Urumqi: Bazaars, Uyghur Food & Mosques...

Flying to China's most westerly located provincial city allowed me to experience the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in all of its finest. Touching down into Urumqi's Diwoqu International Airport kickstarted my seven day nonstop pursuit, being prepared I stayed ready for those checks! Xinjiang's city of Urumqi showcased its own special Turkic ethnic culture! 

Ready for the metro ride to the nearest station away from hotel, I wasn't ready for the hassle my new British passport would give me during my first Xinjiang security check. The Han Chinese guards couldn't fathom why my internationally  recognised approved document wouldn't scan when they placed it in the slot reader. With my Chinese skills coming in very handy, I told them to passport was new and that I was just on my summer holiday, not tourist holiday. No WeChat was accepted at the tickets machines but as if luck came my way, the metro worker came to my rescue with enough notes to break my unused RMB note. That China trip was going to be unique for many reasons but I held the fact I could speak Chinese in those situations, it would be a huge help whilst in a city that wasn't so familiar with western visitors. I arrived at my station without any further security checks. My trip to Xinjiang was happening!

Making up good time, my early morning flight with Air China had been worth taking from Beijing's Capital International Airport! The chat on the streets wasn't strictly Putong Hua Mandarin Chinese, there was a certain Turkic tone when the local Uyghur people spoke their Xinjiang language. Amidst the odd Han Chinese person that walked past me the vast majority of people looked more Turkish or Iranian than the typical Han features the Chinese standard is known for. Was I in China or Turkey? I was loving every moment, I was still in Mainland China but the language was Turkic sounding and the people's features and attire fooled me as if I were standing in the heart of Istanbul, Turkey! Mosques appeared everywhere, it was such a great thing to see places of worship that gave the Uyghur nature of the city its authentic character. Urumqi had me soaking in its confusing yet relatable culture and views, I felt a certain kinship towards its Turkic culture. Yes, I was hungry for more!

Urumqi's International Grand Bazaar had my full attention, I had several language materials to find. Not about to leave empty handed I scoured the winding alleys that made up the main interior of the Turkish like bazaar. I knew my numbers in Chinese, ready to barter I wasn't afraid because getting duped isn't cool! I loved decoration within the grand bazaar, it transported me to another world and the languages kept on changing with more Uyghur languages being spoken, it was great! Finding two miniature Turkish print carpets, they were my first purchases out of many that afternoon. Getting two Uyghur style wooden drums worked out perfectly, that's where my Chinese numbers came in very handy! Smelling something utterly amazing I found some fresh lavender, bagged up and only costing me a fiver I had to have that find! Was I almost spent up after twenty minutes of shopping? No, I found two small 'Aladdin' lamps!

Venturing out into the main square that centred the International Grand Bazaar, I heard all kinds of Turkish sounding Uyghur music playing on the loud speaker systems. After seeing a rather energetic public group dance I was excited to see one for myself during my visit to Urumqi's International Grand Bazaar's main square. I didn't see a public dance but I fulfilled my own fantasy by having a little dance to the blaring Uyghur music during that piping hot July afternoon. I was feeling hungry but didn't want to buy into the touristic food so early on during my first day in Urumqi. As with most markets and souvenir shopping opportunities in China, the products were all very similar but with that said I made sure I found things that caught my eye! Urumqi had me on some efficient hype, I had completed all of my shopping in the space of thirty minutes, all the language materials and items for friends had been purchased without hesitation and because it was China I used WeChat Pay!

The food had been another reason I had to get myself to China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region! I was ready for the lamb kebabs and freshly baked circular flatbreads, feeling hungry after my shopping escapade I wasn't too impressed with the offerings close to the International Grand Bazaar. Taking an unplanned left turn down a side street I found a small soup kitchen like place that served me something that I wasn't ready for! Reverting back to my Shanghai pointing, I looked at the delicious rice and lamb dish the family behind me were eating and ran with it! The pilaff was cooked to perfection, served with sultanas and melt-in-the-mouth lamb it was a Uyghur culinary treat! Cooling things down I had some fresh yoghurt that had been slightly salted, reminding me of Ayran from Turkey! The owner had just cut a fresh watermelon up, looked like I was going to get a free piece of it to enjoy! Oh URC, that tea was just divine!

The atmosphere inside the soup kitchen felt so simple, the husband and wife team worked together without any help. The patrons looked like locals, quiet in nature and friendly at first glances. I enjoyed my meal, it had been sometime since my Air China breakfast and Starbucks airport treat so I was damn hungry! The pilaff was gorgeous and the surroundings made me feel one million miles away from Beijing, I had to still pinch myself and check my China Mobile signal to remind me that I hadn't left the country during that trip! Moving away from the restaurant I found myself witnessing a Uyghur wedding procession, the bride was gorgeous and the drums being played reminded me of a Turkish wedding rather than a Han Chinese affair. With different languages, ethnic features and mosques present it was an absolute culture shock! Well, to go from being in conservative Beijing to then be surrounded by such an abundance of culture made me think. Yes U, I loved the Uyghur style!

Being able to see inside a mosque was off limits, so I wanted to soak some Islamic culture from the streets from outside the mosques. Stumbling upon Urumqi's Heping Road Mosque allowed me to see a real working mosque in all of its glory, albeit from the outside. It's not for me to say but religion isn't something that is spoken in China, but it was amazing to see a level of observance in Urumqi for the Islamic faith. I'm not religious but being from the United Kingdom I believe we should all have the freedom to believe in whatever faith or entity that helps us in life, its life. I adored the feeling of Heping Road, it had such a feeling of 'community' and looked to be an exclusively Uyghur neighbourhood. Taking a walk back to my hotel to avoid the passport check on the metro, I found several mosques and quiet streets. Those quiet streets had life with bakeries and noodle houses doing their everyday business. Loved it!

The final part of that day will have to wait, I will present that nighttime séjour within the second Urumqi blog. Arriving into Urumqi to the extra security checks wasn't a shock because I was prepared for them, but when my passport wouldn't scan at the checkpoint I won't lie it was worrying. The opportunity to see such a wide array of people who didn't look Han Chinese was amazing, the variety truly added the spice to my first day in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Turkic like language transported me back to the streets of Istanbul and the wedding group showcased another kind of a Chinese wedding party. The shopping was great at the International Grand Bazaar, it definitely surpassed any precious preconceptions about the market before my visit. Urumqi opened my eyes, I had wanted to see China's far western region for some time and with that a reality, things felt correct! Only at the beginning of my epic Xinjiang trip, I was so excited to experience more in 新疆!

رەھمەت سىزگە!

Joseph Harrison


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