Friday, 28 June 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Park 2m: Urumqi (I)

world-map urumqi


This week’s offering takes us to Urumqi, the furthest city on earth from the seaside. How sad to be a kid growing up there without any sandcastle-building opportunities! Still, it’s not all that bad: when we were there they were preparing for a festival. After some research I’ve discovered that that celebration was in fact the Qixi Festival which, according to Wikipedia, ‘is a Chinese festival that celebrates the annual meeting of the cowherd and weaver girl in Chinese mythology. It falls on the seventh day of the 7th lunar month. It is sometimes called the Double Seventh Festival, the Chinese Valentine's Day, or the Magpie Festival. This is an important festival, especially for young girls.The festival originated from the romantic legend of two lovers, Zhinü and Niulang, who were the weaver maid and the cowherd. The tale of The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd has been celebrated in the Qixi Festival since the Han Dynasty. The earliest-known reference to this famous myth dates back to over 2600 years ago, which was told in a poem from the Classic of Poetry.’

So, now you know! If nothing else this blog is educational!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

 Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna



8th August, 2002 – Urumqi, China

The train pulled into Urumqi, the furthest city in the world from the sea, early that morning, and I saw from my window a sight that I'd been expecting to see all the way through China; a socialist city of heavy industrial plants, dull brick apartment blocks and faceless institutional buildings that doubtless housed the hospitals, schools and bureaucracies necessary to keep the People's Republic on its feet. The picture was not entirely compete in its socialist perfection mind, a swish hoarding-lined highway had followed us for miles leading into the city, but gone were the smooth towers of commerce and other trappings of the affluent Western World, (and increasingly Eastern China too). Perhaps one has to travel to the very furthest reaches of the country to find the grim reality of the Second World painted in many a dark picture by the enlightened peoples of the First. Perhaps.

The railway station was unique from all the others that we'd visited in that it did not possess a grand Stalinist-style terminal building to match the Stalinist city that it served. The reason for that however was a simple one that soon became apparent. The old terminal had just been knocked down and a newer, grander one was being erected in its place. The artist's impressions of the new structure looked impressive, a huge monolith that looked like a cross between a Victorian town hall and a French opera house. It was a building that resonated power, might, achievement and architectural glory. The modernists and post-modernists may not have been impressed, but like Prince Charles, I'm far from over-awed by their pathetic palaces of steel and glass, that might well shout 'design' but do not seem to offer any hope for the future. Once again, in the field of railway station design, the upstart Chinese were far outdoing us Europeans who gave railways to the world.

We decided before all else to try and book our tickets onwards to Almaty first, but negotiating the numerous temporary buildings of the station proved to be more difficult than we'd anticipated. At one when I asked, “How do I get to Almaty?' the lady wrote down in perfect English, 'Turn left. Go 100 miles.' It later turned out that she meant metres. In the end we were directed too a booking desk situated within the railway-owned Yaou Hotel, which was conveniently located right next to what had once been the terminal buildings. Since it was so handy, and the desk was closed, and the room rate reasonable, we decided to kill two birds with one stone as it were, and book in at the swanky-looking establishment. Our room turned out to be on the twelfth floor and like virtually every hotel in China, whilst it looked perfect from a distance, upon closer inspection things were found out to be not so brilliant; rusty windows, faulty sockets, a wall grate that was falling off... Still, we were not kings and therefore did not require a palace, and besides, the place commanded a fine view of the railway station which suited me if not the Lowlander. And thus, thirty minutes later, showered, shaved and all round feeling fresher, we sat by that window that provided that said view, watching the trains chug up and down, drinking tea and playing the five-dice game at which I am pleased to say, I was doing better than the Lowlander.

urumqi01The view from our room

Around tenish we ventured downstairs to the ticket office which was now open and functioning. We purchased what we needed with relative ease, booking ourselves onto the train that left on Monday just before midnight. That done and the day being Thursday, we thus had five days with which to amuse ourselves in Urumqi, starting that very moment! And not being men to hesitate, we there and then hailed a taxi to one of the city's three attractions that were listed in our guidebook, the Renmin Gongyuan, or 'People's Park', delaying our entry into that oasis of proletarian pleasure only to partake in a hefty brunch at an adjacent restaurant.

