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March 21-24, 28-29

The very first thing I said to myself when I stepped off the train in Urumuqi is: "Hey, I'm not in China anymore!" The native Uyghur peoples are a Turkic people and look very different from the Han Chinese. The streets of Urumuqi are incredibly diverse--not only are there Uyghurs and Han Chinese, but other Turkic peoples such as Kazakhs, Uzbeks, not to mention Mongols, Pakistanis, Russians, and other peoples. I got stranger looks as a blue-eyed white man in Shanghai than I did out here in Urumuqi.

Fun Fact: Urumuqi is the city farthest away from the ocean in the world.

Urumuqi is the capital of Xin'jeng, the largest province in China. The region has historically had an independent streak which has apparently heated up since the central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the rest became independent (Xin'jiang was called East Turkestan in the 1940s). The Japanese Empire backed independence with money and arms, and the Chinese, preoccupied with fighting the Japanese invaders not to mention their own bloody civil war, were unable to do much. Thus it was left to the Soviets to end independence, invading the region in unmarked tanks and planes, crushing the government and backing a Nationalist puppet governor (with communist sympathies, surprise). All of this seems curious considering that the Soviets were at the time ensuring the independence of Mongolia as a Soviet puppet state to avoid direct border conflicts with China, but the Russians feared a Japanese client in oil-rich central Asia and desperately wanted to put a lid on separatist sentiments.

The Uyghurs wanted their own independent state when the Chinese civil war ended and formed 'Uygherstan.' They were nominally independent for a few years until the entire cabinet died in a mysterious (or not so mysterious if you think about it) plane crash on their way to Beijing to negotiate with the new Communist government. Anyway, forget Tibet--Xin'jeng is where the real militant separatism is going on, and every now and then the city of Urumuqi is struck with terrorist bombing or riots. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism hasn't helped either. But they didn't seem to care in the least that we were Americans, the war in Iraq the last concerns on their minds--it's the Han Chinese they apparently hate. More on that later...

Here you can see fresh meat for sale -- note the skinned rabbits on the left and the steamed goat head and cleaver on the right!

Anyway... we took a taxi to our hotel from the train station (just in case you think we're being extravagant in our travels, consider that the taxi ride was less than $ 1 each; the hotel $3 a night; and most meals barely a dollar). On the way there I saw a beautiful church steeple rising above the dirty apartments. After we dropped off our bags at the hotel, we went out for a lunch of mutton kabobs and bread; again I saw the steeple, which was clearly atop a non-western Church. After our meal Roy headed back to the hotel and I took a walk towards the church. It took about 15 minutes, and on the way I thought to myself, "I wonder what kind of church it is? It looks Orthodox; today is a Saturday, perhaps they even have a service tomorrow..." It seemed so neat to consider that I might actually have the chance to go to a church service way out in the far west of China. Except when I got there, it turned out the steeple was just part of a tacky amusement park! So much for that...

There really isn't that much to do in Urumuqi. Had we had just a few more days both Roy and I would have headed out farther west to see the city of Kashgar, right on the border with Pakistan and a key spot on the silk road. Thousands of years ago there were two capitals of the Uyghur civilization, Kashgar being one and Turpan being the other.

Unfortunately it was a 24 hour train ride and sand storms often shut down the line, which only departs once a day. Instead we spent most of our time in Turpan, a few hours bus ride away and a vital oasis on the road through the desert from Xi'an to Rome. Our final destination: Turpan.

c. 2005 Christopher Gunson