An Unusual Place

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Part Two in a short series on my trip to Xinjiang a couple of weeks ago. Not trying to be too hard on Korla – just my impressions.

Korla is a town built on money – oil money, to be exact. The streets are wide, tree-lined, newly paved, and clean. At every downtown intersection, elaborate subway-style underpasses, spotlessly clean and lined with grey marble, channel streams of people from one side of the street to the other, underground and out of sight, without inconveniencing the flow of traffic. The supermarkets are filled with upscale goods; wines imported from Europe and Italian olive oil line the shelves. There is a Dairy Queen inside an underground mall. The River of the Peacock, which flows through the center of town, is lined with thirteen elaborately overdesigned parks which, taken together, comprise a mashup survey of modern Chinese landscape architecture – whatever that means. The people are mostly Han. They are well-dressed and well-fed, and happy. They constantly talk about their city’s quality of life. They work in oil company compounds and, late on a clear, cool Xinjiang evening, share kebabs and bread and Wusu beers under the stars.

Korla is pleasant, in a mildly, unquirkily bland sort of way, one of those places where life is good but there’s nothing in particular to see. To the south and west lie forbidding deserts; north and east are barren, Mordor-like mountains. The town has a vibrant Uighur quarter, full of mosques and markets and nan and delicious homemade ice cream, but it is small and feels isolated, adrift. The river and parks are – once again – pleasant. Life is good in a quiet, complacent sort of way.

I came to Korla not to see the sights, but to visit friend Kelly in her short-term position teaching at a recently-opened English training school. Korla sees few foreigners, and is the kind of place where – once it is discovered that you’re not Uighur or Russian – you are surreptitiously but closely watched. Most of the people in Kelly’s neighborhood are Han, and, having come from inner China, see foreigners as nothing special. At the same time, however, they know of your general existence and specific whereabouts and activities.

One morning, I went to buy vegetables at a small market close to Kelly’s house. After I had paid, another customer asked the vegetable seller who I was. “He’s clearly a friend of the foreigner who moved into that building,” she said. “The foreigner in that building is a girl – and she works; she’s probably teaching right now. This foreigner is new.”

Given neighbors’ awareness of my presence, I decided to spend the majority of my days wandering around the city. I strolled through Uighur bazaars and modern computer markets; I wandered down alleyways to nowhere, I ran along riversides bordered by iron fences demarcating oil company compounds. I stayed under the trees, avoiding the searing midday heat and punishingly direct sun; the Taklamakan desert, a place of Silk Roads legend, was nearby, and I wanted to avoid becoming a heap of sunbleached bones amidst the sweeping, gravelly sands. In the evenings, cool breezes swept the city, and we ate Uighur milk-flavored ice cream in retro-esque cafes.

Life in Korla was clearly good. I could understand why the city had its boosters. But it was also visibly lonely. The city is far from anywhere, and many people seemed to have an island-like mentality. Many people I asked for directions on the street would simply ignore me – something I’ve never encountered in China. Others were excessively, almost graspingly friendly, as if they needed to talk to someone. Isolated far from everything on the edge of the vast, empty Tarim basin, the people of Korla seem somewhat lost, held captive by oil and income, pleased by a cleanly modern cityscape, entertained by modern amenities and Dairy Queens. But in their constant need to prove their city’s greatness; in their blandly pleasant lives transposed into this incongruous setting; in the profound disconnect of cultures and ways of life in this, the largest prefecture in China, not all seemed well. Was it a sense of belonging that was missing? Or was it a humanity, a sense of community and trust and mutual love? Bonds forged by oil and cash, it seemed, did not a community make. And community, after all, is what engenders quality of life. For what place of severe, lonely individualism is a good place to live? And how are we to understand each other and work together – as only humans do – if we can’t live together in trust, sympathy, and love?

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