A stroll through this Uygur town; a tale of markets and minorities.
Arriving in Urumchi is arriving in a different world, somehow. The town was not a prominent station on the Silk Route, it is located too far north, but it was established as capital and administrative centre of Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the 1960s. The big boost came in 1963, with the completion of the railway link from Lanzhou, connecting the rest of China. But in atmosphere it is not China anymore, it is Xinjiang, distinctly different. The so-called minorities of Uygurs and Kazhaks, ethnically quite different from the Han Chinese, in fact dominate the streets, especially in the older parts of town. Yet China’s new found consumerism is pervasively present all over town, visible in the number of fashion shops and department stores, and visible in the dress of especially the younger generation. There are plenty of mini skirts, tight shorts and sleeveless shirts to admire, despite the largely Muslim background of the population of Xinjiang. Somehow, this mixes easily with the more traditional dress of the many different minorities, and with the Muslim dress of elderly men and women. Nobody seems to take offence. All this creates a colourful mixture, not at all typical Chinese. The people sport green eyes, Turkish moustaches, tall bodies, big noses, and blond hair – although the latter is more often than not the result of copious quantities of hydrogen-peroxide. One conspicuous contemporary sign is the great number of plastic ‘straw hats’ with Worldcup written on the sides, a welcome addition to the wide variety of headgear, like Muslim caps, brightly coloured Uygur hats, scarves and turbans already common in town.
Urumchi’s centre is modern, with wide avenues, high rise, and all major junctions equipped with either pedestrian tunnels or an intricate system of raised footbridges connecting all corners of the junction. They also lead directly into the fashionable department stores, further evidence of China’s burgeoning consumerism. The outskirts are much poorer, dominated by derelict apartment buildings and the obligatory smoke stacks of factories. The misery is somewhat alleviated by rows and rows of snooker tables, something we had noticed before. There is rubbish all around, but, no matter where you are, there is also a market, streets are lined with colourful parasols, and people are selling everything, off carts or tricycles, or from beds, carton boxes or just a piece of cloth on the pavement. One man arrived with two boxes of soft drinks, and set out to unpack his boxes and build a pyramid of tins on the street corner! And people are buying, as well, no matter at what time of the day. Whole streets are simply being taken over by market stalls and customers; traffic has to make space for commerce.
Two of the market places are really outstanding, the first one being the Erdaoqiao market, an Uygur dominated covered bazaar with spices, emanating a strong smell, and colourful knives and daggers, carpets, copper ware, and other handicrafts. Around this centre are the food stalls, with the usual selection of sheep parts, and the occasional bakery, which produces a variety of delicious flat breads, with sesame seeds, or spring onions, or whatever combination the baker has decided on that morning. Although the main market is opposite the central mosque in Urumchi, the selling stretches for as far as one can see, along the main road, and every street and side alley one can identify. One corner is entirely dominated by the cloths sellers, with a wide choice of material, including the colourful Uygur patters so typical for this part of the country. As everywhere else, the main trade is conducted from the street, and here it is dominated by the Uygur, especially the women. They keep the money in their stockings, and it is quite a common sight to see a woman lift her skirt to put some bank notes away. Mind you, however this sounds, make no mistake, it is by no means an erotic experience!
But the absolute highlight of town is the nightly Uygur food market, which, incidentally, also sells watches, shoes, plastics and sun glasses. This market is located around the main junction in the city centre, the streets on both sides lined with hundreds and hundreds of food stalls, selling all sorts of local delicacies. There are small roasted birds, kebabs, noodles, hot pot, a kind of ‘cook it yourself’ in very spicy oil, water melon to mitigate the effects of the hotpot, and – that almost goes without saying – the sheep variety, every identifiable and non-identifiable part of the sheep is made edible, or at least, is made for sale, we did not test the edibility of all of it. It really looks like half of the town is feeding the other half! A truly wonderful place, and, as long as one is selective, wonderful food, too.
Besides markets, Urumchi has more to offer. One highlight was the local museum, and then especially the selection of dried-out bodies kept in glass coffins. These bodies have been retrieved from burial chambers in the Taklamakan desert, and are on par with, if not more interesting than, the Egyptian mummies. The dresses and shoes are still largely in tact, complete with bright colours. Nails and teeth are still in place, hair is either loose, or tied back, but it is still there, and the expressions on the individual faces are still so lively. The oldest is thought to have died some 3800 years ago, and has distinctly un-Chinese looks. The nationalistic Uygurs have immediately seized upon this as an argument for independence, the area was, after all, initially inhabited by non-Chinese.
Many 20th century travellers, from the early archaeological explorers to diplomats and missionaries to more recent tourists, have complained about Urumchi being an unattractive town, the pits really. I disagree, it does have its attractions; for instance, in the Holiday Inn it has the only slightly more upmarket, Western-style hotel in entire Xinjiang Autonomous Region, a rare, but much-appreciated alternative during our seven weeks trip.
Continue: Excursion to Tianchi