One Night in Ürümqi – Ch. 4
Ürümqi revealed its true byzantine character while we searched for dinner. We hacked through the streets as if trying to solve some elaborate, accidental maze, making sudden rights and lefts, coming to abrupt stops, scratching our heads, then switching our direction with jolting three-point reversals and U-turns—every abrupt movement admonished by Aziz’s exasperated groans.
Ensconced in our luxury ride, it was all set to music.
Even during the day, charting yourself on a grid was next to impossible. You needed specifics: landmarks, odors, a uniquely shaped bank of rising smoke, a specific arrangement of coal trucks. Even in the heart of the city, you needed a rural sense of direction. Your travel guidebook couldn’t help you, neither could your mental map. Alleys became sudden thoroughfares that could arrive at a dead end or spill out into a congested plaza. The usual signs of road rage—cutting someone off or tailgating—didn’t raise a hackle, they were the norm. Yet no one lost their temper or screamed.
When these folks got behind their wheels, the polite masks I had seen at restaurants or in homes dissolved, revealing the nervy faces of fierce, apparent crabs thrown out of their bucket and into a maze, crawling and pinching and pulling at one another with red-handed derring-do. We weren’t alone. We were part of the communal lost. Everyone we passed seemed caught in the lostness at different depths: behind their wheels, pushing their carts; crowding around a fight, a fortune-teller, or a street merchant; skulking out alone or in gangs, hard looks in their eyes, a blur of worn humanity spinning against another blur of hot coals, smoke, steam, soot, blood, flame, animal flesh, and the grim angles of crumbling walls. And as soon as I thought we had oriented ourselves or discovered a way out, we were dragged right back in by the other crabs.
Fences everywhere channeled pedestrians and traffic along the streets, roads, medians, parks, sidewalks, and pathways, dissuading free movement and, God forbid, jaywalking.
Breaks in the fences allowed you to step out and cross the street without going blocks out of your way. Checkpoints appeared without warning, without reason, at all hours of the day. Military and police security, undercover vehicles, and every devising of personnel carriers coursed the streets, blinking with lights and blaring repetitive, soothing music and slogans appealing for social harmony from banks of loudspeakers. Areas designated as “troublezones”—that is, Uyghur neighborhoods—were assaulted by the strobes of an absurd number of motion-triggered cameras, clinging like bunches of mushrooms to the sides of utility poles and yearning to capture any sign of ethnic trouble. Constant surveillance badgered the citizenry and kept them on the move. It was unnerving.
A few days after our arrival, Rihangül’s younger brother, Rakipjan—a charismatic Bruce Lee meets Bugs Bunny sort of young man—and I had entertained ourselves amid the boredom of an afternoon traffic jam by punkishly raising our middle fingers at the cameras when the strobes went off. Our thrill seeking before the eyes of the authorities was more of a risk for him than for me. With China’s reputation for paranoid surveillance, I had to ask whether some Central Party someone, walled off in a cramped Central Party cubicle, was really scanning every image and tracing my wayward finger back to me.
In the windows of the passing security vehicles, at least a third of the occupants were asleep, their foreheads bouncing off the butts
of their rifles, or snoring at the tips of their batons, caught between the People and the Party.
We closed in on a restaurant called King’s Palace. Aziz informed us he could park anywhere he pleased because of his military plates. We parked at the base of the observation tower next to Erdaoqiao, a place where every spring Uyghur tightrope walker and national hero Adil Hoxur, the “King of the Sky” as he is known far and wide, takes his annual walk on-high above the square, to the delight of everyone. Once he was to perform in Kashgar near the Id Kha Mosque, and so many people arrived from all the towns and villages across Xinjiang that the Party cancelled his performance, fearing it would spark a revolt, and it just might have. Hoxur is a hero to Uyghurs and an attraction to Han Chinese and the rest of China’s minorities. Many tightrope walkers in these parts are orphans and were trained to walk the rope at a young age in what is regarded as an honorable tradition.
Aziz killed the engine and we got out. We walked a short distance past a Kentucky Fried Chicken, where the smug Colonel’s Kentucky charm had once sold me on the worst cup of coffee I had ever drunk. There weren’t many options in town besides Ciber Coffee.
Rounding a corner, we passed a favorite pomegranate juice stand where—even though it was an inconvenient distance from Rihangül’s apartment block—I had been coming to fill up at least three times daily. Rihangül and I scurried to keep up with Ahmat’s upbeat, athletic lope and Aziz’s rhythmic, energetic limp.
We walked under an archway and ascended the grand, banistered staircase into King’s Palace, one of Ürümqi’s top Uyghur restaurants.
It was a tony place, lush with ferns, vines, and potted trees, and furnished with rosewood booths, intricate carved walls, chandeliers, and kaleidoscopic, traditional ikat tablecloths. The polite host greeted us, hands clasped behind his back, surrounded by a coterie of male and female waiters, each dressed in a traditional Uyghur white, gold, and green tunic with a matching dopa, the square-faceted traditional Uyghur cap. He seated us in a booth on the far side of a large aquarium—a majestic, glowing blue spectacle heralding the center of the dining room. In it cruised a trio of small sharks—some dogfish or other squaliform—swimming back and forth, circling around and through one another, unblinking, mouths open, teeth bared, both beautiful and menacing.
The sharks' ceaseless, balletic flying about in the water was mesmerizing, choreographed by nature itself. If you could imagine them without teeth, they might have registered as “cute,” considering their size. But these sharks displayed waiting regiments of serrated teeth. And despite the deadness in their black eyes, they were alive to the last nerve. They loved and hated one another, rubbing against each other’s sandpapery skin, bonding and afraid to part, but quite willing to tear at each other’s flesh.
I had once reasoned if an animal was willing to eat one of its own or to eat you if the opportunity arose, it was quite acceptable to eat them first. But how detestable it seemed now to deprive a shark of its means of grace—its fins—and therefore, its life, in order to sate an extravagant lust for shark-fin soup. And these poor sharks were far from home: landlocked Ürümqi was known as “the farthest place from any sea.”
Our booth orbited at the edge of the sharkarium’s atmosphere.
Rihangül and I sat on the flank with a view of the streamlined beasts, leaving a gap between us so as not to rub signs of our relationship in our hosts’ faces. Ahmat and Aziz sat across from us. A dizzying Uyghur conversation erupted, and in the midst of it we perused the menu, made our choices, paid the bill, and waited for the food. That’s the way you do it in Xinjiang: you pay first . . .