Chapter Nine – Passage Five
Party loyalty, it’s true, has no place in the real world. When push comes to shove, pragmatism and survival always win over all else. After all, history’s only written by the winners.
Urumqi is literally the end of the line for The Silver Dragon. It’s the very last stop for the train on the northwest route and all towns and cities north or west of Urumqi could only be further reached by car or bus. With 3.5 million people, Urumqi is the largest city in all of Central Asia and when we get off of the train, the first thing I immediately notice is that all of the people look markedly different.
“This is still China?” Coleman asks, looking around curiously. “Are you sure?”
“Oh yeah, you know Chinese communist governments,” says Deepak. “Just randomly building giant, mega-structure train terminals in other countries not their own by accident.”
Coleman’s remark is obviously inane but also makes sense. Even I am taken aback momentarily. Up until now, whether it be Shanghai, Jinshui, or Xi’an, everywhere I’ve looked, the Chinese citizens all around have appeared largely similar, at least to me. While I’m sure there are differences, whatever those were, they were subtle. Let’s just say, on my trip so far, China hasn’t exactly been the most racially diverse place that I’ve ever been to. (And this is from someone who’d grown up in Kentucky back in the United States, not exactly the most diverse place in America.)
But here in Urumqi, even to my untrained American eye, it really does feel like we’ve set foot in an entirely different country. Thicker eyebrows, rounder eyes, more elongated facial structures, longer hair, and beards. Not to mention: Probably at least every other man is wearing a–
“Why’s everyone wearing a Yamaka?” Coleman again, of course.
“Those are Taqiyyas,” Shu explains patiently, “same Abrahamic God, but different prophet. That’s why they’re so similar.”
I keep my mouth shut but I’m similarly as uninformed as Coleman. Back home in America, Islam and the Muslims weren’t exactly a demographic powerhouse in the Bluegrass State.
There is a black Lincoln town car awaiting us outside the terminal station entrance and we sweep across the lobby and descend the entrance steps dressed like royalty. I’m wearing a suit, which I haven’t worn in ages, and Coleman and Deepak have likewise cleaned up nicely. Shu’s wearing a traditional Uyghur dress which means it’s very conservative and shapeless. Not a hint of bare skin anywhere. Normally when you think about China, you don’t think about it being cold. But it’s cold. Shu’s also wearing a thick fur cap that makes me think of Russian Bolsheviks, for some reason. One’s mind makes strange connections like that.
In short order, the Lincoln town car whisks us across the city. I’d love to describe all of the interesting environs that I’d observed on the way to Urumqi’s city hall, but my mind’s too preoccupied to take in any of the surroundings. Before I know it, we’ve arrived at our appointed destination, have alighted the car, and are escorted inside and up a flight of marble stairs by a pair of armed guards wearing army fatigues to the waiting chambers outside of the governor’s office.
“Governor Wu is expecting you,” says the plump secretary who is in Wu’s outer office. “Please enter when you’re ready.”
Alan turns to look at us.
“Hold up a sec,” says Shu and she takes a moment to adjust mine and Deepak’s ties. It takes a minute of fidgeting before she’s satisfied.
“Remember, guys,” says Kristen. “Rome may not have been built in a day. But it was built one stone at a time.”
And with that, we enter Governor Wu’s office.
It’s an ornately appointed affair with dark-paneled wood, a mahogany executive desk, and large bay windows overlooking the city square. The office is sprawling with bookshelves replete with thick, leather-bound texts and journals, fancy framed awards on the opposite wall, and two sofas with a coffee table in between to entertain company. In the corner there’s even a giant grandfather clock that looks at least two centuries old.
“Welcome!” Governor Wu rises from behind his desk and walks over to greet us. Wu is a tall, wiry man with white hair and looks like he’s well into his sixties. He gestures towards the sofa couches. “Please, sit.”
Once we’re all properly situated, Coleman unloads the holo-projector, and we start our presentation.
While Alan gives his opening remarks, I turn my attention to the Governor. We’d all been given preliminary briefing material on the train on our way in and I know basic details about Wu. A longtime member of the CCP, he’d possessed a long and distinguished record as one of the politburo’s fastest rising stars in his early years. Also a descendant of princeling lineage, at some point Wu had hit a ceiling though. For whatever reason, he’d never climbed his way out of the National Assembly and into higher standing. And then three years ago, the CCP had assigned him here, to Urumqi, to be the Governor of Xinjiang.
It was unclear to me, and we even had a small pool going among the group, whether being assigned to Xinjiang had been a punishment or reward for Wu. On one hand, being flung to the most remote outpost of the sprawling Chinese empire was a little like being sent to Fargo. Conversely, Xinjiang was by far the most restive of all Chinese provinces. So maybe only the truly capable and promising were sent here. It was honestly fifty-fifty.
Half-an-hour later, we wrap up. Everyone does their bits beautifully. After Alan’s remarks, Deepak provides some historical context and then Kristen and I had present last, our proposal for the region. Once we’ve finished, Governor Wu leans back in his chair, looking thoughtful.
“That’s quite an idea,” he finally says, steepling his fingers. “It’s certainly a novel approach.” He rises from his armchair and deliberately walks over to the bookshelf to get something. When he turns, I see that he has a copy of the Quran in his hands and has put on his reading spectacles, which were hanging from around his neck.
“You know,” Wu starts, “in the Quran, there are huge swathes about eschatology— you know, what happens at the End of Times, man’s final judgment before God, and the destiny of one’s soul and of all humankind. It’s actually outlined, with impressive detail, what happens in hell, or what they call: Jahannam— that is, different levels of hell depending on your sin: al-Nar النار (‘The Fire’), Hutamah حطمة (‘That which Breaks to Pieces’), and Haawiyah هاوية (‘The Abyss’), among others.”
Wu turns to look at us.
“Do you know what is the worst possible sin that you can commit in all of Islam?”