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The start of the Summer holidays

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And so it begins…

The Summer holidays. With which comes the end of my year abroad.

Okay, not quite yet, but the end is in sight!!

My exams (which started on Wednesday) finished on Thursday, bringing me to the end of my academic year abroad. I’m basically finished! Our visas don’t run out until the end of June however, and as mentioned previously, I will be flying to Xinjiang on Tuesday and spend a bit of time travelling in the region. The plan is to spend a few days in the capital city, Urumqi, then take a 2.5hour train to Turpan, a city famous for its grapes, where we’ll stay a couple of days, and finally a 6hour train to Hami, famous for its melons. (‘Hami’ 哈密 is actually the same as the name for honeydew melons – hami gua 哈密瓜). Fruit seems to be a recurring theme, yes. Although we’ve booked hostels, we’ve yet to book our train tickets, because of the system in China, which means that you can only buy your train tickets 10 days before the date. And we didn’t have the time for that before exams.

Xinjiang: Locations of Urumqi, Turpan, and Hami

We’ve also been spending a fair bit of time trying to properly research and plan out our trip. In Urumqi’s vicinity are the Tianshan Mountains, and the Heavenly Lake, which does look rather heavenly in pictures we’ve seen online, but hopefully I’ll be putting up some of my own pictures soon! This is supposedly the ideal place where you can get a break from the stifling heat, with its clean and cool air, refreshing water and…. I can’t concentrate, this just sounds so HEAVENLY compared to the greyish yellowish whitish scene I could see out of my window for the whole day today. And for the last three days. It looks like a sheet has been hung over the outside of the window, for all the visibility out there.
Anyway, back to the Heavenly Lake at the Tianshan Mountains, you can also spend a night out there in a traditional Kazakh yurt. When am I ever going to be able to do that?! I really hope we can make this happen!

Plus! This time next week, I will be able to say (hopefully, fingers crossed, touch wood, etc etc) that I have been at the CENTRE OF ASIA. The very middle of the enormous continent that is Asia. It sounds much better in Chinese: 亚洲之心 (yazhou zhi xin) which translates to “The Heart of Asia”. Wow. I was impressed. And if you’re not impressed, it’s only because you must be jealous! In all fairness, there’s nothing actually there, except for a very..fanciful…marker, which probably tells you that you’re standing in the centre of Asia (now doesn’t that sound cool?!), and there’s probably nothing to do but take a picture, and then…well, leave. But either way, I’m excited for it!!

More in Urumqi includes the Food Night Market (Hell, yeah!!) and the Tianshan Grand Canyon.

According to Lonely Planet’s guide book, Turpan is the Death Valley of China. Now, I’ve been to the real Death Valley, and boy, that was hot! I guess it’s lucky that there’ll be no shortage of juicy grapes in Turpan to keep us cool and hydrated…? >_<
In Turpan, apart from the Grape Valleys, we can ride camels along the Flaming Mountains (this all sounds so surreal!), and see ancient cities of pre-Islamic civilisations.

Hami is going to be even more scenic, we can go to another part of the Tianshan Mountains again, if our visit there from Urumqi was so amazing that we want more, ride horses around what I expect to be another beautiful lake, we can go to the Grand White Rock (what a name…), as well as eat lots of melons and absorb a completely different kind of culture than the standard Han Chinese one that we’ve become accustomed to all year.

I didn’t mean to write so much about this trip that hasn’t happened yet… I expect I’ll be repeating a lot of this when it actually happens, but well, I got carried away….

From Hami, we’ll get a 27 hour sleeper train back to Beijing – I already know this is most likely going to be extremely unpleasant, but whatever – I’m all for ‘experiences’! I’ll be spending my final week in Beijing, packing up this one year of my life here, before returning to the UK, with my mother who will have come out pretty much as soon as I return to Beijing. It’s all gonna happen so fast!!

