Some last thoughts on Xinjiang

I can’t believe our time in China is about to end! As of today we’ve been here for eight whole weeks. Tomorrow we fly to Taiwan, where we’ll be visiting a high school friend of mine who I haven’t seen in ages. So excited!

You may have noticed that during these past two months the majority of my posts have concerned the ONE week we spent in Xinjiang. I will be posting plenty about the rest of our time in China but if it’s not already obvious, I totally fell for Xinjiang.

Looking back, I realize I am heavily predisposed to like the place. We’ve been traveling in Asia for a long time now. Xinjiang is not eastern or southeastern Asia; it’s central Asia and being there I could feel its long reaching roots stretching out across the expanse to touch the edges of eastern Europe. This is probably just a flight of fancy, but it made me feel closer to Europe than I have in ages and given how much I love my second home, this made me happy. 🙂

This also might be just me, but I did feel some echos of Eastern Europe and gypsy culture in some of the details of the place. Thanks to Roman (who is half Serbian) I am a huge Kusturica and Bregovic fan, and for some reason something about gypsy style has appealed to me for as long as I can remember. Many people we passed on the streets looked like they could have just stepped out of a Kusturica film; the way women dressed (especially in Tashkurgan) – stripy stockings, glittery heels, ruffles, layers, red, red, red – was like something out of a fantastical fairy tale. For the aesthetics alone I love Xinjiang.

I also have a big affinity for Muslim cultures. My first two Muslim friends in my life, Yasmin and Kumayl, introduced me to the beauty of this religion (thank you both!) and so the presence of this religion is another thing that produces an automatic happy response in me. I also love unlikely cultural mixes, and Xinjiang is about as mongrel as you can get, and fascinating for it. I mean, how many places can you visit where the signs will be in Chinese, Arabic, Roman and Cyrillic characters?? Awesome.

Then there is the landscape. For sheer drama and beauty, I’m hard pressed to think of a place we’ve been on this trip whose nature can compete with that of Xinjiang. And we’ve been to some incredibly beautiful places. Small caveat though – I am a mountain girl at heart. I grew up with my mother’s stories of idyllic childhood in Liechtenstein, I was weaned on Heidi and my vacations as a girl nearly all involved the alps. So mountains automatically make me happy too – and boy were those Xinjiang mountains friggin’ amazing. It makes me sad to think of the mining projects that are and probably will take place there, of the scars that will be inflicted on all that beauty.

Lastly, I am a big sucker for underdogs. There is a lot I don’t know about the situation in Xinjiang, and I don’t want to discount the point of view of the Han Chinese living and working there. But all the literature I could find out about the place cast the Uyghur and other ethnic minorities of the province as the being clearly on the losing side of the equation as progress and development comes to Xinjiang. Certainly the Uyghurs we talked to echoed this sentiment.

One woman explained how controlled their movements were. Where other people in China pay RMB 200 (around USD 30) for a passport, Uyghurs have to pay nearly 1000 times that price, something few people can afford. For her, travel outside of China is a distant dream.

Another man talked about the difficulties of running his business. He was friends with many Chinese in the area but he said that once a Chinese person started to make real money they would change; no longer consulting with others and doing what ever they wanted in their adopted homeland. The success of his business was bounded by the whims of the Chinese government and businesses in the area. “Like Tibetans, we are free to breathe the air…” He trailed off here, implying with a resigned shrug all that is not free to the minorities.

Our guide seemed to harbor strong feelings on the subject; he nervously refused to translate at one point when I wanted to ask locals their views on the increasing presence of Chinese farmers in the area, but at other times his own opinions would come through. I remember him poetically observing at one point “(Spoken) Chinese always sounds like someone arguing and the letters look like broken houses”…

These are just a few small vignettes; I realize that after a week and a bit of Internet research I still have a lot to learn about Xinjiang. But three months ago I’d never even heard of it and I’m so happy that I discovered this place at all!

So thanks for indulging these numerous posts on the topic. Although we had one more stop within the province – Urumqi – I’m going to skip over this and push on to the rest of our trip in China. (Suffice to say, it’s no Kashgar.) I will do one more post though with general travel notes for anyone who might want to do their own trip to this incredible place.

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Thank you Xinjiang!

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