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Xinjiang, First Hand

By Danny Lee (People's Daily Online)    09:05, November 12, 2015
Xinjiang, First Hand
Aksu Century Square. Dancing in the evenings, with adorable Uighru children. (Photos provided to the People's Daily Online by the writer)

Scorching Urumqi, Jiaohe Ruin City & The Blazing Turpan

I had expected Xinjiang to be hot in summer. But not that hot!

On the day I arrived in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, it was a glaring 44 degrees Celsius. The hot sun obliterated everything as I dashed from my plane to the tarmac bus. When I met my Beijing colleagues for dinner that evening, I was warned that the journey is going to get even hotter.

Before I turned in for the night, my last memory was the CCTV weather forecast, which came up at the end of the news bulletin. I remembered staring at a map of China, with the Xinjiang Region marked in bright red. The Weather Reporter had cheerfully reminded us that China is going through record high temperatures this summer, with Xinjiang proudly at the top. Phew!

The early morning cool dissipated very quickly, as we visited the Turpan Basin the following day. Turpan is remembered in history for two main things. The first is its top quality fruits, with its superb grapes taking the crown. The second is Flaming Mountains or 火焰山 – made famous by the Chinese classic, Journey to the West or 西游记.

Our first stop is the ancient Jiaohe Ruin City in Yarnaz Valley, just 10km West of Turpan City. Tracing its origins back to 1800 BC, Jiaohe reached its prime around 180 BC, ruled by several tribes and ethnic groups, before it was abandoned to the heat. I can still vividly recall the simmering hills are etched in my mind, as we toured the ruins in a searing 47 Celsius heat. If you think incubators are warm, remember that they are set at 37.5 Celsius - that’s almost 10 degrees Celsius cooler than we had that day.

Moving around without protective head-wear was not an option, not when the surface temperature soared to around 70 degrees Celsius. Many of my fellow travelers had obviously arrived at the same conclusion, as we crowded round the stalls selling hats and caps. I decided that the straw hat was the best, as it allowed what little breeze to cool the head.

Miraculously, we spent about 45 minutes touring the ruins, without getting cooked. Although we felt at least medium rare at the end of it. As I tried to clean the perspiration that was streaming straight into my eyes, I quietly said a little prayer for the many ancient travelers – monks, religious teachers, traders, soldiers, officials – who lost their lives trekking the Old Silk Road.

“If those surviving traders had made a lot of money when they returned to Europe and the Middle-east, they deserve every cent of their wealth,” I gasped to my new friends. “They had faith, and loads of determination,” concurred a Chinese reporter.

Even with our modern luxuries like the air-conditioned bus, two of our team mates had succumbed to heat stroke. Another saw her shoes dying a glorious death, The soles had melted, and peeled away. With no shoe shops in sight, she gallantly tied her laces around her shoes to hold them in place, and plodded on for the rest of the day. See, journalists are determined people.

New Homes, New Communities!

Our next stop was to the Frog Alley in the Grape Valley. No prizes for guessing why the two places were so named. Grape Valley is China’s Grape Central, and its raisins fetch prices around the world.

Frog alley is a leafy, clean village that used to be known for its croaking frogs. While the organisers were ushering us into one of the village homes, others pounced on a mulberry tree outside like marauding locusts. The sharp eyes of my Chinese friends have spotted the rich, black mulberries, which were indeed very good! Those who wore light coloured clothes found out rather quickly that mulberries may be nice, but the sweet juices that burst from the mouth, also stain clothes very easily.

The farmer’s home we visited was one of many that we would see during our stay in Xinjiang. The Chinese government is obviously very proud of its efforts to improve the lot of the Uighurs.

Many of the residents were farmers, or residents resettled from the area. Their new homes were sturdy, modern, well-built, and rather importantly, quake-resistant beyond Richter scale 7. Many were bought through a combination of personal savings, government subsidies, and interest-free loans.

In other cities, authorities are also slowly moving their local residents to better, modern housing. While some may lament this as an erosion of the "traditional charm", I would argue that the people are also entitled to safe, modern housing, with access to safe and reliable water, power and sanitation.

In Aksu prefecture, farmers’ homes must be equipped to receive satellite TV signals. While critics will point to this as another tool for propaganda, I see it serving many practical needs like opening access to weather reports, as well as TV entertainment programmes. I enjoy pop music and I’ve watched music videos from Asia to Africa. In Xinjiang, Uighur entertainment programmes are well and alive.

Speaking of entertainment, Public Square Dances or 广场舞,is alive and well even in Xinjiang. With sunset as late as 10.30pm, there is ample time for residents to take to the Public Squares for some good fun. It was a sight to see different ethnic groups enjoying themselves. With much egging from our hosts and my fellow journalists, I was "coerced" into joining my friendly Uighur friends. It may not look cool to young people, but I must admit it’s good fun. And my pretty Uighur partner is a WeChat friend now. Not Bad!

Fruits Farming & Infrastructure Investments

As we crossed parts of Southern Xinjiang over the next few days, we were captivated by the beautiful, but often harsh landscape. It is no wonder that along with the Tibetan and Mongolian Steppes, Xinjiang is reputed to be one of the harshest regions in the world. Thousands of years of erosion by wind and rain had left deep scars that cut into steep, bare mountains, leaving behind jagged that form a natural barrier.

