With only a few weeks left in China I really wanted to explore more of this huge country. But where should I go?
Well, a few things were clear. 1. I had no interest in visiting another Chinese city, which all kind of look the same to me. 2. I did not want to visit a very touristy place, where you have to put up with pushy crowds, cheap souvenir shops and blaring loudspeakers. 3. I wanted to see a different face of China.
Two places sprang to mind: Tibet and Xinjiang province.
And I decided to go to Tibet, simply due to the fact that I have many Tibetan friends, spent quite a bit of time with exile Tibetans and heard so many stories about this beautiful but at the same time troubled place.
Now, you might have realised that this blog entry is not called: Tibet… so what had happened?
Well, I had booked an awesome sounding 8-day tour with an awesome sounding tour agency (it is mandatory to book a tour to go to Tibet – you cannot go by yourself) and I had also secured my train tickets for the 42-hours journey to Lhasa. I was super excited that I would finally see the place I had heard so much about. Around 10 days before my departure date I received an email from the tour agency. They expressed their regret to inform me that the tour had been cancelled or to be more precise my special permit application (as a foreigner you need a special permit to visit Tibet) had been rejected. Why? The official response was that some high officials would be visiting Lhasa during that time. Obviously, with the military parade in Beijing taking place during my planned trip and the 50th anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region being ‘celebrated’ in September, it overall seemed like a difficult time to receive a travel permit.
After a few hours filled with anger and frustration I figured out this mindset was not beneficial to anyone – so I came up with a plan B: Xinjiang province – literally translated: New Frontier.
Xinjiang (in the far west) makes up 1/6 of China’s land mass and yet is home to only 1,5% of its population.
I had around 10 days to organise my trip and I had absolutely no idea about this place. Yes, I had heard about the Uyghur people and the ongoing tensions between Han Chinese and Uyghurs – but that was pretty much it. Around 3 days before my planned departure, I started panicking. I really had no idea where I was going. Even though I knew I could survive with my Chinese, I did not even know whether people there spoke Chinese or were willing to speak this language. I started looking for information on the web, but unlike other places I had been to, there was far less information to be found. I went to an English book store in Beijing but there was no book about Xinijiang and the few pages the Lonely Planet had dedicated to Xinjiang, which is so large that France could fit in it 3! times, were not overly helpful. Anyway, after a few hours of research I gathered enough information to ease my mind – I heard that other single women had already survived a trip to Xinjiang so I thought I would be just fine too 🙂 .
Unfortunately, all train tickets were already sold out, so I had to book a flight from Beijing to Urumqi – the capital of Xinjiang province. The flight took 3,5 hours, covering a distance of 3200 km. Already on the plane I could sense that I was stepping into a different world. Not surprisingly, I was the only foreigner on the plane. Although there were still a lot of Chinese businessmen and Chinese tourists, there were also quite a few Uighur people, the women wearing veils and the men traditional hats, called doppa. I could sense an adventure coming up and I immediately knew I had made the right decision.
After arriving in Urumqi I took a taxi into the city centre where I had booked a bed in a hostel. My first impression of Urumqi: another big Chinese city. OH NO! High-rises, cars, shops, a few parks, everything in the well known Chinese order – and really not what I had hoped to see. And there was a lot of construction going on. In whichever direction you looked new high-rises were being built. This left me slightly disheartened – and it did not help that the hostel I had booked was not nearly as nice as the other hostels I had stayed in before when travelling in China.
Apparently, Urumqi’s concrete jungle used to be beautiful pastures populated by nomadic herders – the name is Mongolian and means ‘beautiful pasture land’ – but it is obvious that those days are long gone. Urumqi has around 3 million inhabitants. Although the city itself is a rather young establishment, it used to be a major hub on the Silk Road and later developed its reputations as a leading cultural and commercial center.
My guidebook had already mentioned that most travellers dread coming to Urumqi and I could understand why. After a short visit to the rather nice but not very spectacular Hong Shan park, I made my way to the highly recommended Xinjiang museum – apparently a good place to get some knowledge about the region. However, my guidebook also said that: “It is obvious to any person who has studied Central Asian history that many of these exhibits were assembled for the purpose of proving China’s claim on the Xinjiang region'” and although most displays were translated into English the one of the Chinese LIBERATION was for some strange reason only available in Chinese…
Most interesting were surely the mummies – some of them were really well preserved. I was surprised to see that the man in the picture used to be 1,74m – quite tall I think for a person who lived hundreds of years ago – I would have definitely hit on him ;). Funny enough that the museum curators acknowledge that these mummies are of Eurasian descent and not Chinese…
What else was there to see in Urumqi? Well, the only other thing my guidebook highly recommended was the International Grand Bazaar. So, wow, it seemed there actually was something I know from Arab countries left in this place – a bazaar. On my way there I came across some other Arab influences… mosques, shops selling nan bread and meat and obviously Uyghur people dressed in their tradition clothes.
What also became obvious is that there is a significant military presence. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take pictures of the military in China, but on almost every corner were several heavy-armed police officers and surveillance cameras were installed every few metres. Why? To understand the present you have to understand the past: This area has had intermittent autonomy and occasional independence, but what is now known as Xinjiang came under Chinese rule in the 18th Century. An East Turkestan state was briefly declared in 1949, but independence was short-lived – later that year Xinjiang officially became part of Communist China. In the 1990s, open support for separatist groups increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Muslim states in Central Asia. However, Beijing suppressed demonstrations and activists went underground.
While the situation is complex, many say that ethnic tensions caused by economic and cultural factors are the root cause of the violence (there are frequent violent attacks, e.g. in 2009 around 200 people were killed in an unrest). Although some major development projects have brought prosperity to Xinjiang’s big cities, it is mainly the Han Chinese that benefit from this progress. In July 2014, some Xinjiang government departments banned Muslim civil servants from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, which further increased tensions.
The International Grand Bazaar was also rather disappointing. Although it looks like a historical site it was first opened in 2003 – mainly as a tourist attraction.
Overall, there was not much left of what Urumqi probably used to be like. Apart from the old town with its food stalls and nicely dressed people, it seemed pretty much like another Chinese city.
Although I was a bit disappointed, I still had hope. After 1,5 days in Urumqi it was time to get out of there – I had booked a plane ticket to Kashgar: not only sounded the name Kashgar exciting, but I had also heard great things about this city.