Central Asia's Most Important City Is ... Not in Central Asia

It's in China. Welcome to Urumqi.
urumqibanner.jpgUrumqi's mixture of cultures is unique in China. (DPerstin/Flickr)

Central Asia's beating heart, the commercial hub of the region that cultivated the old Silk Road, is neither of the fabled Thousand and One Nights cities of Samarkand or Bukhara. In fact, the center of this region is not even really in Central Asia. It's in China.

Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, the autonomous region that together with Tibet makes up China's western edge, is a bubbling, gritty metropolis, and probably the most cosmopolitan place between Shanghai and Istanbul. On the surface, Urumqi resembles most second-tier Chinese industrial hubs. But, with its myriad advertisements, signs and business placards in Chinese, Uighur, Russian, Kazakh and Kyrgyz -- written in Chinese, Arabic or Cyrillic scripts --Urumqi is no ordinary Chinese city. In fact, it has emerged as the de facto capital of a revived Central Asia, a region poised to assume a higher profile in the world's energy, diplomatic, and cultural scenes.

On the street, in the immense electronics, clothes, and kitchenware markets, and in the 24-hour all-inclusive spas used by traders as cheap hotels, the signs of Urumqi's variety are everywhere. You regularly find pudgy Guangzhou businessmen next to nervous-looking Pakistani merchants from Peshawar, standing across the street from entire Russian families, dressed in white, as if on vacation in the Greek Isles. Iranian truck drivers commiserate with Farsi-speaking Tajiks, and entrepreneurs from Mumbai and Bangkok haggle in English with local Uighurs hocking goods manufactured in Shenzhen. The Turkic peoples of Eurasia: Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks, and even some Turkmen and Azeris, mingle with Uighurs and Turks from Anatolia: all groups who share a language family that is still prevalent in Xinjiang.

They are all here for one reason: to do business. The elderly shuttle trader with her overstuffed cargo bags will buy plastic Chinese merchandise and then, following a flight or bus trip back to a remote region like Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, will re-sell these goods at inflated prices. The mid-range container-owner is here to fill rail carriages with air-conditioners, laptops or nylon carpets to travel back to the bustling bazaars of the Ferghana Valley, where he will re-sell his items in bulk to retailers in affluent Kazakhstan or Russia. The big businessman is here to open a new branch office for his rapidly-growing commercial empire. Urumqi, farther from the sea than any other city in the world, has all of the brands and services available in China's coastal cities. It is just that they're a bit more rough-and-ready: The latest Samsung smartphone is still in its bubble wrap, while the flashy BMW is still on the transport truck.

The official population of Urumqi is around 3 million, and the majority of these people are Han Chinese, not Uighur. But the real population is probably substantially higher. GDP per capita, at around $11,000 is almost double China's average and just below that of cities like Beijing and Shanghai. This isn't an accident: the Chinese government has cultivated Urumqi at the expense of Xinjiang's traditional trading cities of Turpan and Kashgar. Anyone flying from coastal China to Central Asia almost always must stop in Urumqi first. The city also serves as the hub for China's major railway and pipeline arteries, connecting the country's major cities with Central Asia, Russia, and the Middle East. It's of little surprise, then, that such a wide variety of travelers find their way to the city.

Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. He co-runs chinaincentralasia.com.

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