Inside, the lobby is abuzz with the sights and sounds of business. The reception desk and waiting areas are crowded with men seeking rooms, making deals, or taking a break before returning to the fray. The cafe upstairs is similarly packed. As one wanders, locals continue to offer the essentials of business in a foreign country currency, telecommunications, translation. Elsewhere in the city businesses advertise their wares in Russian, the Cyrillic lettering and Chinese characters making for a strange pair.
A trade boom has united western China with its former Soviet neighbors, two areas kept isolated for decades by chilly relations between Moscow and Beijing. Although still a tiny fraction of China's overall exports, commercial ties have grown exponentially since the Soviet implosion. According to Chinese Ministry of Commerce statistics, Kazakhstan's trade with China in the first quarter of 2007 grew more than 55 percent compared to the same period in 2006. Local television reported a similar jump for Xinjiang Province, which dominates Chinese trade with Central Asia.
Situated a long bus ride from the border with Kazakhstan, Urumqi has become a key point for the transshipment of goods from interior China to Central Asia and Russia. For some, the city has returned to its roots as a stop on the ancient Silk Road, even if growling Russian and Chinese eighteen-wheelers have replaced the camel caravans of old.
"From the beginning, Urumqi was a working city," said Ruslan Musabayev, who since 1995 has acted as a fixer for fellow Kazakhs seeking to buy Chinese goods. "Beijing, Guangzhou, people go there not only to work, but to relax, see the sights. But people don't come to Urumqi to relax, only to work."
The appeal of Urumqi for Central Asian traders, according to Musabayev, includes both its proximity and a certain degree of cultural similarity. "Some are not able, for example, to go to [the factories in] Guangzhou. Some people don't have enough time. But Urumqi is closer to us time-wise, and we are not so different from the people of China living there."
Abduhilil, a Uighur businessman and translator who preferred to give only his first name, helps incoming foreign traders navigate Urumqi's massive wholesale markets and commercial centers. He said Urumqi's good transport infrastructure and identity as a trade city has helped spur its growth. "Here one can find good railway facilities, many trade centers, plus people with good language skills [and] commercial connections," he said.
The boom has left its mark on Urumqi. Immigrants from other parts of China mostly members of the country's largest ethnic group, the Han have moved to the region in large numbers, both pulled by the area's economic potential and pushed by Beijing's "Go West" development campaign.
The newcomers have brought with them a culture and architecture that does not always blend comfortably with Xinjiang's Central Asian roots and some Uighurs feel the government's encouragement of immigration is an attempt to eradicate the region's ethnic identity. In the city center, most traditional buildings have been replaced by high-rise apartment buildings. Even the tourist-oriented Uighur market, complete with tightrope walkers and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, is reportedly owned by Han Chinese.
The city is proving a magnet for migration within Xinjiang as well. Abduhilil moved to Urumqi three months ago from the smaller city of Yining, which, while closer to the border with Kazakhstan, has been sidelined as a center of trade. His younger sibling, Abdujalil, hopes to follow in his brother's footsteps once he masters Russian and Chinese.
The border crossing itself, a further two hours by car from Yining, also seems sleepy compared to the bustle of Urumqi. The grandly named Khorgos International Commercial Center turns out to be little more than a tourist mall, and the nearby market consists of a quiet row of warehouses. But the long lines of trucks chock full of goods on the Chinese side, largely empty as they wait to return from Kazakhstan indicate that trade is up, even if the deals are clinched elsewhere. A comprehensive Chinese-Kazakh cooperation center, encompassing a free trade zone, is scheduled for completion later this year.
Several traders noted, however, that increasingly savvy buyers from the former Soviet states are stopping neither at Khorgos nor even in Urumqi, but instead going directly to the source: factories in China's interior and on its coast. "Some go right to the place the goods are produced, because they have been to Xinjiang many times," Abduhilil said. A Kazakh merchant crossing the border at Khorgos agreed, saying that she never did business in Urumqi anymore and preferred to do her buying at the point of production.
Musabayev doubted that traders' increasing familiarity with the China trade would lead them to abandon Urumqi, however, because each location catered to different types of merchants. "If I want to purchase a significant amount of high-quality goods, indeed, I'll go to Guangzhou," he said. But others with less time or a variety of low-volume orders would continue to focus on Urumqi or even Khorgos, he added.
"Earlier, people were scared that they might do something wrong or not know where to go. But now almost every second person is going to China to take part. Knock on wood, I don't think there's any way trade will drop," Musabayev said.
Jack Carino is a freelance photographer who specializes in Central Asia.