Urumqi!

I have been to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region twice. The first time was in 1992; a teammate and I took the train. Back then it was a journey that took two days and three nights; today the fastest train makes the journey in 30 hours. On my second visit to Urumqi (in 2004) I also travelled by train, but from the southern Xinjiang city of Kashgar. That was a 24-hour run along the edge of the Taklimakan Desert.

My most surreal Urumqi experience was in November of 2004. I was flying from Beijing to Kashgar via Urumqi, and due to a snowstorm in the city our flight was diverted to Dunhuang. After a brief stay there, we flew on to Urumqi, but by that time I had missed my connecting flight to Kashgar so I had wait in the airport for six hours. It was election day in the United States, so all the TV monitors were tuned into the Chinese state TV coverage of the elections. From my perch on that blue plastic chair I watched as George W. Bush was elected to a second term.

The Lonely Planet describes the city this way:

In Xīnjiāng's capital, Ürümqi (乌鲁木齐; Wūlǔmùqí), high-rise apartments form a modern skyline that will soon dash any thoughts of spotting wandering camels and ancient caravanserais. The vast majority of its inhabitants are Han Chinese, and the city is one of the least typical of Xīnjiāng, though glimpses of the distant Tiān Shān mountains provide a taste of the extraordinary landscapes awaiting you elsewhere.

As a fast-growing Central Asian hub, the city does business with traders from Běijīng to Baku and plays host to an exotic mix of people. Indeed, it's hard to imagine where else in the world you'll see Chinese, Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic script so commonly side-by-side. This truly is Central Asia.

This time lapse video, titled “A City Has Risen” shows what the city looks like:

I can assure you that the city looked nothing like that in 1992!

Here are some interesting facts about Urumqi:

  1. The name “Urumqi” comes from the Oirat language, and means “beautiful pasture.”
  2. The Chinese transliteration of the name is Wu-lu-mu-qi (乌鲁木齐).
  3. The population is 3.5 million.
  4. 75% of the population are Han Chinese.
  5. 13% of the population are Uyghurs.
  6. The city was the site of ethnic riots between Han and Uyghurs that left 197 people dead.

An excellent resource on all things Xinjiang is the website Far West China, run by Josh, an American resident who clearly loves the city and region. In 2010 he wrote a post about Christianity in the region titled "Uyghur Christians in Muslim Xinjiang." Here is a sampling:

Many people don’t realize that there are government-approved Christian churches in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi.  I have personally been inside and sat in on a couple services.  According to Chinese law, the government is supposed to supply registered religious organizations with a plot of land and a building in which to meet.  Key word: registered.

The ambiguous maze of legality in China is difficult for Christians, both Uyghur and Han, to navigate.  Activities such as distributing religious materials and intending to convert people to Christianity violate laws in all of China, but since in Xinjiang the stakes are higher the enforcement of these laws tends to be more strict.

Writing about the challenges for Uyghur Christians in Xinjiang he writes:

The problem for Uyghur Christians is how all of this—society and the law—work against them.  Conversion for a Uyghur, as with many Middle-Eastern peoples, usually results in friction with or abandonment by the family.  When they lose their families they must look elsewhere to find support and like-minded believers.

Unfortunately, because of fear between the Han and Uyghur, their presence in a government-approved church is difficult.  Racial tension aside, none of the material or services in these churches are offered in the Uyghur languages (at least from what I have personally witnessed).

Finally, to try to convert their friends is against Chinese law.  Such was the case for Alimjan Yimit who was the leader of a house church in Kashgar.  The result of this unfortunate situation is 15 years in a Urumqi jail with only monthly visits from his wife and two kids.

Josh’s website also features some very helpful resources on Urumqi and Xinjiang, including his e-book, Xinjiang: A Traveler’s Guide to Far West China.

There are flights to Urumqi from all the major cities in China. In addition, there are direct international flights to/from Almaty, Islamabad, Istanbul, Kabul, Moscow, Seoul, and Tehran.

Image credit: Town Square in Urumqi, by Dmitry P., via Flickr