Before returning to the US, I ventured out to the wild west of China, to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. Xingjiang’s a huge province (c.637,000 sq mi/1,650,257 sq km; 1994 estimated population 16,050,000; 2000 population 18,459,511 according to the Columbia Gazetteer of the World), full of resources. It’s been is described as a coal boat in a sea of oil. On top of that there’s gold, silver, sapphires and several other minerals.
The territory has been held by a variety of nations. In 200 BC the Han Chinese gained control. Since then it’s been held by Uzbeks, Tibetans, Uigurs, Mongols, Arabs, Manchus and Chinese. This history creates disputes still as the Uighurs, who’re a Central Asian ethnic group with a Turkic language, used to make up 90% of the population 50 or so years ago, now make up around 50% as Han and other Chinese ethnic groups have moved in to manage the resources and area.
I did want to see a different side of China and I did. Urumqi, the capital, has a strong Uighur look in the part of the city where the Grand Bazaar and International Bazaar are. Wandering around this area, you’ll see vendors selling dried fruits, textiles, ornate tea sets, traditional clothing, fur and daggers. The International Bazaar is written up in all the guidebooks, but you should also walk around the neighborhood it’s set in to get a real feel for life in Urumqi.
One aspect of this real life is the heavy presence of army and police. I’ll describe more of this tomorrow, but basically everywhere you go you’ll have to go through a security checkpoint, or two, to enter. Since there have been incidents of violence against the Chinese by Uighur separatists, the Chinese have cracked down. Hard.
“Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.” Columbia Gazetteer of the World Online. 2015. Columbia University Press. 15 Jul. 2015. <http://www.columbiagazetteer.org/main/ViewPlace/158323>