Friday, October 23, 2009

A Place in the World Without Internet

A Place in the World without Internet

October 17, 2009

I’ve driven through Nebraska, Nevada, Southern Illinois, and nothing quite compares to the landscape in China’s Xinjiang Province. It’s wide and open, nearly devoid of people in an otherwise crowded country. It is brown—dirt? Sand? Radioactive waste? I’m not sure. I feel like I’m on a train heading toward the world’s end, or am at least entering a different country. I am still in China though, heading to Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Some fun facts about Xinjiang Province: It is one-sixth the size of China’s landmass but is home to just one-sixtieth of the country’s people. Nearly 50 of China’s 56 ethnic minorities live here. The province borders eight countries, some of which you may have never heard of—former Soviet states including Kazakhstan (home of Borat), Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, among others. The provincial capital, Urumqi is a whopping 2250km from any ocean, allowing it to boast the title of “Further City in the World from an Ocean.”

We have just stopped in Turpan, a city 200km southwest of Urumqi and the station signs are in Chinese and (what appears to be) Arabic. Some passengers have disembarked and I believe they are refilling the train’s water supply which went dry sometime this morning. No water for teeth brushing or toilet flushing, but these are not uncommon occurrences on train rides of 40+ hours. I have devised a system in which I wake up at 4am, before even the earliest of risers, and take care of my business then. No waiting in line for the toilet and no running out of water.

We have now pulled out of Turpan and are, once again, surrounded by nothing. Or everything. I can’t decide. The radio is broadcasting Beijing News and it cuts to commercial but not before playing a familiar jingle. It’s the music from Milwaukee’s TMJ4 News. I am oddly comforted by this sound I would normally find irksome. Anything that reminds me of home is pleasant when I’m this far away from it.

Our train has just passed a truck, one of few I’ve seen during the past hour of gazing out the window. There are at least a dozen men in the cab, which is covered by a large tarp. It reminds me of a scene from a movie in which immigrants are trying to illegally cross a border. One of the men waves at me (the train), which is strange. Chinese people never wave. I once explained to Ming how in America we often wave at passing trains and planes; he looked at me confused. Maybe it is a strange habit, but I find it nice when strangers wave at each other, and in this case, it has assured me that I’m probably not witnessing a pack of fleeing refugees.

Later. . .

Turpan gave way to mountains, then vegetation, and finally to the sprawling oasis of Urumqi. I guess what surprises me the most about this city is how much it resembles other Chinese cities. There are a few elements to Urumqi, however, that make it seemingly unique, sometimes tragically.

First, nobody stares at me here. Ever. Not even Beijing can make such a claim. Are there a lot of foreigners in Urumqi? The answer to this is both yes and no. In the sense that I am a foreigner, an American of Western European ethnicity—then no, there aren’t. I’ve seen one other whitey all day. I have seen myriad Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian, and Eastern European-looking individuals. Are they foreigners? I guess it depends on your perspective. Most of them are quite un-Chinese in appearance, but they probably have deeper roots to this area than most Han (ethnic majority in China and what you and I often think of as “Chinese”) living here. Among all this diversity, I could easily fit in here—even with my botched Chinese, locals would just assume my native tongue was Kazakh, Russian, or Uighur, all common languages in Xinjiang.

Which brings me to my next observation, nearly every sign has both Chinese and Uighur (looks like Arabic) on it, some even have Russian. After months of Mandarin, it’s refreshing to hear something different, even if I don’t understand it. My only hang up is knowing when it’s appropriate to use Mandarin. Should I use it when addressing someone who is clearly not Han Chinese? Considering there’s a much better chance they’ll speak Mandarin over English, I’m going to stick to speaking Chinese and see what happens. Hopefully I won’t cause any hurt feelings.

Unfortunately, with all this wonderful diversity often comes resentment and unrest. I am unable to get very deep into the politics of the region, but perhaps we can draw some parallels between Xinjiang and Tibet. Main issues: Han Chinese have moved en mass to the region and Beijing has done a lot of development here. Ethnic minorities want more autonomy (at the very least) and feel their culture has been stripped away. In the past two years there have been bombings and rioting in Xinjiang, most recently this past July. This incident ultimately led to Facebook being blocked in China, as well as the internet being completely blocked in all of Xinjiang Province. Yes, this province has gone over three months without internet, with no connection in sight. I’m shocked this place can still function in the 21st century without it, but there is some comfort in knowing that life can go on without this important piece of technology. Mostly, however, it just pisses me off—thanks Big Brother. Locals seem relatively calm and unsurprised by such restrictions. As exemplified here:

“When do you think you’ll have internet again?” I asked the hostel manager.

“I don’t know. Nobody knows. Maybe if things go well, after next year,” she answered cheerfully.

As if no internet wasn’t enough, there is military policing nearly every corner of the city, walking around in green camos carrying around clubs, batons, and guns (tasers?). Their presence makes me uneasy, but I’m out of here tomorrow. Word is I won’t be seeing them outside of Urumqi. I’ll let you know what it’s like once I arrive in Turpan.

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