Christmas in Ürümqi

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I wrote this post from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport after 10 days in Asia split between China and Thailand. It was a really, really good trip overall. In this post, I reflect on my time in China, where I had the chance to spend some time with my grandparents and other relatives on that side of the family for the first time in eight years.

My grandparents live in Urumqi, the capital of the northwestern province of Xinjiang, which borders Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, etc. People who know anything about China are always super curious when I mention that my family is there, and for good reason. I’ve been visiting Xinjiang once every few years since I was a kid; I still remember how insanely long the train trip was — about 3 days and 3 nights on a sleeper train from either Beijing or Shanghai — and how the view outside the window would gradually change from high-rises to barren and dusty landscapes as we headed further west.

The most accurate thing I can say about Xinjiang is that it is always different each time. My most meaningful visit there was my last one, in 2011. I saw the most beautiful grave in the world, sat in on a fourth-grade math class taught in Uyghur and Mandarin, and had lunch in a local village home where wives and daughters weren’t allowed at the table. I remember showing my Arabic vocabulary book to the woman in the bed across from me on the train and her pointing out how some of the words, like bank, were the same in Uyghur.

Suffice to say, things have changed quite a bit since 2011.

Getting there

Urumqi is a little tricky to get to; most international flights there require a layover in Beijing, which is counter-intuitive when flying east from Europe. In October, I found a deal with Air Astana, the flagship carrier of Kazakhstan, where I could fly from Paris to Urumqi with a quick layover in Nur-Sultan for just over 600 francs. Geneva being only three hours from Paris by train, I figured this would work out perfectly.

The first subtle sign that things would go awry was Air Astana’s announcement in November that it had agreed to purchase thirty of Boeing’s 737 Max planes. Yes, that same Boeing 737 Max that crashed in Indonesia and Ethiopia and is grounded all around the world. I realize they’re cheap right now but come the fuck on guys.

The second not-so-subtle sign was the strikes in France. Every day, the train company TGV would put out a schedule of which trains in the next two days would be cancelled, and after studying the cancellation patterns across a few days, I realized that the train I had booked for Friday morning would most likely be cancelled. So I decided to rebook for Thursday evening and stay in Paris for the night instead.

The train trip was fine. In fact, it was emptier than it usually is. The only difference was that no one inspected our tickets, and instead, a guy in an SNCF vest walked up and down each compartment, asking each person whether we felt comfortable on this journey. Everyone seemed confused by the question.

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I stayed at Hôtel LOCOMO, just a few steps away from Gare de Lyon. Decent place.
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The view was nice.

The next morning I had breakfast with J, my mentor and friend from DC who also happened to be in town. We caught up on life, travel plans, family, my adjustment to life in Switzerland. It was like no time had passed. (To be fair, it had only been 5 months.)

After checkout, I took a bus from Gare de Lyon to CDG for 18 euros. I later learned that this was probably not the best thing to do if I wanted to show solidarity with the strikes, because it was operated by a private company and could have given ammunition to those saying public transit should be privatized. I definitely need to starting reading the news more.

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The line waiting for the airport bus.
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Waiting to board at CDG. Air Astana was kind of a mess, tbh.
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I loved the plane kit they gave us. There’s more in the pouch that I didn’t pull out, but I got a particular kick out of the socks and the sleep mask that says ‘wake me up for meal’ in three languages.

We landed in Nur-Sultan, the new capital of Kazakhstan, at god-knows-how-early o’clock. The flight itself was fine, but some of the passengers were miserable. They tried to cut in front of me in line, jabbed me in the back, and dug their suitcase hard into my legs repeatedly when we were all getting off the plane and I paused because two people in front of me were retrieving their luggage from the overhead bins. I was secretly pleased when we had to show our passports transiting through Kazakhstan, and some of them tried to cut in front of me, and the severe-looking Kazakh lady working at the counter absolutely lost her shit and screamed in English, “ONE! BY! ONE!” over and over again until they understood and complied.

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Waiting to board at Nur-Sultan. I was amused to see the Christmas tree in Kazakhstan of all places. I would later find out that Christmas was banned in Xinjiang for political reasons.

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The flight from Nur-Sultan to Urumqi was also unpleasant, for a different reason. The guy next to me tried to start a conversation, which I was not interested in doing, so I pretended not to speak Mandarin. He then pulls up the translation software on his phone and shows me a question translated into Kazakh. I shake my head, nope, I don’t speak Kazakh sorry. Then this guy calls up the voice-to-translate function and sticks the phone in my face, demanding that I talk into it. He also takes my bag, which was tucked under the seat in front of me, and puts it on his side of the row. I rung the flight attendant bell to see if I could switch seats, but no one came to help. Ultimately I just aggressively asked for my bag back, and the guy stopped trying to talk to me.

Urumqi in 2019 vs. 2011

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Urumqi has a subway now — something that wasn’t around in 2011. It’s modern, clean, fast, and not crowded. Entering each subway station requires a security check with an x-ray machine for bags, which isn’t just protocol for Urumqi but for subway stations at other major cities as well. I remember in Beijing a few years ago they would make me take a swig from my water bottle to prove that I wasn’t smuggling gasoline.

