Street Scene, Urumqi, 1957

Urumqi's Nan-Men (south gate) in 1910


Richard Hughes was a journalist who spent most of his life as a correspondent in Asia for  The Times, The Economist, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. During World War 2 he was thought by some to be a spy, and possibly a double agent. Given these suspicions, it is unsurprising that he ended up being fictionalised twice: Ian Fleming based the character of Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice on him; in John Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy he appears as Craw. This is his from book Foreign Devil, a memoir. I quote this because a) it suggests how relations (not to say manners) have worsened in the city known as ‘beautiful pastureland’ and b) I have a weakness for this kind of prose.

It happened in ‘The Street of the Grey-Eyed Men’ during the tranquil noontime traffic ‘rush’. The inexpert Chinese driver of a bus loudly tooted his horn and frightened a nervous, highstepping white mare, ridden by a tough Kazakh tribesman. The horse reared, neighing, and fell. The horseman skillfully sprang clear, raised and soothed the mare, handed the reins with a bow to the chairman of a council of dignified nomads seated in converse in the gutter, walked calmly over to the halted bus, and, with deliberation but no visible anger, fetched the apologetic driver a fearful backhand clout over the nose. He then remounted, saluted his quietly approving audience in the gutter, and rode off. The Chinese driver wiped his nose, bowed first to the seated gallery, arose, turned and bowed next to the amused but friendly passengers, and drove off, without tooting.

Urumqi's South Gate in the 1960's

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