Urumqi: Bazaars, Uyghur Food & Mosques...

Flying to China's most westerly located provincial city allowed me to experience the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for myself. Touching down into Urumqi's Diwoqu International Airport kickstarted my seven day nonstop pursuit, being prepared I stayed ready for those security checks! Yes, China's Urumqi city showcased its very own unique 'Xinjiang Style!' Go, go!

Ready for my Urumqi Metro ride from the airport to the nearest station next to my 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 not accepted at the ticket machines but luck came my way! The metro worker came to my rescue with enough notes to break my unused RMB note, easy on the his help was appreciated. 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 finally happening! Sure, Urumqi would show me a lot! 

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, I could hear 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 people are known for having. Was I in China or Turkey? I was loving every moment, I was still in very much in China's Mainland but the culture that surrounded had me fooled, I  felt disorientated in the best way! Was I in Istanbul, Turkey? Why did the local people look Turkish? Yes, mosques were appearing everywhere, it was such a great thing to see places of worship that gave the Uyghur nature of the city its own authentic character. Urumqi had me soaking in its confusing yet relatable culture and views, I felt a certain kinship towards the Turkic culture. X!

Urumqi's International Grand Bazaar had my full attention, I had several language materials that I wanted to find. I was 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 all of the decorations that were within the grand bazaar, it transported me to another world! I could hear so many different languages being spoken, that I lived for even more! Finding two miniature Turkish style 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 heavenly, I found some fresh lavender, it was bagged up ready for me to purchase. Was I almost spent up after twenty minutes of shopping? No, my finances were fine, I went on to find two small 'Aladdin' lamps! I was sure my students would love the items! 

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. Best life in real-time motion! 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 WeChatPay! 真好! Yes!

The food had been another reason I had paid those coins to reach China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region! No lie! 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 pickings 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 pilav was cooked to perfection, served with sultanas and melt-in-the-mouth lamb. It was my Xinjiang foodie 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! Urumqi, that tea tasted delicious! Honestly, I loved that chance foodie encounter in China's 乌鲁木齐市! 

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 pilav 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, you already knew that I loved the Uyghur style! The best food! 

As I walked away from the busy wedding party, I thought about the route that I could possibly take back to my hotel? Consulting my Baidu Maps, I stumbled upon the Heping Road Mosque. I loved the ordinary nature of Heping Road, I knew that I would return to that street after I got back to Urumqi from Kashgar. 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 that we should all have the freedom to believe in whatever faith or entity that helps us in life. Of course, 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. Absolutely, Urumqi had something about itself! Sure, C! 

After arriving into Urumqi to that crazy extra security check, I got used to difference flex that I would have to adopt during my time that I would spend in Xinjiang. 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 and music transported me back to the streets of Istanbul and the wedding group showcased another kind of a Chinese wedding party. That infusion of cultures had me living for sure! The shopping was great at the International Grand Bazaar, it definitely surpassed any precious preconceptions about the market before my visit. It was amazing because usually I hate shopping! 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! I already foresaw the enormous adventure that was ahead of me, I wanted to experience more in 新疆! Not bad for the first morning and afternoon?

رەھمەت سىزگە!

Joseph Harrison


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