So, I arrived in Urumqi. The capital of China’s Western Xinjiang province. Everyone warned me not to go, that there was too much unrest. I only spent one night there and it was one of the oddest of my life. Two days before while waiting for my train in Xian I met a business man from Kyrgyzstan returning home. He was a geeky middle aged man with a sweater tied around his waist. Although we were the only two foreigners on the train I did not see him again until we disembarked in Urumqi.
I was walking down the platform in front of the train wondering to myself where I would stay the night and reassuring myself that something would fall into my lap as it always does when my Kyrgyz friend walked up beside me and asked if I had a place to stay. When I said I did not he told my he knew a great hostel, that he stayed in Urumqi every two months and would show my around. Upon leaving the train station I noticed a few riot police with shotguns but nothing too serious and I followed my new friend into a waiting minibus. Here’s where things begin to get strange. We weren’t ten minutes on the road and he had just asked where I was from, when my companion began listing in minute detail everything that was wrong with America and Americans (their stupidity, corruption, greed, obesity etc etc) summing up his rant with “Come on don’t be naive! 9/11 was an inside job between moussad and the CIA” and concluding pounding his fists on the seat in front of him “There is no change we can believe in! Obama is the house nigger of the Israelis!” I kid you not. Now this was bad enough but at the very same time it was dawning on me that my traveling companion was potentially a Nazi, I was also realizing that I had entered a war zone. Hundreds of soldiers were on the streets marching in formation with bayonettes fixed, under each over pass were huddled riot-soldiers peering out from behind Plexiglas shields, there were road blocks everywhere and troop carrier trucks patrolled the streets repeating Chinese slogans from bull horns rifles pointing out from under the canvas. I have never seen anything like it. I was stunned into silence and we completed the journey not saying a word to each other. When we reached the hostel I discovered that is was on Government Square which was acting as the major troop barracks. The front door was barricaded by a steel great and six soldiers with machine guns and riot shields who checked our passport before allowing you admission. Once inside the hostel I discovered that A) there were no single rooms available and that I would be bunking with my charming friend and that B) there was no internet or international calls permitted in the entire region of Xinjiang (read pretty much all of western China).
It turns out my fascist friend’s father was in the hospital so he needed to call home and had an idea of how to. He told me of a Russian hotel way out in the Uigher (read militarized) part of town that housed some representatives of what I think he said were the Kyrgyz Transport Authority. As I spent more time with him I discovered that along with being an audit lawyer for western companies in Thailand he also ran wholesale cigarettes to Afghanistan and bought and sold buildboards all around Central Asia. Despite being a raving anti-Semite and a self-described Stalinist he turned out to be a remarkably helpful traveling companion. He spoke Russian and Turkic and could read both Cyrillic and Arabic script. He also had a surprisingly good knowledge of the city. For example when I broke a flip flop (the second pair of the trip) he ducked into a non descript alley and yammering in Turkic emerged within a few minutes with a new pair. Don’t get the wrong idea. He was awful and a complete nut. As the evening progressed I’m sure he judged by my silence that I did not agree with his political views and began tempering his opinions by saying things like “I’m not a Holocaust denier but I do think the Holocaust was arranged by the Nazis and high caste Jews to sell Swedish iron ore and encourage Jewish overseas banking” or “I’m not an anti-Semite I have lots of Jewish friends and when they get drunk they tell me how it really is.” Anyway we finally found the hotel surrounded by military personnel and made our way inside. The hotel was one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. It catered to the unique needs of its wealthy Russian merchant clientele including a clinic on the first floor proudly advertising that it could remove facial scars and bruises from women’s faces in a matter of hours. I skipping some shit here but eventually we found ourselves in a hotel room, Russian television blaring, with a few Kyrgyz men (who were awesome, open and charming and provided a good contrast to little Stalin) and somehow dude was able to make his phone call. He even let me call my mommy and tell her I would be out of the loop for at most a few weeks. At this point I was starving and we went to get a bangin dinner of lamb shishkababs, naan bread and yogurt. During dinner dude kept assuring me that Russia was better under Stalin than the US is now. I tricked him and shut him up briefly when I asked how come Russia has never been competitive on a global scale. He replied yelling that in 1914 Russia was the greatest exporter of grain and raw materials in the world. This is true but he had walked right into my trap. I said that then it was shocking how far and how rabidly Russia had fallen in such few years with the introduction of Communism in 1917. This shut him up for about five minute until he explained (?) that this was because Marx and Engles were both Jews and Lenin, Stalin and Gorbechov had all married Jews. When he changed the subject by asking what the problem was with “United States niggers” I had had enough. I responded that “their problem was hundreds of years of slavery, institutionalized racism, and disenfranchisement that continued to this day” and that I was tired and offended and didn’t want to talk to him anymore. We returned to the Hostel in silence. Even without the Nazi something was wrong in Urumqi. The military presence everywhere was subtly morally exhausting. On the way back I saw an old woman puking into the bushes, a young women puking out of a park car, a man slapping a woman in the face and just was were getting home we watched a woman struggle drunkenly as two huge men strong armed her into a Taxi. The Nazi noticed and I thought maybe I would see his humanity come through a little or even see some of that Moscow military training he always bragged about. Instead he turned to me saying “I don’t get it. She’s Ugly. Not worth fighting over” then went back to comparing the prices of Thai Kazak and Russian hookers. I went immediately to sleep after I got back feeling powerless and disgusted hearing the Nazi snoring in the bunk next to me.
The Kyrgyz had planned on taking me to buy train tickets in the morning and wanted to give me his contact info so I could stay with him in Kyrgyzstan. Instead I set my alarm for early and snuck out while he was still sleeping, checked out the room and made my way to the train station. Getting my train ticket was a bitch of long lines and security formalities but it felt great to be free of the Kyrgyz. After I got my ticket I sat down, drank a huge beer (at 11am), ate twenty lamb dumplings and boarded the train feeling like a new man. My pleasure was complete when I discovered I had the berth all to myself. So to sleep! Next stop Kashgar!
Postscript: After Kashgar I was forced to return to Urumqi and spend the next three days there working out visa formalities. On second look, and without the Nazi, I found I really liked it there. It is the farthest place in the world from an ocean but because of it is located near so many trade roots it is ironically registered as a port city. As a result the population is a diverse mix of Kyrgyz, Persians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Russians, Chinese and Uigher. Most signs are in Arabic script, Chinese and Cyrillic. I even ended up staying a few days in the weird Russian Hotel and some friendly Uighers took me out to Hotel nightclubs to celebrate their rose festival (the day after Ramadan). Although I grew to love Urumqi I never figured out the throwing up thing. My second to last day a cab drove by me with a Uigher woman leaning out, holding back her head scarf and vomiting out of the back seat window. The next day before I got on my train a woman at the restaurant where I was eating asked for plastic bags and started puking right there and no one really even looked up… What is up with this place?