It is 2:15am and I am definitely feeling the anti-Urumqi vibe from the internet. The capital of the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang elicits predictable hysteria: ‘depressing!’, ‘creepy!’, ‘give it a miss!’. And it had all started so well, not only did trusty Air Astana get us in a whole hour early (see below) but the notorious Chinese immigration barely bothered with fingerprinting and retina scanning, let alone my choice of reading material. Then (shades of Iran) the taxi driver’s whole extended family was on speaker to make sure he got me to the depths of the Uighur quarter post haste, plus the hotel had all its lights on and a full, mostly awake, night-time staff.
But that was an hour ago and here we still are with the C-team milenials-at-the-desk who not only are appalled to see me (despite my reservation being clearly evident on the computer along with my frantic [and unanswered] queries for them to confirm they can legally host foreigners, a hazard in this region at least), but they have coerced me into paying my bill up front and have now started on what seems like a satisfaction survey (they’re currently scoring 0). Our problems are compounded by the fact that not only do we not share a language with each other, none of us share a language with Google Translate: to wit neither the millennials nor I speak Chinese and GT doesn’t do Uighur. Enough is enough. ‘I have to tell you’ I enunciate icily ‘At this point I’m starting to get really annoyed’. The universal body language of the irritated mom does its trick and within 20 seconds I am in the elevator and within a minute in the (fabulous) bed. But I must admit my first thought when it becomes clear that the 10 or so men in the room next door are either having a college reunion or plotting a major insurgency is ‘I can’t do this’. Fortunately my second occurs 8 hours later, and when I finally locate the sumptuous breakfast I am fully restored.
The breakfast room at the Aksaray Hotel. Can this be the market for all that subway art in Moscow?
First on the docket, and the whole reason to be in Urumqi – the museum, one of the best in China. And it doesn’t disappoint. On first floor, and uncannily like Almaty but much better done, charming dioramas of all the (same) ethnic groups that from time immemorial have also called Xinjiang home. On the second, incredible archeological artifacts and the world-class collection of 3000-4000 BC mummies preserved stunningly by the intense dryness of the desert climate. Finally, the over-the-top fancy exhibit, a joint Chinese/Japanese effort to excavate Han and Xing dynasty sites (many unusually fervid hands-across-the-water ecomiums). The message is, well we might not have been here first (the fossil record clearly belies this) but we definitely did the leg work of civilization. (Actually the Uighurs did come much later, from Lake Baikal of all places. They must have asked themselves was it all worth it). In any case it is maybe somewhat beside the point in 21st century Xinjiang where ongoing ‘civilization’ evidently equates to faceless apartment blocks and escalating pollution, not to mention cultural realignment.
A whole slew of amazing museum pictures.
First up, the jolly ethnic dioramas seem to belie the reality on the ground.
Some gorgeous Uighur clothing from the 19th century
Can’t forget the hats
Onto 2000-3000 BC artifacts. The one on the right was labeled a eunuch, begging the obvious question.
Where did that coral come from? Lake Baikal? And the agate?
Sophisticated 3000 BC gold
The intricacy of this weaving is remarkable
The inevitable stone tools. But these are from 30,000 BC. They are actually about the size of a brick.
And finally, the piece de resistance. A whole passel of mummies.
She had her own room, but sadly no English translation
Look at the bridge of the nose, definitely not Asian
The dry climate meant their clothes were amazingly preserved
Including the facial decoration
So what about Urumqi? The internet hysteria is focused on overbearing police harassment around the bazaar area, where I’m located. Lonely Planet is dripping with affronted back-packers who have had to present their passports, sometimes more than once. The much-reviled police checkpoints every 100 meters are still there (and built of brick so clearly intended to have some permanence) but are shuttered up and gathering dust, so whatever prompted their construction is clearly not an issue right now. All ongoing efforts are directed at the single entrance to the bazaar which is replete with pat downs, scanners etc. (I note we are already at the stage of waving our special friends through unchecked [and a higher proportion of young Uighur men to Uighur grannies which, not to stereotype, seems like defeating the purpose]). Superficially it’s no worse than the shopping mall in Shymkent Kazakhstan or the Tashkent subway. Once inside the police presence is minimal and not particularly focused, certainly not on me, even though I seem to be the only Westerner here. Maybe on account of the surreptitious snacking.
The entrance to the market, it would not have been wise to photograph the police checkpoint (out of sight below).
The market is treated with disdain on the internet, it wasn’t at all bad, less Chinese knockoffs than in Istanbul and Uzbekistan.
What looked like a spontaneous afternoon hoe down.
On the other hand the scanners at the entrance to the park next to my hotel, the single evidence of green in the whole benighted neighborhood, are also shuttered and the deserted park is soundly padlocked. As I watch the Uighurs struggling to avoid tripping over the hordes of kids playing on the grimy pavement outside, I must admit I feel a bit like spitting too.
Not a good picture of the aggravating padlock on the park (scanner in background). Uighurs watch me take it with sardonic smiles.
My new friend the English-speaking Assistant manager (who works days and has scored a definite 5 on the survey) tells me to check the time of my flight – all China runs on Beijing time, but Xinjiang exerts autonomy by moving the clock two hours forward (so it matches Almaty, see Air Astana above). We compare our watches, which are set at different times. In that understated way the gentle Uighurs have, she winks.