After visiting burgeoning metropolises – Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Nanjing – China appears before the Western eye as an awe-strikingly monolithic human machine. It seems bound by its universal yet ferociously competitive quest for some shared imagination of a long withheld “modernity.” As it surges toward this unquestioned end in apparent lockstep, all kinds of Chinese find themselves swept up in the fervor. Generality becomes a practical truth. Exception becomes an invisible phantasm.
But stepping onto the public bus in Urumqi, a lively periphery took center-stage, instantly confronting every “truth” about China. Out of a mostly Han nation, a Janus-like city appeared. Uyghur culture fell strikingly outside the realm of Chineseness. The contrast was sharp, and the tension palpable, even to the unwitting foreign observer. Shifty glances and rising tempers sent unambiguous messages. No understanding of either language was necessary to sense the unease.
Though uncomfortable, it’s a love-hate relationship. When I asked the Uyghur guide who took us to Shipton’s Arch (天门) if he would rather be governed by the Han or one of Xinjiang’s -stani neighbors, he replied that as in the days of the Silk Road, China’s beneficial economic influence is undeniable. Food first, freedom later. Still, he lamented things like oppressive reproduction policies, corrupt lawlessness, and second-class treatment. He complained, for example, that the history taught in schools is not “our” history. Central policies fall flat in Xinjiang like ill-fitting clothes. When referring to time, Uyghurs will always ask if you mean official “Beijing time” or the widely used two-hour later Uyghur time. Here the sun doesn’t set until ten and most people don’t speak the language used on road signs.
The Old City in Kashgar offered a poignant example of the cultural deracination that typifies Han administration over Uyghur affairs. The crumbling houses built of plastered-over mud and straw cement rose above busy modern streets on a hill in the center of the city. As we climbed the stairwell into a narrow alleyway, a noisy Han tour group hurried over to take photographs with us, apparently more interested in the bumbling American tourists than with their surreal surroundings. The state of disrepair allowed us to see magnificent cross sections of the beautiful houses that once graced the ancient commercial thoroughfare. Through a crumbling wall, we marveled over exquisitely carved wooden shelves. Behind a door dangling askew from its hinges, we caught a glimpse of a stately wrought iron staircase.
Many residences boasted picturesque double entry doors. With a distinctly un-Chinese color palette, the plain dust colored walls brilliantly framed the doors’ pastel blues, sea greens, deep reds, and yellow-browns. Occasionally, a bright red “改造” (Rebuild) was emblazoned across the fading paint. Above the lintels of more well-kept doorways, a little plaque spelled out in red characters “文明户” (Civilized Household). Though the ruins seemed like a tribute to the splendor of bygone days, the city was alive with an air of renewal. Uyghur men chatted as they dug the foundations for new houses and dust clouds emanated from roofs being torn down to be rebuilt. In the labyrinthine alleys, children darted past, and hejab-veiled women scurried around corners. In the shadow of Han oversight, daily life continued and Uyghur culture persisted.
Nowhere was this life-goes-on attitude more apparent than in the many bazaars scattered throughout Xinjiang’s major cities. Selling everything from toothpaste to donkeys to keyboards, these bazaars were bustling testaments to vibrantly alive Uyghur communities. All our best meals were comprised of bazaar street food like “nang” (bread), “polo” (pilaf), lamb skewers, pulled noodles, dried figs, vanilla ice cream, pomegranate juice, yogurt, and walnuts. With ingredients and spices well outside the range of usual suspects in Chinese cuisine, Uyghur fare provided a refreshing gastronomic diversion. A diversion that reflected in full flavor the nature of Xinjiang’s unique position at the farthest reaches of the nation it answers to.
Natalee Pei graduated from Yale University in May 2013, having majored in Geology & Geophysics and East Asian Studies. She is currently in Beijing on a year-long Richard U Light Fellowship for intensive Chinese language studies and will work at Bridgewater Associates next year. Contact her at email@example.com.
Why China? “There’s really no single reason why I’m obsessed with China. There are so many things that draw me here–rediscovering my family roots (叶落归根), the excitement of such a rapidly growing and changing economy, the challenge of becoming culturally fluent in such a complex place, and the global importance of the 1.3 billion people who live here.”