Tuesday, January 22, 2008

China-Camel Riding and the World's Freshest Chicken

It is a frigid night here in Almaty, with temperatures well below zero. Definitely a good night to stay inside and drink tea—and perhaps catch up on some of the writing I have been intending to do.

The trip to go camel riding started well before dawn, at 10am Beijing time. It is rather strange to think that 10am is before sunrise, but it was only 8am local time—and during winter in these latitudes, sunrise is rather late. Before we left, we had breakfast in the hotel. I am usually willing to try different things, but the Chinese-style breakfasts are a bit beyond me. Pickled vegetables first thing in the morning can be a little hard to stomach—even for someone who likes rather non-traditional breakfasts.

Our guide met us in the hotel lobby—it would be an interesting trip, since she spoke no English and we only had a few phrases in Chinese. We had agreed (through Amelia’s sister, who interpreted via cellphone) to pay a grand total of 600 quai ($80) to drive us to our destination and bring us back. The camel ride would be an additional 100 quai ($13) each. So, for around $40 each, we would have a day of camel riding and exploring the Taklamakan Desert.

It was a drive of about 150km from Kashgar to the camel reserve. In Kazakhstan, the drive would last no longer than 70 minutes. After the kamikaze drivers in Almaty, it was something of a surprise to have a driver who obeyed speed limits. Within towns/villages, the speed limit was 40km per hour and outside of towns/villages speeds increased to 80km per hour. I actually found myself wishing that our guide would speed up! The drive was fascinating, though. We had left early enough to be able to see children on their way to local schools. In each village that we drove through, we first encountered what appeared to be the wealthier children riding bicycles. They were usually several hundred meters ahead of the remaining students—who had to walk to the village school.

The region we drove through was clearly dominated by Uyghur families—we saw small mosques, signs written in Arabic script (Uyghur is written in the Arabic alphabet), and even a Muslim cemetery. Our guide stopped to allow us to take pictures of this cemetery, which was fascinating (there is a picture in a previous blog). It was just after sunrise and the morning fog had yet to burn off, which made it seem rather unreal. I am not familiar with Uyghur burial customs, but the cemetery appeared to consist of numerous above-ground crypts.

Traffic on the highway was fairly heavy. However, cars were not the only means of transportation—or even the most popular means of transportation. That honor would have to belong to the donkey cart. At one point, our guide stopped to ask one man driving a donkey cart (with his wife sitting in the back of the cart) if we could take his picture. He appeared to be amused, and agreed. I am sure that he had no idea why we thought the image was so fascinating, since donkey carts were part of his everyday landscape.

Before arriving at the camel reserve, we had one more stop to make. Our guide showed us a willow tree that was over 1000 years old. As you might expect, it is absolutely massive. Many of branches have fallen due to their weight, and lay in a twisted mass on the ground. To reach the tree, we had to walk along a narrow path that falls between an irrigation canal and a school. We attracted the attention of the students, who gathered by the school windows and repeatedly called to us—in English. It was rather charming.

Eventually, we reached the camel reserve. By this time, it was nearly 1pm. We were to ride camels for two hours, and then have lunch before returning to Kashgar. The camel ride itself was incredible. Since I’m sure that people are going to ask what type of camels we rode, I should note that they were Bactrian camels, not Dromedaries. Bactrian camels have 2 humps, and are much better adapted to extreme cold and heat than Dromedaries. I should also note that the aroma of camels leaves something to be desired. Although I would imagine that they smell even worse during the hot summer months.

Camels are rather ungainly animals. They don’t appear to be particularly coordinated, and riding a camel can be rather like being on a boat in rough water (they are called the ‘ships of the desert’, after all!). We rode in a convoy, with a guide walking alongside us. It was an incredible way to see the desert—the swirls of sand, the sharp peaks of some of the dunes, a man herding his sheep in the scrubland at the edge of the desert. The Taklamakan is the 2nd largest shifting sand desert in the world—although Xinjiang is the largest province in China (1/6 of the country’s total territory) and has a relatively small population, population densities are as high as those in Eastern China because so much of the region is encompassed by the desert. Traders along the Silk Road would have had to skirt the southern borders of the desert to reach Kashgar. This was the same portion of the desert where we were able to ride camels. Before leaving for Kazakhstan, I commented that one of the things that I wanted to do before returning home was to ride a camel in the desert. To have done so along the ancient Silk Road was truly a phenomenal experience. There will be some great stories to tell the next time I teach about Central Asia!