The People's Park impressed my Lowland-living companion little, but I was satisfied. It turned out to be a rather gaudy town park, complete with pagodas, gardens, boating lakes and a small funfair at the far end. Contrary to what you may be thinking, it was not the gaudiness that did not suit my fellow traveller's taste buds, but instead the lack of maintenance, or the shoddy quality of that which had been undertaken. Now I must say that I hadn't really noticed this, nor was I particularly bothered about it when I did, but it must of course be remembered that as a general rule we English are far less clinical and precise than our near neighbours below sea level. Throughout the trip, countless comments emanated from the mouth of my companion regarding the shabby quality of the buildings, the crappy plastic bathroom fittings that did not well… quite fit, the cracks already appearing in the nearly-new Beijing West Railway Station, the all too inherent lack of maintenance in the Forbidden City and the dreadful state of almost every kitchen that we glanced in. I perhaps did not notice it so much since compared with the Third World or Eastern Europe, China did not really have a problem in this department, but there again, perhaps the real reason is that my own standards are hardly very high? The guy did actually have a point, since whenever he did point it out, I could clearly see that there were innumerable flaws or corners cut, and this is but one of the many factors that prove that whilst she is undoubtedly heading in the right direction, fast, the People's Republic of China does still have a way to go.

Poor plaster and paintwork aside, we enjoyed our time in that park in the mindless, childish kind of ways in which parks are meant to be enjoyed. We rode the big wheel, braved the log flumes, bumped into each other on the bouncy boats and then topped it all off by having our photos taken in the Print Club machine. After that we strolled through the gardens and admired (?) the many colourful floats depicting emperors and monks of times gone by, that were presumably there in honour of some festival or other.





urumqi08 Enjoying the delights of the People’s Park!

Perhaps it was those floats or perhaps not, but we were reminded of the one thing that that Eden of Enjoyment was lacking, and that was a big fat dollop of culture. And being the culture vultures that we are, we decided that that was precisely what we were missing too, and we should rectify the situation as soon as possible by moving onto Urumqi's second attraction of the day, the Xinjiang Uyghur Zizhign Bowuguan, or in other words, Xinjiang's Provincial Museum. That was a long taxi ride across town, and before you ask, 'And why did you bother?', I shall have to answer that, 'Yes, we are stupid, yes we don't learn the lessons of history,' and yes, you've guessed it, the museum, like those in every other Chinese town it seemed, was shut during the Summer of 2002, and so it was back to the hotel for us, cultureless and unfulfilled.

That evening we decided to go out and taste what Xinjiang is famous for; its Uyghur food. The Uyghurs are the region's native population, (indeed, Xinjiang is officially the Uyghur Autonomous Region), who are quite distinct from the Han Chinese. They are Turkic speaking, Islamic, have more European features and what's more occasionally and unsuccessfully demand independence from the People's Republic. More important for us though, is they also eat different food.

Now its not that we didn't like the Chinese food. Quite the opposite in fact, its actually rather nice, with a galaxy of exotic and tantalising flavours. But everyday? It's the rice that does it you see. I like rice, boiled, fried or perhaps even steamed? I like it so much that I am even prepared to eat it on a weekly basis, hell three times a week doesn't even bother me! But everyday, for every meal... Maybe I don't like rice that much...

But in China what else is there in the staple foods department? Noodles? I go off them quicker than rice. Potatoes? You'd be bloody lucky! And bread? Bread, ahh, bread! In my opinion it's not just a coincidence that bread is what's mentioned in the Lord's Prayer. Bread that's broken on the altar, 'Bread of Heaven' that the Welshmen sing about. Whit crusty loaves, French sticks, granary slices...

But Chinese bread? Trust me, that is something that you would not ask the Lord to give you on a daily basis. Sweet, sickly and more than a bit too chewy. That makes even another serving of rice seem appetising!

We chose a restaurant mentioned in the guidebook, but alas that was either closed or at any rate, unlocatable. Not to worry however, since we did appear to be in the Uyghur part of town and there were plenty of others to choose from, and so we soon stepped inside an inviting-looking establishment, and with considerable difficulty and not a little help from the waiter who phoned up a friend who spoke English, we ordered some native specialties.

To say that that meal was the finest that we enjoyed throughout the entire trip is no exaggeration. Uyghur food is almost Levantine, with fine shashlik kebabs, bread that tastes like bread should, and laghman, a spicy meat soup that left us full and bloated before it was even half finished. What's more, this Uyghur food was exquisitely prepared and on top of all that, very cheap. Such fayre would be delightful at any time. After a month of fried rice though, it was like we'd died and gone to heaven. We had our photos taken to mark the occasion, and mused upon this, our first taste on the journey of a culture based on the Middle and not the Far East. The food, appearance of the people and décor suggested Turkey, not China. We were entering the world of Arabian Nights, and boy, did that feel good!

urumqi10 Dining Uyghur style!

Next part: 2n: Urumqi (II)

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