Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas plans

Before leaving for Kazakhstan, one of the concerns I had was how I would get through the holiday season. After all, it is one of the most difficult times to be away from home. However, it has been going very well thus far. One of my cousins asked recently for some ideas on how to get through the season when you’re away from home. My advice was to do something that you would never be able to do if you were at home. In my case, that was the recent trip to China (and updates will follow soon, I promise). Now it is just a few days until Christmas itself. I’ve been so busy having new experiences and seeing new things that I haven’t had time to feel sad about not being home.

I do have plans for Christmas, though. My fellow Fulbrighters and I will be heading up to the mountains on Christmas Day either to go sledding or ice skating. We’re going to bring thermoses of hot chocolate and spend much of the day outside. Afterwards, we will be going back to my house--where I will be hosting Christmas dinner for my landlords--whom have adopted me as their other daughter. At home, we usually have a wonderful rib roast. However, since my French-Canadian side insists that beef be as rare as possible (or, as Liz says, run through the kitchen with the lights on), I won’t be serving a roast. Beef here needs to be cooked to well done--an abomination, in my opinion. Instead, I will make a traditional leg of lamb, with potatoes, squash, and whatever vegetables I can find at the market. Tomorrow, I plan to walk to a grocery store near the university that sells marshmallow fluff. If all goes well, we will have some homemade fudge to go along with the apple pie I will be making on Monday.

So…I might not be at home for the holidays, but we will be celebrating nevertheless. It might not be just like home, but it will be as close as possible. And I will be with new friends, and my Russian family.

Merry Christmas!

Crazy things in China

In no particular order, here are some of the crazy events that occurred as part of the trip to China. I’ll be updating the blog soon, but here’s a preview of things to come… :-)

Having to give your passport to “Lev” in the lobby of the Chinese consulate to arrange for a visa--then picking up the passport from someone “in the red car out front”. Très Cold War!

Riding on the sleeper bus to Urumqi--with Kazakhs who were drinking whole bottles of vodka and pulling entire roasted chickens from their bags for a brief snack

Getting a massage at what appeared to be a legitimate banya (bath house) only to find out later that the masseuses were really prostitutes. In retrospect, maybe the dim pink lights and bars suspended from the ceiling should have been a warning. But we were all exhausted after nearly 30 hours of travel and not thinking clearly.

Ordering food without being able to read the menu. Or not having a menu, and having to use hand gestures to communicate with the waiter.

Identifying restaurants by the assorted carcasses hanging in front. And by the butcher block and hatchet next to the front door.

Knowing your food was nearly ready when you heard the sounds of meat being hacked into smaller pieces in the kitchen. Then having to pick out the small bits of bone from your food.

A tour guide who admitted that he actually failed the test to be a licensed tour guide (which came as no surprise by that point).

Being serenaded by an incredibly cheesy Russian man with a mullet at the Uyghur restaurant we went for dinner. Apparently, taking a picture to record the inanity of his performance (as well as the atrocious plaid suit) meant that we were huge fans. He later dedicated a song to the “three women from Kazakhstan”. Eek!

Prostitutes calling at bedtime. By the last night in Urumqi, we even had a call from a male prostitute. Every night, we tried answering the phone differently (you had to answer and say something, or they would call back). “Hello” in different languages/voices worked for a while. Then we switched to “how much does it cost”-one of three phrases we knew in Chinese.

Being told by the receptionist at the front desk of the hotel in Kashgar that “Foot Massage, 7nd floor” (real spelling) was actually “a specialty service-for men only”. We weren’t trying to find ourselves in these situations--they just seemed to happen.

“Woman Joy Sex Oil” in the bathroom of the hotel in Urumqi. Don’t ask what it is--I have no idea and really didn’t want to find out!

Restaurants with no menus. They only have “the usual things”. What does that mean?

