hui (who are genetically more similar to the Han, but share the same faith of Islam with the Uighurs).  Even so, as a visitor, it is hard to believe that only two years ago, this city was the site of ri0ts that descended into the bitter mass@cre of large numbers of both Han and Uighur people.  I won’t go into any depth about how this came about since it would be highly speculative on my part, and also this isn’t really the place to make too many controversial statements that might result in this site being shut down (at least in China). 


It’s probably enough to say that the ethnic tensions are real and current.  The cultural hearts of each group are located in quite different parts of the city, and it is very obvious when you are in one and not the other.  If you are interested in reading more about the unrest, the Wikipedia article I found on it corresponds with some of the details I’ve heard from people who were living in the city at the time, so it may be reasonably accurate.  Apparently it all started with an incident far away in the south-eastern province of Guangdong, and then, either through incitement or natural escalation (depending on who you believe) Uighurs began to take to the streets in their home province of Xinjiang.  These protests turned violent and a whole lot of resentment boiled over and was taken out on the local Han population in Urumqi.  The Han then retaliated against the Uighurs.  There were large numbers of deaths on both sides, and once the violence and unrest was quelled, considerable numbers of Uighurs identified as leaders of the violence have since disappeared. 


It seems a little trite to say my experience of both these people groups has been overwhelmingly positive.  On their own terms, they are both friendly and hospitable beyond much of what I have experienced elsewhere in the world.  But evidently they are so different that some friction is sure to come to the surface.  And when the power and control of one group over the other is thrown into the mix, people start to fear one another, then resent, then hate, then eventually they’re prepared to do violence to the other.  It seems fear is what drives some of the government’s policies in Xinjiang too – holding back the Uighurs, who by and large just want the opportunity to prosper and live peaceably like everyone else, with the same opportunities and freedom of movement and communication as the rest of their countrymen.  It seems to me that if they were afforded that there would be far less to generate resentment and therefore less for the government to fear.  As the situation stands, the cycle will continue to turn…


I was very fortunate to have another contact in Urumqi.  Through my friends in Xining (back in Qinghai province) I’d been put in touch with a young American man who’s been living in Urumqi for over three years, and in China for at least six years.  He put me up for 5 nights while I gradually recovered my energy, fiddled about with my kit, caught up on a bit of writing and waited for my Kazakh visa to come through.


I’m afraid I was remarkably unambitious about doing any excursions to the outlying countryside around Urumqi.  There are beautiful mountain lakes to visit, and hikes to do, no doubt more “Thousand-Buddha” caves to gawp at, but I really wasn’t up to it. 


There's always time to try on hats....

Making friends with local Uighurs


The Kazakh embassy was fairly entertaining though.  Getting hold of a Kazakh visa was definitely one of two key outstanding jigsaw pieces in the bureaucratic puzzle of my trip.  Once I had that I would have clearance to get back at least to the European boundary.  The final piece will be getting hold of a Russian visa in Tashkent. 


I arrived, I thought, in very good time at the Kazakh visa office at 7.45am on the Wednesday morning, only to find at least 80 people had beaten me to the punch.  Almost all of these to a man (and woman) were ethnic Kazakhs.  In other words, they were Chinese citizens who were entirely Kazakh who therefore needed a visa every time they visited friends and family, or went on business to Kazakhstan.  Their faces are a wonderful confusion of European and Asian features – chubby red cheeks, with slightly narrowed eyes, and often quite fair hair, with more prominent noses than the people groups further east.  And the chatter of their Kazakh tongue had tones of Russian, Chinese and Uighur all jumbled up into rapid fire mouthfuls of syllables. 


The whole scene was quite confusing to be part of I must admit.  The entrance into the embassy was a big brass door which opened onto a very small raised platform with two or three steps leading up to it on either side.  Of course, if you were standing on the platform, it certainly appeared as though that would be your best chance of getting into the place and submitting your application, and there was much jostling and shoving and pontificating about whether someone should be up there or not.  There seemed to be about two or three different queues (if you could call them that) going in different directions.  But then I noticed two women who’d joined one of the queues with me were suddenly right at the front near the steps, so these queues were in flux to say the least.  Occasionally some old rascally looking individual would elevate himself to the platform and start regaling the assembly with instructions about who should be where.  He may then move down a line of people, apparently placing people by their numbers in order, and for a while at least people would oblige him by doing what he said. 


I didn’t have a number so I let him pass me by.


But then another fella would pop up – harangue the crowd again – there’d be a general clamour of indignation or attentiveness (I‘m not sure which), before he would get sucked back down into the mob and I then noticed him a few moments later “flung into the outer darkness” at the back of one or other of the queues, looking suddenly very small and unimportant, and defeated.  Essentially I had no idea what was going on, but I resolved that it was a sure thing that as soon as the door opened, any sense of organisation on this side of the wall would immediately be thrown to the wind and it would be every man (and his muscle) for himself to get himself into that doorway.  So I hovered around, a bit like a spare electron (with no particular place to be), trying not to look half a foot taller than everyone, and like I was clearly the odd man out in the crowd of now probably 150 Kazakhs. 


As I waited, a small fella with bright busy looking eyes, sandy hair and an easy grin sidled up to me and started asking me in quite good English where I was from.  He was a Kazakh (of course) named Alim – wanting to visit Kazakhstan for this first time after his 32 years of life in Urumqi (to visit relatives and do some scouting for business there while he was about it).  Trying not to sound like I was particularly bothered about getting a visa application in this side of Christmas, I asked him to explain the system to me, if there even was one. 


He said, “Oh don’t worry about it.  You are a foreigner.  When the man comes out just wave at him and he will pull you up.  You have priority.”


