Written by Elisabeth28 on 11 Jun, 2006
In this entry, I'd like to describe an anecdote that does not fall into the category of typical tourist experiences but that I feel none the less revealed quite a lot about the culture and atmosphere of both Hotan and southern Xinjiang. Forgive me if…Read More
In this entry, I'd like to describe an anecdote that does not fall into the category of typical tourist experiences but that I feel none the less revealed quite a lot about the culture and atmosphere of both Hotan and southern Xinjiang. Forgive me if my description rambles a bit, but a bit of background on both the May First holiday and Xinjiang's history will allow for a more nuanced understanding of the event we witnessed. The occasion for our trip to Xinjiang was the May-first holiday, the week surrounding International Workers Day.
Though completely forgotten or rather lamely observed in much of the West, May First is still a very big deal in China, on par with National Day in October, which marks the founding of the PRC. Students and many workers get the entire week off, and in recent years domestic tourism has become an increasingly popular way to spend the holiday. Though I feel very tempted at this point to go into a rant about mass tourism in general and Chinese tour groups in particular, I will restrain myself. I will limit my comments to saying that one of the main reasons that we decided to go to Xinjiang was to as far away from the crowds as possible.
In this goal, we succeeded almost entirely, and we were also able to see how the holiday was celebrated in one of China's most remote regions, where Communist Party rule is not necessarily looked on with favor by the independent-minded local people. The native inhabitants of Xinjiang belong to a variety of Central Asian ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Uighurs. Chinese emperors from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) on sent officials and army garrisons to strategically-located cities in Xinjiang in order to protect the Silk Road trade, and over the years Imperial China exercised fluctuating levels of control and influence on the region.
Real power usually rested with local chiefs and warlords, however, and it was not until the late 19th century that a concerted effort was made to formally incorporate the area into the Chinese state (the name Xinjiang, meaning "new territory," dates from this time). Rebellions and warlordism continued throughout the first half of the 20th century, including the formation of two briefly-independent states in the 1930s and 1940s. The Nationalist forces in Xinjiang surrendered peacefully to the Communists in 1949, and since then Xinjiang has been firmly in the grip of the government in Beijing.
Significant economic development has taken place over the past fifty years, and thanks to industrialization, infrastructure improvement, and greater educational opportunities, the standard of living has risen significantly for most people. However, many Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others feel that the central government does not respect their cultural traditions, and until the late 1970s, the practice of Islam was severely circumscribed (as was religion throughout the rest of the country). Sporadic violent incidents have occurred over the past fifteen years, and there is some evidence that a very small number of fringe separatists may have contacts with international terrorist groups. For many reasons, the central government thus sees Xinjiang as a potential source of social instability and is eager to encourage unity with and loyalty to the Chinese state.
We arrived in Hotan on the Friday afternoon before the May First holiday, and after a meal with our new-found Uighur friends and a couple of hours rest to recover from the 20-hour bus ride from Urumqi (see entry in this journal entitled "Across the Taklamakan by bus"), we decided to go for walk in the early evening. Our destination was the city's main square, a vast paved space overlooked by a similarly colossal statue of Mao shaking hands with a Uighur man who, so the story goes, made the long trek to Beijing in the early 1950s to congratulate the Great Helmsman on the triumph of the Communist revolution.
When we arrived in the square, we discovered that a large stage had been set up at the foot of the Mao statue and a performance of Uighur singing and dancing was about to begin. From what we could gather, the performers were mostly local schoolchildren, from kindergarten to high school age, who had clearly been preparing their routines for quite some time. The audience seemed to be entirely Uighur, probably parents and friends of the performers. Almost all of the performers were Uighur, and almost all of the organizers were Han. A young Han woman spotted us as we stood gawking, and she promptly ushered us to seats in the front row, kicking out the seats' previous occupants in the process.
