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Discovery Central Asia #29
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Author & Photos by: HGS AVALON

The Almaty-Urumqi train, full of Kazakhstani students going to China to study Chinese and various sciences, spent half a day at the Druzhba Kazakhstan Border Station and, by dusk, was ready to cross the border slowly and laboriously.

Conversation was about what you can and cannot bring into China, accompanied by the advice of 'old experts' who suggested we eat all the food because it would be confiscated anyway; the Chinese customs cards presented to us in Kazakhstan had to be filled in on the way and there was controversy as to whether the whole truth should be written and jokes concerning where and how the thermometer should be placed for the most accurate temperature…

Many will agree with me that the first reality China strikes us with is the large scale inherent in all things. An example is the building of the Alashankou Railway Station: this main gate to the country is more than impressive to any visitor to the country, the feeling of solemnity intensified by the Chinese border guards saluting, during their impressive march to meet the train.

The topographical maps we brought in were immediately ignored after we said that their scale was 5 km to 1 cm. Nobody looked at the food, the anticipated search did not take place, neither did we take the temperature. Everything ended rather quickly, except for one unclear moment - our passports were taken! As it turned out, it is common practice in China, Chinese officials take a pretty long time with your documents, identifying your personality, checking and decorating your passport with the necessary stamps. Passportless we walked along the platform, absorbing the first impressions of being in this strange country.
'Urumqi is the first trade city in the Western Region. It exports goods to Kuldja, Chuguchak and Chinese Turkestan via Komul. There are many capitalists in it, who buy up herds of goods and sell them', wrote Valikhanov long ago. Urumqi is still the same, but one should not try to confine its role to that of a huge bazaar, as often happens.

Actually, Urumqi makes one ponder over how rapidly a city can develop. But when Kazakhstani and Russian people get here, they usually see only the great market, Bianjiang, and the district of the same name, which are intended only for the Russian speaking public, whose aim is buying up various goods. And very often, when I hear such people relate stories about the city that reveals only one side of the reality, I tend to compare them with the fantastic tales of medieval pilgrims (in today's context of course) who described dreadful sea-dragons and other fiction out of the imaginations of their ignorance. But, Urumqi is not only Bianjiang. It is green parks, the most beautiful of which is Hongshan, the park on the Red Mountain (though there is an opinion that Urumqi is an absolutely grey city deprived of any green plantations), and the Uighur district where life is still lived according to old traditions; and the ultramodern centre with its skyscrapers, each of them having its own distinguishing features of Chinese or Muslim style. Here you can meet a girl wearing the orange robe of a roadman, her face almost completely covered with a veil, a mobile phone in her hand. In my opinion, this picture strongly reflects the connection between yesterday and today - this is what makes Urumqi so remarkable.

The solution of three most important problems that bothered us on our first day in Urumqi dragged on for about half a day. The first problem was money. The banks would open only at 10, and before that time we could neither buy food nor get settled in a hotel. On our last day in Almaty we were greatly surprised that Yuans in the southern Kazakhstani capital were impossible to find, and we did not want to exchange money at the border. When the time came, our Dollars were successfully turned to Yuans in one of the numerous banks using a few phrases from a phrase-book which, contrary to my expectations, was understood by the Chinese. Thankfully the problem was solved.






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