BY THE WAY... FROM THE AUTONOMOUS REGION OF CHINA

URUMQI, Xinjiang Uygur AUtonomous Region, CHINA, September 2, 2005 (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Opposition only six signatures short? 

URUMQI, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, CHINA: If you find the above address a mouthful to pronounce, just remember it’s the hub of the old, fabulous "Silk Road" which for 2,000 years brought silk and other yummy Oriental goodies by camel caravan from ancient Chang-An (Xi’an City today) all the way to Imperial Rome.

Urumqi is the capital of China’s biggest province – an "autonomous region" covering 1.66 million square kilometers. Indeed, located in the northwesternmost part of vast China, it’s in every way this country’s Wild West. Why, they even sell cowboy hats in all its stalls and resort areas. But it’s got only 19 million people.

The truth is that this is Muslim country.

When your Boeing 737-300 (Hainan Airlines) lands after a three-hour flight from Xi’an, the imperial city of the terra-cotta warriors, the airport is international, modern and streamlined – once again to our embarrassment, better than ours.

When you motor into town, however, you find that this is "Instant Istanbul" or middle-class Cairo, Egypt.

There are towering mosques, men sporting white Haji caps and other Islamic headgear. The difference is that many women, while there are some conservatives wearing the headscarf, veil, and neck-to-toe gown, but never Saudi black, don’t hesitate to display their charms or shapely . . . uh, legs. As in Istanbul or modern Beirut, it’s a tolerant sort of Muslims – devout though they are and mostly faithful to five-times-a-day prayer – you encounter here.

But make no mistake, these are Central Asians with a warlike past, conquerors of fortresses and states – 47 ethnic groups (Uygurs, Kazaks, Tatars, Mongols, Uzbeks, Kirgiz, Huis, Tajiks, Salas, Daoan, and a minority called Russians). Yep, Xinjiang (Sinkiang) used to border the old Soviet Union, now split up – Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Mongolia, Tibet, Gansu and Qinghai.

If you doubt Urumqi’s central status in the old Silk Road (there used to be two routes, the northern and the southern), doubt no more. Former United States President Bill Clinton is coming here to deliver the major address at a huge international conference next Tuesday, September 6. His speech title: The Renaissance of the Silk Road.

I don’t think this time Bill will have to bring his own cigar. This is a land of smokers – and you know what.

The 2005 Urumqi Fair was launched with much fanfare, speechmaking, and a banquet Tuesday at the World Hotel here. We got to shake hands with the Governor who came over to greet us, while on the mammoth stage they were doing a Tartar Dance (all that half-sitting, kicking, jumping and whirling like the Russians do, but after all the Tatars ruled Russia for 200 years).

In the same cultural show the Kazaks – lovely maidens, handsome men – sang and strutted their stuff, exactly like the "Cossacks" (Kazaks) of the Don river in Russia. The Uygurs who’re in the majority here look the most Tisoy.

Again, Islam holds sway here under the red flag of the People’s Republic of China. There are 23,000 mosques – but also Lama (Buddhist) temples and Catholic Churches.

We drove to desert-ringed Turpan to sample the delicious grapes and fruity wine – here the Muslims drink wine, and love "song and dance." Perhaps fundamentalists may lurk in the shadows, but the yearly sunshine ranges from 2,600 hours to 3,400 hours in this sun-drenched territory. 95 percent of the fine cotton output of China comes from here – but they have oil, too (not as gushing as in neighboring Kazakhstan, but plenty) and a West-to-East oil "artery" pipeline is being completed from Lunnan Tarim Basin to Shanghai – costing 100 billion yuan (US$12 billion), next in budget to the already operating Three Gorges Dam.

The highways, even the zigzag with terrible hairpin curves, leading up to Heavenly Lake with its snow-capped mountain peaks smiling down, are smooth and superb – although the out-of-town toilets still need upliftment.

The brown sheep, as in olden days, occasionally hold up traffic on the pine and conifer, beechtree, lined mountain roads, the shepherd nonchalantly herding his puffy-bottomed merino sheep along. (Xinjiang’s fine wools, not to mention fleece from its pretty, white goats are legendary). Mutton meals here are glorious. Even the brown cows are insulated with fur against the fierce winter snows.

Desert and grassland (57.26 million hectares of grassland) are the contrasts in this immense land of milk, grapes, watermelons, plums – you name it. In Turpan you even see them in donkey carts, in a flash of deja vu reminding you of Palestine and Judea, and the ancient lands of the Bible.

Yet, towering electric pylons march across the horizon, hectares of ultra-modern "Wind-Power" windmills spin providing electric energy – alongside wheezing tractors bringing down coal shards for old-fashioned furnaces.

Thick maned Bastrian camels along the Silk Road which for two millenniums knew the sound of camel bells on both sides of the Tiansham, can today be spotted contentedly grazing by the expressway. They’re mostly "retired," but their milk – and meat – are prized. A camel lechon is haute cuisine and some festive boards, here. However, the Silk Road is now a network of roads, railways and airports. The Pamirs are conquered by efficient roads which wind over the precipitous Kunlun mountains. The railroads go all the way to the sea, and up to Kazakhstan. Through Xinjiang you can barrel through by rail all the way from the Pacific to Western Europe.

Is the romance gone? Not at all. In the music, the strains of the Tangbaer and Dutaer (guitars), the Eagle flutes, the fantastic horse saddles and reckless horsemanship, the Tatar toasts, and the Mongol bassos profundo, the sharp Yingjisha knives – every Nomadic custom lovingly preserved – even the Yurt (tents) in groves or desert, it lingers on.

* * *

The Opposition, to return to the prosaic, claims it lacks only six signatures (really?) to push the count of members of the House of Representatives signing the "impeachment" complaint to 79 – and send the complaint up to the Senate for "trial."

Will the "secret" signatories bring the total to 73? Hard to believe – but in the Philippines, contrary to the classic definition, politics is "the art of the Impossible."

If La Presidenta has to depend, at long last, to her "defenders" in the Senate, will she surmount the challenge? My reaction to all these speculations is: Phooey! I wish our politicians would attend to what’s important: Passing at last an anti-terrorism law, getting the EVAT properly in place, showing the world we’re back to the business of business, not the monkey-business of endless politics.

Let’s give our people a break: the chance to make a living – and progress. No matter who’s President – and GMA’s that – the people’s welfare and security must come first, last, and always. The three Freedoms we must guarantee are Freedom from Fear, from Hunger – and from Ignorance. Only education, not speeches and conspiracies, can banish poverty.

* * *

THE ROVING EYE... Is it true that China’s Ambassador Hu Wongbo is being recalled to Beijing (for promotion, I trust) after only one year and five months in Manila? He’s been the best and most articulate Ambassador from China we’ve ever had.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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