Xinjiang – deserts, oases and grasslands

Xinjiang – deserts, oases and grasslands

Siivosin kaappejani ja löysin ilokseni vanhan Länsi-Kiinan Xinjiangista kertovan jutun, jonka kirjoitin Kööpenhaminassa pohjoismaisen Aasia-instituutin lehteen. Vierailin instituutissa valmistelemassa graduani kaukaisella 1990-luvulla. Olipa hauska muistella tätä matkaa. En yleensä kirjoita englanniksi, mutta tämän ajattelin tallentaa nyt tällaisenaan, vain hieman lyhennettynä.

November in Copenhagen: it is raining and the wind is chilly outside. I am browsing literature about Xinjiang at the library of NIAS (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies) and try to organize memories and observations from my trip to this huge and diverse autonomous region of China. And, for obvious reasons, the first thing to come to my mind is the heat in Turfan, the hottest place of China during summer.

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Turfan is an oasis town, located in a depression with its lowest point at 154 meters below sea level and populated mostly by Uighurs, a Turkic minority people. This is my first stop after three days in a train through the rice fields of eastern China, dry mountains of Gansu and the moonlike emptiness of the western Gobi desert. For me it is clearly the most exotic place I have been to so far; the surrounding rocky desert, the architecture with its Islamic flavour, the men with their embroidered caps and women with small scarves and colourful dresses, the grape trellises all over, the sandy side streets between the clay walls and the strange language. I visit the main mosque and cycle around in that unbelievable heat; the dryness of it makes it surprisingly bearable, though. I buy one of my numerous soft drinks from a street stall kept by a Han Chinese woman. There is an irrigation channel beside the benches, like beside most of the roads in this county, and I ask the lady where the water comes from. “From Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains)”, she answers.

The irrigation channels are the lifeline of this place and they are in multiple use: for geese and for humans, for fields and for washing. The water comes from the snow-capped mountains, across the desert they flow mostly underground to avoid evaporation and they surface in the fringes of the oases. The underground channels are called karez. The origins of this system is not agreed upon: similar system can be found in Persia and in North-West India but according to the Chinese version I was told in Turfan it was brought to the area by the Chinese during Han dynasty around 200 B.C. In any case, the fact is that water is a crucial question here as it is in the whole region, and every drop of it is valuable.

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“The rain is practically non-existent in Turfan”, I read in books before my trip. The annual precipitation is about 12 mm and in some years there is no rain at all. Despite this I experience two brief but strong showers during my stay. It was the last place I expected to get wet in. But that did not last long: the dry heat dries you up in no time. Maybe that was the whole precipitation of this year.

The sweetest grapes

The ruins of the ancient city Jiaohe, close to Turfan, are on a hill surrounded by two small streams. I am walking in the valley of the other stream with a Chinese guide when Mr Abdurayim, an Uighur farmer asks us for a cup of tea. He offers us bread and grapes with tea, and we sit in the summer living room which is outside under the grape trellises. Our host is kindly killing flies around us while I am asking questions about his family and activities. In addition to grapes he grows wheat, cotton, melons, vegetables and sorghum. Right now they are building a hut for drying the grapes. His wife, who does not take part in the conversation, has given birth to 17 children, nine of whom are alive. One daughter still lives at home, and they have 26 grandchildren altogether. Five times a day Mr Abdurayim goes to the small mosque nearby to pray, while the women pray in the kitchen. On Fridays there is a big prayer in the bigger mosque a little further away.

Ten we go to see the harvesting of the grapes. The first event is that I am given scissors so that I can try it myself. The grapevines form a kind of a tunnel, the ceiling of which is rather low, which makes the job a little uncomfortable. I fill a small basket and return to squat with the others. Again we are offered grapes to eat, and I eat a lot, partly because of the heat and partly because they are the best I have ever eaten. Xinjiang is famous for its grapes and melons, Hami melons especially. The continental climate with its extremes in temperatures and plenty of sunshine are ideal for them. Again, some interesting grape stories are told: the bigger species are so healthy that some people in this area who eat these grapes regularly have reached the age of 150!

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The Chinese towns

It is time to see the capital of this region, Urumqi. This big grim city is inhabited mostly by Han Chinese. In the morning I go for a walk in the People’s Park, where elderly people do their morning exercises: qi gong, tai ji and even a couple of young men doing wushu. A big group of old women in their blue and grey suits shiver like in trance, as if they were possessed by a supernatural spirit. I am quite impressed. On my way back I try not to stare at people who walk backwards, deep in concentration.

In Urumqi I meet Professor Chen Yaning from the Institute of Geography. He is going to Shihezi to negotiate a research project about soil erosion with the local Water Management Office. I am invited to join him, his family, another researcher and the driver of the jeep to this trip of work and pleasure. Shihezi is about 150 km west of Urumqi, and the trip takes about four hours on one of the main roads of the region. On our way we stop in a wine factory for lunch. The director of the factory is a friend of the professor’s. They tell me how the productivity of the factory has increased enormously with the new director. They have started producing high quality wine, the price of which was sky high considering the average Chinese income, and spring water. In addition, plans to attract tourists had been made: first on the list were a swimming pool, a peach garden and a fish pond.

Shihezi itself is a green town almost entirely Han Chinese. It is so Chinese that I find it difficult to believe that we are in Xinjiang. The surrounding area is the richest of the whole region: the industry and mechanized farming are well developed around here, in Xinjiang’s standards. Obviously, people have rarely seen a foreigner here, so I am constantly a cause of amazement. Most people think I am Russian and some people even try to speak Russian to me.

Riding on the Southern Pastures

After returning to Urumqi I decide to make a day-trip to Baiyanggou or Southern Pastures. It is an area about 60 km from Urumqi inhabited by Kazakh people, seasonal nomads. I am the only European among groups of tourists from China Proper and Hong Kong. Immediately after arrival we are surrounded by children offering their horses for riding. I choose a small white horse. This was one of my dreams, to ride on the grasslands. But this is not exactly what I had imagined it to be, the Kazakh boy jumps behind me, so the sense of freedom is gone. I should have realized, he had no extra horse with him. But never mind, the scenery is beautiful, yurts scattered on the slopes of velvety mountains. Sheep, goats and cows grazing here and there and Kazakh children galloping up and down the hills. They apparently spend most of their day on horseback. I wonder which they learn first, to ride or to walk.  Severe soil erosion seems to plague some of the treeless slopes. The grass is thin, but it is August already: soon it will be time to move to the lower slopes.

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Feeling tired after spending days hearing only Chinese or Uighur, I return to my hotel in Urumqi and hope to find some other travellers to speak English with. Instead, I share a room with two Japanese students who speak Chinese to me. I switch the television on:  revolutionary opera! Frustration is hard to avoid sometimes.

Travelling is fairly easy along the Silk Road these days, no need to ride camels any more. But the water bottle is essential. The one time I have none with me the bus crashes with the truck in front of us and we end up in the ditch. Luckily we get up again, but for a while I gazed fearfully across the boiling desert. Suddenly, I feel good about the rain in Denmark.