I don’t know what our guide thought of us, though. Especially when we decided to start singing. It was a little hard to decide on what song to sing—since we couldn’t seem to find a song that all three of us knew the words to. Eventually we found a song we could agree on—I leave it to you to imagine three women riding camels, singing “Goodbye Earl”.

By the time our camel ride was over, the three of us were hungry and, once we were away from the warmth of the camels, freezing cold. Since we had made arrangements for lunch to be served, we thought that it would be ready upon our return. That did not turn out to be the case. Using a combination of hand signals and pictures, our guide asked us what we wanted for lunch. Eventually, we settled on the appropriate menu and then we were shown into a small room heated by a coal brazier. Initially there was a problem with the chimney and the room was filled with smoke. So…we were outside for the next stage of the lunch preparations. When we had been deciding what we wanted for lunch, our guide had indicated a cage filled with chickens. Initially, we thought that she was pointing to the chickens so we knew what sort of meat was available. As it turned out, that was NOT the case. We were being asked if we wanted one of the chickens in the cage. Before we quite realized what was happening, one of the men working at the reserve was inside the cage and having a debate with our guide about which chicken to serve us for lunch. In the past, I have been able to pick which lobster or fish I’d like for dinner—but never which chicken.

When lunch was finally served (at around 4 pm, by which time we were all glad to have eaten breakfast at the hotel), we were a little uncertain as to what we were eating. There was clearly chicken in the dish, but there was also another meat. Given the freshness of the chicken, and the fact that the only other animal we had seen was a dog, we weren’t quite sure what we were eating. But the dog was still sitting outside, and we eventually figured out that it was goat. Thank goodness! It would have been difficult if it had been dog, especially since it was pretty tasty.

Eventually, it was time to head back to Kashgar. It had been an exhausting day, and I was more than ready for a shower and to take a nap. But the day was not over yet. Our guide had one more stop for us on the way back. We were able to visit with a Uyghur family in their farmhouse. It was like walking into a living museum. The house only had two rooms—a living area and a kitchen. Carpet-covered pallets lined one side of the living area, and a dombra (traditional stringed instrument) hung on the wall. It was clearly the gathering place in the house, and also served as a bedroom at night. The only other room was the kitchen, which was significantly warmer. There was a cradle on the floor in the room, but it bore little resemblance to cradles in the US. This cradle had no sides and would be considered an antique by western standards. The farmer’s wife went over to the cradle and pulled back several layers of blankets. After she did so, we realized that her infant son was sleeping in the cradle. She untied a band of cloth that prevented him from falling out of the cradle, and proudly showed him off to us. His father came into the kitchen and played with the baby while we were there. It was clear that they were a happy family. It is a difficult life, though—with no running water, no electricity, none of the amenities that we are accustomed to in the west.

By this time, we thought that the adventures were over. But then we started hearing noises from the back of the car. Eventually, the noise became loud enough for our guide to pull over and open up the trunk—so she could quiet the three live chickens she had bought back at the camel reserve. Apparently, city prices for live chickens were rather high and these chickens were less expensive. The truly strange thing about the situation, though, was that it did not seem to be strange at all. It was just another day in Central Asia.

Friday, January 18, 2008

China--The Magic of Kashgar

Kashgar is by far one of the most magical cities I have ever seen. It is a very old city, located at the juncture of the north and south routes of the Silk Road (The Silk Road was actually a series of trade routes. The southern routes went through what is now Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan [areas such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and Merv], while the northern routes went through current-day Kyrgyzstan and the southernmost portion of Kazakhstan. These routes joined in Kashgar and then extended eastward. When Islam was introduced into Central Asia, it first took hold in cities, and today there are still a large number of Muslims (mostly Uyghurs) in Kashgar. The Id Kah mosque in the heart of the old city is considered to be one of the most sacred sites by Muslims in China.

The downtown area of the city is divided into two distinct sections. The southern half is clearly non-Uyghur (and probably mostly Han Chinese). There are stores that sell alcohol, restaurants, and shops that follow a more western style. It is even possible to order pork in restaurants (We had one dish that actually had bacon. Sheer bliss! It was the first bacon I’d had since August, since it is not readily available in Almaty). The northern half of downtown Kashgar is the original city center. Everything is centered around the Id Kah mosque (pictured in a previous blog). There is a large square in front of the mosque, with a covered bazaar opposite. Small stores and vendors line the streets, and it is not uncommon to see a man leading a donkey cart laden with goods down the street. There is a large square in front of the mosque that can accommodate upwards of 100,000 men for services on holy days. Men in green uniforms patrol the entire area, ensuring that people adhere to the strict code of behavior. No smoking or drinking alcohol, no gambling, no spitting, no littering. Even animals are affected by these rules. There are several places along the side of the square for tourists to pose with a camel, a donkey, or a pony. All of these animals stand on some sort of carpeting to keep any effluents from falling directly on the square. The poor pony even had a bucket tied around its girth to catch any urine.

