To say I wasn’t stressed out during my short journey through Western China would be lying – how can one forget being held in immigration for two hours to have your phone searched, body prodded, and intentions questioned all whilst being called a terrorist and spy? The mere thought of having my personal belongings checked, and daily motives interrogated as I walked down the street to find breakfast will still bring anxiety to my soul, and solidifies the belief that freedom is a luxury not all get to relish in. But to focus on negatives would be a poor mistake on my behalf, for the diverse group of people and cultures to call Ürümqi, and the Xinjiang region home, deserve more. It is always a treat to find humble, generous, and caring people in this world, but it is especially meaningful to find such great souls who live amongst suppressing conditions. And for that, I want to focus on their beauty!
I didn’t originally intend on going to China, cheap airfares to Kyrgyzstan were the driving factor. When you see flights for $700 Sydney to Bishkek, via China, instead of $1400 more direct flights, you take them damn it! Not only do you save a bunch of money that can then be spent on delicious fermented horse milk (we will get to that in a later article about Kyrgyzstan), but you also go on an unlikely adventure!
Arriving into Ürümqi Diwopu International Airport (URC), my first taste of the hospitable nature of the community was presented by two lovely ladies – Danni and Lina. They both saw how much of a foreigner I was (I was the only non-Chinese person on the flight) and decided to help. Lina was eager to show me her beautiful city, so we exchanged WeChat numbers and agreed to meet up afterwards. Danni was an absolute gem, not only did she have me feeling like a local within minutes, but she very kindly offered the assistance of her friend Chen who was picking her up to drop me to my hotel downtown which was a very fortunate way to get my head around the layout of the city. Chen and I shared very in-depth conversation with our mutual knowledge of the word “thank you/Xièxiè”.
Upon entering the city of Ürümqi, it is immediately obvious that it is far away from any sort of ocean – the most inland major city in the world in fact!
Upon entering the city of Ürümqi, it is immediately obvious that it is far away from any sort of ocean – the most inland major city in the world in fact! Dust settles upon every surface, inside and out, your eyes take some time to readjust from the lack of moisture, even the design of the infrastructure seem somewhat desert-like with their beige palettes. But not all is left to dry here in the streets of Ürümqi, stick around long enough and you’ll notice a ritual happen throughout the day – large trucks filled with water pace the highways, producing a trail of mist behind them as they rumble on by. Don’t question the water inside, just let yourself, your skin, be hydrated by its particles as they dance through the air – it really is quite refreshing!
Preferring the ambience of a hostel environment, I don’t like to stick around in hotel rooms too long so I quickly settle my luggage down and head out to explore. My first stop was Red Hill also known as Hongshan Park – a beautiful, yet whimsical place to overlook the city and see through to the Tian Shan Mountain Range. The park is filled with life, kids racing along the paths giggling and setting their eyes upon gifts in street-side stalls, don’t be surprised if you see turtles, fish and rabbits being sold in parks and along popular streets as well. The older generation take it a lot slower, observing the gardens and nestling themselves into the sun, maybe to take in the serenity, or if they’re feeling spritely, to play a game of Chinese Chess or cards which can get very competitive. If you get bored of strolling, you can always jump on a ride as well! The park is so large that parts of it are dedicated to amusement rides, from your less-than-popular carnie games through to a luge that spirals around the park, falling through trees and tracing its way along small streams.
One child even walked into a wall staring at me, possibly more entertaining for me than her!
As I kept wandering about, scenery changed but one thing remained very obviously consistent – I was different. Not that I personally felt any different, but I was clearly a foreigner in a world where foreigners don’t quite exist in the numbers. It only took moments for a chain reaction to begin where locals would approach and gesture to have a photo with me – selfies, couples, groups – you name it – one child even walked into a wall staring at me, possibly more entertaining for me than her. I end up discovering later on, that my presence in the city is largely at question due to my beard – men in Xinjiang are to be supposedly clean shaven – so for once in my life, I appeared like a rebel!
Later that evening the real fun was about to begin! I caught up with Lina who wanted to show me a typical night out in Ürümqi. We met up with her sister-in-law Mia and her best friend Oei Oei at a traditional Uighur restaurant. The hospitality here was on a whole other level, not only did my hostesses show me the best time and order us what felt like everything on the menu, other guests at the restaurant would approach the table and buy us alcohol, or come drink with us to welcome me to the country, it was beautiful, and my particularly favourite part was taking shots of something with an older man who was with his family, all whilst cradling wine and honey beer.
The food of Ürümqi is absolutely delicious, ranging from their well-known BBQ lamb, spicy homemade noodles, fried pigeon, rice wrapped in intestine and lamb lung – oh and you can’t forget the enormous portions of naan provided at each meal! The night didn’t stop at food and drink though, half way through the night, entertainment was provided, and traditional Uighur performers took the stage – a percussive and string band along with dancers that twisted and turned their hips whilst carrying plates and pottery on their head – there was enough spinning to make you wonder whether the alcohol was to blame. Of course, they also wanted to see what the foreigner could do and so they got me on stage with a few other guests and we moved to the rhythms of the night – I’ll take any chance I get to make a fool of myself!
Observing happiness – the Uighur way:
1. Take time to dance, with yourself, with strangers, with those you love
2. Live in the moment and observe the little details around yourself
3. Eat well – I’m not talking about healthy here, I mean eat irresistible noodles, sauces fruits and meat because you’re only here for a limited time
4. Siestas – or Wǔxiū
As research prior to heading to Ürümqi was quite limited, I spent the rest of my time in the city exploring the neighbourhoods which was an amazing way to see the people going about their normal routines. Ürümqi is a busy city, both day and night, you will never be short of company everywhere you go, although I do note here that unfortunately smartphones play a very large part in most peoples lives and the tendency is to see people with their heads buried into the next big online game. Food is available by the busloads, odd child-like music rings through the air as it wraps itself around audio announcements that blast out of every storefront, and EASI food delivery bike riders dodge pedestrian after pedestrian. It’s loud, dry and exotic, but for those curious enough to explore, Ürümqi provides charm by the bucket loads!