Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bus Ride to Urumqi

Bus Ride to Urumqi 8-9 December 2007

Since the bus to Urumqi was scheduled to leave at 7am, we needed to be at the bus station by 6am. Buses don’t always leave when they are supposed to--they can leave an hour early, or an hour late. Depends on the driver, I suppose. The early departure meant that I had to be up by 5am to catch a cab to the bus station. It was pitch dark and COLD when I left my apartment. Fortunately, the cab I called was already waiting for me when I got outside.

It turned out that there were five buses leaving for Urumqi. However, the drivers spoke no Russian and the tickets were in Chinese. We couldn’t tell what bus we were supposed to be on--nor could anyone else. When we finally got on the (correct) bus, we discovered that our seats were in the very back. The sides of the bus were lined with two levels of sleeping berths, with four “beds” across the back. That was where we were to sit for the duration of the trip. At least we were on the bottom--it was easier to get out. However, the mattresses for the two seats in the middle had an alarming tendency to slip towards the floor. That was where Amelia and I sat--and we kept having to drag the mattresses back into place. It was made a little more difficult by the fact that the berths were higher at one end--which contributed to the slippage.

We left the bus station nearly on time--7:15am. The ride was to take about 24 hours, so we expected to be in Urumqi early the next morning. We all packed food, water, books, and anything else we might need for the ride. After a few hours, we stopped for the first break. It was our first introduction to real Kazakh lavatories--or, as we would call them in the US, pit toilets that lack any semblance of privacy. Everyone crowds in, and the babushkas keep telling everyone “Faster! Faster!”. That was to be the constant refrain every time we stopped. We kept thinking that the situation would improve once we got to China--and it did change. There were actual lavatories--that were locked. We were sent to an area behind an abandoned building. Or worse--sent out behind the bus which was stopped on the highway in the snow, while other cars continued along the road. No matter how well prepared you are for traveling in different parts of the world, there are some things that will still completely take you aback and make you realize that you will never completely assimilate into a culture.

Riding on the bus was quite an adventure. Groups of people clustered around the lower berths where one of their travel companions was staying. Every few hours, a whole chicken would be taken out and there would be a snack. In between these periods, people sat around and ate sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds--leaving the shells all over the floor. Bottles of vodka were passed around in a communal teacup, and people gathered in the front of the bus to have a cigarette or two. There was one volume. Loud. Everyone was talking, gesturing, eating. I don’t know how they were able to eat when we stopped for lunch and dinner at cafes along the way.

We arrived at the border in Khorgos around 3pm. It took 2 hours to clear customs on the Kazakh and Chinese sides of the border. You have to go through one side, get back on the bus, drive ½ mile to the other side of the border, and repeat the same process. We had to fill out all sorts of paperwork on the Chinese side. “Have you had contact with domestic birds in the last month?” and other similar questions. There was even a place to indicate your temperature. Waiting in line, we were discussing different avian diseases (Amelia had been a participant in the 4H Avian Bowl in California, and I still remembered some things from my poultry management classes from UMASS). After a few minutes, we realized that it might not be the best topic (and there was an English speaking official within earshot). So, we switched to a safer subject. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing. No sooner than we had started to discuss the upcoming games than we were told that “people are working, and talking is forbidden in line”. Hmmm…. But it was the first introduction to one of the catch phrases of the trip. “It is forbidden”. The other one was “You MUST do this”.
After making it through the border, we stopped for dinner in Khorgos. The only problem was that there was no menu at the restaurant. We asked the waiter for a menu, and were told that there wasn’t one. But they served “the usual things”. What on earth does that mean??? By that time, I was exhausted and starving, so I went with the safe option--Shashlik (Meat that is marinated then grilled on skewers. Don’t ask what type of shashlik it is--the answer is always a puzzled look and “m’yasa” or “meat”).

Once we got back on the bus, it was surprisingly easy to fall asleep. Good thing, too--since on the return trip we actually saw what the ‘highway’ looked like. Picture a narrow winding dirt road going through a high mountain pass and you won’t be far wrong. The next morning, I woke up around 8am. The initial excitement of being ‘almost there’ wore off quickly. We arrived in Urumqi at 11:30am, after 28.5 hours of traveling. It was a surprisingly easy trip--we were all ready to get to a hotel, shower, and start exploring the city. But more on that later…

Preparations for China

There are so many different stories to tell from the recent trip to China, that I almost don’t know where to begin. I would be writing for days and still would leave things out. So, I will instead be posting a log of the daily events--based on the travel journal that I kept throughout the trip. These won’t be posted all at once--it would take several days of writing without interruption just to get through my notes.

Preparations for the trip

According to Kazakh law, foreigners living in the country are required to register with the local immigration police. Normally, this registration occurs within five days of arrival. For individuals traveling under the aegis of a diplomatic mission, though, permanent registration is done within 90 days of arrival. I arrived in Almaty on 29 August--which meant that I needed to arrange for my permanent registration by the end of November. The consular office forwards our passports to USAID, and they take care of the paperwork. Normally, it takes about a week. I had hoped to complete these arrangements before Thanksgiving, but with the trip to Taldykorgan was unable to do so (I had to have my passport with me for the trip).

Since I didn’t have my passport back when Sarah and Amelia went to the Chinese consulate to arrange their travel visas, I had to go by myself several days later. My information stated that the consulate was open from 9:30-12:30 MWF. After getting completely lost (a not unusual occurrence in that region of the city--even the city maps are inaccurate), I arrived at 11:40 to find out that the office closed at noon. Not a problem. I picked up the needed forms, filled them out, and got back in line. Then the lights went out. It didn’t matter if you were already in line. Everyone in the office just left. As I was standing there, a man approached me to say that he could help me get the visa--I just needed a letter from the embassy stating that I was allowed to go to China. Seemed rather shady, so I declined. Just in case, though, I called the embassy and arranged for a permission letter to be picked up later the same day.

Monday morning, I met Amelia at the consulate. She was there to pick up her visa, and I needed to get my paperwork finished. Once we got to the front of the line, the official working there refused to assist us. He stated that I needed to work with the ‘tourist company representative’. His English was limited--”That is enough!” “No more!”. I ended up having to leave my passport with “Lev” in the lobby. I paid him the visa fee--plus an extra 1,000 tenge ($8) and was told to come back on Friday.

Friday morning, I headed back to the Chinese consulate to look for Lev. After seeing him, I was directed to go find the “red car out front” to pick up my passport. There was a woman sitting in the front seat of the car passing out passports. She had a huge stack of Kazakh passports--all in complete disarray. It took nearly 40 minutes of standing outside the car until I could get my passport. It was raining/snowing the entire time--and there were so many people crowded around the car that it was impossible to use an umbrella. Since my jeans were a little too long, they acted as a wick to draw the icy slush up my legs. By the time I left, my jeans were soaked to the knees, and my hair was dripping wet. And I still needed to get to the bus station to buy my ticket.

The bus ride to the station was interesting. The driver conformed with the favorite Kazakh tradition of playing bad English-language pop music LOUDLY. I say English language, because the singer clearly had no understanding of the lyrics. It was a song I hadn’t heard before “Later you can sing to me like a shining star/but I’d rather get to know you in the back seat of my car”. It was one of the funniest songs I’ve heard in a while.

Eventually I arrived at the bus station and met up with Sarah and Amelia. We were able to get tickets to Urumqi, leaving the following morning at 7am. Not much time to prepare! Then it was back home to do some grocery shopping and get ready. Not much sleep that night--it was too exciting.