Out West (again)

Urumqi this time. I’ll fill things out a little when I get a chance (more for my own sake than under any pretence of communication).
That Baijiu holocaust problem I worried needlessly about in Kashgar? Urumqi is a very different city …

ADDED: After arriving yesterday we took in the International Bazaar, a more mall-sructured, and thus rather less atmospheric version of the Kashgar Grand Bazaar, trading similar goods. The most distinctive items were chunks of fossilized wood, so precisely metamorphosed that the minutiae of organic structure were clearly discernible. It’s hard not to be impressed when examining the fine-grained organization of a thing that died 150,000,000 years ago.
Next stop was Hong Shan Park, situated at the north-east edge of the city in 1947, but now enveloped. It’s high, and gives a vantage point from which to get oriented. Better still, the viewing pavilion there also serves as an urban development museum, including scale models (1947 and today), lots of photographs, and basically everything needed for a firm space-time fix. Finally, there was dinner with the local officials — our hosts — which was great fun (even though I’d been horribly sick the day before and still felt shaky). The Baijiu onslaught then unfolded (my travel companion from work turned out to be crazily lihai, and probably saved me by deflecting some of the white death torrent onto herself). Maybe I wrote some scraps fished from the gulfs of shadow? Then oblivion.

Next day: Tarim Mummies, the Urumqi version of Shanghai’s M50 (art hub), and the city’s massive new industrial park called the UETD.
The mummies — dessicated accidentally by the arid environment — are very well known, for good reason. Their state of preservation is incredible — you could still wear their clothes (after almost 4,000 years). The whole anthropo-ethnographic backstory is enthralling too, and I need to try and get my head wrapped around it. The oldest mummies are ‘Europoid’ and really look as if they could have been Cornish. (Scientific consensus, as I understand it tenuously, identifies them as ‘Tokharian’.) This throws the Uyghur-Han ethnic elbowing into disconcerting perspective, but it’s just too out there to be truly politically sensitive (I’m hoping). If the Welsh start claiming chunks of Xinjiang based on ancestral rights I guess that could change. The old mummies come in two pairs, two 3,800-y.o. females, both ‘Europoid’, then a pair from a thousand years later, a Europoid male and a mixed Euro-Mongoloid female. Both of these later mummies are tattooed, and for reasons not yet understood were buried with non-matching boots. Then the exhibition throws in a mummified Han official from AD500, but if you folllow the exhibition around in a disciplined counter-clockwise circuit, there’s no reason to be thrown off by this bizarre and crudely-motivated non sequitur.
The art space had some OK stuff, and reflected the guiding Urumqi attitude: well-meaning, relentlessly multi-cultural, driven by Han, and extremely tame. If you like art that drags you into extra-cosmic abysses of shock and dread, there wasn’t much there to set the pulse racing. Lots of pleasant, (unthreateningly) intelligent, traditional, craft-based stuff though.
The industrial park was really something. Pure China, in the sense that it was mostly a (truly immense) construction site, from which some slender threads of raw potential had tumbled backwards into the present. It already has a population of 270,000, and looked roughly 10% complete. This ‘Park’ — an entire urban district until a few years ago, when it was re-purposed — is programmed to become a glstening science-fiction entity that would over-awe 70%+ of the world’s cities (with most of the remaining 30% being Chinese). We saw a truck plant and the local Coca-Cola operation — full of clattering robotic bottling machinery — and got to ask some questions about the bases of Xinjiang growth. The impression we got is that serving the wider Central Asian market is the cornerstone of everybody’s plans.

ADDED: Six hours on the road and — just to keep things moving forwards smoothly — a two hour visit to a baijiu factory in the middle (plus a lot of other stuff). Two bottles of sample (non-retail maximum strength) rocket fuel in my bag, and four hours sleep to cling onto. Beyond the lesson that Shariah isn’t exactly calling the shots in northern Xinjiang, analysis and reflection is going to be delayed.

May 8, 2013admin 6 Comments »
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6 Responses to this entry

  • spandrell Says:

    FWIW I did enjoy your updates on Guizhou.

