A different side of China

AGENDA / Business story -  Xinjiang Region in China - Horses for rent at Lake Sayram in Xinjiang.
Picture Mark Mallabone The West Australian
Photo of Mark Mallabone

The west of the world's most populous country is an intriguing mix of cultures set against a backdrop of mountains, deserts and steppes.

I’m waiting for the peloton to cross the finish line on day four of the five-day race. An icy breeze blows down from the snow- capped mountains.

Shielding from the wind behind a line of support crew vehicles and media vans, I break cover every couple of minutes to peer into the distance for any sign of the leading riders.

If it sounds like I’m following a stage of the Tour De France in the Pyrenees or the Alps; well that’s exactly how it felt.

Except I’m 6000km away, in the heart of Central Asia on the ancient Silk Road.

I’m on the shore of Lake Sayram in the Tian Shan mountains of western China, not far from the border with Kazakhstan.

It’s 9C but with the wind-chill factor it feels much colder.

An enterprising band of young Kazakh men wearing Western-style caps and long embroidered coats are offering horserides to the tourists — 50 Yuan (about $10) for half an hour.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t ride because they’ll saddle up with you.

We ask where they are from and they point towards a small group of yurts on a hillside about a kilometre away.

All the time an older Kazakh man in traditional dress keeps an eye on proceedings from horseback.

The race is celebrating its 10th anniversary but it’s pure coincidence that we’re here gawking and trying to keep warm with the curious locals.

We’re on a cultural and economic tour as guests of the Chinese Government through the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the biggest but least developed (except Tibet) province in the Middle Kingdom.

This is a land of deserts, mountains and the Eurasian Steppe, where the ethnic Han Chinese are in the minority and more than 50 ethnic groups coexist (not always peacefully) in a region three times bigger than France.

It attracts tourists from within China but westerners, evidently, are uncommon.

The night before the race, the alpine town of Wenquan (“hot springs”) turned on a dance spectacular in the main square to welcome the competitors.

We were ushered straight to the front to see the schoolchildren perform traditional Uighur, Mongol and Kazakh dances to a thumping electronic beat.

The crowd whooped and cheered but biggest roar was saved for the little kids brought up on stage to demonstrate their martial-arts skills, kicking and punching the air as if to vanquish unseen attackers.

Backstage, the children queued to have their photo taken with me and one girl asked for my autograph. It was all rather strange.

We had driven up into the mountains from the nearby Yili River region, regarded as the treasure bowl of Xinjiang and, in poorly translated tourism material, the “wet island” of arid Central Asia.

At the Kegurchin lavender farm we learned it’s also promoted as the Provence of the East.

Lavender was first planted here in 1964 after a visit to France by the Chinese prime minister. He so admired its purple fields of flowers that he asked the French to help establish a crop in China.

The Yili region, with its blazing sun and plentiful water, was found to be particularly well suited to its cultivation.

One of the biggest of its kind in China, the farm produces 35 tonnes of oil a year from 466ha of plantings.

But tourism is as important as agriculture.

Visitors queued up for hot-air balloon rides, even though the basket was tethered to the alloy wheels of cars in the carpark and it only rose about 10m in the air.

The gift shop sold all manner of lavender-infused creams and potions bearing outlandish claims of skin-toning, eye-firming and health-affirming efficacy.

“Use this product and a 60-year-old will look 20 years younger,” the manager told us as he waved towards a wall of merchandise.

Just up the road there’s a horseracing track with a three- level clubhouse under construction, a grandstand and stables out the back which, on that early summer day, needed a damn good mucking out.

Horses were being put through their paces on the track while old Kazakh men were chatting away in the grandstand, keeping out of the sun and not paying much attention to their form.

Has horseracing, Ascot style, arrived in this remote part of China?

Well, yes and no. Back in the old days, the nomadic Kazakhs would pause in this region as part of the seasonal movement of their animals.

They would rest, renew friendships and attend to important family business, such as arranging marriages. A bit of horseracing was part of the fun.

In the era of trucks and motorbikes, the rhythm of life has changed.

But social customs have endured and someone with deep pockets has capitalised on local tradition by building a track which hosts only a few race days a year.

In addition to its natural beauty, the appeal of this region lies in its mishmash of cultures and ethnicities.

At a museum, we met an old man and a woman from the Xibo group.

These people originated thousands of kilometres away in north-eastern China, near modern-day Russia and Mongolia.

Fierce warriors, they were asked by the Chinese Emperor in 1764 to migrate to the western frontier to defend the realm from barbarians. They kindly agreed on the condition they could return 60 years later. They’re mostly still here.

The museum venerates their culture and two-year trek, which ended with 1000 soldiers and their families settling on the south bank of the Yili River.

Xibo man Tong Tie Shen was more than happy to sing for us the story of their migration in a low, raspy voice while he played the dongbu’er, a traditional two- stringed instrument before launching into a duet with a Xibo woman.

Then we’re back to Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital, a city (relatively small by Chinese standards) of three-million people where Bill Gates spent a few hours of his honeymoon. Apparently he wanted to see some mummies in the city museum.

It’s hard to see what else might have attracted him.

This is an urbanist’s nightmare: it’s all freeways, flyovers and underpasses where the traffic — all near-new Toyotas, Hondas, Volkswagens and myriad indecipherable marques — barely moves.

In every direction, the old has been erased and replaced with skyscrapers and Soviet-style apartment blocks.

Taking in the views of the downtown area from Red Hill — the city’s equivalent to Kings Park — our interpreter Mr Zhang told a story which seemed to encapsulate its transformation.

Centuries ago, he explained, the river in the middle of town used to flood. The locals decided it should be pacified by building a pagoda on Red Hill.

But the problem remained. So they built another hillside pagoda on the other side of the river.

Still it flooded.

Much later, engineers figured out that they could divert the river into pipes underground. And what of the prime land reclaimed above?

It became a freeway.

The city’s main bazaar, a local landmark, was quiet on the day we visited.

Sprawling over four levels in two buildings, it specialises in all kinds of preserved fruits and nuts, musical instruments, jewellery, clothes and rugs.

Trade hasn’t been the same since rioting broke out in the area in 2007. By the time order was restored a few days later, more than 200 people were dead.

Police milled about the main square and there was an armoured personnel carrier parked next to a normal police car.

We visited a Carrefour supermarket next to the bazaar to get an idea of the cost of living and in doing so discovered something about the local security situation.

We had to pass through an airport-style scanner and all bags went through an X-ray machine before customers were required to stow them away in lockers.

The situation was similar at the People’s Park in the heart of the downtown area, which was busy with tai chi and dancing classes in the evenings and office workers taking their breaks during the day.

Entry was through a few security gates and three khaki-clad armed police were posted outside on the footpath next to a busy road, automatic rifles draped over their shoulders.

To the locals, it’s nothing unusual and perhaps more reassuring than it is intrusive.

But to an outsider, it’s a reminder you’ve entered China’s beautiful but wild west.


Mark Mallabone was a guest of the Chinese Government.


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