When we first arrived at the mosque, it was shortly before the muezzin (call to prayer). Within minutes of hearing the call, the square was full of men dressed in black. I don’t think there was any religious reason for the prevalence of black clothing, though. It is a common choice for clothes in this region, where washing machines are scarce and dust is plentiful. Sarah, Amelia, and I definitely stood out in our brightly colored, western-style winter coats.

We spent a fair amount of time exploring the narrow alleys and warrens behind the mosque. It was absolutely fascinating. Many of the buildings have complex geometric patterns, and some of the buildings were clearly once mosques. Vendors sell all sorts of ‘street food’. My favorite? A bar made of walnuts and some sort of honey/sugar coating. Absolutely delicious-but expensive. It cost all of 30 cents for the walnut bar! The ones made of cashews or assorted nuts were only 15 cents.

Walking around for a while, we came across a street full of artisans creating their wares. Metalsmiths making copper ornaments, woodworkers carving dishes, other artisans making/playing traditional Uyghur musical instruments. It was possible to stop at stalls along the street and buy loose tea, nan (bread), just-picked tangerines, and many other items. Restaurants dotted the street—recognizable by the mutton hanging outside the door, as well as by steaming trays of manti and braziers with grilling meat out front.

English is not a very common language in Kashgar, and the city also appears to be divided by language. Uyghur is spoken in the Muslim area, and Chinese (probably Mandarin) is spoken in the remainder of the city. Unfortunately, we did not speak any Uyghur—but that did not prevent us from trying to communicate with store owners and waiters in restaurants. One restaurant we went into had a food that we couldn’t wait to try—pumpkin manti. Usually, manti is meat (m’yasa) without vegetables. To order our meal, I had to take the waiter out to the street and point to the manti, then show him 3 fingers (one order for each of us). They were nearly out of pumpkin manti, so we augmented our order with regular manti. The cost for this delicious lunch? 7.2 quai—just under $1 for three meals.

Shopping in the stores was definitely a unique experience! Bargaining is expected—but how do you bargain when you don’t speak the language?? Our technique was quite simple. We knew three phrases in Chinese (‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and ‘how much does it cost’), so we would ask the cost and then give the shopkeeper a piece of paper and pen. They would either write the price down for us, or would punch the numbers into a calculator (or cell phone) and show it to us. We would counter by writing a lower number down—if they shook their head to indicate no, we would start to walk away. Usually, the shopkeeper would follow us and agree to the lower price. It didn’t always work, but often had the desired result.

There was one store where we all agreed not to bargain. There are about five or six stores selling traditional musical instruments on this particular street. In the first store we went into, we were surprised to be greeted in English by a young man tuning an instrument. Amelia was interested in several of the different instruments, and I wanted to find something for my nephews. The young man (Kurbanjan Ablimat) spent substantial time explaining the different instruments to us, and ensuring that quality of the gifts for Ryan and Campbell (he wasn’t happy with one of the instruments, and found a better one to replace it). He also gave us directions to a store where we could buy CDs of traditional music.

We went into some of the other music stores afterwards, but the prices were all higher, the instruments weren’t as nice, and the storekeepers were not particularly friendly. We really had no intention of buying anything in the other stores, though—our plan was to go back to the original store for any other purchases. Before doing so, we went back to the hotel to drop off our bags and to make arrangements for a camel ride in the Taklamakan Desert the following day. [Thanks to Amelia’s sister, Sybil, who lives in China and speaks the language, we were able to communicate with the front desk at the hotel. Amelia called her sister, told her what we wanted, and than gave the phone to the receptionist. It took a little while, but it worked!].