In the meantime, I wish I could say I’ve been truly making the absolute most of these few free days in Beijing, and regale you with exciting stories of final Beijing experiences, but in all honesty, there’s been a fair bit to do! Chilling has been on the list too, I won’t lie (some things can’t be helped), but researching for this trip has been and still is an arduous task. It’s not as ‘out there’ on the internet yet in terms of tourist destinations as a lot of well-known places are. We can’t find out everything before we go, so I’m certain a lot of it will be made up on the go, but that’s all gonna be part of the fun!

Not to mention, the weather here has been absolutely appalling lately. The smog/pollution is the worst I think I’ve seen it all year. A friend of mine has a theory that goes a bit like this… Because the government will want to ensure glorious weather for the national holiday next week (the Dragonboat Festival, which falls between the 10th and the 12th of June this year), they have to temporarily pause whatever weather/pollution controls and measures that are in place, for a few days prior, so that they will be more effective when they bring them out again for the national holiday. This, according to a friend, is why the pollution has been worse over the last few days. I guess we’ll see if there’s any truth to this when I look out of the window on Monday morning…

Tomorrow is our Leaving Ceremony at uni, and if the Opening Ceremony was anything to go by, it’s going to be an extremely boring couple of hours of speeches. Lots of SOASians aren’t going, but I figure I might as well. I’m only gonna have one Leaving Ceremony in China, so, why not? Boring as it might be, I won’t know if I don’t go 🙂 My class is also planning on going out for lunch after, and it’s the last time I’ll see most of them ever again!

Finally, I’d like to share something that I’ve found, which actually stemmed from a real conversation I was having with Beth about all the delicious food there’s gonna be in Xinjiang, including kebabs, nang (the Chinese word for what we call ‘naan’, because it’s not actually a Chinese food, but has come from Central Asia, and is found around China in the Muslim restaurants only), yogurt, and some good old pilau rice. I was saying that we should make a map of China using foods to represent areas, so Xinjiang could start out as a whole big nang, and we’d add in other foods at different cities in it, Beijing could be…well, the obvious choice would be roast duck, but I/we wanted it to be personal, something we’d experienced for ourselves and could relate to. Beth pointed out that this probably already existed (breaking my heart in the process), and sure enough…

Amazing grilled lamb kebabs, you say?! I’m so there.

This isn’t exactly what I had in mind though (but nice enough anyhow), so maybe I’ll still make my own one after all, but it’s a taster 🙂
Hmm, I’ll be tasting some o’ those kebabs pretty soon….
*mouth waters*

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Skies, sirens and Summer!

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I’m sitting here, pretending to revise for an exam tomorrow, and looking out the window at the sky.

It’s a strange colour.

A disgusting colour in between yellow and grey.

Apparently this is what you get when you cross Mongolian sandstorms with Beijing pollution.

It is a sight extremely off-putting. If I could take a picture that would accurately depict it to you all, I would, but alas. It’s probably for the best anyway, the weather wherever you’re reading this from is definitely better, no competition.

In other news, earlier today we heard a lot of sirens. This might sound like a completely normal (but of course, unfortunate) occurrence to most of you, but it took us a while to register that those indeed were sirens we were hearing. This was unusual. Extremely unusual. I can safely say I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard sirens here. Wait… make that, ‘ on one finger’. I have NEVER seen any flashing lights here, not a police car, not an ambulance, not a fire brigade, let alone hear them often. So it turns out, the sirens apparently only get used for official government business, or something. I wish I knew more to tell you, but I don’t. The reason however is probably linked to the fact that today is the anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square massacre. Contradictory, to this article, my internet is not acting up today….

However, yesterday was the deadline for our SOAS research project, and in true China style, our internet totally died on us on Saturday night! Since we had to renew our internet sometime in December, it’s been doing this occasionally, and each time we just unplug everything and restart the router. (We clearly know a lot about techie stuff…but to be fair, when it happened the first time, we called the internet company guy, he came round and did exactly that, which is where we learnt from..) Sometimes, it takes a few tries before we’re able to resurrect it, but this time, after multiple restarts (and multiple hours) and still no luck, we did what we could sans-Internet, hoping it’d be back Sunday morning. Of course not. Luckily, a few friends live really close by, the closest being across the road from me, so I went and camped out there to steal her internet, finish my project and send it off. Phew. Our internet really knows how to pick the perfect time to strike.
It’s all fixed now, obviously.

