In the land of the Uighur

by Jane Westaway / 13 October, 2007
In China's most remote province, the language - even the time - are not Beijing's.

You could travel to Urumqi, in what used to be eastern Turkistan, because you fancy ordering a meal at the fish-and-chip shop that is the world's farthest from the sea. Or from a café-bar on the edge of People's Park, where on an international menu of pizza and burgers is the option of horse in your omelette.

Most travellers, though, fetch up here because the city lies on the northern arm of the ancient Silk Road as it splits around the Taklamakan Desert. Urumqi (Wurumuchi to locals) is the capital of China's biggest, most remote, most diverse, and - so far as Beijing is concerned - most troublesome province: Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

It lodges like a mite in the tail feathers of the giant chicken-shape that is the Middle Kingdom: to the north, Kazakhstan, Russia, the Altai Mountains and Mongolia; Kyrgyzstan to the west, and the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts to the south and south-west.

Twenty-one years ago I came to China for the weekend. On the Saturday afternoon, having paid my journalistic respects to a herd of New Zealand Friesians grazing a communal farm outside Macau, I got into a taxi for Guangzhou. Twilight went on forever. The road was a river of bicycles that receded to red banks before closing in behind. It got dark, the cyclists disappeared, rain streamed down the windows. The cab became a spaceship, its radio spitting static, talk and music from another sphere. I have never felt more foreign in my life.

China will be different this time. Not just because my first fleeting visit masqueraded as work. Nor because Hong Kong is once again Chinese, Tiananmen Square less a landmark than an awful symbol, and China has burst onto the capitalist scene like a latecomer to a party, determined to make up for lost time.

It's a 40-hour train journey from Beijing, through a mind-numbing moonscape of rocky plain and distant peak, past tumbledown outposts and monstrous industrial eyesores. Half an hour after we arrive, my taxi is crawling down a tree-lined street, the driver looking for my destination. "Why you go to bar?" he asks. "You have party?"

"No," I say, "It's my son's bar. He lives here." That's why China will be different this time.

Fubar is the single such foreign-owned establishment in the province. Travellers' websites dub it "hip" and "cool", but it feels like home a million miles from home, with resident ginger cat, pool table, darts and foosball, bookshelves and sofas. Above the bar are All Black memorabilia, paua shells, and a tacky spread of Kiwi-themed tea towels. Dim but friendly, a New York Times writer adjudged it; "I prefer to think of the lighting as ambient," responds one of its three owners, Jonathan Tomlin. Jonno to his friends, but not to his mother.

The bar's name - the acronym of a crude phrase for a situation gone awry - was appropriate for its early days, he says. But officially, it's "Lucky Bar", the Chinese character fu meaning blessing or good fortune.

Jonathan left Wellington four years ago to teach English at Xinjiang Medical University. What really drew him were the mountains. He's known about the region's awe-inspiring topography since he was five; a good part of his childhood was spent poring over the atlas. The Turpan Depression (at 154m below sea-level, the second lowest place on Earth), and the deserts and ranges encircling it, fired his imagination. He wishes he'd been an early explorer. Instead, he runs a business helping others get into the wild, providing what his card calls "adventure solutions".

The morning we arrive, Fubar's floor is piled with camping paraphernalia, and he's tracking down vehicle and driver, drawing up a shopping list whose main constituent is instant noodles. His American clients also want an interpreter because what makes Xinjiang unique is its Uighur population.

For more than two millennia Uighur civilisation dominated Central Asia. Uighurs were printing their own books hundreds of years before the western invention of the press, and played 62 kinds of musical instrument. From the middle of last century, the Chinese Government has flooded the region with its own western immigrants, but the Uighur are still a vital presence here, speaking their own language, eating their own food, following their own religion. A bar in a Muslim region? "Lots of our regulars are Uighurs," says Jonathan. And although China officially runs on Beijing time, local Uighur stick to their own "sun" time, which runs two hours later.

Lunching on rice and mutton at a Uighur restaurant, I can hardly believe I'm still in China: the murals, music and dancing are distinctly Middle Eastern. But Xinjiang isn't as autonomous as many Uighur would like it be. One round of violent opposition to long-distance Beijing rule 10 years ago left many injured or dead. And several eastern Chinese warn us that the region is dangerous.

You don't have to sleep under canvas - or brave the ferocious mastiffs guarding Kazakh sheep in the hills - to appreciate what Xinjiang has to offer. Turpan city, a couple of hours south-east of Urumqi, is one of the hottest, driest places in China. Nearby Goachang was founded in the 7th century, became the Uighur capital in 850, and was a major staging post on the Silk Road. What remains are the dispersed remnants of walls and foundations, sticking up from the desert like rotten teeth.

Jiaohe, on the other hand, still feels like a city, but you can walk its streets, enter its roofless homes and offices and Buddhist monastery. Built on a plateau site, it's protected by cliffs looming over grape-filled valleys.

The monks of Jiaohe used to retreat to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha caves, carved into steep hillsides several days' walk away. Four of the 77 caves are open to the public, and the man with the key pants up the steps behind us. This security might protect the lavishly decorated interiors from graffiti, but each Buddha face was deliberately damaged centuries ago by Muslims who believed such images were idolatrous. Later, Europeans cut out more and shipped them back to western museums.

A few days afterwards, we picnic south of Urumqi in a green mountainous landscape reminiscent of Switzerland. Afterwards, we drive up a rough track and through a farm gate, causing two small boys to flee. Their mother, though, makes us tea with rancid butter as we lounge on rugs inside her three-roomed adobe home. She speaks Uighur and Mandarin, we speak neither. Much mute goodwill goes down with the tea.

On our last evening one of Jonathan's friends treats us to a banquet of our own. In a plush private room of the five-star Yindu Hotel, exquisite dishes circle the table. And, since one should never drink alone, glasses are raised many times. I propose a toast to my son, to his courage and determination, that he has in his way become the explorer he dreamt of being as a small boy. And I think of that lovely Fleur Adcock line about her own son: "My green branch growing in a far plantation." Except that China doesn't feel that far away - or foreign - any more.

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