There was that time in Urumqi. I am not even sure why I went. Deep down I just felt like I had to. Perhaps it was because I had never met anyone who had laid eyes on the place. And that alone made it seem far distant, which in turn, makes it intriguing. Or maybe it’s because Urumqi has earned a place in the Guinness book of World Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world. Regardless I went.
I knew it was one of the more repressed places in China and yet I wasn’t quite prepared for how stifling it was. Armed policemen with shields, and soldiers with machine guns stood on every corner. In fact, there was a manned tank sitting right outside the hostel I stayed in. An armed policeman assisted by a legion of thick-haired cats even patrolled the hostel day and night. Cats. I mean lots of them! They swarmed and crawled all over the guests leaving behind a trail of silvery hairs on the unsuspecting folks.
When I landed, I had quite a fiasco getting through customs. Not that the guards were belligerent or anything. Rather they were awed. I happened to be the first person on their shift to come through with a 10 year civilian visa. Respectfully they chided me, saying this is not possible. Isn’t it supposed to be a diplomatic visa? No, I insisted, and after some detaining and phone calls they let me in.
The ride to the city was fun too. I approached the only bus I could find at the airport, and was warmly greeted by an elderly lady. She couldn’t speak a stitch of English, nor I of Mandarin.. We agreed over a map about where I would go and she positioned me on the front seat of the bus, after she rudely hoisted someone else out of this seat.
When we got into the city, I was fortunate enough to find the hostel. After I climbed the second flight of forsaken stairs I suddenly popped into the reception, and an elderly man in a military suit sitting behind a stern wooden desk jumped up. He crossed his arms, shook his head and in a deep gravelly voice said,”No,no,no.” I hesitated. If this wasn’t the hostel, where would it be? I mustered some broken English, and rolled my R’s heavily,” I have reservation.” The frown melted and he welcomed me in. For the paltry sum of 5USD per night I was assigned a bed in an 8 bed dorm.
I was dead tired after a red eye flight, from Moscow with a long layover in Kazakhstan. I pretty much climbed into bed, and snored even though it was only 3 in the afternoon. The mattress was actually a thick blanket of sorts, while the pillow was lumpy and stuffed full of straw. When I awoke it was dark outside. But I didn’t even notice. I was busy rubbing my eyes in astonishment. Scarcely a foot away, a chubby young Asian face was positioned, staunchly gazing at me without blinking. It was a bit weird but before I could think about it he asked where I was from. The guy almost fainted. He was like speechless. “Americaaa…” he whispered, his shaky voice trailing off. Then he smiled. “Sleep!” he said and melted away in the darkness.
But I couldn’t sleep. I was famished. I decided to run out and look for some food since it was only 9PM. When I stepped into the frigid winter air I was startled to find a young caucasian guy standing outside. I didn’t want to get my hopes up but cautiously asked, “Speak English?” He chuckled mildly,”Yeah,” and rather bitterly added, “that’s all I speak!” I asked him about food, and he warned me that the restaurants are scarce and they all close early. “Doesn’t hurt to try though, ” he added.
So I started trudging. It was cold. A fine snow whistled around me with a sharp wind straight out of Siberia and the temperature hovered around 0 Fahrenheit. The tile sidewalks were treacherously slippery. I discovered that I had to just drag my feet, because lifting them and placing them in front of each other just made me fall over. I slogged though the unfriendly forsaken streets for about an hour without finding a single place that was open or sold food. I was so hungry that I began thinking I might faint if I didn’t find something very soon. But lucky me, I found a vendor with a tiny room that was still open. It was an old lady who had hung a heavy blanket across the open doorway to keep out the wind while she shivered inside. She only sold fruit and juice, so I picked out several orange juices and apples, and happily paid her. I rushed out into the darkness, found a nearby park bench that I relieved of its snow, and with shaking fingers lifted the orange juice to my lips. It tasted like it had been made from rotten oranges, but I didn’t care. I enjoyed one of the best picnics of my life on that frozen steel park bench. An occasional person would walk by. Without fail they would stop short and stare, but usually went on shrugging their shoulders. The foreigners are strange after all, they said to themselves.
I became the best friend of the young man who stared me down while I slept. His name was Victor. We would sit in tiny groups at the dirty table and pet the cats while we discussed where to go next, or what adventures to pursue. Victor always made sure to sit beside me and put his arm around me so everyone would know we are friends. Don’t interfere.
Joe, Poonja and myself wanted to go to the Turkish bazaar. We were told it was the biggest attraction in Urumqi. We hailed a cheap taxi, and Joe sat up front to talk with the driver since he knew a few words of Mandarin. The bazaar wasn’t actually that great,but it was famous because of the hundreds of people who were killed there several months ago by radical Uighurs. It was huge, with loads of security, but in the end it seemed like 300 stores all selling the same thing.
In the evening we bundled up to go look for a restaurant that Joe had heard about. We walked till we were nearly frozen but couldn’t find it. Finally we agreed to take the first restaurant that we find, but even so we were chased out of the next few. They didn’t want to deal with foreigners. Restaurant three was the charm. It was overstaffed and they were so pleasant. 4 waiters stood as close to us as they could without being completely obnoxious. Never mind that only one of them spoke broken English. We ate some incredibly smelly stuffed cooked pig intestines. Let’s just say I didn’t sleep well.
Urumqi has a lot of security detail. Getting into the city bus or the supermarket requires passing through a full body scanner. This city boasts beautiful parks, but intense security with dozens of armed police and soldiers inside. First I wondered how you can live like this. Then it became normal.
Urumqi was quite an experience. It was thrilling. But it felt a bit dangerous. It’s a dead city in the winter, and would not recommend going then. It’s vibrant and amazing. I look forward to visiting it in the summer. Some day. Soon.