Xinjiang 新疆 is China’s largest, but least populated province. Most of it is desert; it’s largely uninhabitable. I feel like it’s kind of the ethnic melting pot of China. It borders 8 nations–Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. And, it’s home to over 56 ethnic groups. In fact, Han Chinese–the Chinese people most are familiar with and see typically in the US–are considered the ethnic “minority” in Xinjiang. Instead the largest ethnic groups are Mongol, Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui, and Kyrgyz. Our tour guide, Hansen, explained that the Chinese language–“普通話” [pu tong hua] is hardly even spoken in Xinjiang. Only those who move from Xinjiang to major cities such as Beijing or Shanghai learn to speak Chinese. Many of the store signs we passed were written in Arabic, or variations of it, with just smatterings of Chinese in the more tourist-friendly areas. Most speak Uyghur, which is a Turki language spoken by the Uyghur people. Most of them live in Xinjiang. A truly bizarre experience to be Chinese in China, and not being able to read or understand a lot of what was written or said.
Our first stop after getting off the plane in 乌鲁木齐 Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, was Urumqi bazaar. “大巴扎” [da ba za]. We were given a mere 30 minutes to explore the area, with nearly 15 minutes of it spent taking pictures of the quad and helping others take pictures. A mild sandstorm kicked up while we were taking pictures, and never had I wanted anything more than to have camel lashes to keep out all the dust.
Islamic culture is prevalent in Xinjiang, so most food is kosher. A lot of lamb is eaten. Women wear the hijab, men pray 5 times a day. You could essentially call Xinjiang the “little” Middle East. We went into one of the department stores across from the bizarre, where mountains of dried fruits were sold–some 60 kinds of raisins, several species of dates, and all the nuts you could want, smoked and flavored in various ways. I snuck samples here and there, curious to see if there was any actual difference in taste with the raisins. Some were tarter or sweeter, drier or a bit meatier. None were artificially flavored or colored, though!
Xinjiang is most famous for the abundance of fruits it proffers: grapes, melons, pears, dates. Sadly, melon season had not yet arrived (…we were wondering why the melons served at our hotel tasted so terrible). Xinjiang pears (“新疆梨” [xin jiang li]), in contrast, lived up to their name. Small, green egg-shaped beauties with a rosy blush on their sides. Crisp, juicy, pearly insides. You can find good ones in LA, but they can be pricy. Highlight of the day was the dates. All the dates you find in the US are kind of airy on the inside and the seed takes up more space than the meat. Xinjiang dates, however, were bigger than pigeon eggs and thee seed was the size of a pinky-nai. Very tasty, very expensive. A small 8oz bag cost us over $8USD.
My mom and I went to the 3rd floor, where one of the tour guides had directed us to a herbal medicine shop. Incredibly rare species of herbs and plants were sold here, at an exorbitant price. Herbs sold in most shops, whether in other parts of China or Taiwan or the US, tend to be “fake” or poor in quality. One of the most precious items in the store is the snow lotus, harvested right after the frost when the Tian Shan mountains thaw. “天山雪蓮” [tian shan xue lian]. My mom wanted to buy one so badly, but everything was sold per gram–a single flower came out to over $120USD. We did, however, buy some saffron (“藏紅花” [zhang hong hua]) and chrysanthemum “天山貢菊” [tian shan gong ju]): the total still came out to nearly $100USD. And the saffron flower we bought wasn’t even a whole one. Just a third!
This particular saffron was hand-picked at altitudes well over 12,000ft. And it was different: not the kind used in cooking. More for tea; in Chinese medicine, saffron supposedly promotes blood-circulation, has antioxidant properties, and is anti-carcinogenic. It can also alleviate premenstrual cramps. Whoot!
Our shopping trip came to an end around 7pm, the fifty or so of us American tourists gathered to take the bus to our hotel. The North West Petroleum Hotel Urumqi is where we stayed. When I think of 5-star hotels, the ostentatious hotels of Las Vegas come to mind. Our hotel was 5 stars, but when you start looking around you notice not-so-5-star-things. High glass ceilings, a pretty fountain in the middle, and a large buffet. Good start. A dimly-lit room, lined with outdated grey/black/brown wallpaper, and the broken heating/cooling system kept the room at a freezing 50 degrees. Less good, but bearable. Then throw in the broken room key. My mom and I had to take the elevator up and down 8 floors every time we wanted to reenter our room, to ask someone from the concierge to come up and open the door for us since our key never worked. None of the facilities people could figure out why either. The bar light greeted us by creepily clicked off and on by itself. The furniture was crusted with dust. But hey, at least we weren’t in a 2-star hotel! Can’t imagine what that’d be like.
Dinner was served downstairs at the hotel buffet, which was severely limited in its vegetarian selection. The five choices we had were vegetables drowned in oil, some were even rotten. Everything was glistened with salt and MSG. And to think we were leaving urbanization the next day! Wonder what things would be like then…