Friday, October 28, 2005

The Middle Of Nowhere

I am now in Urumqi, a place that has been on The List (my mental list of places I want to visit and things I want to do) for perhaps 15 years or more. Why is Urumqi there? does it have a marvelous mosque? ravishing ruins? bustling bazaars? Nope, it has none of those things. But for as long as I can remember I have been an avid collector of useless trivia. The more irrelevant and trivial the piece of information, the more likely I am to remember it (important things, on the other hand, pass through my brain like a sieve). So, as some of you may, or may not, know, Urumqi is the furthest city from the sea (about 2500km). And since I'm a sucker for superlatives I just had to come here. Funnily enough there is no plaque, statue, amusement park or even a fish stall to celebrate the fact; which is quite surprising as the Chinese are very adept at seizing every possible opportunity to make an easy buck (especially from us, put upon, tourists). Although the remotest point is actually several hundred kilometers to the northwest and is 2648km from the sea.

I don't know what I was expecting from this remote metropolis, but it certainly wasn't the throbbing neon lights, loud music and fancy stores that greeted me. It is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan city, with an interesting mix of ethnic groups, not just Uighur and Han, but also Hui, Uzbek and Russian. Still, I was given one priceless picture of rurality just a while ago: walking down one of the main roads in the middle of town, blissfully uncaring of the traffic zooming past, was a farmer herding about half a dozen goats. I have no idea how he got there, or where he was going with his little troop, but it was a priceless moment for me.

Urumqi is also the political and administrative centre of Xinjiang (or, to give it its full name, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region), which is also China's largest province by area (if it were a country it would be 17th largest in the world between Libya and Iran). The region, along with Tibet, also has an underground independence movement, although it's Tibet that seems to grab all the headlines (probably because Buddhism is more in fashion and they've got the Dalai Lama as a figurehead) nonetheless nationalist sentiment among the Uighurs runs high. The Chinese government is doing its best to counter this through several means: allowing a certain degree of autonomy (Uighur is an official language within the province and there are newspapers and TV programmes in it); flooding the place with ethnic Han Chinese to dilute the Uighur majority; rewriting history to promote Chinese nationalism; and good old-fashioned totalitarian repression. It is the last two that are the most insidious and I've had a little taste of a subtle form of both of them today. I went to the Xinjiang province museum today and they had a timeline of the history of the region. Not only were there continuous references to the "glorious motherland" and "harmony between the people" but whilst recounting the history the exhibit jumped from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) to the Qing dynasty(1644-1911), completely skipping the 300 years of the Ming dynasty that lies in between, which, oddly enough, was the time of greatest independence for the Uighur people. I wonder whether the locals notice and what they think of it? The soft repression is happening right now at the cyber cafe. As I'm surfing I'm finding many more websites being blocked here than in the rest of the country, and most of them are very innocuous (honest!).

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