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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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February 25, 2008 1:27 PM

Xinjiang - living snapshots

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Urumqi - the capital city of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region - gets cold. Monster icicle cold. Chest-constricting cold. Double head scarf cold.

I left wind-lashed Urumqi four days ago and my nose - more accustomed to Seattle drizzle - still smarts.

I'd had fair warning - a number of friends in Beijing tried to dissuade me from visiting Xinjiang in February (I headed for Urumqi on February 8). "It's freezing there," one counseled. "You'd better reschedule."

"All the sites will be covered in snow," remarked another sage Beijinger, "You'll have nothing to do."

And of course, they were right. Xinjiang - an ancient, enormous desert ringed with mountains and rugged oases - is a summertime destination. Think scorching heat, camel caravans and juicy cold slices of melon.

East of Turpan, along Xinjiang's well-trod Silk Road (a sequence of overland trade routes that once connected West and East Asia), and a valley of vineyards rise the dramatic Flaming Mountains - what remains of charcoals knocked from Heaven by China's legendary Monkey King.

As a acquaintance of mine joked on a stroll through Urumqi - "Xinjiang's like a pretty girl. All bundled up, she's not much to look at."

"This was my only chance," I explained. "I'm expecting to sweat out the summer exclusively in smoggy, Olympic Beijing."

Fortunately, Xinjiang - hemmed in by Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, Kazakstan and the Yellow River Valley 2,000 miles to Beijing's northwest - is more than a moonscape. It's also a cultural confluence. In Xinjiang, where rain rarely falls, Eurasia's greatest civilizations have time and again coursed - crashing - together.

Genghis Khan once ruled the region. So did Atilla the Hun. Siddhartha's Bhuddism made its way through Xinjiang, as did Nestorian Christianity. Islam, too.

They first flocked to Xinjiang's Silk Road bazaars two thousand years ago, but more Chinese settlers are streaming into the region today than ever before. Xinjiang has passed in and out of Chinese hands since 60 B.C., when the Han Dynasty made it a protectorate.

In 1933 a rebellion in the area of Kashgar led to the independence of the Turkish Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan / Republic of Uyghurstan. A year later the region fell back into Chinese hands. Communist China's People's Liberation Army entered Xinjiang in 1949. In 1955, the province Xinjiang was relabeled an autonomous region.

Ethnically, Xinjiang's Chinese are still a minority - outnumbered by Turkic, mostly Muslim peoples: Kazaks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tartars and Uyghurs. The region's population is roughly 45% Uyghur and 40% Chinese.

Xinjiang's Uyghurs, in particular, are now engaged in an effort to preserve their own unique traditions and honor the area's rich history.

And so, Urumqi's cold - which preceded Kashgar's cold and southwest Xinjiang's cold - proved of little consequence. Far away from Beijing's 2008 Olympic Games, I found what I hoped to find and more: an unforgettable series of living snapshots, which I'll attempt to share with you now.

Xinjiang - living snapshots:

- Row upon row of broad, deep blue-veined mountains, peaks crumpled up against peaks, just beyond and below the shining wing of my airplane

- Quarter-sized dollops of bathwater condensing on a filthy showerhouse ceiling (a deal more threatening than the establishment's two Chinese proprietors - biting hard on cigarettes, posing like gangsters, watching a Uyghur sitcom out front)

- The concrete skeleton of a 25-story high-rise gutted by fire and scarred with soot, on the road into Urumqi

- Ten-foot tall, cork-board daggers posted down tundra roads; 'get'm here!'

- A jutting jumble of storefronts, double-decked along a snowy boulevard, advertising canine furs and American Mandarin, Russian and Uyghur

- A Kashgar porter washing his muddy, gnarled hands, bumpy and knotted like rhododendron roots

- Lock-boxes, furniture feet and Formica front doors piled high inside an Urumqi exporter's office...marked for Kazakstan

- A greater variety in boxy fur hats and chinstrap beards than I'd ever imagined might exist

- A silvery sliver of a crescent moon laid like a sword on its back high in the blackest black above Kashgar's old city (as beautiful as it was impossible to capture with my digital camera)

- Red raisins, green raisins, yellow, brown and maroon raisins, purple raisins, black raisins, goldish/organish/clearish raisins...

- Ornate brass kabob grills manned by Uyghur boys with wispy beards and elderly eyes

- Sky blue and green gilded doors...opening into Kashgar's mud-straw courtyards, opening onto Kashgar's high-walled alleys

- A gigantic, five-year old, much minaret-ed International Bazaar, home to Urumqi's most popular KFC, its largest French mega-market and 1,750 identical camel whips...a questionably tasteful reincarnation of Xinjiang's Silk Road culture

- Fifty one computer animators, aged 18-23, with questions concerning the United States: What do you know about Xinjiang? Do you like Uyghur noodles? Have you met George W. Bush?

- A glossy VCD joint blasting Uyghur-pop, plastered with Eminem, 50 Cent and Yanni album covers

- Urumqi cabs passing in the night; back-seat rides only after dusk

- A mustachioed midfielder romping across Kashgar's best dirt-pack soccer pitch, an enormous American flag stitched onto the front of his black turtleneck sweater and "PUERTO RICO" emblazoned across its back

- Pounding out tin water basins, street-side, in rhythm

- A weary line of muleteers scatter before my honking bus as it hurtles in the direction of Afghanistan; they've no doubt seen the Yugoslav World War II flick drawing cheers from my fellow passengers

- Girl meets boy, falls in love, becomes pregnant, falls out of love, has abortion, sheds tears of self-loathing, wades into 'Sea of Death' (Taklimakan Desert), disappears...a popular Uyghur movie

- A young woman veiled up to her eyes flirting with clerks at Kashgar's Xinhua bookstore

- AIDS...Xinjiang boasts the highest HIV infection rate anywhere in China

- Albert Einstein, Deng Xiaoping and an 11th-century Muslim Uyghur scholar, watching over an Urumqi bookstore (thanks, Photoshop)

- Boiled carrots, piled over boiled potatoes, piled over mutton, piled over rice

- Crusted purple snow stretching flat towards a muted sunset

- Bunches of crisp bowler hats conferring outside a large, dingy restaurant

Stay tuned for posts on Urumqi's techno wizards and Olympic sentiment in Kashgar. Will these 2008 Games benefit the Chinese whole, or Beijing alone?

Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:



"China presses Sudan over Darfur peacekeepers"

"Spielberg drops out as Beijing Olympics advisor"

"British athletes to sign gagging clause for Beijing Olympics"

"Wary U.S. Olympians Will Bring Food to China"

"Beijing says no events will be postponed for pollution"

"Beijing to apply new emission standards for car sales from March 1"

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