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West of the West

By Yang Xina (People's Daily Online)    14:19, June 21, 2019

The Kalajun grassland in Yili which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2013. (Photo/Yang Xincheng)

I am a girl who grew up in Yining, the capital city of Yili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture, which is close to the border between China and Kazakhstan. It is 4,500 kilometers from Shanghai, the metropolis lying on the east coast of China, where I went to college in the year 2000.

I often marveled at the distance between my hometown and Shanghai, which is across China from the west to the east.

I still remember the first time I had to get up early in the morning, to line up for hours for a train ticket to go home for Spring Festival. The number of people was so large that we were arranged in a stadium to wait. Unsurprisingly, when it was my turn, the tickets had already been sold out, and the seller asked me tentatively whether I wanted a standing-room-only.

The journey would be 52 hours, during the peak of the Spring Festival travel rush. However, driven by a strong desire to go home, I accepted the offer and brought a backless stool with me, thinking that it might be of some help.

However, the fact proved that I had been too optimistic about the situation. The carriages were so crowded that some of the passengers didn't even have room to put their luggage. The train was like the busiest subway in rush hour, and I couldn't even move my feet, let alone sit down.

The journey turned into a nightmare, and I thought that I would vomit on everyone around me, as I couldn't even make it to the bathroom. When the train finally arrived at its terminal, Urumqi, the passengers cheered. However, for me, the journey had not yet ended, and I had to take a flight or a 10-hour bus trip to get to my hometown.

After this horrible experience, I vowed to myself that I would never take a train again, at least for the rest of my college years.

Though it's far from the most bustling place in China, I still think it's a blessing to be born in Yili.

I can see the snow-capped mountains in the center of the city, which conjured up in me the wildest imagination of a world unknown. I love to listen to the rustling of the leaves of poplar trees that line the streets, the noise created by their broad leaves sounding like musical notes to me.

Surrounded by farmland and orchards, the city looks beautiful in all seasons, and you can appreciate pink apricot blossoms in April and white apple flowers in May.

Only a few kilometers away, a purple dreamland unveils itself in June in China's largest lavender growing base, where more than 95 percent of the country's lavender is grown.

If you are lucky enough to take a plane trip across Yili, you will find the land turns into a great palette of different colors: green is the rice, corn and other plants; gold the sunflowers and rapeseed; white the hops and potatoes; purple the lavender. If you go further inland, you will find forests, grassland, lakes and glaciers...

In 2008, Chinese National Geography, the CNG, a magazine featuring Chinese geography and culture, made a selection of the 10 most abundant places in China, where people and nature live in great harmony. Yili ranked the third, following Chengdu Plain in Sichuan and Jianan Plain in Taiwan.

Besides its magnificent natural scenery, the land is also endowed with a great diversity in culture.

Yili consists of one capital city and eight counties. It covers an area of 56,500 square kilometers with a population of 3 million, of which 46 ethnic minority groups take up 64 percent of the whole population.

When I was in Junior High, I had a classmate whose name is Dilina. She has eyes as blue as the Balkhash Lake. I tried to learn about her family, and she told me that her ancestors were probably from Russia.

Walking the streets, I have always been fascinated by the different colors of people's hair and eyes and the languages they speak. There are 47 nationalities in total, and they are as diversified as the landscape in Yili.

Kazaks, the main ethnic group in Yili, are described as a people on horseback, since they learn to ride as children, and they are gifted musicians and poets. Xibo, who are good at archery and paper-cutting, were ordered to Yili in the 18th century by the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) intending to strengthen the defense of the frontiers. Also Russians, who came to Yili in the late 18th and 19th century, bringing with them bread, ice cream, and accordions.

Different people came to Yili for different reasons, but they all settled down and formed a unique culture which is different from the rest of China, making Yili a melting pot for different cultures, customs and religions.

Wang Meng, one of the most prestigious writers in China and a native Beijinger, stayed in Yili for about 14 years (1963-1978). He wrote in his book that it was a stroke of great luck for him to go to Yili, for it enabled him to appreciate a place geographically and culturally different from inland China, broadening his mind and enriching his soul.

With the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Xinjiang government has issued a new transportation development plan (2016-2030), detailing it to become one of the key transportation hubs along the BRI routes, which mainly involves the building of three transport routes across the autonomous region. The middle path runs across the Central China Plain to Xinjiang through the second Eurasian land bridge and extends to Central Asia and Europe through two ports, one of which is Horgos located in Yili.

Horgos is one of the oldest land ports in China. It borders on Kazakhstan and is 378 kilometers from Almaty, one of the biggest cities in Central Asia, even closer than its capital city Urumqi, which is 670 kilometers away. It is China's nearest port to Kazakhstan and Central Asia and the largest highway port in western China.

According to statistics in 2014, cargo passing through Horgos takes up half of Xinjiang's import/export volume, since the Horgos Railway went into operation in December 2012.

Besides geographical advantages, Yili also has its strengths in cultural connections. Some of the ethnic groups such as Kazak, Tajik, Uzbek, Kirghiz and Russian share the same languages and customs with nationalities in Central Asia and some European countries.

We once met a Kirghiz driver who could not only speak Kirghiz, but could also communicate in Han, Kazak and Russian, which is convenient for him to do business. In Yili, it's not surprising to meet someone who can speak several languages.

Yili, as the most culturally diversified place in China, serves as an excellent example of how different cultures, religions and nations live in great harmony and integrate.

As a prominent location on the Belt and Road, the initiative will inject new impetus to the development of this area and recover its original beauty. 


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(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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