I’m writing this in the sleeping compartment of the train back from Urumqi to Almaty. The journey takes 36 hours and being in here I can pretend I’m in a space capsule. Images in the window flash by and the rhythmic rumbling of the train reminds me that the world outside is only separated by a pane of glass.
The total distance between the two cities is around 1,000 km. It seems such a tiny distance on the map. I picked ‘brave new world’ as my holiday reading and am making good progress with it.
We are stopped at Alashankou on the Chinese border and I am too scared to get off in case the train starts leaving again without us. In any case, there are guards posted on all the doors of the train.
I wasn’t expecting much when I left for Urumqi because I imagined it would be similar to Almaty. Urumqi is one of the cities furthest away from any sea. It’s tucked away in north-western China and it could easily have been an underdeveloped frontier city, existing only as a glorified trading post between China and Kazakhstan.
I was surprised to see that it’s actually a booming industrial metropolis. When we arrived on the bus we we saw the steppes broken up by green crops planted in neat rows, tended to by the occasional tractor. The farmland was protected by a tree line planted every 4 or 5 hundred metres, the Chinese farmers clearly learned from the mistakes of the Virgin Lands program.
The impacts of agricultural production in Xinjiang are clear in the grocery stores and supermarkets which are fully-stocked with a wide variety of goods. These supermarkets have access to the entire Chinese food market, meanwhile Kazakh supermarkets have a comparatively limited selection, and they promote an illusion that food is scarce.
A sign above the main electronics market in Urumqi reads ‘buy Chinese products’ - China is keen to build a domestic market. The electronics shops themselves have all the newest devices, and it’s a reminder that most of the world’s tech is made here. From what I’ve seen, people are readily able to afford the new generation of Chinese electronics, and what’s more they can afford these things without resorting to debt. Salaries are kept at a reasonable level while Chinese goods are cheap.
The only two organisations I saw promoting credit were the Xinjiang Rural Credit Cooperative and the China Construction Bank. In both cases the money lending has a social purpose, to improve rural development or urban infrastructure.
We passed by a few huge industrial projects. There is a high-speed railway under construction, which will improve travel between Xinjiang and the rest of China. Trains in the region are buffeted by strong winds, to the point where one was derailed, so this railway is going to have a tunnel to protect the trains from wind. It’s due to be completed in 2015, by the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan.
The outskirts of Urumqi are dotted with half-empty apartment blocks. More are being built in a methodical assembly line process. At first it seems nonsensical to create an empty suburban wasteland, but I quickly realised that the apartments are being built to meet future demand. Homes are being built now and left empty to avert a potential housing crisis in the future when the population expands.
The new apartments also meet the aspirations of those currently living in old low-quality accommodation. I saw some of the plans for the new developments, they showed playgrounds, parks connected by footpaths, bicycle lanes. There was only one road surrounding the area, with bus stops on either end, there were no car parks. I mention this because the development looks like it’s planned with the aim of fostering a nice sustainable community. Of course, development visions always give off a utopian vibe, and I’d like to see what the result is when these areas are eventually filled with people.
Before coming here, I was told that in China the workers are so happy they line up every morning to start work. One day, I woke up early and walked around the block. There were no lines of smiling workers, but you do see occasional moments of quiet kindness. Is that what socialism is about?
Even further out of the city there’s a gigantic wind farm, I’m guessing it’s related to one of the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturers - Goldwind global, which is based in Xinjiang. The plains are covered in spinning turbines which carry on until the mountains on one side, and they only run out after around 40 minutes of driving.
It’s super impressive, and while I’ve seen wind farms before, I’ve never seen them deployed on such a massive scale. In a curious twist of modernity, there were herds of sheep grazing on the grass under the turbines. The farmers live side-by-side with the windmills.
Some of the farms were adorned with solar panels and lots of buildings in the city had solar heating pipes for water. Again, this is something I did not expect in a developing country, especially not after seeing how Kazakhstan is so dependent on oil.
My optimism for the environmentally friendly aspects of the society is tempered by the catastrophic pollution in the city. It’s fine while the air is still and the sky is clear, but when the wind blows all the layers of dust and soot fly into the air. The dust gets into your ears and nose, it stings your eyes and if try to breathe it sends you into a fit of coughing and spluttering.
The people of Urumqi seem well prepared for this, they wear face masks and the streets empty as soon as the wind picks up. When clouds form they trap the pollution in the city, creating a thick smog which obscures large buildings and gives the place a mysterious aura. The fog tastes slightly salty, I’m not sure where it comes from, but I’m sure I wouldn’t want to live too long in that environment. On the last day it rained, and hopefully at least the rain is clean.
I got to speak to a party cadre at the Xinjiang University of Finance and Economics, which was an enlightening conversation. I got the overall impression that communist organisation in the university is rather apolitical: students are recruited and promoted based on their grades, not on political determination. Party members are responsible for carrying out central party initiatives and have some power in the management of the university.
This leads into a weird train of thought I was pursuing about where we sit as young people seeking to change the world. For the youth in China, their parents and grandparents already tried to bring about a brighter future, and what’s left? They ended up in a compromise, an intermediate position. The new generation is stranded in some sort of post-ideological trap where they can’t push for social advance and can’t move backwards to capitalism. We haven’t considered the consequences of reaching this negotiated end of history. Where is the search for meaning, the drive to make the world a better place?
Lastly, I guess I should mention the ‘Uyghur question’. At least from what I’ve seen, the Party puts a lot of effort into preserving Ugyur culture, for example all the road-signs feature both the Arabic Uyghur script alongside the standard Mandarin. There’s a Quranic study centre in the city, which I didn’t get to visit, but I was shown a book detailing the activities of the China Islamic Association. The museum of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region also has many exhibits on the history of the Uyghur people and Islam in China.
We visited the main Uyghur district, along with the Islamic bazaar. Prayer time came around, and I was impressed when pretty much everyone in the street dropped to the ground and started praying. Public displays of religion are not suppressed, though they were watched over by soldiers and armed police.
People pray, the soldiers don’t intervene, but they’re there all the same. It’s like ethnic tension and Islamic fundamentalism bubbles just below the surface, manifested every so often in the actions of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Most people are content with friendly policies to protect their cultural and religious heritage… and the armed forces are on hand just in case. It’s a careful balance.