Perhaps I am being unjustifiably uncharitable, but to me the political subtext was clear; I imagine that their thought process was something like "Look, foreigners! Let's show them how much we support Uighur culture and how happy the Uighurs are to be part of China!" The dances were an interesting mix of traditional and modern: one number featured girls wearing traditional caps and atlas silk dresses, while in another teenagers in miniskirts and high heels lip-synched to a Chinese pop song .
The most incongruous note was an English-language R&B-type song performed by three young men in baggy jeans and baseball caps turned backwards. In light of the political context I outlined above, however, the most interesting dance numbers for me were two performances that came near the end of the show. In the first one, the dancers (high school age girls) were dressed in military fatigues, and one stood in front waving a large Chinese flag in time to a recording of what was clearly some sort of patriotic song. In the second, the similarly-aged girls wore beautiful, flowing white dresses reminiscent of ballet costumes, but the theme was clearly the same; this time there were two flag-wavers, and the centerpiece was a slightly older Han woman singing another patriotic song.
The incongruity of it all was striking, reminiscent of an era of propaganda that has long vanished in the West. The fact that the performance took place on the eve of the May Holiday made the patriotic intentions of its organizers even clearer. I wish I had been able to understand the lyrics of the songs, or at least talk to some of the performers and audience members after the show. This was a case, however, in which I think a picture really was worth more than the proverbial thousand words in bringing home to me the reality of the central government's attempts to integrate Xinjiang fully into the Chinese cultural mainstream while still maintaining the official line of respect for minority cultures.
Written by Elisabeth28 on 25 May, 2006
It is said that Taklamakan means "you go in and never come out." Whether this is true or not I will leave linguists and anthropologists to decide, but the fact remains that the Taklamakan desert, in the heart of Xinjiang, China's westernmost province, bears a…Read More
It is said that Taklamakan means "you go in and never come out." Whether this is true or not I will leave linguists and anthropologists to decide, but the fact remains that the Taklamakan desert, in the heart of Xinjiang, China's westernmost province, bears a fearsome reputation that has come down through generations of travelers. It was not always thus - many centuries ago, rivers fed from the snows of the towering mountains along the Tibetan border extended far into arid Tarim basin, enabling the creation of great cities that formed a network of waypoints along the Silk Road. Gradually the climate changed, however, and the desert expanded inexorably southward. One by one the cities were abandoned, leaving only windswept ruins in the midst of an ever-shifting sea of sand. The northern branch of the Silk Road ran along the north edge of the desert, and the southern Silk Road along its southern border, but travel through the desert itself was avoided at all costs. Like so many other ancient customs and patterns of life, in recent decades the might of the modern Chinese government has broken through this age-old limitation and forged a modern highway straight through the heart of the desert. Initially intended to facilitate petroleum extraction and as a means for transporting soldiers and military equipment in case of a rebellion among the traditionally independent-minded Uighurs of the southern oasis towns, the road is now open for public traffic. Several buses each day ply the north-south route, connecting Urumqi, Kuqa, and the other cities of northern Xinjiang with Hotan and Yarkand in the south. Other than expensive, infrequent, and unreliable flights, this is the only convenient way to reach the southern cities, so was along this road that my husband and I decided to travel on our recent trip to Xinjiang. After a four-hour flight from Beijing and then a bus and taxi from the airport, we arrived at Urumqi's southern bus station at about 8:30 in the evening, only to be told that the last bus of the day departed at 6:30. We were about to leave when a Uighur man approached us and, upon hearing our destination, directed us to a bus that left about an hour later. So much for schedules. It was a sleeper bus, meaning that instead of seats, it had three rows of double-tiered bunks, each furnished with a pillow, blanket, and shoe-box sized storage space (large bags are store in the luggage compartment under the bus). The bunks were surprisingly comfortable, though quite a bit shorter than an average bed - my husband and I, at 5'5" and 4'11" respectively, didn't have any problem, but a normal-sized Westerner would probably