By the time we returned to downtown Kashgar, it was getting late—about 5:30pm Beijing time. We weren’t sure how late the stores would be open, and needed to finish shopping for gifts that afternoon. There wouldn’t be time after camel riding, and we were returning to Urumqi the following day. Fortunately, the first music store we went into was still open. Kurbanjan greeted us and immediately began telling us more about the instruments. Amelia wanted to look at a qushtar (a stringed instrument played with a bow), and Sarah was interested in a rawab (another stringed instrument, but which is more similar to a banjo). The qushtar that Amelia selected did not have a bridge, so Kurbanjan constructed the bridge while he told us more about the store and his interest in the instruments. His family has handmade traditional Uyghur instruments for five generations. Each instrument is carefully inlaid with different types of wood, and elaborately decorated. Even the small models of these instruments are handmade. He spent time showing us how each instrument is played, and demonstrated several traditional Uyghur songs and also played some Mozart for us. It was truly a fantastic experience. We were in the store for nearly two hours, listening to music and learning about each instrument. When it eventually came time to pay for our purchases (and I am not saying what I bought, since they include several gifts), none of us even thought of bargaining. It wasn’t just a shopping trip, but an amazing cultural experience—by spending the time to explain the instruments and music to us, Kurbanjan gave us a gift that won’t soon be forgotten. Before we left, he also presented me with a CD of traditional music—which is simply beautiful.

Our day in Kashgar ended at a Chinese restaurant. It was my turn to order dinner from the menu—ordering consisted of turning several pages and pointing to items in a different range of prices. And, yes, I did manage to order hot and spicy intestines (a picture of which is in a previous post). Fortunately, the prices were very reasonable—if we didn’t like a dish, we looked around the restaurant and indicated to the waitress that we would like what another table had ordered (this is considered normal behavior in China). The total bill for the five dinner entrees? 97 quai—or about $13. When we returned to the hotel, we calculated how much we had spent on food for the entire day—the total for each of us was about $5.25, including that pricy dinner.

As enjoyable as Kashgar was, we were all excited about the next day and camel riding. We had no idea just what an adventure it would be!

China-Taxi Ride from Hell-Pictures

1. Road to nowhere

2. "Fixing" the car--we put the blocks on the tires, not our taxi driver

3. Directing traffic around the car

4. Waiting for the car to be fixed

5. Area right by the 'garage'--note the repairs made to the broken telephone pole. Just stick two concrete posts into the ground, and tie the pole to them. Yikes!

China--Urumqi to Khorgos--Pictures

1)Lake Sayran

2-4)Herding on the highway around Lake Sayran

5)Amelia at an overpriced "Starbucks" in Khorgos

China-train ride from Kashgar to Urumqi-Pictures

A few pictures from the train ride from Kashgar to Urumqi. 1)Highway in the Taklamakan Desert near the Flaming Mountains 2)Settlement near the Flaming Mountains 3)sunrise from a plateau above the Turpan Depression 4)largest windfarm in China, near Turpan

Thursday, January 17, 2008

China-Train Rides and Love Hotels

Having become accustomed to the chaos of transportation systems in Kazakhstan, the experience of taking the train from Urumqi to Kashgar was quite a surprise. We left for the station rather early, as we anticipated that there might be some problems finding the appropriate platform. Fortunately, we knew which bus went to the train station (having made a careful note the previous day so that we could get to the station without our guide). En route, we stopped at a small grocery store to buy food for the trip and also found an open street stall selling fresh Uyghur-style bread (flat bread encrusted with sesame seeds or onions—delicious and addictive). It was definitely better than the hotel breakfast!

Arriving at the station, we were required to show our tickets in order to enter the departure hall. However, tickets were clearly not necessary. The woman in line in front of me blatantly slipped the security guard a few banknotes and had no problem entering. The departure hall was quite large and very well organized. Most of the signs were in Uyghur and Chinese, but the train numbers were clearly marked. Each train had a specific waiting area, and it took just a few minutes to find the correct place for the train to Kashgar. As we waited for the train to begin boarding, we could not help but notice a large number of Chinese soldiers. Some were apparently receiving awards—they were the ones wearing large red flowers pinned to the front of their uniform. As it turned out, they were traveling back to Kashgar on the same train as us. However, they were in what is called “hard seat”, or standard train seats without the option of lying down and sleeping. Not too much fun on a train ride that is over 24 hours long!

We soon boarded the train, and through a combination of smiles and showing train tickets, we found the correct carriage and berths. We all had upper berths, in 2 adjoining coupes. Each coupe has four berths—two upper and two lower. The people with the lower berths also have a table to share, and a little more room. However, there are seats in the hallway that can be used by those in the upper berths. This was to be where we spent much of our waking time on the train. The train was scheduled to leave at 12:09pm (Beijing time, of course). Imagine our surprise when we pulled out of the station at exactly 12:09pm! That would NEVER happen in Kazakhstan.