With this remarkably reassuring piece of advice, I felt quite a lot more confident that my carefully laid plans to get home would not flounder on the rocks of this anarchic crowd.  And sure enough, at 9.30am when the brass door opened, out came two uniformed officials and another man in jeans and a t-shirt (but with an air of considerable authority about him).  This last would have done very nicely in the opening scene of a Bond movie, perhaps as the third or fourth guard that Bond would have to bump off before blowing up the industrial complex.  Third or fourth because I think his face was distinctive enough to merit at least a line or two in guttural Kazakh before being despatched into the nevermore. 


Anyway, after chewing out some poor soul who’d had the affront to think that just because he’d sneaked his way onto the platform, that he was going to get in first, the Bond extra started barking out instructions left and right, and the crowd pulled out their pieces of paper.  (Apparently some of them did indeed have numbers.)  I had manoeuvred my way in front of our man’s line of vision, and managed to catch his eye while he was between breaths.  He acknowledged me (the steel in his unwavering gaze just softening for a second), gave me a reassuring nod and indicated that I should wait a moment. 


A couple of minutes more shouting and he then pointed me out to his guards, which I took as my cue to clamber past or over anyone in my path to get up onto the platform (pace  that old woman in the blue head scarf).  Within three or four seconds, and not so much as a tomato thrown in my direction, I was the first inside the sacred atrium of the Republic of Kazakhstan.  The quiet seclusion of the reception hall and then the visa office itself felt positively monastic after the bun-fight outside. 


In fact the Bond extra then broke character, as he returned inside, furnished me very politely with the paper forms I needed to make an application, made sure everything was in order and then sent me on my way.  All very straightforward in the end – and I was told to come back 5 days later to pick up my visa.


Besides this more bureaucratic form of fraternization with the locals, I did look around the city a bit and spent some time with a Uighur contact given to me by Humphrey Wilson (the cycling tour adviser par excellence), who himself had been befriended by this Uighur fella as he passed through Xinjiang two years ago.  He was entertaining company and was very keen to show me Uighur food, the Grand Bazaar, his university, introduce me to his friends etc., etc.  In fact he had far more energy than I, and I had to dampen his enthusiasm occasionally with all the plans he had for me, because I just needed to rest.   (I sound like an old man.)


I know I should have taken some pictures of somewhere else - but whaddaya gonna do?

Entrance to the Grand Bazaar, Urumqi


The Grand Bazaar – it has to be said – is a little commercialised and underwhelming.  It doesn’t feel very earthy or authentic and there are basically about six or seven different stalls that are repeated again and again and again.  You have carpets and rugs; ornamental knives and whips; furry hats; ornamental teapots and tea sets; nuts; scarves and shawls and wraps; precious and semi-precious stones and rocks.  I think that is about it.  Oh and traditional Uighur musical instruments – pipes, tambourines, drums, and a variety of guitar-like instruments.  These stores are all contained in a rather unattractive brick building close to the centre of the city.  I think I am going to have to buy some traditional hand-made rugs at some point and send them home, but this was clearly not the place to get them at their cheapest. 


What was more of a success was a show that I went to (or was sent to) see, showing off the skills of Uighur music and dancing.  Although it was all set in the context of a relatively unimaginative plotline, I have to admit to being quite bowled over by the lead dancer.  Before I launch into a great elegy in praise of her skill and beauty, I should say that Uighur music seems to be based far more on rhythm than on melody.  As such it makes for great music to dance to, though the tune itself (when there is one) is rarely very memorable.  But the men were obviously all having a whale of a time, stamping their boots, slapping thighs, and leaping about in more or less chaotic order, while the women (in this production anyway) wore long billowing dresses from below the waist in bright pinks and turquoise and lilac colours, while on their top half they wore quite tight fitted tops that accentuate their slender arms and the quick movements of their hands and wrists. 


And it was the movements of the women that were so arresting with amazing elegance and graceful rippling of their arms, endless spinning (which made me at least feel quite dizzy).  (Forgive me – me trying to describe dancing is like a Viking trying to engage in garden party small talk – I reveal myself to be the philistine I am rather obviously.)  It was also very fast and difficult, but they carried it off quite brilliantly.


I think had I actually been a young local Uighur man, the performance of the prima donna would definitely have been enough for me to be despatching to her dressing room a large bunch of roses, perhaps with a decorative sheep’s head, accompanied by a note offering a proposal of marriage, somewhere around the end of the second act.  However, I’m sure the Uighurs are a canny bunch and no doubt some smart fella has long since closed this deal down himself. 


If you get a chance, have a search on YouTube (or Youku if you’re in China) for Uighur traditional dancing – and you may find you agree, it’s quite impressive (and fun).


So my week in Urumqi came to an end after I’d successfully negotiated the Kazakh bun fight one more time to pick up my double-entry visa.  I had a fine farewell dinner with my host and two of his charming friends, and turned my mind to the delights of the Tian Shan – the Heavenly Mountains – where I planned to spend a few days, trundling around on my bicycle amid Alpine meadows, sky blue lakes and high-altitude passes before heading back down to the dusty rim of the Taklamakan Desert to finish the run in to Kashgar, the backdoor to China.  I had greatly enjoyed my host’s company and it had put me in a brilliantly positive frame of mind for setting out on the next section of my journey.  The sun was shining, I’d done everything I needed to do in Urumqi and it was now time to be on my merry way. 


However, these heady daydreams were brought down to earth with a rude bump on the morning I intended to leave, as instead of the beautiful sunshine of the previous week, it had started raining as I was packing up, and the rain didn’t stop until I was well on my way out of the city – by then covered in mud and goodness knows what other filth from the sodden streets of Urumqi. 


My imagined light-hearted sojourn frolicking carefree into a mountain wonderland all began to turn a bit grim. 


But you can read how this all turned out in the next update.


Thanks for reading!

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