A line divides Urumqi city. Most Chinese will not pass south of that line, at Nanmen, the South Gate. Instead, the Han Chinese stick to Urumqi’s northern suburbs, the conurbation stretching miles and miles north, most of which was built in the past decade as Beijing encouraged Han Chinese to settle the province.
We had been sticking to the northern part of the city, as this was the only place we could easily find hotels that would accept foreigners. Led by a friend, Josh, the author of Far West China, we crossed the line at Nanmen. Passing into the city’s southern half, we, without realizing it, had crossed a continent in a few steps. We were no longer in East Asia. We were somewhere in the Middle East. We were in Uighur Urumqi.
Josh led us along a mile-long walk through an alleyway stretching from Erdaoqiao Bazaar to Nanmen. During our walk, I did not see a single Han Chinese person. Normally, even in the southern part of the city, we would see some Han Chinese. Most Uighur sections of the city were covered with a heavy security presence, militarized police in SWAT gear, inevitably Han Chinese. But, in this mile-long alleyway with a bazaar-like atmosphere, I did not see a single SWAT cop or Han police.
Ice cream was being served in the alleyway, the sort of homemade ice cream that reminded me of late summer afternoons on a Georgia lake. The ice cream man scooped it out of the churn with a wooden ladle several feet long, piling it into a bowl and serving us from there. I was deceived by the half dollar cup, struggling to finish that creamy goodness in ten minutes.
Streetside tables were brimming full of sliced melon and watermelon laid out to eat. People strolling by would stop and begin to eat at the melons, without paying. I was confused. Was this some sort of charity? I tried to buy a slice, but the man would not take my money.
Watching the locals more closely, I realized that everyone was paying for their slices, but only after they had finished eating. It was a system designed to seem friendly but maximize consumption. Paying at the beginning, I would have just grabbed a single slice and walked away. But in this system, I found myself thinking, “Why not one more slice?” Soon, I had eaten four slices more than I had originally wanted. Ingenious.
Freshly slaughtered lamb hung from tenterhooks on the sidewalk, families paused to allow Galen to take their portraits. A man on a motorscooter waved Galen onto the back of his ride, inviting him on a hitchhiking trip he had not even wanted.
The Uighur sense of fashion is different, much less square. Bold slacks were being sold from carts in the alleyway, and women walked with a vavoom unseen in eastern China.
A food and a beverage being sold here also hinted at the civilizations competing for influence here amongst the Uighurs. Elsewhere in China, it is hard to find any hint of the influence of another civilization, unless you count the thin patina of the West that glazes everything but affects nothing, the Coca-cola factor.
But here, you can see the influences of Russia and Turkey pushing past the Chinese influence. Kvass is a non-alcoholic fermented beverage that originated in Eastern Europe during Medieval times. Kvass, sold in the alleyway, came to the Uighurs via Russia’s influence in the area, when the Soviets considered allowing the Uighurs to become independent, like the Mongolians. Now, as Uighurs become increasingly conservative, Kvass has become a way for them to drink without violating their Islamic principles.
Scooped from giant woks, Polo is a rice dish with mixed vegetables, usually topped with a hunk of lamb, that is the staple of Uighur restaurants. Polo is essentially the Uighur version of Pilaf, a Turkish dish. It’s ubiquity here demonstrates the relationship that the Uighurs have with the Turkic peoples stretching across the Stans, all the way to the Aegean Sea.
By the end of the walk, we circled around, back to Nanmen, back into China, back into East Asia.
For those in Urumqi interested in seeing this alleyway, check out Josh’s blog post on it on his Far West China blog.