by Xinhua writers Qiang Lijing, Ayinur Xaken, and Fu Xiaobo
URUMQI, Sept. 30 (Xinhua) -- A veteran of the local military in traditional Chinese attire practices Tai Chi on the People's Square in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, northwest China.
Grandparents proudly push infants in strollers, while a group of women, including one in Uygur dress and headscarf, start to square dance.
It is scene exemplifying the multiethnicity and livability of modern Xinjiang. China will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the autonomous region on Thursday. While its history has been peppered with sadness, such as riots in 2009, it's 52 ethnic groups have witnessed rapid development and social improvements that have made the city more tolerant and integrated.
The man, Di Hua, 65, is a Xinjiang Military Area Command veteran. Born in Lanzhou, capital of neighboring Gansu Province, Di has lived in Xinjiang since joining the army in 1968.
Urumqi is ancient Mongolian for "beautiful prairie." The city rose to prominence during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD) as an important trade and transit stop on the ancient Silk Road route.
It has been earmarked as an important hub on the "Belt and Road", the trade and infrastructure network designed to link China, Central Asia and Europe.
"Urumqi has undergone tremendous changes in recent years," Di said, gesturing to the high-rise buildings surrounding the People's Square.
"Travel has become more convenient thanks to the bus network and new roads. And a subway is also under construction," he explained, adding, "Urumqi truly is a livable city."
Like many of the Han people in Urumqi, who account for 75 percent of the population, Di has friends from many ethnic backgrounds including Uygur, Hui, Kirgiz, Kazak and Uzbek.
"We often meet to have dinner together, and send regards to each other during festivals," he said.
Ethnic minorities tend to live in the south of the city, such as Dawan and Heijiashan districts, as has been the custom for many years.
Zhao Xinzhong, 70, an Urumqi native, lives in southern Urumqi, the site of many of the city's major mosques. Many foreign businessmen, from neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Kazakhstan, also live in this part of the city.
It is common for ethnic minority communities across the world to choose to live in the same areas.
"Muslims tend to live together for convenience," he said. "In the south of Urumqi, for example, there are many shops that sell halal meat."
As the city expands northward, however, people of all ethnic backgrounds are buying property in the new areas, Li said.
After the riots on July 5, 2009, which left nearly 200 people dead and over 1,700 injured, some people, especially the Han, have chosen to avoid the southern area of the city. Dawan and Heijiashan were hardest hit by the violence.
Security checks across the city have been heightened. "It is necessary for peace of mind," Di said.
AN OPEN, INTERNATIONALIZED METROPOLIS
Despite being a landlocked city, Urumqi is at the heart of Eurasia and serves as the gateway to Central Asia.
Yawuz Selim, 38, owns a children's clothes store in Urumqi. He is one of many Turkish businesspeople to have set up shop in the city.
Turkish people are excited by the opportunities in Xinjiang, said Selim, adding that the Belt and Road initiative will create an even more dynamic business environment.
"I hope to bring high-end Turkish clothes to Xinjiang and expand my business across China," he said.
Passabi, 30, is originally from Azerbaijan. He opened an underwear shop in Erdaoqiao Grand Bazaar in Urumqi over four years ago, and is engaged to a local Uygur woman.
His brother runs a logistics company that transports goods between Urumqi and Istanbul.
While foreign businesspeople are excited by China's huge market, Xinjiangers are looking to these newcomers for lessons.
Abrajan Tursun, 46, from Hotan Prefecture in southern Xinjiang, runs stores at Urumqi International Grand Bazaar. He hopes to visit Istanbul on a business trip.
"I have heard that the bazaars in Istanbul are brilliant. I hope to experience them firsthand, and improve my own business," he said.
The tastes and fashions of Western countries have been incorporated by Urumqi businesses, Nurbia, a Uygur woman, said.
On the menu of one Uygur restaurant in Dawan, for example, you can find black tea, pizza, cheese cake alongside traditional Uygur food such as roast mutton buns and "plov" (meat and rice).
UPDATING LIVING STANDARDS
Just like many other Chinese cities, Urumqi is battling "urbanization syndrome," with symptoms like congestion, an influx of migrant workers and substandard housing.
Heijiashan, a notorious shanty town, is home to many unemployed or low-income migrants.
Hawagul, 32, from Yutian County in Hotan, lives in Heijiashan with her husband and three kids. The whole family live in a 15-square-meter room divided by just a curtain. As her husband earns just 1,000 yuan (157.4 U.S. dollars) a month, they cannot afford to live anywhere else in the city.
Hawagul hopes that one day she will get a permanent residence permit for Urumqi.
"My husband and I barely speak any Chinese so we can't find decent jobs. We really want permanent residence for our kids. I'd like them to go to school here and learn Chinese. I want them to live like regular folk, not like this," she said.
While authorities will soon start a sweeping renovation of Heijiashan, Hawagul is concerned about where her family will be relocated. Although her current living conditions are less than ideal, the rent is cheap, she said.
The Urumqi municipal government has been building new homes since 2009 to help migrant workers like Hawagul and her husband. In total, 361 new tower blocks have been built. Rows upon rows of red and yellow apartment buildings can be seen in neighborhoods in Heijiashan, on land where dilapidated buildings once stood.
In addition, 81 committees in charge of administering communities, including Erdaoqiao, Heijiashan, and Dawan where many poor migrant workers live, have been established.
The city is determined to help these communities, and administrative committees are key to maintaining social order.
Like many of Urumqi's older generation, Di Hua spends winters in the southernmost province of Hainan.
"Urumqi is freezing cold in winter. We old people cannot go out to exercise," he said.
Despite this, he said, he will never abandon the city as his family are here, including his grandson, who attends primary school in Urumqi.
"The future of the city depends on his generation," Di said.
"If he wants to go to college in Beijing or Shanghai, I will support him, but if he chooses to stay I would be very pleased. The city needs well-educated and energetic young people, like him," he told Xinhua.
Xinjiang has promoted bilingual education among students, requiring high school graduates to master both their mother tongue and Mandarin.
Now, bilingual education is compulsory in primary schools and kindergartens.
Ethnic integration is the future, Di Hua said.
"If we sincerely communicate with each other then the city will be our common home, no matter what ethnicity we are," said Haderbek, a Kazak living in Urumqi.
Xinhua reporters Cai Guodong and Ren Qinqin also contributed to the story.