URUMQI: In Yongxin, a village administered by Urumqi around 30km away, a gigantic monument shoots up into the sky – this is the geographical centre of the Asian continent.
While tourists pose for photographs under the landmark, potato farmer Chen Gong, 70, explains that he has never left the outer limits of Urumqi.
“I am Urumqi born and bred. I’ve never been to the coast. If I had the chance, I’d love to see the sea, ” he says.
The Pole of Inaccessibility, the farthest point on land from the coastline, is in China’s far west region of Xinjiang.
But it is far from inaccessible. In fact, it is Xinjiang’s unique position on the Silk Road – ancient and modern – that puts it on the map.
For centuries, the ringing bells of camel caravans carrying merchants and tourists have signalled the arrival of new goods and ideas.
Today, trains and planes have made modern Xinjiang better connected than ever before.
As China’s key trade gateway to Central and West Asia, the remote region’s position as the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative is unmistakable.
In Kashgar Old Town, southern Xinjiang, Yumaerjan Usaan and his father Yusaanjan Yusuyin play a cheerful dutar-tabour duet at the door of their wooden handicraft shop.
“The traditional music of Kashgar was influenced by the music heard along the ancient Silk Road, ” says Nurmemet Rishat, composer and vice-chairman of the Musician’s Association of Kashgar.
Archaeological digs have unearthed evidence that the Chinese four-stringed pipa was played here 1, 100 years ago.
The influence of India and Persia can be seen in local stringed instruments such as the dutar or rewap.
And the Yangqin, a Chinese hammered dulcimer with roots in western Asia, also found its way to Xinjiang thanks to the ancient trade routes.
Just like the music, the ancient Silk Road, and the people, languages and products that travelled along it made Xinjiang what it is today: a cultural patchwork.
Once an oasis in the vast sand, Kashgar was an important staging post. A place where travellers, carriages and camels rested before continuing their trek on the Silk Road.A few steps away from the wooden ware shop is Mewlan Turaq’s boutique. Racks of ornate, beaded and embroidered costumes jostle for space next to modern, modified outfits, all featuring Mewlan’s unique, eye-catching designs.
With the help of his mother Aygul Khasim, a tailor, Mewlan recreated outfits that were once everyday wear in Xinjiang, and made a two-minute video to show the evolution of Uighur fashion over the past century.
“We can see that time has left different marks on our clothes, and different cultures have blended, ” said Mewlan.
He can wax lyrical about the typical central Asia pattern found on old caps, or the Manchu motifs embroidered with Han techniques on a set of Uighur costumes from a century ago.
From his perspective, cultures in the east and west have met and melded in Kashgar, and that shows in the evolution of the area’s fashion.“I care about the cultures, the history and the aesthetic values behind the clothes. More importantly, I would like to see how cultures blend together and what cultures these blending elements are from, ” said the designer.
In contrast to the bazaars on the winding old lanes of Kashgar, shopping malls in the modern metropolis of Urumqi are crowded with young people going to the movies, dinner, or shopping in fast fashion retailers like Zara and H&M.
Dating today is very different from the experience of Saiyida Abulizi and Asim Mohammad 23 years ago.
Back then, to see Saiyida, Asim had to travel from his hometown Lahore, Pakistan, all the way to the capital city of Xinjiang.
“In 1994 there was no direct flight between Pakistan and Xinjiang. So I had to come by bus. It was so long. It took maybe seven to eight days, ” says Asim, sitting side by side with his wife.
“At that time he couldn’t speak Chinese. He didn’t tell me about his long trips until we got engaged, and his Chinese had improved.
“It deeply touched my heart when I found out, ” says Saiyida.
Asim’s trek for love became easier a year later when a direct flight between Lahore and Urumqi was launched.
“Every 15 days I would come and stay here for one month, ” says Asim,
“It’s very helpful and very easy.”
Together, they run a jewellery shop at Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar, a contemporary shopping mall with products from Asia and Europe.
“Urumqi is very different now from 20 years ago. We have buses, BRT, and even the metro. It is all so convenient, ” says Asim. — Xinhua