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Guild Hall Dining, #1

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While on a walking tour of Beijing’s Tienanmen Square and environs, I learned that from way back when each province of China has had guild halls where envoys from the provinces would stay. These halls also have restaurants where anyone can sample the best cuisine from each province for a relatively low price.

I found a list of these spots on a blog called Eileen Eats and have wanted to visit some for quite a while. This past weekend I had a friend who was game and we went to Xingjiang Fanzhuang Urumuqi Muncipal Office for lunch.

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Since the blog contains the addresses in Chinese as well as the romanized pinyin, we could show a taxi where to go. Urumuqi is the capital of Xinjiang, a western province with a large population of Uighurs, an ethnic group that differs from the Han Chinese in language, culture and politics. I’ve had good Uighur food in Beijing at a restaurant that’s disappeared and on my trip to Urumuqi.

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Lamb & onions

After a 15 minute taxi ride from the South Cathedral at Xuanwumen, we arrived in a neighborhood and weren’t sure we got to the right place, then we saw a Central Asian facade on a building set back from the street. Sure enough this was the right place.

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Potatoes

Upon entering we where struck by the noisy bustle of the restaurant. The place was busy and the wait staff scurried about. Soon someone noticed us and gave us a card with a number. Then after awhile someone was shouting a number in Chinese and was getting frustrated that no one was responding. I guessed, correctly, that they were calling for us. We were shown to a table and given a menu with English and with photos. Since it seemed we were the only foreigners there we were surprised, and delighted that there was English. The menu featured a lot of lamb dishes and some exotic items like braised camel’s feet. We chose a lamb and onion dish, some meat pockets, which were a lot like what a Mongolian friend would make, and Xinjiang vegetables, which turned out to be potatoes in a spicy sauce.

The food was fine, but not spectacular. Our tab came to 62 rmb (so less than $10 USD). The decor was Central Asian with a touch of Russian.

I think we should have followed Eileen’s advice and gotten the “polou rice.” I was just delighted that we found a place off the beaten path. I’d definitely try another provincial restaurant and possibly go back to this one if a friend was eager. It was easy to get a cab back to the city center.

(Tip – If you don’t speak Chinese, just say Tienanmen or Wangfujing and you’ll get to a place where you’re likely to find something to do or hop on the subway.)

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About Urumqi

Urumqi's Grand Bazaar

Urumqi’s Grand Bazaar

Some facts about Urumqi:

  1. Burqa’s are forbidden. Women can wear headscarves and colorful traditional outfits that are modest, but they must show their faces.
  2. The government frowns upon fasting during Ramadan. They insist that all restaurants stay open all day long. From what I could tell many Muslims, didn’t fast as they were eating throughout the day.
  3. There’s security everywhere — as I’ve written and it’s so tiring.
  4. Uighurs drink tea with jam in it to sweeten it. It’s very tasty. Try it at home!
  5. In Urumqi by the Grand Bazaar a man sells wonderful cups of soft-serve orange sherbet that tastes like soft Dreamsicles™.
  6. Young men are forbidden by law to wear beards. Old men can wear them, though.
  7. The Uighurs pretty much live in the south part of the city and the Han and other Chinese ethnic groups stick to the north.
  8. No water, yogurt or lighters are allowed on the BRT buses.
  9. You have to go through two security checkpoints at the airport: one when you enter and another after you check in.
  10. People in Xinjiang don’t smile much, but I’m not surprised.
  11. Uighurs make good meat pockets that make for good snacks or lunch. You can buy them on the street.
  12. Uighurs are famous for their bread.

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Xinjiang Provincial Museum

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If you’re in Urumqi, the Xinjiang Provincial Museum is a must see. It’s not very large, but it gives you a portion of the history of the region. It’s located behind a street with lots of high fashion, over priced stores and the Sheraton Hotel. Get to the Sheraton and someone at the front desk will be able to speak English and point you in the right direction.

After going through security, you’ll find galleries with more English than usual. They explain how the Han first came to Xinjiang in 200 BC, way before the Uighurs. They want you to see the Han arts and crafts and remember they were there first. Point taken.

I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to see the galleries with Uighur culture on display. Those were locked up. Why?

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I’d love to know if they’re usually closed. Leave a comment and let me know if you’ve see these galleries.

It seems that these galleries should always be open to show goodwill.

Urumqi Security

I was aware of the unrest and problems in Xinjiang before I went to Urumqi, but I wasn’t prepared for all the check points and security measures that are part of daily life in Xinjiang.

Hong Shan Park

Hong Shan Park

Occasionally, the Uighurs who’d like to separate from China take violent action. The Chinese hold the extremists or freedom fighters depending on your perspective responsible for a car bomb incident in Tianamen Square, a deadly, coordinated knife attack at a train station in Kunming, a bombing at a market in Urumqi and attacks lasting two days in Kashgar.

When I arrived in Urumqi my taxi from the airport had to get gas. This was my first taste of the security measures. The driver approached the gas station and stopped by a guard post. Then he motioned for me to get out of the car as he opened the trunk with my bags. All this was pantomimed so I was worried it was a scam, but no. This was normal procedure. I got out and was directed to a bench covered to keep the sun and rain off the waiting passengers. Only the driver can go to the pumps after passing inspection. A few minutes later the taxi re-appeared and I could go back in.

At the hotel I had to put my bags through an X-ray before I could check in. This would become routine.

Tank in a parking lot

Tank in a parking lot

When I visited the major park downtown, I was surprised to see a SWAT team outside the entrance. They were there every time I passed. After going through a metal detector and putting my bag through the X-Ray, I entered. Inside there wasn’t the usual joie de vivre. Some people had finished tai chi, but you didn’t see much dancing, badminton, exercising or martial arts. They had a lot of amusement rides that you paid for, but no one was on them. I did see a group of 4 soldiers marching through the park and later 4 police who were more like sauntering. In a few spots soldiers were posted to keep watch.

To take the air conditioned buses, you have to go through a security check and open up your bag. I learned you can’t bring water through the bus security. You can’t bring on lighters or yogurt. It’s in the 90°F+/36°C so I didn’t want to surrender my water each time I took the bus so I wound up finding ways to hide it in my bag, which was doable since they didn’t really think I’d be a terrorist, which a very safe bet. Still it’s such a pain.

Another Tank

Another Tank

I went to a Burger King one day and by the entrance they had a desk with a riot helmet, riot police shield, and wand for metal detection. I saw the same thing at a bookstore too. I never say a guard behind the door at any place, but think that perhaps these are props to keep people in line.

After awhile it just got to be too much. By mid-afternoon most days, I’d just get so tired of going through  security checks. I don’t know how people take it day after day all the time.

More Photos of Urumqi

Headscarves

Headscarves

Where the locals shop

Where the locals shop

To see even more photos, click here.

A mosque

A mosque

Butcher

Butcher

Baked goods for sale

Baked goods for sale

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Urumqi

Mural

Mural

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.

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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.

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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.

Work Cited

“Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.” Columbia Gazetteer of the World Online. 2015. Columbia University Press. 15 Jul. 2015. <http://www.columbiagazetteer.org/main/ViewPlace/158323>

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