I woke with a start from my minimal sleep on the night train from Dunhuang to Turpan. A pair of police officers was shaking my leg and demanding mine and my friend’s passports at 4:00 in the morning. They photographed our passport pages and visa pages, took our phone numbers, and then pictures of our faces. For several minutes, they held onto our passports and chattered back and forth in Mandarin before deciding to give them back and let us on our way.
A few hours later, I left the train alone (my friend was bound for Urümqi, the capital of Xinjiang) and headed through a security checkpoint before leaving the station. The officer at the checkpoint again took my passport and told me to wait while he went into a booth covered in one-way mirrors. Another officer emerged and told me to follow, and I was brought to a police station nearby. He went inside to do something with my passport, and I waited outside the door for close to 15 minutes. Eventually, he came back out and rattled off a list of questions.
Are you a tourist?
Are you alone?
How long are you staying in Turpan?
Why are you here?
Where are you staying in Turpan?
At each answer, he would squint and ponder my response a moment before continuing. He decided he was satisfied and sent me on my way, allowing me access into Turpan, my first stop in Xinjiang.
Old vs New
There’s something China has been heavily criticized for over the last 10 years — the systematic destruction of all things overtly traditional. In all major cities, the old towns have either been demolished or closed off and turned into tourist attractions. But none remain where people just live. It’s the reason I didn’t like Beijing. It felt soulless, like a giant shopping mall with no distinguishing features.
That destruction of traditional buildings and old areas has been happening in major and minor cities all across China, and despite being China’s frontier, Xinjiang is no exception. The difference is that it’s happening now. Much of Turpan is still the old Uighur-style architecture, but it’s going fast. My hostel was in the old city, but literally across the street was a massive dirt lot where a neighborhood once stood. Across that lot, high rise apartment buildings. Further down the street, the old town’s narrow dirt streets run right up to the wide boulevards made in typical modern Chinese fashion. The culture clash is real and obvious as China’s eradication of traditional culture unfolds in real time in Xinjiang as the rest of China has already been cleansed in the name of progress and modernity.
That said, I chose to not spend any time in Turpan outside its old city, because what’s the point? Every foray I took outside the old town brought me down boulevards identical to the ones in Dunhuang, which were identical to the ones in Jiayuguan, which were identical to the ones in Beijing. The difference was that the closer you get to Beijing, the less local culture there is. You can even see it in the number of markets. Turpan has its entire old city. Dunhuang has street markets for days. Jiayuguan has one that I could find. Beijing has highrise shopping malls disguised by names like “Silk Street Market” (my visit to Silk Street is my biggest regret thus far). But Turpan’s old city is where it’s at. My attitude changed dramatically when I entered Xinjiang and explored Turpan because it’s just so much cooler than what I’ve seen in China so far which, frankly, has bored me.
Culturally, Turpan (and I assume the rest of the centers of Uighur culture) bears absolutely no resemblance to China. This is a Central Asian culture through and through. Walking through Uighur areas makes me feel more like I’m in the Middle East, like Iran or parts of Turkey. The signs all have Mandarin on them, but are first and foremost in Arabic. It’s a very unique part of the world that has street signs in Arabic, Mandarin, and English. Once I get to Kyrgyzstan and beyond, I’ll see Arabic and Russian side-by-side, but for now this is interesting enough.
The other cool thing about Turpan is that it’s the “Grape Capital of China.” I don’t know how much competition there is in China for that title, but it’s obvious that grapes are a serious thing here. The city is semi-rural. Most of the time, cities with lots of farms have just that — lots of farms. But in Turpan, it’s vineyards. Along the main roads, vineyards. In fields enclosed by the old city, vineyards. In markets, raisins are the popular snack. Apparently wine isn’t as much of a thing, but that just means more raisins to go around, I suppose.
But no vineyards that I saw outside the old city. It appears that those, too, are under threat. There’s the Grape Valley, which is now a tourist attraction that you too can visit for a mere 60 yuan, but it seems that city planners don’t much care for the less lucrative ones. Fingers crossed that Turpan can weather the storm of Chinese development.
Market Police Check and Accidentally Starring in a Government Video
On our first (and only) night in Turpan, we decided to go check out some of the night markets we had heard about. We went to two that were in our area, but there’s more scattered around. The first was a local market along the main street on the western edge of the old town. It was mostly small street food things like lamb kebabs and flatbread like I found in Jiayuguan. A few noodle places, and lots and lots of fruit and vegetable stands.
The second was supposedly a bit more commercial, and it was. It had a big flashing sign and Christmas lights strung up between fancy-looking food stands. It reminded me of the farmer’s markets and breweries that pop up in gentrified neighborhoods in the US. But to enter, we first had to go through a security checkpoint where they logged our passports and took our photos. One of my friends was Taiwanese and the police insisted that he needed his Chinese passport as they didn’t recognize Taiwan, and the ensuing argument made him relieved to get out of there. Another friend didn’t have his passport with him and was thus not allowed entry to the market, so we just bought noodles to go and joined him in the street outside. Even that didn’t last as police officers blew their whistles at us for obstructing the empty road. It occurred to us later that all the passport checks were the police tracking our movements in the city. The rest of our movements that didn’t require passports were watched and observed, with whistles blown to tell us we were deviating from the designated areas.
The next morning as we prepared to leave, a film crew appeared in our hostel. My friend had gone to sit down and write an address for another friend and was promptly the subject of their cameras. They explained that they were making a video for the government. I sat with a Swiss couple who had their baby with them, and the moment a few Chinese guys joined us, we became the subject of the video in a totally-not-staged group shot. They told us to look natural. I looked at the Swiss guy.
“C’est très bizarre, non?” It’s very weird, no?
He nodded and we scattered away from the camera. Even as my friend and I left the hostel, we were followed by cameramen. So we might show up on the government channel later. IDK.