We arrived in Urumqi bright and early in the morning at 6.45am after our entertaining long-distance bus ride from Almaty. I say “bright and early”, but I’m not sure that there is anything bright about this Chinese Government-created largely industrial city that has been built with the haste and efficiency of the Chinese Government and retains all the character and vibrance of the Chinese Government – by which I mean none. The name Urumqi means “beautiful pasture”, which was apparently an appropriate name for this place before the Chinese Government pinpointed it as a center for industrial growth and started the flood of Han Chinese west some 20 years ago. The city now is home to nearly 2.8 million people, over half of which are Han with the rest composed of a number of ethnicities native to this area, most notably Uighers. What colour the city has is added by the bits of central asia it retains – the markets and the little sidestreet Uigher and Kazakh eateries.
But lets not confuse this for some quiet happy multicultural city for it is not that. The situation here is somewhat similar to the more internationally publicized problems created by the Chinese Government-sponsored ethnic invasion of Tibet by eastern Han Chinese. Whereas the Tibetans protest by self-immolation the Uighers take different measures – most notably ethnic fighting between Uighers and Han Chinese in Urumqi in 2009 that resulted in hundreds and perhaps thousands of deaths, a strict clamp down by the Chinese military and the complete blockage of internet access for 10 months following the ordeal. Perhaps this struggle gets less publicity due to the religion of the persecuted – Islam instead of Bhuddism – or perhaps because this place has always been a kind of crossroads of the world where the dominant regional or world power ruled and it is therefore thought more normal for China to assert itself here. But like water rights and resources on the Tibetan plateau that are so vital to the future of China and indeed all of Asia, this region of Xinjiang also has something the Chinese want and need – oil and lots and lots of mineral resources. And the Chinese utilize in both regions the same type of methods that the Israelis do in the west bank and gaza – an incentivized migration of their own ethnic majority into the region, thereby making it very difficult or impossible to ‘undo’ their control of these regions in the future. We will expand upon this idea in a future post on our visit to Kashgar, where the Chinese are aggressively demolishing 500+ year old adobe homes and replacing them with new residences in a manner that is only slightly more polished from the PR side than the Israeli tactics in Palestine.
The control of the Chinese government on the city is extremely apparent, there are riot proof cameras hanging overhead on every footpath and you are scarcely ever out of view of the authorities. There is no real palpable tension though the ethnicities don’t seem to mix and some of the Han displayed an openly condescending attitude towards the native ethnicities here, though I’m not sure that attitude is limited in its direction as the Han Chinese seem to consider that they and their government are infalible. As one American Urumqi resident we met ironically put it “Stalin would have killed for this population”.
We had booked our two nights in Urumqi at the Maitian International Youth Hostel and we found this centrally-located YHA after an approximately 1.5km walk from the bus station. Political controversy aside, our visit to Urumqi was highlighted by two things: a visit tothe Xinjiang Museum and meeting Winthrop and Marissa.
This massive museum has artifacts ranging from about 8000BC to the 1900sAD. There were some fantastic ancient items retreived during excavations in Xinjiang, a long-time populated place with a dry climate which perfectly preserves. The main exhibit displayed artifacts from each stage of Xinjiang’s history and told of influences and rules by various leaders and groups. While there was a clear intention here to show that the Han have periodically had influence and/or rule in Xinjiang, this was a very nice historical display so long as you remember to take any information with a grain of salt.
Another exhibit covered the culture of the various ethnic groups present in Xinjiang, complete with each culture’s dress, utensils, and musical instruments. We did note that the Russian ethnic area’s musical instrument section displayed a ukelele as a “child’s guitar”. You can’t get everything right.
Another interesting exhibit contained naturally mummified human remains and artifacts retreived from ancient burial sites in Xinjiang. Most of these displays contained English translations and placards. Overall, this was a very large and it quite interesting museum so long as you can take some information with a grain of salt.
Win and Marissa
We were very appreciative that Win and Marissa were able to meet us for dinner and give us insight into Urumqi and Xinjing. Win is an American teaching English in Urumqi and Marissa, a native of Urumqi, teaches English to locals. They were able to order meals for us and help us to adjust to the local Chinese traditions and culture. We enjoyed a couple meals and conversation with them.
Maitian International Youth Hostel
We were provided with a double room with attached bath for 110Y, a room equipped with the only western style toilet in the place which was a nice plus. We were greeted welcomely by a young man, who used a translation program on his computer to communicate with us, but we found that most of the staff did speak some English.
There isn’t really anything special about this place besides its location and price. Its a servicable hostel with no frills and not a ton of atmosphere, though we did visit near the end of the low season. We were told the other hostel in Urumqi is slightly nicer, but you couldn’t beat the Maitian’s location near the major bus lines and in the heart of this nearly heartless city.