The New Frontier

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I am currently in the midst of a weeklong holiday for International Labor Day, one of China’s three major annual “golden weeks” of vacation. But before the holiday began, I was having trouble deciding what I wanted to do. Did I want to blow a lot of money on a big trip, or did I want to wander around my ‘home’ area? Was there a way I could do a big trip and stay within my current monthly budget (answer: no). How could I milk this, the only holiday in the Spring term, for all it was worth?

The answer came in the form of my friend Kelly, who unexpectedly descended on Qinghai for her surprise holiday period – which, as she works at a training school that runs at times when school is not in session, was immediately prior to (but not overlapping with) mine. During her trip, I decided that if she could visit me, I could just as well visit her. Which meant a trip to Xinjiang.

Xinjiang. In Chinese, the name means “New Frontier” – often interpreted, with all of the name’s ethnocentric and imperialist ringings, as referring to the region’s vast natural resources and their imminent exploitation. But Xinjiang is not just an emptily barren wasteland brimming with oil and rare earths; it is the homeland of the Uighurs, not to mention large populations of other minorities – Mongols, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and more. Xinjiang is massive, with a land area larger than that of Alaska, and has an astounding range of geomorphology. Vast, sunblasted desert basins conjuring up visions of Ozymandias are surrounded by mountains of epic scale, chains of peaks which hold some of the largest mountain glaciers in the world, names such as the Karakoram and Tian Shan and Pamir and Kunlun which conjure up images of monstrous immensity, unimaginable remoteness, distant and hidden mysteries. Xinjiang is also home to many threads of the famous Silk Roads, which strung together the oasis towns of the Tarim and Junggar basins on their way to linking Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) with Constantinople and, beyond, Rome.

In short, Xinjiang is massive and undeniably epic. I really wanted to go, and so, to bring logic into the equation, and also because I was reading The Hobbit in Chinese, and Bilbo Baggins likes this sort of thing, I made a list of Debits for the trip to counter my preexisting list of Credits:

1. Money: For reasons of time, I would have to fly in one direction, a trip which would cost nearly 1000 RMB – money I was not I would have. Staying at home would certainly be cheaper.

2. Time. I wanted to explore Xinjiang in its entirety, but – given less than a week – I would have to limit myself to a smaller area.

3. …

And because I couldn’t think of a third Debit, I decided to give up on logic and book a ticket.

I flew into Xinjiang on Sunday evening and was greeted with a monster of a traffic jam that resulted in the twenty-five kilometer trip from the airport into the city of Urumqi (Ch: Wulumuqi 乌鲁木齐) taking over an hour and a half. Luckily, I had already found a friend and a place to stay; friend Sophie was staying with her friend Jim, who had offered to host me for the night. Jim lives in a Uighur neighborhood and, at 9:30pm, the streets were crowded with modestly veiled women and shortsleeve-shirted men shopping, eating and strolling around. We had some chicken and fantastic homemade ice cream for dinner. As we strolled, I looked at the amazing abundance and diversity of goods on offer. There were products from Russia, Turkey, and all the ‘stans in shops. There were street foods I’d never seen, or at least never had the opportunity to eat: samsas and other mutton-and-bread combinations, varieties of nuts and dried fruits I had never imagined existed, and everywhere nan, the Uighur bread, in both flat and bagel-shaped varieties. People looked surprisingly like me. I was in Xinjiang, and it was pretty cool.

I say we ate around 9:30, but we ate at 7:30 as well. Unofficial “Xinjiang time” is two hours behind the official “Beijing time”, the zone which, though tied to the capital, ridiculously covers all of China. Most people live and work on Xinjiang time, though many government offices operate on Beijing time. When I bought a ticket at the bus station, the attendant made it very clear to me to “be on the bus before 1:45 BEIJING time”, as if she was used to vast numbers of people missing buses due to the duelling interpretations of time zones.

After spending a surprisingly rainy morning wandering about Urumqi with Sophie, I boarded a bus to Korla (Ch: Ku’erle 库尔勒), the small city 460 kilometers to the southwest where Kelly lives. Leaving Urumqi, the bus at first passed through greening pastures, but soon all traces of green faded away and the rain stopped. The mountain ranges bordering the valley became black, and the valley floor, aside from the occasional oasis, was a barren wasteland of gravel. The land became even more desolate as we passed through the Turpan basin (trivia alert: the lowest point in China, at more than 100 meters below sea level!), passed through vast deserts of sand and stone, and crossed jagged mountain ranges where no living things were visible outside the bus windows. As I traveled (and, again, partly because I was reading the Chinese edition of The Hobbit), I imagined that the landscapes through which we were passing were simply different parts of the land of Mordor, the deserty volcanic hell in which Sauron, the evil lord of doom, made his home.  In reality, aside from the cloudless sky, the wastelands of central Xinjiang were not too far away from the Mordor digitally constructed and filmed in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This was no safe-and-cozy, green-as-a-shamrock Hobbiton; this was a fiery hell, a place of insufferable heat in summer and unimaginable cold in winter, a place where few living things could survive, a place not fit for human habitation or even travel. Forget the how – instead, why did people make the arduous journey through these lands thousands of years ago? Was the possibility of financial gain if the journey succeeded enticing enough to warrant the journey itself? As my bus rolled along the highway, I imagined Frodo and Sam plodding along the roadside, rucksack in hand, off to destroy the ring and save the world from evil.

I arrived in Korla late that evening to find an exuberant Kelly waiting for me. But more on that later…Xinjiang is a big place, and my trip here will require several blog posts to describe. So stay tuned!

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