I’m not so naïve to think that the army green guards lurking in the shade, with their riot shields out at the ready, are there to protect tourists like me. I know that in the past, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, has been a hot-spot for ethnic tensions between the Muslim/Turkish “Uyghurs” (pronounced “wee-gurr”) and the Han Chinese. Still, to come off of the bus in front of the hostel and find all traces of Uyghur all but gone, in the sprawl of a Chinese city, was a bit of a shock.
Oh yes, there’s a Uyghur part of town. Tucked away around the mosque, crowding under the red market tents buying fruit and yogurt ice cream. But for the end of Ramadan, Urumqi remained relatively quiet. Perhaps a sigh of relief for the Chinese government. Perhaps grim satisfaction that yet again guns and shields positioned strategically around this area will maintain its position as a “Chinese” city.
One look at the Xinjiang Museum tells me a lot about how the cultures collide. Plaques discuss how important Han Chinese are to the Xinjiang identity, even though Xinjiang is one of the only homes the Uyghurs have. The Uyghur artifacts are shown as old relics that are no longer relevant. Han Chinese crowd around a mummified Uyghur woman, and I can’t help but think of possession as grim hands smear the glass.
The rhetoric is that China is unified, and that Xinjiang is of course a part of China. But that’s crap, sorry. The Uyghurs are a completely separate culture, with a separate language similar to Turkish. When I found a pocket of Ramadan dancing, I was caught in a circle of Uyghur people trying to ask where I was from. A Chinese woman goaded them to ask me certain questions, but no one understood Chinese. Because they are not Chinese.
So why would China bother? If I was being optimistic, I would say that it’s because China believes in cross-cultural understanding and won’t give up so easily on land that has historically been a part of its empire. If I was being cynical, I would say that it has something to do with the oil drills and wind turbines supplying energy in droves all over the province. Whatever the reason, this is the story of Urumqi—two groups not understanding, not integrating, and the fight to keep them separate as long as possible.