In yet other news, I had my last class at uni in Beijing EVER on Monday. It also so happened to be that annual day where you must add one to your age, which obviously called for… PARTY!!! Obviously. Naahhhh….. Bang in the middle of final exams, and essay deadlines, perfect timing! But soon to all be over! As much as I’m looking forward to finishing uni this year, being done with exams, and going back to enjoy the amazing place that London is, I’m starting to really notice the little things I’ll miss about Beijing. The pollution is definitely not one of them.

And oh my God, this time next week, I’ll be in Urumqi, Xinjiang!! Bring on the Summer holiday!

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

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Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
شىنجاڭ ئۇيغۇر ئاپتونوم رايونى
新疆维吾尔自治区

In the Northwest of China is a province largely populated by ethnically Muslim minorities, who are culturally more Central Asian than they are Chinese. This region is Xinjiang, 新疆, which translates literally to “new frontier”, and borders no less than eight different countries: Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Check out those borders!

Xinjiang is approximately one sixth of China’s total area

The first inhabitants of Xinjiang were Muslims of Central Asian origin, as well as descendants of traders from Arabia and Persia, because of the Silk Road passing through Xinjiang. These people are the Uyghurs, and have been a majority in Xinjiang for much of China’s history, though there are also Tajik, Kyrgyz and Kazakh groups, among others. Throughout the dynasties, the Han Chinese and the Muslims of Xinjiang, previously referred to as East Turkestan (because at one point they succeeded in forming an independent state, although it didn’t last very long) lived in relative peace. This was until the Qing Dynasty, the final dynasty and most brutal one for the Muslims.

Flag of the First East Turkestan Republic – a short-lived attempt at independence of the lands around Kashgar

Map of the Silk Road entering China through Xinjiang in the West

With the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, the Communists made promises to the people of Xinjiang, that they would help them form an autonomous Muslim state. However, promises such as “self-determination for the different racial and cultural groups” were largely just attempts at pacifying all the various minority groups in China, including Tibetans, Outer Mongolians, as well as the Muslims of Xinjiang.

Under the People’s Republic of China (PRC, 1949~), the government have been resettling many Han Chinese people in Xinjiang. It is worth mentioning here that Xinjiang has vast mineral deposits and more recently discovered oil reserves. The government claims their policies towards Xinjiang are grounded on bringing economic development, and not demographic change. However, with each influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, the native Uyghurs become more resentful, with increasing limits on resources such as water. Moreover, they believe the government is attempting to destroy their long-standing cultural history. I can see where they’re coming from; there are plans to destroy the oldest part of the ancient city of Kasghar, the reason given for this is protection against earthquakes. Somewhat transparent, if you ask me. How has the city survived so long upto now? Their building materials and methods have evolved to protect against earthquakes in a zone prone to them.

Anyway, although Xinjiang gained autonomy in 1955 (kinda similar to devolution in the UK), it’s been a region of tension in recent years. While the tension between the natives and the Han people rises, the government continue to make life harder for them through repressing religious expression by, for example, denying them the right to observe Ramadhan (month of fasting for Muslims).
Not surprising then, is it, that the resentment towards the government only increases? These issues have sparked riots across Xinjiang: in Urumqi, the capital city, as well as in Kashgar, a city in the south of the region, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 1940, Xinjiang’s population was comprised of only 6% Han, with 80% of the population being Uyghur. In 2012, the Han made up 50% of Xinjiang’s population. Urumqi specifically is now only 13% Uyghur, with 75% of Urumqi’s current population Han. Unlike much of Xinjiang, the population of Urumqi is predominantly Han Chinese.

