The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Dispatch from Xinjiang 1: Urumqi

As I read Shadow of the Silk Road—a recent travel book by Colin Thubron where he traces an ancient trading route from China to the Mediterranean—I was struck by what didn’t match up with my own entrance into Xinjiang. Before Thubron embarks on his trip to Xinjiang, he meets a young Chinese man who warns that the train stations are full of “drifters and criminals,” and he must not go out at night. Thubron’s lesson from this chat: Xinjiang is a scary, exotic place even for the Chinese.

My students, on the other hand, are enthusiastic about my trip: “Great mountains and great minorities!” one student told me. Even the vice-president of Shue Yan University showed me his photos of Xinjiang that line the walls of his office. He even recommended that I go the swan reserve.

Sitting next to me on my plane from Shenzhen was not Thubron’s young man afraid of the people of Western China, but a young, Chinese lady who lived in Xinjiang. She wore a lovely perfume and matched her pale blue skirt and blouse to her dangly earrings. This was somebody who would fit in with my hippest Hong Kong students—not the exotic figure anticipated in Thubron’s book.

In Shadow of the Silk Road, Thubron discusses the role Xinjiang plays in the Chinese imaginary. It was considered a place filled with barbarians; after all, the Great Wall was built to keep them out. Though threatening to Han Chinese, Thubron paints a portrait that the minorities are now poor and disgruntled. In a section that makes Xinjiang sound a little like a people zoo, Thubron writes that the province is full of “threatened minorities.” Unlike the previous impression Thubron gives, this one is backed up by my students’ comments: “great minorities!”

But on the plane to Urumqi, I was the only minority; everybody else on the place was Han Chinese. Getting off the plane I hardly found the city that “still stokes the imagination of the Chinese population.” Urumqi, the capitol of China’s Wild West, is more like modern Denver crossed with New Jersey than Denver during the Gold Rush.

Xinjiang’s history would be exhausting to memorize. Parts of the current day Xinjiang have been captured and recaptured by Hans, Huns, and Hephthalites; Turks, Tokharians, and Tibetans; Yanqis, Yarkands, and Yuezhis. But never in its long history has the area been so sinicized. Urumqi is a lovely Han city not unlike other Chinese cities.

Maybe all of Xinjiang was once considered exotic, but today, there are more Han Chinese than Uighurs. Xinjiang has become part of the domestic tourism circuit—and why not? It has beautiful mountains, lakes, deserts, and—of course—“great minorities.”

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One Response

  1. Brian says:

    Note to Chris: blog more.

    That is all.

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