What do you think of when you imagine a Chinese person?
Probably an ethnic Han Chinese person, with primarily East Asian features, and a culture rooted in the eastern part of China. We imagine, at least in the United States, Chinese food, culture, and history to be focused on eastern China, where the majority of the people reside. And those people are largely Han Chinese, which is by far the main ethnic group in China. The Han are around 92% of China’s population, and inhabit the largest cities and most populous regions of China. Most of the governmental leadership in China is Han, and most Chinese people internationally are Han Chinese.
However, China is an incredibly diverse country. There are over 50 recognized ethnic minorities, mainly living in the south and west of China. Some of these minorities, such as the Zhuang people of Guangxi or the Miao people of southern China are largely unknown in the West. Others, like the Tibetans and Mongols have a broader recognition. China will constantly remind you, in the media, official state publications, and museums, that China is a “multi-ethnic and diverse nation”, composed of many different minorities. This is a key part of the government’s ideology; China is a unified nation, one that has a long history of many different ethnicities residing together in harmony. How this is applied in government policy, official history, and territorial disputes is an incredibly complex topic. But it’s important to note that China is a diverse country, and that many different ethnic minorities reside throughout it. Our Field Study trip, where we travel to a more remote part of China to explore the country, had a key focus on minority relations and different cultures within China. As such, on Saturday, we set out to travel to the far western province of Xinjiang, to explore the culture of the Uyghur people.
China is an incredibly diverse country. There are over 50 recognized ethnic minorities, mainly living in the south and west of China
First, a bit of background on Xinjiang itself. Xinjiang is formally known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province. It is home to the Uyghur people, a Turkic people who live primarily in the south of the province. However, much of the population of Xinjiang is Han Chinese. The Han live mainly in the north of the province and in the major cities. While the Han are mainly atheist or Buddhist, the Uyghurs are Muslims. There are many other minorities living in the province; the Hui (basically Han Chinese who also happen to be Muslims) are prominent in the major cities, and groups like the Kazakhs and Tajiks live in the north and west of the province respectively. As such, Xinjiang is an incredibly diverse place with many different ethnic groups scattered throughout the territory. It’s also huge; 1/6th of China’s territory lies in Xinjiang, though most of it is desert or mountains. We were all really excited to get to see as much of the province as possible. Our plan was to fly to the capital, Urumqi, and then take an overnight train to Kashgar, a major city in the western part of the province.
We boarded our flight to Urumqi Saturday evening. Xinjiang is on the other side of China, so it was a five hour flight. We flew over some dramatic mountain ranges in central China that you could see from the plane window. (There wasn’t a vegetarian meal. It made me sad.) We arrived late in Urumqi and drove to the hotel, and on the way learned about the history of the Uyghurs in the region. Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province, but it’s a majority Han city, something that became evident as we headed to our hotel and began walking around late at night in the local area. It looks pretty much like any other city in China. The area that we were in, the downtown area, was almost entirely Han Chinese and the signs were always in Chinese and only occasionally in Uyghur. From our first look, Urumqi didn’t stand out as a particularly different city.
We awoke early next morning to visit the Xinjiang Regional Museum, sometime around-
Well…6 or 8 AM. It depends who you ask.
Slight detour. Exactly how early we got up is a very political question.
The entirety of China uses one time zone.
From the eastern coast to the western mountains, clocks in China follow what is referred to as Beijing time. Beijing time works pretty well in the east and central of the country. In Xinjiang, though, things get complicated. See, when you wake up at around 7 or 8 am, the sun isn’t up. And depending on the time of year, it won’t be up for a few hours. Similarly, when people in Xinjiang go to sleep, the sun is often still up. In the summer, the sun sometimes doesn’t set until around 9 pm. What that means is that people need to shift their schedules, and things like conference calls and national school schedules become rather ill-suited for Xinjiang.
As such, the Uyghurs follow an unofficial “Xinjiang time”, which is two hours behind Beijing time. Xinjiang time makes a little more sense; the sun rises and sets at a reasonable hour, and the region functions much like any other country with time zones. However, the Han Chinese in the area don’t follow Xinjiang time, and instead use Beijing time. Since the Uyghurs and the Han follow different time zones, people will give you different answers as to exactly what time it is. When you’re trying to organize lunches times and train schedules, this gets tricky, and we had to constantly double-check the time. To make this weirdly more confusing, some people’s phones automatically switched to the unofficial Xinjiang time, while other people’s phones remained on Beijing time, immediately throwing our time in Xinjiang into chaos!
Time is kind of a relative thing here.
Anyway. We woke up early to visit the Xinjiang Regional Museum, which was the main reason why we visited Urumqi. The museum had several exhibits on the history of Xinjiang and the various ethnic groups that reside there. The main exhibit of the museum was on the famous Tarim mummies, several naturally preserved mummies from the Tarim basin in Xinjiang. The Tarim basin is dominated by the Taklimakan desert, a vast sandy desert that covers most of southern Xinjiang. The dry conditions allowed for the preservation of these mummies, and the features of the bodies are strikingly well preserved. It’s also really gross. The mummies are around 4,000 years old, and are also heavily politicized. They’re closer to Caucasians in appearance, rather than East Asians. The Uyghurs often view them as ancestors of the Uyghurs of China, while the Chinese government either views them as migrating foreigners or an original ethnic group the resided in Xinjiang before the arrival of the Uyghurs. The ethnicity of these people is a key part of the history of Xinjiang. Aside from this, the museum had a nice exhibit on Xinjiang’s various ethnic groups. Uyghur clothing, Mongol yurts (portable huts), Kazak rugs, and Kyrgyz weapons were on display. Other smaller ethnic groups in Xinjiang, such as the Russians, Tajiks, and Manchus also featured.