For years now, desertification has been a main concern for China. But we are delighted to see that with technology and careful farming methods, farmers are reclaiming once barren desert land for fruit orchards. After munching through countless peaches, nectarines, water melons at every farmers’ houses, we can say with some authority that the fruits from Xinjiang are among the best we’ve tasted anywhere around the world, and they definitely live up to the premium status they enjoy in China.

But the challenge of bringing these produce to the markets – even within China – is something which the central government is definitely working on.

“In Eastern and Central China, in one day, you can cover 500 to 600 kilometres and that will be several provinces. But here, we need to drive three days before we’re out of Xinjiang. And the situation is worse for railways. So we need more support from the government, through the One Belt and One Road initiative, to improve infrastructure and lower costs," said Mr Guo Wei, Deputy Governor of the Wensu County People’s Government.

Similarly, vineyards have also helped to push the deserts back. The successes we saw was by no means a complete victory against desertification, because elsewhere, reports say over grazing had stripped some grasslands, with severe effects on the environment. But the successes here may offer some suggestions which other places can consider.

One such change is moving from grains and cotton, to lucrative cash crops like fruits. A growing middle class across the country, with a growing sense of healthy living, have combined to create a huge demand for fruits, which have become a necessity in Chinese diets. The good news is diversification for the agricultural sector, and increasing income for farmers.

According to a China Daily report dated 15 July 2015, "farmers in northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, saw per capita annual income grow by 13.7 percent last year with the help of government support efforts".

"The per capita net income rose to 8,296 yuan (US$1,340) for 2014," said Mr Bai Zhijie, a member of the Standing Committee of the Xinjiang autonomous region Party Committee. Speaking at an agricultural conference in Urumqi, he pointed out that this was the fourth year the annual income grew by around 1,000 yuan.

As income grew, the people’s expectations will rose. High on the priority for many Chinese citizens, will the demand for a clean, convenient, living environment. In the Bayingol Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture, we saw one of the most picturesque developments in China. Despite the harsh landscape, authorities had taken over formerly dirty river, cleaned it up, build it up with careful planning. Singaporeans will find the Korla’s riverfront strangely familiar, very much like the Robertson Quay, Blarke Quay and Boat Quay district. Not surprising, as our hosts told us the Korla’s Party Secretary had spent half a year in Singapore studying the island.

Inter-Ethnic Harmony

Before I travelled to Xinjiang, friends had urged me to be careful when I was there. Regular news reports over the years of attacks by terror groups have cast a long shadow on this harsh but picturesque landscape.

It will be totally off the mark to accuse the central government of neglect. Everywhere we turned, we saw new roads being constructed, along with investments in agriculture and industries. There are Uighur language TV stations and newspapers. On our last night in Urumqi, we went out on our own to look for a local bar.

Exploring the Uighur sectors, we were clearly the only non-Uighurs around. We attracted curious stares, but the people were friendly and helpful, when we asked for directions. When we had to spend some time waiting for a friend, we did not feel exposed or vulnerable. The local people looked at us, we smiled and waved, and they did the same.

It was the same story when we found a Uighur Club. Some were curious as we made our entrance, while the rest were having enjoying themselves. We could see that this is a pretty conservative society, with many men and women dancing with their own sexes. Apparently dancing between mixed sexes is confined to confirmed couples.

In Urumqi, we could see that some Han Chinese and Uighurs are still not comfortable interacting with each other. There is no hostility, just a respectful distance. In the other cities, this is less apparent. The Han Chinese are proud to show off the cuisine of the other ethnic groups, as well as their cultures. At the Century Square in Aksu Prefecture, residents of different ethnic background were seen in droves, young and old, enjoying themselves till sunset, which is past 10.30 pm in summer.

When I returned to Singapore, a friend shared an article on WeChat, written by a young woman, who had a Uighur mother and a Kazakh father. While she was fortunate to be able to speak and write in both languages, she also has to put up with family pressures from both sides on which is her "mother tongue". The situation got a little more complicated when she studies in a multi-language school. There, she became fluent in Mandarin, as well as other ethnic tongues.

"It was fun in school," she remembered. "we shared elegant love poems from Chinese classics, laughed at naughty stories playing on words."

Things got sticky when she visited her cousin in the hometown. Her cousin had reacted in shock when the writer said something in Mandarin. She was made to feel that she had compromised her ethnic identity. While she obliged and returned to her mother tongue, she was also quietly adamant that her cousin had over-reacted.

Looking Ahead

The "One Belt, One Road" is a far-sighted initiative, and it will bring exciting development to Xinjiang and many countries around China. The expansion of road, rail and air links will increase the connectivity between Central Asia and into Europe on one side, and with the rest of China and the Maritime Silk Road countries. With the infrastructure in place, we will eventually see the connectivity between the economies and peoples of the Continental and the Maritime Silk Road regions. The business opportunities and the synergies between the two regions will be tremendous.

For the different ethnic groups in Xinjiang, I hope this connectivity becomes a historical opportunity to embrace the diversity in our region. And may that diversity bring peace, harmony and growth for everyone.

Danny Lee is Suprevising Editor, International News at Channel NewsAsia, Singapore, and Senior Advisor to the Chairman of China-ASEAN Business Association (CABA)

The writer had joined dozens of international and Chinese journalists on the tour of Xinjiang in July. The trip was organised by the Information Office of China’s State Council. 


(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Editor:Bianji,Liang Jun)

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