Harmony in the Snow

In divided Urumqi, a park brings people together

By / December 2015

Urumqi’s People’s Park has been around for more than 100 years. Initially it was a rich man’s garden. But come the revolution and all things ‘people’, bourgeois land was requisitioned for the proletariat and people’s parks were born all across China.

Despite being in the heart of Uyghur Muslim territory, Urumqi’s version is quintessentially Chinese. Filled with pagodas, imported weeping willows from inner China and lakes and man-made streams dotted with humped-backed bridges, it is the playground of rich and poor, young and old, Uyghur and Han Chinese, in fact anyone seeking solace from the sky scrapers and super highways of this 21st century mega-city.

Every morning at sunrise flows a steady stream of sword-carrying, fan-wielding, Diablo-dicing and birdcage-balancing enthusiasts. They join musicians, alone or in groups, choirs, ballroom dancers, table tennis and badminton demons to produce an unrivalled cacophony of sight and sound that baffles my western sensibilities.

Groups of friends swirl fans to the gentle strains of the homeland oblivious to the pulsating country and western hits accompanying an army of line dancers mere metres from them. A western-trained classical violinist playing a delicate Bach concerto drowned out by the strident tones of Beijing Opera in a neighbouring pagoda neither cares nor sees the need to move. Nobody gives a second glance to the backwards walkers, those who improve their circulation by banging their backs against the bark of trees. Nobody stares at the people who stand for long periods on one leg.

Since lethal suicide bombings a year ago in a neighbouring street closed the park for a month, visitors are now frisked for weapons and airport-securitied much to the consternation and often resistance of the old-timers. The former revolutionaries cannot understand why the races cannot live in harmony as in the ‘good old days’ when they as Han Chinese were welcomed warmly by the original Muslim inhabitants of the region to work hard and open up the West. What they don’t realise is that local hospitality is lavish but time-limited. They are often now described as ‘the guests who won’t leave’.

Urumqi summers cannot be beaten for morning exercise-friendly climes, but winter is quite another challenge. Whilst summer crowds are in the thousands, winter is reserved for ‘mere’ hundreds who brave the crueller air, the ice and snow to meet friends and keep in shape.

Cherry blossom and flower beds bedecked with tulips, lupins, azaleas and trees of every colour shape and variety have been replaced with fluorescent neon blossom and plastic leaves draped over bare twigs. Every new fall of snow gives winter drabness a fresh cleansing against the coal-dust clogged wintry air. Veteran ice skaters glide seamlessly over a frozen fishpond encircling a majestic pagoda and little boys and girls twirl with difficulty in the nursery area reserved for beginners and those on sleds who propel themselves around using metal poles.

Kids tear up and down artificial slopes on inflated car inner tubes and the junior national speed skating squad trains vigorously on a purpose-built circuit. Kazakh herders who used to set up their yurts in the park in winter and rent out old skates have sadly been replaced by commercial companies cashing in on the business.

On a recent Sunday morning, I visited the park. Snow was tumbling from the sky. Uyghur music blared from speakers in a corner of the park as Uyghur dance fans, undeterred by the frigid weather, gathered for the morning’s revelry. Han Chinese aficionados, kitted out for the occasion in Uyghur national costume, pounded the boards with more verve even than their local counterparts, whilst some Chinese men, unaware of the different Uyghur dancing styles of men and women, twirled around, oblivious to the consternation and merriment caused by their faux pas.

Soon the corner of the park was packed with people swirling to the rhythmic movement of the ancient art. And for a brief moment the two races, typically so divided, blended together unconsciously as the snow fell and the wind blew.


Ruth Ingram, whose writing has also appeared in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.