Welcome to my blog; three years and nine countries after I first decided to set it up…
I live in Urumqi, Xinjiang, far north-west China. Take a second to get a mental image of that. You might need to close your eyes and try to recall a detailed world map. Far. North. West. China. Nowhere near Beijing or Shanghai, and definitely not a tourist trap. The China cliches do not apply here, my friends. There’s no old people in weird wicker hats. There’s no terraced rice paddies here and there’s not even that much rice, comparatively speaking. There are few grand monuments, a distinct lack of cute stone villages and and no serene, flowing rivers to conjure up romantic images of yester-year.
“What the hell is there?” I hear you ask. More to the point, what the hell would make you want to go out to… wherever the hell that is (seriously, Google maps is your friend). “Good question”, I reply. Well, there’s a whole boatload of desert. Wait that metaphor doesn’t work at all. Umm, there’s a whole camel-caravan load of desert, can I say that? F**k it, it’s my blog, yes I can. Actually the camel-caravan works because this is old Silk Road territory and more importantly because out here, we got two-humped camels. Take that, panda-territory!
“Alright then, what else is there?” Alright, there’s Uyghurs. “And what the hell is that?” No, not ‘that’; they. The Uyghurs, the minority group most closely associated with Xinjiang, are a Turkic-language-speaking group, who follow Islam, and whose culture is much closer the the Central Asian countries (a.k.a the ‘Stans), immediately to the west than that of the Chinese.
“And what the does that mean?” IT MEANS LAMB KEBABS!!! Yeah, now I have your attention and not just because of the internet shouting. As well as providing us with a name for this wee blog, this fact is single-handedly responsible for me being here. When my partner and I were organising our big move to China, the company we work for offered us three locations, two of those were in Sichuan and the final one was one up here in upper-far-outta-the way-Mongolia (as my brother puts it, a ‘clever’ pun on the fact that Xinjiang boders Inner Mongolia). We did a little bit of internet research, then Ian saw a picture of kebab meat inside a naan and said “I absolutely have to move there, no other place in China will do”. And that was the end of it. Here we are in Xinjiang.
But they don’t only have kebabs, this place is a dietician’s worst nightmare. Da Pan Ji (a whole chopped chicken cooked with potatoes, chilli, and spices… in a puddle of oil) is my favourite of all the foods here, but there’s stiff local competition. The laghman (noodles cooked with tomatoes, usually some kinds of meat and spices… in a puddle of oil), and the polo (rice cooked with lamb and vegetables… in a puddle of lamb fat/oil) are also brilliant. The there’s also loads of Han Chinese foods, which also quite frequently involve a puddle of oil. You get the point. Oh, and there’s naan. It’s all so good that Ian has started taking the piss out of me for the amount of time I use the word ‘favourite’ in one day.
The chief benefit to being in the region is the mix of different peoples, cultures, religions and traditions. As well as the Han Chinese and Muslim Chinese (called Hui) and the Uyghur, the region has sizeable minorities from bordering countries, including Mongolians, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Russians. It makes for signs that can be in three languages, none of which I can understand, which makes life fun. Or so I tell myself.
So there’s the obvious advantages; in the food, the desert, the camels and the ‘ethnics’, as the Han refer to minorities. What are the disadvantages? Well, A: we’re a thousand miles from anyone or anywhere and; B: winters are unbelievably, ridiculous cold and I dislike it when the weather gets below 20 degrees celsius. There was a whole six weeks of winter where it barely got above MINUS 20 degrees celcius. A full forty degrees below my discomfort threshold. Poor Ian heard “I hope the kebabs are worth it!!!” shouted more than once during winter. Ditto for “no more bloody winters. Promise me. PROMISE!!!!”
There is a problem C, which I will be returning to, and it is the ethnic divisions across the region, which manifested in bad riots a few years back. They’re not visible on a day-to-day basis if you hang out in the centre of Urumqi, which we do. The politics of this region are something I’m still really struggling to get my head around, even after six months, and am hesitant to declaim on (I’m very far from being an expert) but they are complicated and they are sad.