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Another new form of transportation is the BRT. (Fun fact: this was funded by a loan from the World Bank when I worked there.) Aside from the more obvious qualities of a BRT system, it seems the main difference between a BRT bus station and a regular bus station is that the BRT station requires a bag check and payment prior to entry. Each station had at least three security staff, who were heavily bundled up in long winter coats yet still seemed cold in the freezing Xinjiang winter. The regular bus stations do not have a bag check, but they do have people in patrol vests.

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A regular bus station. No enclosure and you pay after you get on the bus.

In regard to public transportation, another thing that’s changed since 2011 is that there is no longer an overt security presence on buses. After the violence of the July 2009 riots, for a period of time there was a police officer stationed on every bus. I’m not sure when this practice stopped, but it’s clear that security — and other methods that are less obvious at first glance — have been scaled up in other ways. Nearly every public place in Urumqi now requires a bag check. Malls. Hotels. Restaurants. Office buildings.

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A sign on the bus in both Chinese and Uyghur: “Be alert and watch out for violent terrorism.”

Another three significant changes I’ve noticed since 2011 are:

  1. The absolute domination of the app WeChat in everyday life. WeChat started off as the Chinese alternative to WhatsApp — a way to talk to your friends within the firewall. It has now morphed into what WhatsApp would be if it merged with Instagram and Amazon and Uber Eats and your credit card. A lot of restaurants are actually confused when I try to pay in cash. Even a taxi I took had a sticker that said ‘payment via WeChat is preferred’. Everywhere you look, there’s a QR code for you to scan. If you thought Facebook had too much power, well.
  2. Things are much more political now under Xi. There are political slogans, banners, posters everywhere. Bus stops. Malls. Supermarkets. Mosques. Yes, mosques. On this trip I returned to the Grand Bazaar, a place I used to love but now have trouble stomaching after innocent diners got hacked to death in the KFC there during the 2009 riots. I was surprised to see a huge propaganda screen hanging over the entrance of the mosque in the Bazaar, proclaiming the 12 “core socialist values” that were introduced in 2012. Underneath was a red banner with a message from Xi that is seen everywhere in Urumqi: “The various ethnic groups must cling to each other tightly like the seeds of a pomegranate.”
  3. No hijabs. I saw some taqiyahs, those little skull caps worn by Muslim men, but absolutely not a single hijab in public anywhere, and not because of hats either — most of the locals don’t wear hats. My aunt told me there was a crackdown on hijabs and also black full-body niqabs, which used to be really popular in the more rural areas of Xinjiang. And also beards. There was a crackdown on beards.
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Yeppp.

Another thing that I noticed — I wouldn’t say it’s a change necessarily, but something I picked up — was that people in general are actually pretty nice and easygoing. The asshole tourists on the plane were the outlier, not the rule. With the caveat that different ethnic groups tend to be largely self-segregated in Urumqi, I also didn’t see any overt tension on display in public. I did see: a Han man offer his seat to an elderly Uyghur man on the subway; a Han man and a Uyghur woman working security together at the BRT station; and Hans eating at restaurants owned and staffed by Uyghurs.

At a dinner, I learned that someone at the table, who has maybe a mid-level desk job with the government, was going to be stationed in a remote part of Xinjiang for the course of the next year, possibly longer. They explained that this was required of every single person working for the government in order to improve ethnic relations: they would have to move to a rural Uyghur village, stay in a local Uyghur home, and dine and sleep with the family for at least a year.

“And they’re okay with that?” I asked, a bit incredulously.

There was an awkward silence.

“The government pays them,” was the explanation. “Obviously they don’t do this for free. They’re compensated very well for boarding us. Plus they benefit in other ways too — we sit with them every day and teach them Mandarin. We teach them about Chinese culture and contemporary life skills so that they can go out and find decent jobs and contribute to society.”

Moments worth remembering

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Only in Xinjiang does the supermarket carry, from left: yak meat, camel meat, smoked horse meat, and smoked horse intestines.
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Dinner with the family for the first time in eight years. Peking duck, I’ve missed you!
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People in Urumqi work insanely hard to shovel the snow every morning. I only have a photo of the snow plow here, but every time it snows, there is always a team of at least ten people on every block, shoveling quickly and efficiently. I saw an old man shoveling who wore the same glasses as my grandfather who passed a few years ago, and it made me sad.
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A waste segregation awareness poster in both Chinese and Uyghur.
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This mall bookstore happens to have a substantial collection of ancient Chinese clothing. The fashion seen here is representative of the Ming Dynasty (1600s-ish).
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Another part of the bookstore.
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Authentic Uyghur pilaf.
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Had to do a double take when I walked past this car.
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A trip to northwestern China isn’t complete without my favorite halal noodles.
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A restaurant where they cooked the chicken in a giant wok over a traditional Chinese stove right in front of us.

And that’s a wrap for Urumqi. Up next: how I ended up stuck in Shanghai and missed the first part of my Thailand trip, but ultimately had a good time in Thailand anyway.

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