So about two years ago, when I was living in Foshan, China, I had a friend teaching in Kazakhstan. This of course meant that I had to go visit him, but as one might suspect, there aren’t too many direct flights from southern China to the largest city in Kazakhstan, which also isn’t the capital. This meant I had a layover in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang Province in China. This province has had its problems in the past, including several terrorist attacks, ethnic tensions and invasion of the freedom of movement from the local Uyghur people.
Some of these events are within the scope of this trip and some are not. In any case, I decided that my layover of a few hours was long enough to get out of the airport and go for a walk. This is a sampling of my initial emotions from that brief journey.
URUMQI, XINJIANG PROVINCE, CHINA
Snow fields or sea of clouds. From tens of thousands of feet in the air I couldn’t quite make out what was going on down below. We were flying up in the mountains and the mountain peaks rose out of a whiten expanse, though what constituted said whiteness I had no idea. At first it looked like snow fields ran right up to the mountains and then end with massive rocky spires emerging. But things such as “snow lines” and “logic” made me think otherwise.
At first I thought it was beautiful fluffy clouds, but I had to rethink even this. Both the uniformity and opaqueness of this whiteness made sense as we descended into what I soon found out was thick, thick smog. So because Urumqi is fairly high up (higher than anywhere I’ve lived) the descent was fairly quick from the peaks of the Tianshan mountain range to the runway and through a dense haze in just ten minutes or so. From announcing that we were approaching to actually touching down I couldn’t see a damn thing. Thank god for radar.
I missed the cold. Seriously. Since I lived in the subtropics for several months for the first time in my life, I hadn’t had really cold weather since perhaps my last soccer game in a brutal Iowa autumn afternoon (November 2014) when snow banks lined the field. When I got off the plane to the skywalk to the airport I immediately got a chill and saw my breath. That lovely, lovely chill. I missed you.
Dangerous? So never in my life (other than maybe school in Southside Chicago) have I half-feared going to a place. I had a layover in Urumqi and figured I could get out and walk around for a few hours. Many people advised me not to go, but many of those people were Han Chinese (or as we would simply call them – Chinese), the ethnicity for which tensions in the area is directed at. There are many sides to the story, but as I understand it, here is the basic premise behind racial tension in Xinjiang Province.
There are two primary ethnic groups in the region: Han Chinese and Uyghurs. Uyghurs are a people from Central Asia who have been in the area for centuries reaching back, and in recent times the Han have flooded many regions causing all sorts of social problems. Most of them were instructed to relocate by the central government in an attempt similar to modern day Israel’s. (I’m not passing judgment; this is matter-of-fact.)
They live mostly in China and Kazakhstan and are generally Muslim. The Uyghurs accuse the government of trying to wipe out their culture or at least mitigate its influence in the area. The government says it is simply trying to maintain peace, after it joined the worldwide fight on terrorism post-9/11. (Fun fact: there are actually now ISIS fighters in the region. When I originally wrote this piece, there was this old man who could barely stand. Now, it’s a bit fiercer.)
In addition, there was a policy put in place decades ago by Mao, basically simultaneously enacted when he collectivized the entire society. Each person got what was essentially a visa to work, to live and to be educated in just one city or province. It’s called a hukou and without one, you more or less aren’t a citizen. The Economist often writes incredibly informative, reasoned pieces on the hukou system.
So just a few months ago, the second child in many families who weren’t accounted for by a hukou couldn’t get basic access to education. The system serves a semi-useful purpose in modern society in stemming a flood of people to the tier-one cities, but in totality is a pretty crummy policy. Anyways, they tend to keep people in certain areas, and if the government wants a push of people to a certain area, it can do so by granting hukou to certain areas, like Urumqi.
So many Han Chinese (for which there are obviously more of than Uyghurs – and every other ethnic group in the world for that matter) they can quickly change the demographics. Some claim it was originally a Han city, but essentially it matters not in the development of relations it seems, since the narrative remains that the Han are trying to wipe out their culture. And the normal Han citizens who simply reside in Xinjiang Province? They are simply living and working there.
As a result of a few riots in recent years (2009 and 2014 were big) many people say to simply avoid the region, but that’s a pretty crude assessment. Even the US government has a travel warning – to every country in the world. (Literally, at the time of writing.) So I scoured the internet to find some sort of peace of mind. I truly wanted to see this city, but obviously not at the risk of my safety/life.
I saw something things from years ago mentioning it was safe. I saw something from 2014 saying definitely wait two months before coming back to the city. I’m told there’s police everywhere. I’m told that it’s very tense. I’m told of stories of friends of friends of friends who were stabbed. But I was also told that pretty much nothing would happen. Says one white person, “Just go mate. There’s so many military people there nothing will happen.”
Looking at the main blog by a foreigner for the area I saw nothing directly reassuring me that at this moment, on this day I would be okay to just walk around and be fine. But then I had a change of thoughts. Who’s job is it to have a daily measure of safety. Should someone really have to update me every second? Is this someone’s job? Is it even realistic to suggest that I should be able to look on the internet and determine right now if it’s okay to walk around a city? I saw nothing in the last year that even remotely suggested violence or anything.
Although many Chinese advised me to the contrary, I decided that I would go out of the airport and just take a cab everywhere. I took their advice with a grain of salt for a few reasons. First, the news sources both blow up coverage of bad events to justify heavy military and police presence in the area and smother any news in general that doesn’t fit that agenda (as I see it anyways.) And second, there’s an area of Guangzhou called Xiaobei, an area that in English is sometimes called Little Africa and Little Middle East because of the pockets of various ethnicities. To the Chinese this area is akin to South Sudan, it’s that “dangerous.”
If they can blow those areas out of proportion, I figured Urumqi was much the same. I was mostly right. So, I left the airport remarkably tense, and this is where this 10 day journey to Urumqi and Almaty, Kazakhstan began.
Let me know what you think in the comments below! Have you also been to Xinjiang? Share your experiences with us!
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