Friday, December 28, 2007

China-Urumqi Day 1 with pictures of Day 2


As we drove into Urumqi—several hours later than expected—we encountered our first surprise. The bus was not going to the bus station, but instead was dropping passengers off at different hotels in the city. We didn’t have a hotel reservation, and had previously made arrangements to meet our guide at the bus station. What now? Fortunately, one of the women on the bus had a cell phone that worked in China, and let us borrow it to call our guide to let him know where he could meet us.

Getting off of the bus, the first impression I had was that it was cold. Much colder than Almaty. This was to be expected, though, as Urumqi is further north (and closer to Siberia). It still came as a shock, though. The second impression was of absolute chaos. People were gathered around the bus trying to sell us SIM cards for our cell phones, to change money for us, or just to ask us for money. Most people were speaking Russian, so we were able to understand what they were saying. The three of us were clearly foreigners (obviously, since we were not dressed all in black!), so we attracted much more attention. As we waited for our guide, we were continuously approached by prospective salesmen—to whom we kept replying “ni nada!” “we don’t need anything!”. It was amazing how many times we needed to keep repeating that phrase.

Eventually, Ayup (our guide) arrived—but we couldn’t leave just yet. One of his friends was meeting us before we could leave for our hotel. Apparently, Kolya spoke Russian—which our guide (who told us to call him by his “English” name of Jackson) thought would be of assistance. We still aren’t sure why, since Jackson spoke English with some level of fluency—communication wouldn’t be a problem. Once Kolya arrived, we took a bus to another location where we could change money at a better exchange rate and also buy SIM cards for our phones (which we all bought—if just to say that we have phone numbers in China).

After exchanging money, we took cabs to our hotel. Taking a cab in Urumqi was rather different than in Almaty. Cabs in China are regulated, with fares clearly displayed on a meter. In Almaty, every car is a cab—but you need to negotiate with the driver before getting in. We got to our hotel and checked in—the rate for a triple room was an exorbitant $9 per person per night. After saying farewell to Jackson until the evening, we took some time to shower before heading out to find something for lunch. There were a few surprises in the bathroom, however—including “women joy sex oil” and a selection of condoms. Very curious—but we just figured that we were in another country and things were somewhat different.

By the time we all had showered, we were all more than ready to find something for lunch. The question was where to go. We couldn’t read any of the signs, so relied on pictures that showed images of food. At that point, we hadn’t figured out that a carcass hanging near a doorway signified a restaurant. We picked a direction and started walking—and attracted quite a bit of interest as we were clearly foreigners. We eventually went into a restaurant and were faced with a dilemma. None of us speak or read any Chinese characters, and there was not a Russian language menu. So…we began to pantomime with the waitress. We still don’t know what we ordered, but it was hot—some sort of soup with meat and noodles (not langhman, though). One of the street vendors had followed us into the restaurant and sold us some shashlik, too. The cost for lunch for three people--24 quai (less than $3.50).

After lunch, we decided to see if we could find one of the banyas that Urumqi is famous for. We were all ready for a massage! It didn’t take us long to find a sauna—they are usually in a hotel, and there was a large, apparently upscale hotel less than ½ mile from where we were staying. We were directed to the sauna area, where one of the employees spoke some Russian—which made the entire process much easier. Being used to the banyas in Kazakhstan—which are communal baths—we were a little surprised to be directed into individual suites. Each suite had a bath area with sauna and massage table, and a separate room with a double bed, television, mirrored wall, and bars on the ceiling—as well as dim pink lighting. While I was waiting for the masseuse to arrive, I called Sarah in the next room—we both agreed that it was rather strange, but figured that it was normal. After all, we were in a nice hotel and there wouldn’t be anything sketchy going on.

