Sunday, October 2, 2011

my current (adventurous) whereabouts – Xinjiang is the new Tibet

Right now I’m on a big trip out to the final frontier of travel in China – Xinjiang province. Xinjiang is the new Tibet. It sounds douchey, I’m well aware, but let me explain.

A few years before China hosted the Olympic games, coverage of the Tibet controversies exploded around the world. People became aware of the atrocities against the Tibetan people and the struggle of the regional minorities in China. What happened then, which is possibly simultaneously the best thing and the worst thing for the Tibetan region, was an explosion of tourism. All tourists need proper permits and guides for a trip to Tibet (not unlike my time in North Korea, really) and I have it on good account, that the region is not what it used to be. A drastic increase in people-traffic changes a place awfully quickly. Please don’t interpret this as a snide remark about Tibet ‘selling out’ like your favourite indie band, and I am absolutely not dissing the people that travel there. This boom in popularity has brought some huge economic benefits and political stability to the region. All I mean, is that the people who originally wanted to see Tibet in all of its pre-explosion glory will not find what the image they harbor in their hearts and minds.

So where to go? You wanna see a part of China that not many people see. You wanna feel as though you have travelled back in time. You wanna get away from the hoardes? Xinjiang baby, Xinjiang. They’re calling it ‘The New Frontier’.

Top left. Well away from EVERYTHING else.

Xinjiang also works if you want something a little high on the political-interest side of things. This trip to Sichuan earlier in the year made me realise that a lot of shit still goes down, and goes down unnoticed, in regional China. At the moment, this kind of thing is happening in Xinjiang province, and it is a direct result of government policy. The Chinese government is keen to get rid of the minorities and all their hassles, so the in-a-nutshell policy is that they give financial incentive for the Han Chinese to move to these traditionally minority-inhabited areas and provide them with money, accommodation and schooling. This means that those recently migrated Han Chinese can work for extremely low wages, and the minority Chinese lose their jobs and their children lose places in schools. The in-a-nutshell result, is massive segregation between the ethnicities and, of course, a ton of violence.

What doesn’t help this situation is that this province borders on EIGHT other countries, and is vastly separate from the hub of the east coast of China. The minorities speak a language that is not Mandarin. It isn’t even a dialect – it’s a completely different linguistic family. The province is the biggest in China, and holds 30% of China’s oil reserves, and the capital Urumqi is the furthest place in the whole world from the ocean.

I digress. There is an infinite amount of easily accessible information about the political turmoil in Xinjiang (you know, now that it’s the new Tibet) but I really want to talk about the great things about it. The reasons I am going.

Historically, Xinjiang province was the gate from Europe to the East – one of the big stops along the famous “Silk Road”. Lonely Planet China says – 

“One short step away from the new New Frontier, however, and you get back to the old – way back. Along the Silk Road, the old towns, the camel trading, the blowing sands, the kebabs, the lively and beautiful mosques, and the unsurpassed hospitality of the Uyghurs are as timeless as ever.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself. I mean, I haven’t been there yet, but that’s what I think it should be like. The pictures of their famous deserts and mountain ranges and vast grasslands evoke the most adventurous spirit in me. Truly. The whole region is incredibly isolated, and yet represents the coming-together of so many different peoples and cultures and religions and landscapes and cuisines.

Ok so now it has come out. The real reason I’m going to Xinjiang. The food. ITS MY FAVOURITE!!! I talked about it here and did this class to learn how to make it, and basically I eat it all the time whenever I can. Xinjiang food is a marriage of Asian and Eastern-European cuisines. They can also make it super great without meat which suits me just swell. The nighttime food markets alone are enough to get me on the three-day train ride to Kashgar. The tea houses that sell big bowls of steaming noodles make me squirm with longing. Seeing massive chunks of dough being kneaded and then pulled and banged by the side of the road – then flung into a boiling pot of water with such artistry. It amazes me. Xinjiang food is an incredible thing. 

I know, I know, you get it. It’s great. Move on. Ok fine. But seriously, if you ever get the chance – OKAY ENOUGH.

Moving on.

Where exactly am I going in this massive province? I decided to spend most of my time in and around a city called Kashgar. It is a full 24 hour train ride from the capital Urumqi, which immediately cuts down on the number of tourists visiting, and I have no doubt in my mind that it’s well worth it. Kashgar itself should be full of old streets in old towns, beautiful mosques, night markets and great food. From Kashgar, we plan to take day trips to get to the Karakoram Highway, the Karakul lake, and ride camels in the Taklamakan desert to camp there overnight. Feel free to google-image those, or wait till I get back and just see my pictures. Either way. This is gonna be so epic. I’m talking Tolkien levels of epic.

I’m also very aware that this will be my last really harcorebadass adventure in China. One trip to Yunnan before I leave, perhaps, but nothing this hardcorebadasswicked. I am really pumped for this, as I’m sure you can tell. It’s quite frustrating, not being able to real-time blog about it (I can’t take my laptop on a desert trek on a camel) and these days I can’t survive without writing, so I’m taking my good old long-hand Moleskine journal and pencil case. I did the same thing when I couldn’t take my laptop to North Korea and it worked out fine. I get back and have all the memories fresh written daily, then I go through and pair them with the photos. At the same time as blogging and being warm and comfy once more, I will eat a lot of nutella sandwiches. That is the ideal end-of-tip debrief.

Until then, let the rough stuff begin!

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