SYNOPSIS:  Transit Urumqi.  A train ride across the new Silk Road. Dinner with U-man.   

For two full days I had explored remnants of the old Silk Road.  They were impressive and they spoke volumes of the days when camels were crisscrossing the desert and spices, textiles, pomegranates, grapes, tea, bronze, gold and silver, horses, and ideas were traveling from Xian as far as Rome

As my high-speed train left the ultramodern, mega-sized Turfan train station — this time I managed to get to the station close to town and board one of the fast trains — I could not help but reflect on what seems to me the Silk Road of our times, a new Silk Road of sorts. 

On and off, the desert was filled with fields of windmills producing green energy.   Instead of mounds of soil indicating the path of the Karez water channels, pumping stations dotted the desert harvesting oil and gas.  Refinery plants popped up in the middle of nowhere.  Electric lines seemed to go nowhere and two-, even four-lane highways, dams, and bridges,  crisscrossed the desert in all directions.  Human intervention was evidence everywhere.  Something was transported somewhere.  Is energy the new silk?  The infrastructure even out here in the middle of the Gobi Desert was vast, complex, modern and geared towards a future perhaps not even fathomable now. 

The old Silk Road was a conduit for ideas and goods to spread far and wide.  It was a melting pot in the making.  It mixed people from different races, ethnicities and belief systems.  Cooperation was needed and tolerance, to make trade possible and to allow participants along the way to prosper.  Cities like Turfan and Xian profited from this enterprise.  Yes, the ancient cities were walled for protection.  But they were open to all.  I think the Silk Road was a bit what TV, social media, and international trade shows are today.  It was a connector, a living newspaper; it was setting new standards.   

Looking at the Silk Road today, I still see the transport of goods, particularly energy-related ones, but I also see the crushing and the policing of ideas.  Not only Urumqi and Turfan, or cities, but even the train tracks are the subject of “safety measures”.  Miles and miles of tracks were equipped on both sides with barbed-wire fences and walls that could put the Berlin Wall to shame.  Are we all happy now that we can travel safely?  I bet, anyone who is determined to find a way to derail a train or bomb a park will find a way, especially if they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the process. Caravans were raided then, and bombs will fall today.  Security is an illusion. But we fall for it, and we give up one right after another for this illusion, don’t we?

Since I was back in town, I invited U-man for dinner.  It beats eating alone.  He suggested a fabulous Uighur restaurant so well hidden, that I almost didn’t find it.   I left ordering to the expert and we ended up with a table full of polo (a fried rice dish),  mushrooms, pickled carrots, stir-fried vegetables and meat.  Once again I was sure we would never be able to finish all of this, but we managed.   Once again, a beautiful dance performance with traditional music rounded out the night.  A young man did a spectacular single dance on the wooden floors of the restaurant. 

And after that, with the guidance of U-man’s GPS and bus map, I chanced the bus.  I almost felt like a local.   We walked almost  2 km.  At night, the police presence can be felt even stronger.  Police stations flash their blue and red lights.  Tanks are positioned in front of government buildings. And thanks to the new governor in town, every park is closed and fenced in, changes made just in the last two years.  Will they become the new normal?  Most likely, yes.

Summer, my AirBnB host had left and taken that far away job.  At least for now.  And so it was quiet at my “home”.

I packed for the next stretch of the trip, revisiting Xian.  Not only is it the starting point of the Silk Road, it is also home to the Terracotta Army buried underground.  And I have seen it 16 years ago. 

Good night from Urumqi.