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
Get ready for a war zone. I’m entirely kidding. But the way I was primed by the Chinese, little things kinda spooked me at first. The doors of the airport have these thick, green, dirty shields before you go outside. Not doors, but they just looked scary. I realized in the end they served a simple purpose: to keep out the cold. But I realized how the little stories and details rolled into a terror narrative. I’m told it’s a bad place, so these green cloth shields must be because of that. Oh yeah and the throng of military personnel carrying automatic rifles at the airport entrance definitely fed into this narrative. I hadn’t seen so many military since being in Paris during the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Guns make people smile. Once back in Foshan, I saw two gentleman emerge from an armored cash transport car. They emerged with silly grins holding slender guns. They entered the mall I happened to be in guns in hand. Once they saw that the elevator might close before they could get there, they started giggling and sprinted to it like children. They dashed through the closing doors and their chortles echoed down the shaft.
In Urumqi, while I was in the cab going to city center, I saw two guys in an armored vehicle just laughing. Driving, shooting the shit. Either transporting millions of RMB isn’t a particular risky job or Urumqi isn’t that dangerous after all.
Smog sucks. So yeah that cloud I descended into really was disgustingly thick smog. As I was cruising through the city I realized how bad it was, and since I didn’t believe it was particularly humid (thus leading to natural fog or something) I checked out the smog read. The PM2.5 was over 350, which is the worst smog I’ve encountered in China, (but still well south of the reading that shut schools in Beijing for two days after a red alert.)
To give an idea again, many American cities are something like 20, Foshan is generally around 50, and Beijing probably exceeds 100 regularly. Over 100 is when they recommend older folks or sensitive groups to stay indoors. 250-300 is basically don’t do strenuous activities outside. (Oh and just stay indoors.) The smog was pretty freaking bad.
Many of the views I had of the city were seriously impaired. And if you’re wondering what color the Sun appears through a blanket of smog, it’s white. The Sun becomes a perfectly circular, white as snow disk. I was admiring the filth and beauty and wonder of it all as the UV rays damaged my cornea.
A little bit of hometown, Springfield, halfway round the globe. When I looked up where to go in Urumqi, I basically just wanted to hit the biggest touristy things/parks. So one such spot is Hongshan (Red Hill) that apparently is emblematic of the whole city. I actually didn’t entirely set out to find it however. I meant to go to another park and having meandered through that one, happened up the city’s symbol.
It was the last thing I saw, and as I was moving through said park, I kept thinking “okay, just check out this spot and I’ll go back to the aiport.” And having moved forward a few hundred yards to a temple or tree or whatever, I simply found Hongshan. While not that interesting in and of itself, it did have locks on the fence around it, reminding me of Paris. But that’s not really what got me either. What did somehow, someway brought me back to Springfield.
I’m all about travelling through time and memories via the senses. A smell brings me back to training for my first company in China. A sound brings me back to playing video games in the basement. A taste reminds me of Chicago. But here it was simply the sound and sight. The little hill overlooked the highway in exactly the same way the mausoleum of Barney’s family and the flagpole at Forest Park in Springfield do. The chain link fence. The monument. The park. The cars rushing below. I couldn’t see more than a few hundred yards but I imagined a waterway veiled behind that smog akin to the Connecticut River. It’s weird to travel thousands of miles to discover something new, only to be reminded of a park you spent perhaps way too many hours running around in as a child
Food is all the same. Kidding. Ish. The only restaurant I went to I got rice and dumplings. Why did I fly clear across the country to eat the same thing? Well it wasn’t quite the same thing. It may have been packaged in the same manner but it tasted way different. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I think now it was a mixture between the “Chinese” fried rice I’ve had and the dish I had in Kazakhstan called plov (essentially rice pilaf).
Maybe I’m retrofitting these experiences with convenient geography and saying oh it was a halfway in-between dish, but I don’t care. I’m sticking to it. The food was still damn good. They made the dumplings and rice in these huge, huge woks outside that were steaming up feet in the air because of how cold it was outside. And they gave me a big tea pot with a sizable bowl as well.
Thinking that no way am I supposed to drink this tea out of the bowl, I turned around to see sure enough, folks were doing precisely that. College prepared me quite well for that then. When the goings got tough (aka I didn’t do the dishes) I always drank out of a bowls. So really, being the dishwasher for my fraternity prepped me well for Central Asian culture.
People’s Park. Of the people. By the people. For the people. Not really. The park’s name suggests a welcoming environment. But really I think every city in China has a park called Renmin Gongyuan, literally People’s Park. On either end of the park was a police checkpoint where I had to put my bag in the x-ray machine and had three officers stared me down. If that doesn’t sound like a park for the people I don’t know what is.
Oh I got it! They should put an armored vehicle with a man poking out with a rifle in hand looking out over everyone. That is just so welcoming! Nothing says “people” like potentially being shot at a moment’s notice. And to top it all off, the layout and overall design of the park was just lovely. A flat concrete expanse with the backdrop of tall, square buildings made of uniformly colored concrete. Lovely.
So many policemen. I was told there were a lot, and I saw pictures of military driving through the city, but it’s pretty crazy just how many there were. I’ve seen it before. The tornado through Springfield brought National Guard Humvee’s to our streets and Charlie Hebdo brought the gendarmes throughout the City of Lights, but this was just an average Thursday. It seemed to be a bit overkill. But walking through the city center, I saw a police station about once every 150-200 yards. I could eye the red Chinese badge on an official literally everywhere I went. I guess I felt safe.
So what did you actually do/see? I simply saw the International Bazaar, which was pretty cool, but honestly wasn’t that impressive when I read that it was built just over ten years ago. I saw Hongshan, the symbol (ish) of the city. And I saw the people’s park. I also played a carnival game where I shot a laser beam gun at a balloon that popped. The look on the Chinese girl’s face upon seeing an American holding a (fake) gun was priceless. She would’ve let me play the whole day through. I think I was also her only customer.
It was a remarkably brief visit to Urumqi. Xinjiang Province (rather Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) is an immensely beautiful place, with deserts and steppe and mountains to be found everywhere. While I explored just a speck of its splendor, I was nonetheless changed by this mini journey. China is truly diverse and vast and seeing but an ounce of it is spectacular.
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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