A Bdulrahman is perched on a wooden stool with his knees splayed far apart. He draws on the tall, thin Shisha pipe standing at his side. Exhaling, smoke billows out of his mouth before quickly dissipating into the scorching midday sunlight. As I approach his fruit and nut store at the far end of the bazaar, a thick waft of flavored air – oily and sweet, somewhere between cherry and grape – challenges my recently digested kebab to reveal itself.
Slightly queasy, I greet Abdulrahman with what I hope will be a crowd-pleaser: “As-Salamu Alaykum,” “May peace be upon you.” The phrase, used by Muslims the world over, comes with a requisite response: “Wa’alaykumu s-Salam,” “And Peace be to you.”
Abdulrahman completes the salutation, and, looking up from his smoking and seeing my face – European, through and through – switches to the lingua franca around these parts: Chinese.
“Ni shi naguo ren?” (Where are you from?) He enquires in pitch-perfect Mandarin.
“England. And you?”
“Me? I was born here, in Urumqi!”
Urumqi is the capital of China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Bordering on India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia, Xinjiang is China’s bridgehead into Central Asia.
But China is not monolithic. For sure, Xinjiang is in China, but it is a different region to the one you’ll experience in Beijing, or in Hong Kong. The Han-dominated homogeneity of the country’s eastern regions is fused away here. The result is China’s Central Asia: a heady concoction of color, religion and language.
Ethnic diversity is actually a hallmark of many regions in China. Officially, 56 ethnic groups call the country home. The 55 minority groups constitute almost 10 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people. The remaining 90-odd percent are Han, and when citizens of other countries imagine a “typical” Chinese, it’s inevitably a set of Han facial features that springs to mind.
China officially recognizes 13 peoples indigenous to Xinjiang: Uygur, Han, Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, Mongolian, Tajik, Xibo, Manchu, Uzbek, Russian, Daur and Tatar. Han make up 40 percent of the population. “Minorities,” as their colloquially known, are in the majority here.
Xinjiang’s ethnic heterogeneity is a product of thousands of years of intermingling Persian, Turkic, Mongol and Han peoples. Migrating populations originally came for the grasslands, and then for the trade. All branches of the ancient “Silk Road,” the interconnecting network of trade routes that connected East China to far-flung Africa and Europe, passed through modern-day Xinjiang, earning it the timeworn epithet, “the Heart of Eurasia.”
The Uygur are by far the largest “minority” in Xinjiang. Region-wide, they number slightly more than Han, and this breakdown is represented in microcosm at Urumqi’s grand bazaar, where I met Abdulrahman. “I mainly sell nuts. To my right is a Han seller who specializes in fruit, and to my left is a Uygur friend who makes trinkets,” he says. “We’re all here together, chatting and joking, all day every day.”
Abdulrahman knows a few English phrases, which he’s picked up from the odd foreign tourist who finds his or her way to the bazaar. Where do the foreign tourists come from? “A few from Japan, the occasional American; quite a few Germans,” he estimates.