    Urumqi is a monument to state power and forcible transfer of people through the military. What’s not to like?


    admin Reply:

    Oddly enough the government-types here seem genuinely committed to multiculturalism, stressing that they’re not like the Han elsewhere in China (those I’ve met have all been Han, with the arguable exception of our Hui guide) because they’re deeply influenced by other cultures and thrill to ethnic diversity. Leaving aside predictable reactionary qualms, the leadership people here seem vastly superior to their Kashgar equivalents (who spent their time crouching in a sad ghetto of third-rate Han comfort, forlornly hoping to get out of the barbarian frontier regions as soon as possible). The Urumqi crew were amusing, friendly, obviously smart, and transparently enthusiastic about their city.
    I’ll be shameless and admit it — I’m liking Urumqi a lot. Munching delicious Uyghur lamb pasties in an open market, whilst drinking a cold Xinjiang beer, is a shockingly tolerable experience.


    spandrell Reply:

    It seems to be that multiculturalism in China is run by the Department of Tourism Promotion instead of the Ministry of Education as in the West. And of course it’s easy to be enthusiastic about minorities when they are that, minorities. Uyghur culture doesn’t seem as vibrant anymore when they’re 90% of the population.

    Maybe you know already, but Urumqi used to be Dzungar (West Mongol) territory, and after annexation, it was founded by the Han as 迪化 Dihua, i.e. Enlightenment. Meaning that the Chinese were bringing civilization to that god forsaken piece of land. The Uyghurs were late comers to that part of desert, and AFAIK they are still few. Hopefully the Enlightenment won’t turn Dark too soon. Only China can build a city that size in the middle of nowhere.


    admin Reply:

    ‘Multiculturalism’ is probably best decomposed into a number of quite different things. The Urumqi version has hints of dippy Cathedralism (especially when artists get involved), but it mostly reminds me of the Singapore version: an adminstrative tool rather than an ethnomasochistic vice.

    Urumqi was still Dihuashi in 1947. Thanks for the backstory on that.

    Posted on May 9th, 2013 at 1:08 pm Reply | Quote
  • Alexander Kim Says:

    I’m a Korean who’s studied various Turkic languages, including Uyghur, but speaks negligible Mandarin … currently in Hotan, around 95% Uyghur, and about to head out to some remoter places still in the southern Tarim — the Uyghur demographic stronghold where Han Chinese tourists to the province by and large shy away from visiting. The locals have more ‘Europoid’ facial features here, as you probably already know, than in the northern and eastern parts of Eastern Turki territory, and I think I’ve seen more light eyes than in Kashgar. Aside from Tocharians, Sakas, etc., Indic influence was in ancient times (well, in a sense up until the cessation of cross-border trade with 20th-century India) also strong.

    This throws the Uyghur-Han ethnic elbowing into disconcerting perspective, but it’s just too out there to be truly politically sensitive (I’m hoping).

    Not the way you have in mind (à la Asatru Folk Assembly laying claim to Kennewick Man … whose ‘Caucasoid’ credentials, I should mention, are in all likelihood no more authentic than those of the Ainu). Some Uyghurs do regard the mummies as their own, and they do indeed have a greater claim to biological and partial cultural continuity with the pre-Turkic inhabitants of the region than any of the 20th-century Han importees have with, e.g., Chinese garrison troops from the relatively fleeting extensions of control into these ‘Western Regions’ by Central-Plains-centered states.

    @spandrell: Uyghur culture doesn’t seem as vibrant anymore when they’re 90% of the population.

    Yeah, if “vibrant” means pleasant for an east-coast Han in a hideously loud tour group ready to be regaled by singing and dancing exotics who (phew) speak good Mandarin.

    Interestingly enough, a fair number of Han here (I’ve been told maybe around 20%), having grown up here as a tiny minority in times of more minimal putonghua penetration, are conversant in Uyghur.


    admin Reply:

    It’s difficult to be objective about the situation because there’s so much propaganda being thrown around from all sides. (The Western coverage of the recent episode near Kashgar has been shockingly dishonest for instance — counting dead Uyghur policemen as victims of the security forces.) The demography has been very unstable, and the anti-Han camp tends to begin their ‘analysis’ of the trends from the extreme low-point of Han settlement during the early- to mid-20th century. A longer term picture would be far more balanced. In any case, treating Xinjiang as a single place adds to the confusion — the population structures of the Tarim and Dzungarian basins are entirely different (even inverse). My sense of the place as a whole is that it’s not badly governed, certainly by regional standards. Do you disagree?


    Posted on June 14th, 2013 at 12:35 am Reply | Quote

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