The first few hours in Urumqi, China’s gateway to central Asia

It is believed that Urumqi is farther away from the sea than any other city in the world. It certainly seems to be far away in more ways than one from any other Chinese city I have been to, well, so far.

The flight from Beijing to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in the far northwest of the country, took about four hours. Among passengers were women dressed head to toe in burqa, rarely seen in Beijing.

Security is extra tight for flights to Urumqi or any other place in XUAR, which has seen sporadic violence since 2009. Members of the mostly Muslim Uyghur community has clashed with Hans and the police over issues like identity and perceived cultural invasion. Beijing has said sought to play down the violence, terming it the work of separatists and incited by mobs of terrorists who have nothing better to do but make bombs in their backyards or attempt to hijack flights with lethal crutches.

So, for those taking flights to Xinjiang, the security line is separate from those flying to other parts of China. The pretty but unsmiling women in uniform seemed to be just that bit extra watchful while frisking passengers and checking the luggage on the Xinjiang line.

I landed in Urumqi on a dry, cool, clear Tuesday morning and got out from the airport quite quickly. Urumqi seemed like any other Chinese city with its all-glassed-up multi-storied buildings, flyovers, road dividers with manicured grass and bright flowers and ongoing construction all around; certainly not like the first tier Chinese cities but more like something between second and third tier ones. Of course, its history of being part of the fabled Silk Road could easily put in shadow many modern Chinese cities.

But the feeling of uniformity remained with me only for a bit. First appeared the road signs in Chinese and in the Arabic script. Then I noticed the people in buses and bus stops, in cars and those walking down the narrow footpaths packed with shops, some with signs in Russian. (Which of course one also sees in Beijing.)

Xinjiang borders at least eight different countries including India. A long time ago, when borders between countries were less defined, people from Europe, Central Asia and Russia freely moved into and back from Xinjiang selling their wares and picking up what they needed to sell back home. Many stayed back when borders became less flexible. It shows in Urumqi where physical and facial features of residents offer sights of most countries the region borders.

Reports say that there are more people from the Han community – by far the largest ethnic group in China – in Urumqi than those from the Uyghur community who are the majority in the region.

The city with a population over 3 million people is far away from Beijing. Because of its distance from the Capital, the time in Urumqi should be at least two hours – if not more – behind. But because of China’s uniform system of having one time zone for a country which is nearly three times the size of India, residents have had to adopt.

So, on a September Wednesday, at 7 in the morning it was dark outside. And at about 8-45 pm the evening before, it was just about dusk.

The official workday begins at 9-30 am in Urumqi and at ends after 7-30 in the evening. That means even if the clock is showing a time similar to that of Beijing, residents of Urumqi do things later. During the cold, cold winters, work times are pushed back even further.

The two languages most commonly spoken in Urumqi are Mandarin and Uyghur, which has its origins in the Turkic language. Some speak only one of those. English is not common at all on the streets.

Yes, I got to speak in Hindi. I was waiting outside to get inside the venue of the China-Eurasia Expo, Urumqi’s flagship business event that has attracted representatives from 40 countries this year. You can’t get in, said someone in Hindi. Turned out, my Pakistani friend tried but failed to get in too.

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