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.