Notes on the Silk Road: Urumqi

Posted: October 28, 2010 in Interpreter
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The first in a new series for the Lowy’s Interpreter, drawing on my recent trip out West. Look forward to hearing feedback on these, and please be sure to check out my wonderful photographer’s site while you are at it.

Notes on the Silk Road: Urumqi

By Guest Blogger – 28 October 2010 2:56PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

Made infamous by riots in July 2009, when Han Chinese and Uighur mobs started fighting and killing each other in the streets, Urumqi is in fact hard to distinguish from many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities, and is mostly a massive urban concrete sprawl. The only things that really highlight that you are somewhere different is the Uighur areas of the city, which are teeming with non-Han people and Arab-inspired architecture. Also, most signs are in Mandarin and Uighur (which is an Arabic-looking script), with the occasional Russian and almost no English.

During our trip west to explore China’s fabled Xinjiang (‘New Frontier’) province, we visited the city twice, with the first stop coinciding with National Day festivities. There was a noticeable police presence, with heavily armed young officers marching around sites (though not all policemen seemed this menacing; there were an equal number who seemed like locals in ill-fitting uniforms). Most buildings open to the public had a guard at the door checking bags.

On our second visit we went through the bazaar while a group of young men in military uniform with batons and shields marched through, setting themselves up in small formations among the mass of people buying and selling stuff while megaphones scream at the crowd in Uighur with offers on shoes or crockery.

The city seems to have cut itself in half. The Uighur and other minorities stick to their areas, while the Han live in parts which are not unlike many other Chinese cities. The Han Chinese we spoke to said they mostly avoided Uighur areas after the riots, and spoke with a sort of casual racism ingrained through years of misunderstanding (we did not get an opportunity to talk to many Uighurs in the city).

But it was also intriguing to see a degree of integration. At the night market, while eating plates heaped with grilled meats and fish, we watched as a group of early/mid 20s Han and Uighur laughed and chatted much as any other group would. On National Day itself, we went to the Hongshan Park in the middle of the city, which was teeming with families of all ethnicities enjoying the fairground rides, cotton candy and more grilled meat.

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