feel a bit cramped. The vast majority of our fellow passengers were Uighurs of all ages, with a few Han Chinese mixed in. We slept through the night fairly well, and as the light grew the next morning, the last vestiges of towns and farmland slipped away behind us as we entered the desert itself. Along both edges of the road were planted several ranks of small, hardy bushes with irrigation lines running at their roots, intended to check the movement of sand dunes and thus keep the road clear for travel. The effort it must take to keep those plants alive through hundreds of kilometers of desert boggles the mind. Beyond the fragile line of green, the rolling mounds of dun-colored sand extended as far as the eye could see. These were not the great dunes of the Sahara but much smaller hills, appearing almost like waves on a vast, frozen sea. The early morning sunlight created deep shadows in the troughs between dunes, and beyond the line of bushes along the road, there was not a single living thing to be seen. As the day went on, however, to my amazement I saw several gangs of men working along the road; most appeared to be fixing the irrigation lines, which I am sure is a constant struggle. There were also periodic waystations, most consisting of a single building, maybe two, that appeared to be housing for the road crews. Occasionally there were even tiny stores selling drinks, snacks, and cigarettes, and at one or two of them I even saw women and children. I can only imagine how lonely their life must be. The bunks directly in front of my husband and I were occupied by three young Uighur women; they looked about 20 years old and appeared to be friends. Around mid-morning, one of them began studying English from handwritten notes, and using this as a starting point, we struck up a conversation in a mix of English and Chinese. As it turns out, they were classmates at the medical school and Xinjiang University in Urumqi and were returning home to Hotan for the May First holiday week. We chatted intermittently for the next several hours, and upon our arrival in Hotan, Nurbiya, the one with whom I had originally started the conversation, invited us out to dinner with her family; the next evening, we went to the beautifully decorated home of another of the girls and had a traditional dinner cooked by her mother. Needless to say, I was amazed by and extremely grateful for their hospitality. After about four or five hours, the desert gave way to a flat plain that, though barren and rocky, apparently contained enough water sources to support flocks of grazing goats and sheep. The shepherds lived in small, adobe-walled dwellings, usually shaded by one or two scrawny trees. Most had motorbikes parked outside, but we did see one man off in the distance riding after his flock on horseback. Occasional farms began to appear, clearly marked by the lines of poplar trees that delineated every road and field boundary. The land outside of the cultivated area was still extremely dry and almost devoid of life, but apparently the farmers in this arid region have developed an extensive and effective irrigation system over the centuries, and the farms looked relatively prosperous. We stopped for lunch at the first town we came to, a mixed collection of adobe and modern brick buildings. Though it had become rather hot by this time, Ryan and I decided that we had to try real Uighur food for our first meal in Xinjiang, so we ordered steaming bowls of laghman (thick handmade noodles) topped with vegetables and bits of lamb at a tiny restaurant next to the parking lot. We were served tea with our meal as well, a delicious mixture flavored with cinnamon and other spices that we couldn't identify; it was a refreshing change from the endless cups of bland jasmine tea we had become accustomed to in eastern China. After a break of half an hour or so, the journey continued, passing through two or three decent-sized towns before arriving in Hotan at about 5 pm, twenty hours after we left Urumqi. If time and comfort are of the essence, then this journey is probably not for you, but if you really want to experience the land and travel as the locals do, I highly recommend this trip.
Practicalities: Buses for Hotan and other destinations in southern Xinjiang leave from Urumqi's southern bus station (nanjiao keyunzhan). According to the schedule posted in the bus station, prices vary from 235 yuan to 340 yuan depending the quality of the bus, and there are 3 to 5 buses per day. Based on our experience, however, it appears that the schedules are rather flexible; our tickets cost 280 yuan per person. Large pieces of luggage should be stored underneath the bus, but make sure to bring a small bag with water, food, tissues and other necessities into the bus with you, as your bags will not be accessible during the journey. Earplugs and an eye-mask of the type handed out on international flights are useful as well.