Whew. That was a whole lot of information there. Stick with me.
From the museum, we headed out to Xinjiang’s Grand Bazaar. It’s essentially a massive touristy market; stalls of (allegedly) silk scarves, dried raisins (Xinjiang grows dozens of varieties of grapes), and all manner of tacky souvenirs. The bazaar is allegedly built on the site of the ancient silk road market that was there hundreds of years ago, but the modern one opened 2003. It kind of reinforced the view of Urumqi that we had as a mainly Chinese city pandering to its minority culture. I bought a few gifts and had some fun haggling. I love to haggle. I love the game, the bickering over a few yuan, examining souvenirs and pretending to find quality problems. Emma and I began our deadly partnership there. Emma, who I share most of my classes with, was my plane buddy, and she and I would continue to explore Xinjiang’s bazaars together. But that’s a story for another post.
To finish up our time in Urumqi, we went to visit Hongshan (literally “Red Mountain’). Hongshan is kind of a caricaturized microcosm of Chinese culture dumped onto a hill in the city. It’s basically a large complex that features an amusement park, scenic gardens, some sort of generic Chinese temple, and statues of patriotic and cultural figures from Chinese history. Hongshan is essentially a very large “This is a Chinese City” sign. There were very few Uyghurs there.
However, an important thing happened at Hongshan. I had a repeat of Nanjing.
After dragging Emma down the hill to try and reach a cool temple, we arrived at a dead end. The path continued along the slope but there was a gate in the way, inexplicably placed there. Cut back to Purple Mountain in Nanjing, where I couldn’t make it to Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum because of a random gate. Emma decided to turn back, but not I. I would not be thwarted by randomly placed gates, not again. I wasn’t entirely sure why China’s color-coded mountains keep having randomly closed off paths, but I took it as a personal challenge. And so I set out to circumvent the gate.
Turns out it’s like super easy. The gate only covers the road and doesn’t go up the hill, so I just had to walk three feet up the slope. The bad news is that it really is just a dead end. The path sort of drops off near an abandoned part of the park on the ridge. But I felt pleasantly accomplished anyway. Just let me have this.
Following the day in Urumqi, we headed out to catch our evening train to Kashgar. Or really a very late afternoon train. The sun was still up, and would be for a while. Anyway, we headed to the train station, and experienced our first real taste of real Xinjiang security. There were several metal detectors, a pat down, an x-ray scan of our bags, and several guards who checked our tickets at various intervals. Security on public places and transportation is very tight, and it would only get tighter.
After making our way to the train, we settling into our sleeper cars. I was rooming with Emma, Amrita, and Gabby, the four of us crammed into our cozy little room. The room itself is maybe 6 ft. by 10 ft. and has two bunk beds and a very small table in it. I loved that little room; the whole Alliance group, staff and all, had 4 rooms to ourselves, between which we wandered intermittently. The train was one of the best parts of the trip. I bonded with a lot of people over the long ride, and it was far more comfortable than the plane.
Here’s how you pass 17 hours on a train, in around 22 easy steps:
1) Play poker, gambling with dried beans
2) Stare out the window at the mountains and deserts
3) Get out at every stop to look around at the platform
4) Buy overpriced snacks from a snack stall at a Turpan Train Station platform
5) Wander the train from end to end, getting stared at all the way
6) Get attacked by curious Uyghur children
7) Count how many people poke their heads into your room to stare around (13)
8) Wander off to the meal car to find food
9) Find nothing you can eat
11) Get attacked by Uyghur children again, this time with more punching
11.5) Note the Uyghur children are surprisingly curious and violent
12) Successfully dare Jordan to drink a cup of vinegar
13) Realize you’ve only been on the train for 6 hours
14) Stay up late talking until you decide to try sleeping
15) Wake up your bunkmates several times trying to climb into your tiny train bed
16) Listen to the sounds of the train rattling
17) Get very little sleep
18) Have a train attendant bang on your door at 6:30 in the morning because the travel itinerary was in Xinjiang time and the train was in Beijing time, meaning we only have half an hour to pack up
20) Stagger out of bed and barely make it off the train with everyone
21) Forget your coat in the train
22) Race back onto the train, find your coat, and run out right before they shut the doors
And that’s all there is to it!
I’ll leave you with this: History itself in Xinjiang is controversial. The Chinese government supports the historical record of various Chinese dynasties conquering Xinjiang around 2,000 years ago and again around 1,300 years ago, and the Uyghurs subsequently migrating there. However, the Uyghurs believe that they have resided in Xinjiang for over 5,000 years, and that they have a true claim to the territory of Xinjiang. For example, the museum, which is state-run, supports the Chinese historical record, and brings many historical artifacts and accounts to support their viewpoint. However, many Uyghurs believe that their history is far older than the museum depicts, and this dispute is a critical part in understanding Xinjiang today. Even writing or discussing history carries social and political consequences in China. At times, history seems less of a record of history and more a political tool. I’m minoring in history, and many of my classes back home are East Asian history classes. The concept of using history as a tool for political disputes is unsettling. It’s obviously not unique to China; even back home in the United States, different parts of history are viewed differently for political purposes. A good example of this is the Civil War. This experience in Xinjiang has given me a stronger commitment to studying history in an unbiased light, simply to try and understand the truth. This may be difficult, even impossible, but it’s also incredibly important to try.
As for the worst English of the week, we have a slight change. Xinjiang is a pretty remote part of China. There are far less tourists there than other parts of China, particularly Westerners. This is my main theory as to why the English in Xinjiang is so bad. As such, for the Xinjiang trip, we have two signs per week. I’ll include them in the gallery.
Zaijian, or as they say in Xinjiang, xayri xosh!