The Gobi, the Uighyurs, and Urumqi

Western China definitely marches to its own beat.

In the past few days travelling along the ancient Silk Route, it has been impossible to ignore the very Central Asian nature of this region; a ride in the fringes of the Gobi desert, a drinking contest 80m below sea-level, and the melting pot of Urumqi have all kept me on my toes.

Into the Gobi desert

Despite having already “done” the camel thing in Rajasthan, when the chance to spend a night out in the Gobi desert, travelling on double-humped Bactrian camels arose, I jumped at it.

I set off with four others, escorted by the face-scarred Mr Lee, a man who none of us doubted would make Chuck Norris look like a pansy in a fist-fight.

As we all struggled to find the optimal camel-riding position (there isn’t one), Mr Lee started to reveal his feminine side, screeching local songs in an odd little falsetto voice, lending a faintly authentic feel to the ride.

It was a great relief to discover three of my camel-borne companions were Mandarin speakers (2 Americans ex-pats, 1 Russian student) and therefore able to converse with our glorious leader in his mother-tongue. As we watched the sun go down, Mr Lee brewed up some dinner over a camp-fire, explaining that by day he was “daddy’ at home, and by night “mummy” to crazy foreigners. (Given that dinner consisted of instant noodles and dry bread-rolls, we judged that “mummy” was the smart one, and was probably bringing home enough dough for the entire village).

Night came quickly, and with it an incredible celestial array filled the sky. It felt like a great opportunity to sleep out under the stars. I asked Mr Lee if it was safe. The translated answer was wonderfully enigmatic. “No problem as long as you’re not scared of the snakes…”

I lay awake tightly rolled up in my sleeping bag, looking up for hours. The incredible beauty of watching a moving night sky outweighed the consequences of the fitful night’s sleep that followed.

Rule #643: Don’t get into a drinking contest with Uighyurs

My next stop was the town of Turpan. Reputedly the hottest place in China, Turpan is situated in a dust-bowl 80 metres below sea-level with temperatures reaching 49 degrees at times.

As it was too hot to do anything meaningful on the evening I arrived, I decided to stop under the vine trellises in the main street (the local Uighyur people have cultivated pretty good wine for centuries) and have a beer. Within minutes I had been beckoned to another table by 4 young Uighyurs, Central Asian to their wavy brown roots, and keen to surmount the language barrier with alcohol.

The 200ml glasses were small, but as I was forced to down a toast with each of the four, twice, I was soon starting to feel the heat in more ways than one. Nevertheless, I convinced myself that this was as good a way as any to get to know a local culture, and settled in for the long haul as we all became the best of friends in no time.

I thought I had detected early on that there was a whiff of tension in the air with the neighbouring table of similarly inebriated young locals, who looked suspiciously like my boys, possibly cousins. The occasional Uighyur word that was exchanged left me none the wiser, and despite the growing tension, I continued to partake in the toasts. One side of my brain was gently reminding me that discretion was the better part of valour, and suggesting a discreet exit; the other (befuddled) side was unfortunately confusing matters… “… but Andy… what if… sometimes valour is actually the better part of discretion?”

Luckily, I wasn’t given the opportunity to pursue this line of thinking. Both tables had clearly been on the sauce for a while and started (literally) dropping like flies without any valorous deeds required, such that none of us had any choice but to retire with discretion in tact.

I reflected the following morning that I should probably steer clear of getting involved in familial disputes between hard-living Uighyurs. Interesting evening though.

The melting pot of Urumqi

The city of Urumqi is in the Guinness Book of Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world at a distance of about 1,400 miles (2500 km) from the nearest coastline.

Despite this, it (slightly bizarrely) benefits from the status of a “port”, giving it a leg up in the economic race that is China.

It is a strange city, truly a melting pot. Chinese characters contend not only with Uighyur script, but also with Russian script for space in shop signs, a sign of a growing trade access with Russia and the Central Asian republics.

Despite the large-scale Han Chinese migration here in recent years (which has resulted in a city centre with high-rise office-blocks and imitation Western shops lining the streets), the feel of Central Asia in the south of the city is still predominant, with headscarves, beards and the occasional hijab replacing the bland western clothing of the city centre.

From here, I go to Kashgar, as long as my visa extension request (submitted today) is granted. It will be the fulfilment of a 15-year wait – Kashgar is a city that a friend Andy Simpson and I tried to reach in 1994, along the Karakoram Highway from Pakistan. Landslides blocked the road.

As there is deep concern that the old city will not be there for much longer, it seems that now is a good time to visit. Click here for the story

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, China '09

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