Xinjiang Journal: Sixteen hours in China’s Wild West

3:05 pm. The plane from Beijing has barely landed, and I’m already on my phone. The screen flashes 5:05 pm, 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-roughly the distance between New York and San Francisco-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 province on official Beijing time while the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, 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.

When these two worlds clash, violence often erupts. In August, 33 policemen and Uighur rebels were killed around Xinjiang, and with the end of the Olympics, many human rights activists fear an even greater crackdown on the Uighurs.

But there is one place where these two worlds still coexist peacefully: on the baseball field.
3:50 pm. I’ve made it to the skirmish (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 catching or throwing: they’re kicking around a soccer ball.

Christopher Rufo, a 24-year-old Sacramento filmmaker 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 east of Urumqi, in Xian. “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 (with one corner as home plate), and their gear-worn gloves, stitch-frayed balls, rough bats-would not be fit for the Little League, these players have beaten the odds. 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 television) into a cohesive team that has held their own against bigger, better equipped opponents from the coast. Off the field, their tale of overcoming bitter racial divides-there weren’t enough players to have separate Han and Uighur teams-begs to be baseball’s answer to Remember the Titans.

6:35 pm. It’s the fourth (and last) inning, and while I’d like to say it was a close game, no one was keeping score. Nonetheless, Akbar, a Uighur freshman and material physics major, dashes from second base in a full sprint, off a hard grounder into left field.

He rounds third and continues his mad dash to 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.”

He’s in the middle of retracing the team’s ascent in fortunes-the discovery of a cachet of gloves left by Japanese exchange students in the 1990s; his chance vacation to Xinjiang five years ago with his family, and the subsequent decision to stay and coach the team; the recent organization of a middle school and four elementary school training camps by team alums-when Akbar bounds over, all grins and still breathing hard.
Second part tomorrow.