Internet cafes without computers

Arranging for a camel ride 150km outside of Kashgar--by miming

Ordering by pointing at the menu in a restaurant--and getting intestines AGAIN

Having a live chicken killed for your lunch--and having the pictures of the entire process

A tour guide who bought several chickens while we were camel riding--and brought them back in the trunk of the car. We only found this out after the clucking became rather loud. This was not the tour guide who had failed the licensing test, either.

Being concerned that one of the dishes served at lunch contained something other than the chicken that was recently killed. And the only other animal we had seen in the area before was a dog. Fortunately, we found out it was goat. Good thing, since I really liked it!

Seeing a man chasing after his donkey cart--after the donkey ran away

Taking a taxi when you don’t speak the language. To get to the train station, we had to show our tickets and hope we got to the right place. Fortunately, it worked. Although there were times when we had to actually give the name of a location/hotel. We always made it there, though!

Bedtime on the train between Kashgar and Urumqi--10:30pm lights out. Lights go back on at 8 am.

Train bathrooms that are locked whenever the train stops. Because they flush right out onto the train tracks and they don’t want to have to clean the area around the train stations.

Pit toilets. When there were lavatories. At one point, we were even sent to the area behind the bus to Urumqi--which was stopped in the middle of the highway in the snow. And other cars were passing by, while most of the women on the bus stood around talking and smoking. Never thought I’d be thankful to be dehydrated after only one cup of tea all day. Purel is a MUST when traveling, too.

Stirring communist marches playing over the loudspeaker on the train.

Figuring out if places operate on ‘local time’ or ‘Beijing time’. Officially, the entire country is on Beijing time--2 time zones ahead of local time.

Eating “Flesh with capsicum” in the dining car on the train--actually, beef with peppers. But the name calls Hannibal Lecter to mind!

Trying to arrange for tickets home to Kazakhstan--and finding the border was closed Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday because of Kazakh holidays. You can’t buy round trip tickets, only one way--so we couldn’t arrange for our return beforehand. We HAD to get back, since Sarah’s Kazakh visa expires on 12/28 and you need at least a week to renew it.

A bus station ticket office that was actually in a converted hotel room

No one knowing when or if the border was really closed--and getting conflicting information from everyone. Is it closed until the 25th? Or the 20th? Maybe it is the 21st? Who knows??? Definitely not the people selling bus or train tickets!

Having to take a cab from Urumqi to Khorgos (the border) not knowing if we would be stuck there for a week.

A “Starbucks” in Khorgos--overpriced, really bad cappuccino (that doesn’t deserve the name)

Tajik men inviting us to their room at the hotel in Khorgos. Don’t think so!

Taking a rickshaw from the hotel to the border. It was the 5th method of transport--following the bus, train, taxi, and camel.

Watching Sarah being thrown over the gate at the border, while Amelia and I barely were able to squeeze through the crush of people around the edge of the gate

Being told by Chinese officials that we were not allowed to talk in line. This was after discussing the Olympics. However, our previous conversation about Avian Bird Flu was acceptable.

Hiring a cab to take us from Khorgos to Almaty--only to have the car break down in the middle of nowhere because the driver hit a bump too fast and broke the exhaust. Apparently, the driver had the same problem five months earlier--and never had the car repaired properly.

Watching the cab driver jack the car up ON ICE, without blocking the tires, and then sliding underneath the car. In the middle of nowhere. Other Kazakh men stopping to discuss the problem, and having an informal meeting in the middle of the highway--while nothing gets accomplished. Pictures to follow.

Driving 100mph down the road after the car was fixed, weaving in and out of traffic while the driver waved at people he passed. And frequently paused to pray--by putting both hands in front of his face. WHILE DRIVING! I’ll try most things--but NEVER want to do that again.

It was definitely quite a trip! As I commented in an earlier email, Central Asia is not for the faint of heart. But we made it through Xinjiang with few problems--and many, many wonderful memories. And a really great handmade copper tea kettle. And lots of teaching materials. At least, that is what I am calling the set of miniature handmade Uyghur instruments that I bought in Kashgar. :-)