A Kazakh in Urumqi

Christmas spirit on the new silk road – by Cobus Block


“Would you like to try our special Christmas fruit platter?” our waitress asks in Chinese, fur-trimmed, red-velvet stocking cap bobbing as she leans forward.

Kayrat glances my way and then responds, “Sure, bring us a platter and a pot of tea.”

“What about beer?” Yerbol asks the waitress.

Her reply is lost in the refrains of Jingle Bells, starting again for the third time.

“Bring us three Qingdaos each,” Yerbol yells, leaning back and reaching into a pocket for his cigarettes.

The walls of this crowded Urumqi bar are decked with purple boughs of synthetic holly and strands of silver tinsel. At the door the manager, wearing a President Obama mask and Santa’s cap, greets a newly arrived couple with a slight bow. Nearby, a large group of middle-aged women chat in Mandarin and huff smoke across a table of various deserts.

Two waiters in red jackets deliver a platter of apples, cantaloupe and kiwis and a pot of tea. When they leave, Yerbol lights another cigarette, nudges Kayrat, and exhales a few sentences into his ear. Karyat motions me closer.

“Do you see that table over there? One of those girls is Yerbol’s cousin. We all grew up together.” Yerbol nods in affirmation before standing and marching over to their table.

Yerbol makes his living as a trader on the seething New Silk Road – dodging corrupt officials and sniffing out the best bargains. Each week he rushes to buy cheap wares in Urumqi, navigate the border, and sell them at a high price in crowded Kazakhstani bazaars. A good trip means he returns flush with cash, but a bad one can leave him broke and in serious legal trouble. With a drive usually reserved for Wall Street, he lives in perpetual motion.

Kayrat stays with me at our table. “This place was opened by a famous Kazakh musician from China,” he explains. “It has good live music, and it’s a great place to meet other Kazakhs in Urumqi. As long as you stay down in this area and don’t go past the South Gate, you’re in the minority district — our district. How do you call it in America? The place where the black people live? The ghetto? That’s what this is.”

Jingle Bells halts abruptly as a spotlight illuminates the stage. A voice calls out over the speakers in Mandarin. “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for coming tonight and Merry Christmas! Now we will have a special minority dance from the far western portions of China’s Xinjiang!”

Tables full of rowdy Kazakhs and curious Han break into applause as a not-so-young woman appears on stage and begins to sway to a slow but building beat. Kayrat shrugs in amusement and mumbles something dismissive about the Han and tourism. Though raised in China, he emigrated to Kazakhstan five years ago. We first met in Almaty, but three months ago he returned to Urumqi to pursue business options and care for his ailing mother.

Like Yerbol, Kayrat’s livelihood, history and future span both sides of the political border that cuts across the steppe west of Urumqi. Unlike Yerbol, however, he is unable or unwilling to reconcile himself with current circumstances.

When our waitress returns, Kayrat addresses her in Kazakh. She brightens and responds in the same language. They speak briefly in animated manner before she is called away. Kayrat tells me that she is a member of his own tribe.

“Kazakhs here are closer to their roots than in Kazakhstan,” he says, raising the glass teapot off its metal stand and causing the small candle underneath to shutter and dim, “they have preserved traditions better, and they act more as a community.”

It is a familiar refrain among Kazakhs from China. Many left for Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union in order to build a future in what was billed as their homeland. Instead, they found a Russian-speaking country with unfamiliar customs.

“Sometimes, I think it might have been better to stay here,” Kayrat says, pouring tea into a western-style teacup, “China has so many opportunities. You can start any business here and make money. It’s not as easy in Kazakhstan.”

“Why did you emigrate, then?” I ask.

“I like living in Kazakhstan,” Kayrat shrugs, “I like being in a country I can call my own.  Here I’m just another minority.”

It is an understandable sentiment. China does make an effort to protect the cultures of its minorities — allowing them exemption from the one-child policy and special privileges in education and work opportunities. Like any majority-minority relationship, however, there are conflicts, and the Han usually come out on top. It is the slow but seemingly inevitable process of Hanification that China’s western minorities find so infuriating.

I ask about the social disturbances that rocked the region five years ago. While walking through the city with Kayrat and Yerbol, I saw little evidence of violence.

Kayrat laughs, “Do you think that would be left unaddressed? Every sign of that time has been erased. It’s even gone from people’s faces — gone from their memories. If you ask someone, ‘What happened in the summer of 2009?’ He’ll probably respond, ‘That was a hot summer, I think.’”

Yerbol struts across the room and slaps me on the back.

“Why aren’t you dancing?” he grins.

Without waiting for a reply, he takes two hurried swigs of beer before veering back to his cousin’s table. There, he leans over and asks a young girl in an orange skirt and heeled black boots for a dance. She initially resists his advances, but Yerbol’s cousin vouches for her kin and after many laughing encouragements from around the table, she gives him her hand. He leads her to the dance floor, where they weave through and occasionally collide with a dozen other couples.

The man dressed as Obama Claus stops by our table to proffer to us “real Kazakh milk candy”. He is explaining the various wonders of this locally produced delicacy, when Yerbol returns with a whoop.

“Kara Jorga!” Yerbol yells in my ear. This time I’m on my feet, being pulled onto the dance floor. I look back to Kayrat for salvation, but he is already following us, laughing.

Though I recognise the name and beat of the Kazakh national dance, I do not know the motions. Ever the teacher, Kayrat shows me the moves: brandish first one arm and then the other while swaying to and fro in time to a missing mount. Already bored, Yerbol careens through the crowd and throws his arms around the girl in orange. She pushes him away good-naturedly, but lets him remain at her side.

When the frenzy stops, the crowd cheers and dissipates. Speakers blare with an announcement in Mandarin and a song by Keith Urban squeals to life. Yerbol’s cousin, the girl in orange, and the rest of their table follow us back to our table. As a matter of course, my exotic origin is the most prominent topic of discussion, but after we take a few photos together, the locals drift back to old stories from high school and before. That is my suspicion at least. They have transitioned into their native tongue, and since I can only speak enough Kazakh to garner one or two appreciative laughs, I have to rely on my imagination to keep up with the conversation.

Kayrat motions to my empty teacup, so I pass it over.

“These are all typical Urumqi girls,” he says in English as he fills my cup and returns it.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

Wrapping his fingers around the small teacup and lifting it like a bowl, he says with a shrug, “People have changed.”

I instinctively reach for my own cup and nod without reply.

“Hey, brother,” Yerbol says, holding out a packet of cigarettes, “Is something wrong?”

“I’m not sure,” I respond, taking the pack.

He laughs and gives my shoulder a shake before turning and throwing an arm around the girl in orange.

Cobus Block is a student of China and a former Fulbright Scholar to Kazakhstan

Edited by Tom Pellman