I walk through the winding alleyways between market stalls. Knives, dried fruit, raisins, hats, and anything that could be sold drenching the racks. But I find myself drawn to the bolts and bolts of fabric. Bright colors, patterns, stripes, animal prints, golden thread studded with beads, beads winding into spider webs, flower petals blooming from the breadth of cloth. I reach out to touch the gossamer thin lace that is laid over thick blue fabric. It makes art of my fingers. Children play in overturned bolts of fabric, others take naps. Women haggle over one fabric.
Around the corner, clothing spun from the colors studding the fabric stalls. Longer tunics reaching the knees, trimmed in golden patterns, the bust carefully pinned with studs. Matching trousers to go underneath, the skirts swaying. Some are close to the waist, tapering. Some lack persuasion, making up for it with color. I wish I was an Arabian princess just to feel the slide of such fine fabric against my skin.
Walking around me, the women. The lucky ones who get to call this their fashion trend. I admire the women who fully cover their bodies, faces, hair, with only their eyes peeking out. But not every Muslim woman dresses like that. There are younger girls with more modern tops, leggings, fashionable skirts with pockets and laces, and leopard print headscarves. Some women only wear headscarves. My favorite look is the long swaying tunics and the matching trousers. All of them have one thing in common—showing little, but still being perhaps some of the sexiest ladies I’ve ever seen.
I think in the West we assume that covering up is akin to repression. But being here, I have to wonder. I find myself wishing I could wear such clothing, to know that my body will be much sexier with joyous colors and more left to the imagination. Women here know how to work their bodies. They seem to have more power with them than someone like me, who wrestles with pants to find the right combination of shape and cellulite. Perhaps no woman is truly free from her clothes, but at least women here can wear their clothing with justly-earned pride.
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.