The massage was, well…interesting. Sarah, Amelia, and I all agreed afterwards that the masseuses were not accustomed to foreigners. Even without a common language, the masseuses all managed to communicate how um…different…we appeared. Arriving back at our hotel, Amelia called her sister (who lives in another part of China) and told her about our experiences. Her sister apparently found the story quite amusing—and informed us that we were staying in one of China’s ubiquitous “love hotels”. These are hotels where businessmen stay—and usually have some after-hours company (which explained the items in the bathroom). Furthermore, she said, the banya where we had our massages really wasn’t a banya. And while the masseuses were professionals, they were not professional masseuses. So…after having been in Urumqi for a total of 6 hours, we discovered that we were staying in a hotel where room service included an escort service, and we had hired prostitutes to give us massages. The trip was off to a great start!

That evening, Jackson showed us a popular local restaurant. The specialty of the restaurant is “Beijing Roast Duck”—or Peking Duck. It consists of three parts—slices of duck that you roll in pancakes with plum sauce and various toppings, duck soup, and spicy fried duck. It was the first time that any of the three of us had tried Peking Duck, and we all agreed that it was wonderful. We all indulged—and by the time the waitress brought out the soup and fried duck, I couldn’t eat any more. The cost for this extravagant meal? 91 quai—less than $13.

It was late by the time we got back to the hotel—but not too late for one last phone call. Our room came with an additional service—a bedtime call by a woman looking to see if we needed/wanted any company for the night. Once she realized that we didn’t speak any Chinese, she quickly hung up the phone.

If we were able to pack so many adventures and unusual experiences into only half a day in Urumqi, it would be interesting to see what the next week or so would hold!

Christmas-with pictures!

Christmas in Almaty was definitely a memorable occasion. It was the first time that I was away from family for the holiday, and before leaving for Kazakhstan I had some trepidation as to how I would get through the day. After four months in Almaty, I have been able to create a great network of friends, though, and Christmas was an opportunity to spend time with my closest friends and adoptive family.

When I woke up on Christmas morning, the first sight that greeted me was the new fallen-snow on the trees outside my window. I drank my tea while looking out at the mountains, and then spent about an hour reading. Since I was hosting Christmas dinner at my house, and would be out for most of the day, I then finished up the final cooking preparations. My friends Sarah and Amelia arrived at my house around 1pm--bearing cookies and other holiday treats. We then bundled up and headed off to the mountains for an afternoon of sledding. Sarah brought a thermos of hot chocolate laced with Bailey’s (or was it Bailey’s laced with hot chocolate?), so we were well prepared for any contingency.

As it was a holiday, we decided to bypass the foothills of Medeu for the higher peaks of Chimbulak. We hired a cab to take us up to the ski resort--where we spent several hours sledding. Of course, we didn’t have any actual sleds--instead, we sat on large plastic bags. It was a wonderful time--and whenever we started to get cold, we warmed up with some of the excellent hot chocolate.

All too soon, it was time to return to Almaty. Our driver on the return trip (Sergei) was very excited to have three Americans in his car. His daughter had studied in the US-in Denver--and he spent the trip telling us about her experiences. He was very happy to know that I study in Kansas--only one state away from his daughter.

When we arrived back at my apartment, we had about 1 ½ hours until the lamb finished roasting. We were eating later than usual, as my landlord Yura works until 7pm and we didn’t want to start dinner before he arrived. So, we drank Gluhwein (German mulled wine) and ate smoked salmon on black bread. Once Yura arrived home, he came over with his family (Lyudmilla, Olya--Olga-- and Vasa--Vassily). It was a wonderful time--we spoke a mixture of Russian and English, with different people interpreting as needed. There was quite a bit of laughter, as well as phone calls from loved ones back in the US--for all of us! My family called just as we were finishing dinner, Sarah’s family also called, and Lyudmilla received a call from her sister in California.

All too soon, it was time for everyone to leave. It had been a wonderful day, and one that I will remember for a long time. Christmas wasn’t spent with my family back home--but it was spent with my new family here in Almaty.