The plane from Beijing has barely landed, and I’m already on my phone. The screen flashes 5:05 p.m., and for a moment, I fear I’ve missed the ballgame – that I’ve flown 2,400 miles to the heart of China’s “Wild West” for empty bleachers and discarded foam fingers.
Then I remember that there are two worlds here in Xinjiang, each with its own definition of time. The Han Chinese run this hardscrabble autonomous region on official Beijing time while the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority who have long chafed under Chinese rule, prefer unofficial Xinjiang time.
Getting by on two different time zones is easier than you would think, for the Hans and Uighurs live in different neighborhoods, speak different languages, practice different religions, and attend different classes.
Some Uighurs have pushed for an independent Xinjiang, but with Beijing’s tight grip, any dissent is quickly silenced. In August, clashes between Han policemen and Uighur rebels left as many as 33 dead around Xinjiang.
Now, with the run-up to National Day on Oct. 1, the central government has sent some 200,000 police and paramilitary personnel into the region. Human rights activists fear another crackdown on Uighur separatists. But there is one place where these two worlds still coexist peacefully: on the baseball field.
I’ve made it to the game (score one for Xinjiang time), but two problems arise. The first is that it’s raining. The second is more alarming. I’m standing on a soccer field, and the baseball players – college students from Xinjiang University – are not batting or throwing: They’re kicking a soccer ball.
Christopher Rufo, a young filmmaker from Sacramento, Calif., who has been following this team for the past eight months, sees my confusion and explains that the nearest baseball field lies 1,400 miles to the east. “Baseball is an outlier here,” he says. “Few people play the game, and that’s why it’s considered so cool.”
Even though they must make do with a soccer field for a diamond, and their gear – worn gloves, frayed balls, rough bats – wouldn’t be fit for Little League, these players have triumphed. On the field, they’ve transformed, in four years, from a skinny group of mostly freshmen (none of whom had ever seen a baseball game on TV) into a cohesive team that has held its own against bigger, better-equipped opponents from the east coast.
Off the field, their tales of overcoming bitter racial divides – there weren’t enough players to have separate Han and Uighur teams at the university – beg to be baseball’s answer to “Remember the Titans.”
“Before baseball, I had no Chinese friends,” says Parhat Ablat, the star pitcher and captain. “Then I became friends with them because we were forced to talk.”
It’s the fourth (and last) inning, and while I’d like to say it was a close game, no one is keeping score. Nonetheless, Akbar Dolkun, Uighur freshman and material physics major, dashes from second base, off a hard grounder into left field. He rounds third and sprints for home, arriving in a tangle of legs and arms. I hear yells of “out-ta” (out).
There’s no umpire, so the catcher, Zheng Siming, a Han junior and computer science major, makes the call. He had inadvertently dropped the catch, and rightfully declares, “Say-foo” (safe).
Their coach, Jai Kuk Rue, a stocky Korean who never fulfilled his dream of making the pros, watches approvingly from the sideline. “Baseball to us is not about points or winning,” he says. “Most important is our teamwork. The Uighur and Han players are always in close contact, so their relations have improved.”
Today’s game, it turns out, is a practice. The team holds intrasquad skirmishes every weekend. Wednesdays are reserved for the dreaded drills and conditioning workouts. Most of the players are average at best by college standards, which may be understandable: They must deal with 40 hours of classwork each week, as well as the not-infrequent reeducation seminars.
Jai tells me about the genesis of the team, which involved a bit of serendipity. A few years ago, some students discovered a cache of gloves left behind by Japanese exchange students in the 1990s. They goofed off with the equipment. Then, five years ago, Jai arrived in Xinjiang on vacation with his family.
Inspired by this ragtag group, he decided to stay and coach them. Interest in the game has mushroomed ever since: Alums have gone on to start a middle-school and four elementary-school teams.
After the game, I walk over to the catcher, Zheng, who is Han. To him, baseball is more than just a game of athleticism. “I like it because you need to use your head,” he says.
He’s also enjoyed getting to know the Uighurs on the team and says that they even “hang out” after practices, perhaps to shoot hoops or watch a Major League Baseball game online in their dorm. And if the conversation ever falls short, they have one bedrock bond in common: They’re all devoted followers of the New York Yankees.
Over generous bowls of laghman, a spicy noodle dish, a half-dozen Uighur players, still in their white and blue uniforms, patiently explain the art of rabbit hunting to me. Parhat snaps his wrist to illustrate how a wooden sling could hurl a whittled javelin at fatal speed. It’s easy to deduce how he’s developed a pitcher’s arm.
We’re at Sister Naidu’s Restaurant, one of the unspoken Uighurs-only eateries on campus, where two other teammates are comparing tactics between baseball and popis, a Uighur sport akin to field hockey. Although Xinjiang, with its rural and cloistered life, may be the last place you’d expect baseball to turn up, the Uighurs’ outdoor culture – hunting, sheepherding, tending crops – have shaped them into nimble, if not polished, ballplayers.
Of course, many of the parents have yet to grasp their sons’ newfound life in the big city, let alone this curious game of wooden sticks and men in tight pants. Rufo says that when he visited Parhat’s village, 900 miles outside of Urumqi, his family treated Parhat like a “superstar,” just for making it out of the sleepy outpost that only recently was wired for electricity.
The fluorescent glow of a 70-inch flat-screen TV illuminates our booth here at Fubar. By chance, this sports bar, in one of the many Han districts, is broadcasting a Blue Jays-Yankees game. (There are no Uighurs here except for Parhat and a teammate.)
But I’m too busy listening to Rufo, the filmmaker, and what he’s saying about shooting his documentary in notoriously sealed-off Xinjiang. He recounts growing a mustache and traveling in disguise to villages off limits to foreigners, following players on dates and doctor’s visits. “Doing a documentary in the cinéma-vérité style is an exercise in patience,” he says.
His documentary, “Diamonds in the Dunes,” traces the highs and lows of this Uighur-Han baseball team during the past season. “At the beginning, they were uncomfortable with each other,” he says. “There are still so many differences, but the game has brought them closer together than they’ve ever been in their life.”
We have the streets of Urumqi to ourselves. No honks or beeps for a few more blissful hours. Suddenly, a police cruiser pulls up to our group of four, lights flashing. One of the officers leans over, looks me in the eye (I’m Han Chinese), points to the two Uighurs, and says, “Are they causing trouble? What are they doing out now?”
Only when the policemen see their ID cards – a bit incredulous that these troublemakers are, in fact, top students at Xinjiang’s best university – do they let us go. Afterward, Parhat shrugs it off: “In Xinjiang, bad things happen every day.”
I’m back on the same plane; it is 8 a.m. Beijing time, yet my fellow passengers and I don’t seem ready for the new day. Before I drift off to a four-hour nap, I tell myself to reset my watch.