Sunday, April 16, 2006

Urumqi, Capital of Xinjiang

Urumqi, Xinjiang, China - The city looks like lower Manhattan, with skyscrapers rising almost in front of one's eyes. But, surprise! This is Urumqi [ooroomCHI], capital of China's western Xinjiang [shinJANG] autonomous region.

The city, a century ago a major stop on the Silk Road, is flourishing again with economic activity doubling every year. The city is becoming the mercantile trade capital of all of Central Asia, and there is not an American in sight. In fact, aside from a few intrepid German tourists, there are no westerners to be seen anywhere. Unlike with other out of the way corners of the world, however, America's lack of knowledge about this region may prove disadvantageous in the immediate future.

From January to June 2005, Urumqi measured imports and exports at 5.44 million tons, an increase of 25% over the same period last year. This represented $3.368 billion of trade for the six-month period. Trade for June 2005 alone was double that of June 2004.

The city is clean and bustling 24 hours a day. It is clearly a shopper's paradise, with huge bazaars everywhere. One "bazaar" is nothing but a four-storey building full of small offices representing every possible Chinese manufacturer or distributor of consumer goods - from cashmere shawls to computer chips. Of US companies, only Nike is present. All the signs in the complex are in Chinese, Russian and Uighur, a member of the Turkic family and the official language of Xinjiang.

Outside, trucks create perpetual traffic jams as they pull up and are loaded full, speeding off to Novosibirsk, Almaty, Bishkek and Dushanbe. Dozens of buses full of shoppers from other Central Asian capitals are also loading up with floods of televisions, DVD players and satellite dishes. One young fellow headed for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, struggles under the weight of a case of cell phones. Some buses head for the Urumqi International Airport, which now carries more cargo than people.

Here Shahrom, a young Tajik entrepreneur, has settled in, transporting goods to Dushanbe and Afghanistan. Now that the first road ever is open into land-locked Tajikistan, huge amounts of goods are transported every day for the six months of the year that the route is open before winter snows fall. Shahrom gets orders by cell phone, the payment is made through bank transfer, and the goods are sent. It costs less than $200 to transport a whole truckload of goods from Urumqi to Dushanbe. Shahrom already knew Russian, Tajik and Uzbek, which is close enough to Uighur for communication to be easy. After six months, he is almost fluent in Mandarin.

There are some small pleasures in this merchant paradise. I spent a day with friends in a beautiful city park where we climbed a big hill to several pagodas on the top, had our pictures taken with a snake and a monkey, and drank chilled fruit juices while looking over the cityscape with its looming buildings rising from the Xinjiang steppe. The Urumqi international bazaar, a huge caravanserai complex with a giant minaret in the middle, is another pleasure palace awash in tourists - primarily Chinese from Beijing. Every cuisine in the world is common fare, and meals of Russian pelmeni (dumplings), Indian-inspired samosas (meat filled pastries), and Uighur hand-pulled noodles are common.

All is not well in this mercantile paradise, however. The ethnic Chinese from the great Eastern capitals have moved into the city in a big way, appropriating land and dominating the commercial markets. The native Uighurs, who are Muslim, view them as unwelcome colonists. Opposition to the Chinese through groups such as The Uighur Liberation Organization, and the Xinjiang Liberation Organization predates al-Qaeda by decades. These groups have staged periodic attacks on Chinese government facilities in the region with tacit public support.

Osman, a Uighur college student, told me that although he had to study in Mandarin Chinese at the Xinjiang State University, he tried never to speak Chinese outside of class. "It is not my language," he said, spitting meaningfully.

The United States has backed into this controversy by detaining some two dozen Uighurs captured in Afghanistan at Guantánamo Bay. Too late, Washington realized that although the members of these groups are Muslims, Islamic ideology has little to do with their opposition to the Chinese government. Although Washington would like to release these prisoners since they had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks, no country will take them. The Chinese view them as potential terrorists, and they are unwelcome in any other neighboring Central Asian country. Since Washington wants good relations with China, it is utterly unclear what to do with these detainees.

The Uighur situation shows the extraordinary paradoxes in the Central Asian region - a booming economy operating outside of Western influence, combined with ethnic tensions that are already proving explosive. The US Central Command claims that its sphere of influence extends to the Chinese border, but Xinjiang, Urumqi and the Uighurs may prove the limits of American power - both military and economic.
source here


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