(Distant Xinjiang – Part 1 of 6)
“Who would go to Xinjiang?” my boss asked and sounded baffled when I appealed for my 11-day leave to be approved. He had initially rejected it as he was rather unhappy that I would be taking another holiday not long after my 3-week break to the UK in March. “Exactly!” I said. I explained that if not for my friend May who happens to have a good friend in Xinjiang who has been extending his invitation for her to visit for many years, we would never have considered making a trip to Xinjiang. A land spanning over 1.6 million km² with many international borders in the most north-western corner of China, Xinjiang is simply too far, to vast and too unfamiliar to us. Thank God my boss saw that it was a trip not to be missed for me so he grudgingly signed my leave application form 4 days before I was due to leave!
The panic set in a little however once it was confirmed that I would be on my way as I realised I was running out of time to get everything at work sorted and handed over, and to pack. Oh, the packing — our host Mr Zhang informed us to bring warm clothing to brace the 10+°C in Kanas (喀纳斯) and then be ready to face the 45°C in Turpan (吐魯番), so really, what were we supposed to pack???
Our journey started with us flying to Hong Kong from Kota Kinabalu to take a transit flight to Xi’an on 3 August 2015 for a whirlwind tour. We stayed for a night in Xi’an and visited the Han Yang Ling the next day (our visit there can be viewed here) before catching a flight to Ürümqi (烏魯木齊), the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (新疆維吾爾族自治區) for a week-long stay.
The flight left on time this time (phew!!!) and we landed in Ürümqi 3.5 hours later and were greeted by the hot evening sun at 9pm! Due to its geographical location, Xinjiang is actually 2 hours behind Beijing but there is only one time zone, i.e. the Beijing Standard Time (UTC+08:00, similar to Malaysia) and no daylight saving. Therefore, the sun does not set in Xinjiang until way after 10pm at night.
I had a window seat on the plane and for the first time in my adult life I was in awe with the view outside. It was simply magnificent when we flew past Tian Shan (天山), a large system of mountain ranges in Central Asia which is part of the Himalayan orogenic belt. The highest peak near Xinjiang is Bogda Peak/Feng (博格達峰) on the eastern Tian Shan, at 5,445 m (17,864 ft), about 60 km east of Ürümqi.
Ürümqi (from the Dzungar Oirat (Mongolic) language, it literally means “beautiful pasture”. 來源于蒙古語，意思是”優美的牧場”) – the largest city in the western interior of China and a landlocked city that is the furthest from any sea.
We were very well taken care of throughout the whole trip by our gracious host Mr Zhang but the amount of food ordered for lunch and dinner was just far too much for us four ladies to handle.
The main diets for the people of Xinjiang are noodles, hot and cold, and lamb/mutton which we had it almost every meal. Xinjiang is famous for its fruit and melons (新疆有”瓜果之鄉”的美譽!) and we were truly spoiled!
(picture above) We were given the freedom to order what we wanted to eat on the last night and we requested to go back to the first restaurant that we were taken to on our arrival. We loved the boiled then fried and drizzled with syrup dumplings (湯圓) filled with sesame paste accompanied with pumpkin that were served to us on the first day. These were only half of what they normally ordered and still, we couldn’t finish all!
lamb, lamb and more lamb… many delicious ways of cooking lamb and we lost count (since been back we have all been on a lamb-free diet!)
sweet and very juicy fruit
out and about…
Our driver Xiao Wang said a trip to Ürümqi would not be complete if we did not visit one of the famous landmarks, the Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar (新疆國際大巴扎) so we made our way there after we came back from Kanas.
The Grand Bazaar (大巴扎) is a grand scale Islamic bazaar in Ürümqi that features the colours, culture, commerce and architecture of the Uyghurs (維吾爾族), the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang but minority in Ürümqi.
We were initially very excited to get there to experience the sights and sounds of the place and the people but were left feeling slightly uncomfortable and cautious when our host Mr Zhang who was not with us on the day started to show concern when was told about our destination. He kept reminding Xiao Wang to bring us back to the hotel before nightfall. Well, Mr Zhang’s concern was not unfounded as the Grand Bazaar was where the Ürümqi Riots started in July 2009 due to ethnic unrest and dispute. The demonstration by the Uyghurs was in the end escalated into violent attacks and bloodshed that mainly targeted the Han people, and thousands have lost their lives.
We managed to get a few pieces of costume jewellery and some beautiful cashmere and silk shawls where Xiao Wang’s master skill of negotiation was put to the test before the lights in the building were switched off at 9pm indicating the closing time, earlier than we thought it would be. We were told by the sellers that the closing time had been brought forward since the riots.
Though the sellers with central Asian ethnic features all conversed in Mandarin (Putonghua) to us and looked friendly, when we walked out from the bazaar, got in to the car and drove along the streets packed with Uyghurs, I simply could not shake that vague yet not unreal intangible air of ethnic tension around us.
As the van was weaving through the streets around the Grand Bazaar on our way back to the hotel, the single thought that was going through my mind was that the racial disharmony in Xinjiang between the Uyghurs and Hans probably is not much different from my own country. In view of the many racial and religious issues and incidents that have taken place these last few years in my country, it is indeed very sad to see that it is gradually losing its identity of a rainbow nation. For that I can only pray, pray that God will heal our land!
The slogans noticed everywhere in Xinjiang all encourage solidarity/racial harmony…
(End of Part 1 of 6) – Part 2 of 6 here