We had no plan when we entered China. At the border, one of the immigration officers suggested we go to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. Go by train, not by bus, because the roads are dangerous this time of year, she said. So we headed to Yili, the nearest city with railway connections.
When we arrived at the train station we headed straight towards the automatic ticket machines, punching in our desired date and destination. Only one of the three remaining trains that day had any available seats, and those seats numbered two. We rushed through the menus towards confirmation and purchase, but hit a roadblock at a prompt to scan a Chinese ID card. Panicking, we ran to the ticket purchase counter. There was already a crowd of people at the window shouting and asking about tickets to Urumqi, and the woman behind the counter was shaking her head no repeatedly.
But we had just seen tickets on sale! We returned to the machines and Mook tried in desperation again and again to get those two remaining tickets to appear on the screen. I slouched dejectedly on the floor next to our bags and searched for hotels on an unsecured wifi network.
A young guy saw us and said he was about to head to the bus station to try and catch an overnight coach for Urumqi. If we wanted we could join. Okay, why not?
We took a taxi to the Yili bus station. There were no more coaches leaving that evening, but we could still make the journey in a minibus, our new friend said. A nine-hour ride in a marshrutka didn’t seem like much fun, especially after we’d already spent the day travelling from Kazakhstan, so we told him we’d pass on it and try to get a bus the next day. The dude freaked out: But where are you going to stay here in Yili?! He said he would stay the night in Yili too and help us find a hotel. We tried to object but he had already made up his mind.
We ended up really glad he stayed. Little did we know, most hotels in Xinjiang do not accept foreigners. We’re still not sure if this is still a nation-wide thing like it was a few years ago, but in Yili it was rough going. The security at some hotels—usually sitting behind a desk that had riot gear at the ready—reeled at the sight of us coming in through the metal detector-armed doors. For them foreigners presented a risk not because they believed we were going to do something bad, they said, but because the government doesn’t want foreigners staying in such a volatile region. If they let us stay, surely the police would investigate.
Our new friend Urmet was amazing, and would argue with the staff at each hotel on our behalf. In the end we visited around seven places before we found one that said they could take us in. It was a super fancy hotel, but the staff was kind and gave us a swank room for 300RMB (about €40). The bathroom wall was see-through. Urmet apologised for the price.
Finally it was dinner time. We hopped in a cab and sped past neon-encrusted high-rise buildings packed rows of clothing and mobile phone shops (ironically on a street called Stalin Ave. I don’t know if Uncle Joe would approve of such rampant capitalism), then turned into a road that glowed warmly with the old-fashion light of incandescent bulbs. This was the Kazakh and Uyghur part of town. We hopped out of a cab and walked past rows of vendors barbecuing lamb shashlik, until Urmet found a restaurant he liked. We ordered a spread of pilau, shashlik, pelmeni, spicy salad and kaymak cream tea, and went to work. We hadn’t eaten since Kazakhstan.
Urmet was a cool dude. Born in a Chinese village to a family of Kazakh farmers, he’d moved to Urumqi to do his undergraduate degree and study English. “My English teacher told me that Americans are really nice people. If I see a foreigner I should be kind to them, because someday that might be me.”
When we parted ways that night, Urmet made us promise that we’d call him when we got to Urumqi. So we did.
A couple days later we met up in the morning, and Urmet already had a big day planned for us. The first stop was his school, where he works as a security guard during the week and learns English on the weekends. We thought he just wanted to show us the school itself, or maybe show off his two new foreign friends. But before we knew, it we were thrust in front of a class of 25 students, handed a microphone, and asked to introduce ourselves. There was a Q&A session and then, as honoured guests, the students gave us a series of music and dance performances that inexplicably ended with a mini rave to Daft Punk. It was definitely not what we were expecting.
On our way to lunch Urmet explained how they were so happy to have a native speaker come to their school. The students there are mainly Kazakh, and unlike the lucrative schools run by the Han Chinese, it was difficult for them to afford bringing in native tutors.
We ate lunch at a restaurant run by a Kazakh-Chinese newlywed couple. We were definitely the first foreigners to ever visit the place, and after the meal the owner brought out two bowls brimming with camel milk to see how we’d like it. It was… hearty. “Drinking camel milk every day makes you stronger!” Urmut laughed.
From there it was off to the International Grand Bazaar, which is pretty much a tourist trap shopping mall built to look like a Silk Road madrassa. We dicked around for a while trying on hats, buying knives, and looking at petrified tree sculptures destined for rich people’s houses, then headed across the street to the local Kazakh bazaar to check out random things like wedding dresses and some white chalky stuff that does miracles for a dodgy stomach.
On our way to have coffee I saw this awesome poster, which I’d been wondering about because it’s plastered all over Urumqi and Yili.
I asked Urmet to translate. “These are things that the government says good people shouldn’t wear.” Nice.
Over coffee, Urmet explained his plight. “Here in Xinjiang it’s difficult to find a job as a Kazakh unless you have a graduate degree. For Chinese it’s no problem with just an undergraduate degree, but not for Uyghur and Kazakh people.” He explained that he wants to continue his education in biotechnology at a university abroad, but couldn’t afford it unless he got a scholarship. And he couldn’t get accepted at a foreign university unless he scored high on the TOEFL or IELTS. But in our few short hours together, I could already hear his English improving.
Once the sun set we headed to Hongshan Park, a cool little mini mountain in the centre of Urumqi with a Yuan Dynasty-era pagoda and great views of the bustling metropolis.
Dinner was nuts. We headed to “Dapanji Chicken No 1 of Xinjiang”, home of GIGANTIC PLATES OF SPICY CHICKEN. Called, of course, dapanji, this Xinjiang specialty includes chicken, potatoes, leek, peppers, and spicy Sichuan peppers, served atop sliced flatbread and with a topping of thick homemade noodles. It was the day before Thanksgiving, but I couldn’t even think of turkey after trying to finish this enormous plate of spicy goodness.
This time we parted ways with a promise that we’d be back in Xinjiang, next time during the summer and next time to visit his family in their rural village. Whether it was luck or serendipity, we felt really privileged to meet Urmet and learn a bit about the life of Kazakh and Uyghur people in western China.