As mentioned in a previous post, my travels for June included going to Kashgar. With riots in Kashgar being as recent as April of this year, my travel partner was thoroughly put off going when a teacher apparently very animatedly told her that going to Kashgar was a very bad idea, because, and I quote said teacher, “although I’d say it’s 95% going to be completely fine, just in case there is some altercation, I think it could be big”. Well, yeah. I think that applies anywhere. But that’s besides the point. Although Kashgar would have been an amazing trip, an experience of a lifetime, literally going out into the middle of a desert, living in a still largely medieval city, totally cut off from today’s modern lifestyle, there is just as much to see in the northern part of the province, and the provincial capital: Urumqi. And, well, the bottom line: better safe than sorry, right?

For this reason, we changed our tickets and are now flying to Urumqi…. but not flying back! The plan is to get the train from there to Turpan, and then to Hami. And then from Hami, possibly to Zhangye to see those awesome colourful mountains, depending on time constraints, or straight back to Beijing. That train journey will be about 24hours. It’s going to be hell absolutely awesome. What an experience.

Map of Xinjiang showing the locations of Kashgar, Urumqi, Turpan and Hami

I’ve already mentioned what we’ll miss out on in Kashgar, but to be honest, there’s so many places I still want to see in China, and I would have been happy going anywhere. The trip to Urumqi+ is going to be just as good, if not better, and here are a few reasons why:

  1. As mentioned, while Kashgar’s population is still almost completely Uyghur, Urumqi’s population is now predominantly Han, meaning that we will be able to get around speaking Mandarin
  2. It’s still in Xinjiang! So we still do get to see a totally different side to China, what with the culture of the native Uyghurs and all (I hope the traditional culture does still show through…!), while still having some familiarity in terms of language and Chinese culture (isn’t this ironic… I’m referring to Chinese culture as familiar?? Even more so, considering my own background, given that Xinjiang is a MUSLIM area?! Hehehe..)
  3. While my previous plan was to fly from Beijing into Kashgar, and from Kashgar straight back to Beijing, meaning that I wouldn’t get to see much of the rest of Xinjiang (it’s huge, almost the same in size to Iran), this way means that our travel plans are much more flexible, allowing me to see more of Xinjiang, given the limited time I have.

Before I end this, there’s one interesting thing I read about while researching for this trip (researching aka avoiding writing my project. Writing this post is another avoidance tactic…)
Although the whole of China geographically spans four time zones, with Xinjiang itself spanning two zones, the official line is that Xinjiang is on the same time zone as the rest of China (GMT+8). There used to be five time zones within China, but in 1949 the Communist Party, in an attempt to make the country appear more unified, standardised the time across the country.

The five time zones of China, now all one. Sinkiang was the old romanized spelling for what is now Xinjiang

For reasons of practicality, a lot of residents follow an unofficial Xinjiang time (GMT+6), but some see this as a way of expressing their resistance against the central government, especially because the division tends to follow ethnic lines: Han vs. Uyghur. I don’t blame them, though! The agricultural working lifestyle that is prevalent in the far western provinces of Xinjiang for example (3.5hours behind Beijing), has to be done while the sun is out, regardless of what numerical time it is. And can you imagine how long the days are in Summer, with the sun still being out when it’s ‘midnight’? Or sunrise being at 10AM in Winter!

P.S. – I apologise for there being a lot of maps in this post, but I figured that if I were reading this before I came to China, I’d have no idea about all the places, or be able to visualise any of it. Having said that, I’m not assuming that everyone is as ignorant as I was/am, but I hope it helps someone anyway!

P.P.S – All the information in this post is from reliable sources. Reliable meaning not solely Wikipedia. Just kidding… Reliable meaning that I’m using them for this project of mine that I’ve been complaining about. My project is actually regarding the topic of Islam in China, so all I have to do now is replicate the number of words in this post (~1400) in my essay!

Bet you didn’t know that China had such a rich Islamic history, eh?
Or maybe you did, in which case, it was just me… (Again with the ignorance)
Personally, I think it’s fascinating, and I hope somebody out there learns at least one thing from this! 🙂