The province to the west of Gansu is Xinjiang. If Gansu was a little off the beaten track, Xinjiang is completely off the charts. It’s the western-most province and borders Central Asia, Pakistan, etc. Even though it is one of the largest provinces in China, it wasnt even in my guidebook at all. Similar to Tibet, Xinjiang is a pretty contested region. Only half of the population here is ethnically Chinese, and most of the other people here are Uygurs (a Muslim Turkic ethnic group). China took over this area in the 18th century and unsurprisingly, the Uygurs are not too happy about that. There have been a series of uprisings by the Uygurs, after which China has steadily cracked down on the region more and more.
Reading the news, things here are pretty horrific. Because of fear of muslim extremism and separatism, China has been ruling this area with an iron fist. People here are sent to “re-education camps” so they can be taught to fall in line w/ China’s thinking. Some say that there are tens of thousands of people in these camps, while other estimates say it’s close to a million. People say that there is torture and other horrible things happening in these camps, but nobody knows for sure. The Chinese government claims that all of this is overstated, and that the people in these camps are “treated well” and fed well and that they are absolutely free to leave… well, once they finish their re-education and are “fixed”… and if they dont get fixed… well, they need to stay a little longer. I read that the government actually gives out cards to the Uygurs and the cards state whether this person is good, bad, or neutral and based on your card, you are not allowed to go into certain shops or areas depending on your rating. The government is tearing down Mosques. It’s all truly incredibly disturbing.
Because of all this, things are tense here. Most Chinese people who don’t live here stay clear of this area altogether.
I took a night train to the city of Turpan. In the morning i woke up and groggily looked out the window. The scenery outside looked like Mars. Scraggly lunar rocks everywhere. Completely desolate. It was straight up eerie outside. When i arrived at the station, there was an altercation between the women working the metal detectors on the way out of the station and some guy. I have no idea what it was about but they were screaming at him at the top of their lungs and totally going nuts. No idea if this had anything to do w/ “the situation” here or not. He leaves the station and then the women go running out and yell to a police officer. The police officer calls the guy back, screams at him, and then slaps the guy upside the face several times super hard. He then grabs him by the collar and drags him off somewhere. What.the.fuck.
As i’m looking for a cab to get into town, i meet a woman named Cola from Taiwan who *gasp* speaks English and we share a cab together into town. There is a checkpoint on the way into town. Police with bullet proof vests and massive scary looking assault rifles check our documents. They search the taxi. We are allowed to proceed. When we get into town, the woman and i decide to meet up later to go explore the ruins. In the meantime, I check into a hostel for a much needed shower. It’s really hot here (the hottest place in China, their equivalent of Death Valley, is nearby and temps there can reach 140 degrees!!).
Afterwards I go wandering around town. This town is super fascinating. It really does not feel like I’m in China anymore at all. It seems like Central Asia. Everything here is so much more ramshackle than any place i’ve been on this trip. Run down buildings, boarded up factories, old people pulling random carts, dusty roads. This is kind of much more what i imagined the Silk Road to be like. It all just felt *so* different!
That being said, you definitely see signs of all the conflict here. There is a heavy police presence. It seems like there is some kind of police booth on every block with armed cops standing outside. Our hostel has riot shields and helmets stacked up inside the doorway and there are security cameras outside. Actually, a lot of the restaurants here have riot gear inside as well. I dont know if people here are literally preparing for civil war or what. Going to visit the old bazaar requires a thorough search, metal detectors, and an xray of your bags.
I find a restaurant to get some food. Everyone is going about their business, cheerfully eating and drinking. If it wasn’t for the riot gear at the entrance, you could almost forget that there are any problems here. I order rice pilaf and this baked bun with a meat filling called a Samsa, both of which are Uygur specialties. I’ve never been excited by rice pilaf, and now is no different, but the Samsa is good.
I wander around a little more. I really feel like i could wander around here for days. Eventually, i go to meet up with Cola and I bring along this Dutch guy who i met on the lonely planet forums. Our same taxi driver from this morning (super friendly smiley guy) picks us up and we are off to go sightseeing. First stop is to go see the Karez wells. The people of this area were able to build this ingenious series of wells and canals for irrigation and drinking. Without this crazy feat there is no way peole could have lived in this hot area.
Afterwards, we set off to go see the Jiaohe Ruins. These ruins from 2,000 years ago are called the world’s largest, oldest, and best preserved ancient ruined city. To be honest, i had kind of not really been that excited to go see these old ruins, though i am not 100% sure why. But, when we got there it was actually really cool. The area of the ruins was *huge*… a whole entire old city. As we walked, every time that i thought this would be the end of the ruins, we would turn the corner and there would be more ruins. The sheer vastness of it was super impressive… It’s over 1.5 km in length!
This area is also known for its grapes and wine. Our taxi driver has a friend who is in the grape business, so when he picked us up, he brought each of us a giant thing of grapes to try.
Afterwards, we went to get some dinner. There is a famous Uygur dish that i have been wanting to try for ages, and it’s called simply “Big Plate Chicken”. They chop up a whole chicken, bones and all, and mix it with a ton of chilis, spices, and a tasty sauce with noodles and potatoes underneath. When they brought it out, they really weren’t lying about it being a big plate… it was huge! You can see the dutch guy’s head for size comparison. I’m pretty good with chopsticks, but eating this was a bit tricky. The noodles were super slippery and we’re hard to pull out from under the chicken. Also trying to eat chicken on the bone with chopsticks was tough as well.
We all parted ways, and it really struck me all of a sudden how easy this day was. Since Cola spoke english and Mandarin, she was able to do everything for us. Buying tickets, getting directions, ordering food, calling the taxi driver and arranging multiple destinations throughout the day… all of it was a breeze. Its kind of crazy just how much of a difference it made.