In 2012 I left mainland for Hong Kong to join a new company, which turned to a new chapter of my career. It was that year that I had the honor to be sent to Xinjiang, an exotic place located at the Northwest of my motherland.
The topography in Xinjiang is featured by two plateaus sandwiched by three mountains. There is the Altai Mountain that lies at the furthest north, Tianshan at the central region, and the Kunlun Mountains at the most south.
Image Source: mappery.com
The one basin between Altai and Tianshan is called Junggar, and the other between Tianshan and the Kunlun Mountains is called Tarim. The Tianshan Mountains acts like a dividing line that separates Xinjiang into northern and southern parts. In practice, areas to the south of the Tianshan Mountains are referred as Nan-jiang (Southern Xinjiang), while those to the north are Bei-jiang (Northern Xinjiang).
Bei-jiang refers to elevations and pastures such as the Kanas Mountain and the Nalati grassland; while Nan-jiang suggests deserts and Gobi. When Bei-jiang reminds one of nomadic culture, Nan-jiang makes one recall agricultural civilization. Bei-jiang is influenced by Kazak and Oirat Mongolian culture, while Nan-jiang has the diversity of Uighurs and Tajiks. At Bei-jiang, one sings and rides, and at Nan-jiang, one plays Muqam (Uighur traditional music) and dances.
As the capital of the region, Urumqi lies in Bei-jiang, the area in general has a higher level of economic development compared to the South, while also having a higher cultural integration among different ethnicities.
Say Urumqi itself for example, one would be able to see modernized office buildings and youngsters dressing fashionably everywhere. There are all kinds of restaurants, bars and entertainment facilities of various styles and quality. Lives of locals are very close to those in other parts of China, and their consumption levels just come under those of citizens in cosmopolitans like Beijing and Shanghai. It is no exaggeration to call Urumqi as “the Pearl of Central Asia”.
This makes the humility and pure side of Nan-jiang stand out even more when compared to the North. It has less touch of modernization, and the impression of Nan-jiang being a land of dances, fruits, precious stones and minerals appear stronger in people’s heads. There hides an impressive amount of important resources such as oil and natural gas underneath the vast Taklamakan Desert. Coal, colored and black metal are only some of the abundant supply of reserves underneath the mountains surrounding the desert.
There are oases of all sizes scattered near the Tarim Basin. After hundreds of years of developing and farming, a well-developed irrigation system has been formed in the area. Together with ample sunlight, the area has become the most important production grounds of fine cotton and specialty fruits in China.
I recall the first time visiting in Kashgar, the westernmost city in Nan-jiang and in China with my colleague during a business trip. As we walked on the roads, it almost felt like we were in another country. 90% of the city’s populations are Uighurs, and naturally me and my colleague had immediately become the ethnic minority there. It was in Kashgar that we first tasted the Xinjiang gourmet meals of Uyghur “Polu” (aka Pilaf), baked buns “Samsa” with roasted mutton and the stirred noodles “lengmen”.
It was here that we had hiked our way to the still-in-function Old City that boasts a thousand years of history. It was also here that we had seen the tomb of Afaq Khoja that has been withstanding in 300 years of winds and storms. On top of that, Kashgar was the place where we had the opportunity to visit the Id Kah Mosque – China’s largest mosque – in order to experience the strong charismatic side of the Islamic culture.
One must physically walk around Xinjiang to be able to feel the endless charm of this far-reaching piece of land!