This is what I’m looking out at in Urumqi.
This is the view outside my window in Urumqi, Xinjiang, in the far west of China. I’m on a massive 21 hour layover so I followed a hoard of other passengers over to China Southern Airline’s complementary layover hotel — which actually costs 100 RMB.
I can’t say I mind layovers this long. When you’re on a layover for 10+ hours covering a good chunk of daylight in a place where the visa situation isn’t a barrier you get a free day in an unintentional destination. You leave the airport and go into the city. You go around and talk to people, take pictures, stroll at random, drink beer, and enjoy the fact that you have absolutely nothing to do. No plans, no appointments, just intermediary time that would otherwise be spent waiting around at the airport.
I sat on the bed in my room at the airport hotel in Urumqi and just stared out the window. Blocks of ultra-utilitarian housing stretched out into the distance, frills or pretenses didn’t even cross the minds of the designers. There is nothing here to impress — form meets function and that’s the end of it. The outskirts of China’s cities are like storage units. Rectangle apartments in rectangle buildings on rectangle roads — the ideal shape for packing.
I looked out at the building in front of me. Some of the apartments still had their lights on and curtains open, revealing a menagerie of everyday life neatly stacked up — one world on top and to the side of another, unaware of what’s going on just a wall away. Stories and lifelines running parallel but kept from overlapping by a thin span of cement. A 20-something women just came home from work, some guy’s on a laptop, another guy is watching TV, one upper floor apartment has pink lights on. Everybody is home and safe and bored, hidden away in their sub-divided sectors, doing the little things that they do at 1AM to amuse themselves on the far outskirts of a city that’s on the far outskirts of a country.
There is something that I like about these liminal zones surrounding Chinese cities. Maybe it’s the rawness. Maybe it’s the lack of surprises — you know what’s going to be on each street, you know what kinds of people are going to be there, and you know how they are going to react to you. It’s a comfortable dejavu that you can have played out over and over again across the country. It’s the normalcy that makes up the patterns of a culture, and this is what really tells you something about a people and a place. Or maybe the allure is the fact that these are places where there is absolutely no reason to go. You leave the airport hotel in the same shuttle bus you rode in on. You don’t walk around in the streets — why would you? There’s nothing there. There’s nothing there but grimy, worn everyday life, but that’s what’s interesting.