Saturday, July 21, 2007

At the Crossroads: Urumqi

Our next stop after Kasghar was Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. We were technically only in Urumqi 24 hours, or maybe 30, but it was still a really interesting place to explore. Rather than hints of the Middle East, Urumqi was run through with splashes of Russian culture. Which makes sense, as Urumqi is in the far north of Xinjiang, near the Russian and Kazakh borders.

There were a couple of important things to note about the Urumqi airport. Despite being tiny it, A) Featured a ridiculous view of a HUGE mountain not far away

(Said mountain)

and B) It had two way escalators! I know, right? But it's true. At first I thought all the escalators in the place were broken because they weren't moving. But then I noticed that one would go one way (up, for instance) for a few minutes. And then, when I happened to look in that direction again, it would be going down! Turns out they installed motion sensors at the top and bottom of the escalators and when they're triggered they make the escalators go the proper direction! Genius, energy saving, space saving, money saving. I stood in awe. And then got in a cab toward Urumqi.

The one major place we went in Urumqi was Tian Chi lake, about two hours drive outside of town through beautiful mountains. We took a cable car up to the top of the mountain, where the lake (whose name translates as "Heavenly") is nestled between snowy peaks. Really stunning. We took a boat ride around the perimeter, which was beautiful, a really good idea. There was also a very old tree (200 years or so), a fruit tree but I'm forgetting the type, at the lake. It's considered sacred because trees of its kind normally can't live above a certain altitude, but the altitude of the lake far exceeds this limit. There were a lot of prayer flags and strips of red ribbon and string festooning the tree, left there by people making wishes for healing or a good life.

Tian Chi Lake was also a really good place to the lives of Kazakh and other minority nomads in Xinjiang. Their Yurts (round canvas tents) were everywhere, some with goats or other livestock tied up outside. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go into the Taklamakhan Desert (one of the largest in the world), but if we did we would have seen more of that. The Kazakhs and Kurds have been living in the deserts and high mountains of Xinjiang for thousands of years, and their lifestyle has barely changed. I think that's fascinating.

Tian Chi (Heavenly) Lake

Most of the rest of our time in Urumqi was spent exploring. One night, in search of a rumored Western Restaurant/Bar recommended by our guide, we ended up walking with a Mongolian man and his friend about a mile and a half through the streets, watching the city prepare for nightfall. He led us so far afield that after awhile we started to wonder if maybe he was trying to kidnap or scam us. But just when we were muttering to ourselves (in English, it's like a secret code here) about whether we should jump in a taxi and take off, there was the bar. Disaster averted, and their omelettes were delicious.

We also spent a good amount of time at the Urumqi bazaar. The stuff there wasn't as wonderful as what I found in Kashgar (an embroidered prayer cap, a gourd carved with Uighur language) but it was still cool (a traditional Uighur-patterned head scarf.) And the best part of it was the people watching. More even than in Kashgar, I felt like I was at the crossroads of somewhere-- so many different-looking people together. People in full-out Muslim dress, old Russian babushkas, Han businessmen, Mongolian cowboy types. The faces, too, I loved the faces in Xinjiang. The countless ways that DNA can blend characteristics together is so remarkable, especially at a crossroads like Urumqi. I walked the streets and just looked at faces. Our guide, Jimmy, told us that for a long time Urumqi was very important in Asian and African relations, the crossroads of the Upper and Lower Silk Roads, and I believe it.

Probably the weirdest and best thing we saw at the Urumqi bazaar: two fully barbequed and skinned lambs. Whole.

Images of Urumqi

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