I should note that the presence of three foreign women (especially when one has curly red hair, and another is 5’10”) is extremely noticeable in Xinjiang. The other people in our carriage were rather amused by us. People would peer around the side of their coupe to look at where we were sitting, and they would smile and laugh. Western tourists are apparently a novelty—and we provided entertainment for quite a few people. Except for the times when we were trying to eat, it was rather charming. I don’t recommend trying to eat a bowl of ramen noodles as people stare at you, though.

The scenery on the train ride was fascinating. The train first headed further east, to the city of Turpan. We were able to see the largest windfarm in China before the train turned south towards Kashgar. For several hours, we traveled through increasingly desolate landscapes. Periodically we would see the remnants of what looked to be either military outposts or detention camps that had clearly been torn down by human agency. It was not unusual to see camels, horses, sheep, and cows grazing near the train tracks. There were few signs of human habitation, though. Occasionally we would see smoke coming from the chimney of what looked (by western standards) to be an abandoned building. The route between Turpan and Kashgar also skirted the edges of the Taklamakan Desert (the 2nd largest shifting sand desert in the world) as well as the lower reaches of the Pamir Mountains (the “Roof of the World”). Unfortunately, we traveled through these areas after nightfall—but hoped to see them during daylight on the return trip.

The train ride was also enlivened by a constant barrage of music. This music was mostly classical and Chinese pop music, with periodic bouts of communist anthems. However, it was turned off promptly at 10:30pm—when the lights were turned off. Clearly, it was bedtime. So…we all climbed into our berths and did as directed. At 8am the next morning, the music was turned on again—a soft classical piece this time. Then, at 8:05, when we had had sufficient time to wake up (?), the lights were turned back on.

We arrived in Kashgar just after 1pm—and then had to navigate to a hotel and check in. All without speaking the language. Using Russian as a backup language would not be an option, either (as it could be in Urumqi). We were fortunate, though. One of the passengers on the train spoke some English, and had given us the names of several hotels with approximations of their rates. Armed with this information, we found a taxi driver to take us to one of these hotels. It was surprisingly easy to arrange for a room—which cost $25 per night for a triple (including breakfast). However, the first room that we entered was already occupied—so we were shown to another room to wait until they had a room ready for us.

Eventually, we got settled into our (correct) room and were ready to leave to find someplace to eat. Just a short walk from the hotel, we came across the Id Kah mosque (more on that in the next post…). The mosque is surrounded by a myriad of narrow streets, all with small shops and artisans crafting their wares. We found a “Uyghur fast food” restaurant (yes, that is what the signs in front of many of these restaurants say!) for lunch. The shashlik grilling out front looked fairly appetizing, and the sheep carcass hanging by the front door looked rather fresh—clearly a good choice! The restaurant did not have a menu (which turned out to be the case with all of the Uyghur restaurants we went to), so we used a combination of hand gestures and smiles to order. At least we could point at the shashlik and hold up three fingers!

When our food arrived, it was the usual langhman (noodles with some sort of meat). But…the waiter brought out something that we hadn’t seen before. It looked like some sort of spicy pepper sauce—so exciting after the lack of seasoning common to Kazakh food. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very spicy after all. The shashlik looked (and smelled) delicious when it arrived. It turned out to be a very special type of shashlik, too. This restaurant was clearly a step above most other Uyghur restaurants, since each skewer of shashlik contained a piece of organ meat.

After several hours of walking around the city (which I will describe in more detail later—there is so much to include that it really deserves its own post. Kashgar really is a magical city), we returned to the hotel. Earlier, we had seen a sign in the lobby for a foot massage, and we were all ready to relax and indulge ourselves for a little while. So…we went back to the hotel room, put on our tapotchki, and headed up to the 7th floor (where the sign said we could find a foot massage). When we got to the 7th floor, we were unable to find any type of spa, though. So we went to the 2nd floor—the sign had a misprint and actually said “foot massage—7nd floor”. Maybe the spa was on the 2nd floor, instead? But there was no access to the 2nd floor. Clearly, it was time to try to ask at the desk.

Fortunately, the hotel had one employee who spoke a modicum of English. Just picture the following conversation.

US: There is a sign for foot massages on the 7th floor, but we couldn’t find the spa.
ATTENDANT: Foot massage?
US: Yes, foot massage. We’ve been walking quite a bit and are tired. We’d really like a foot massage.
ATTENDANT: Oh, foot massage. That is a specialty service.
US: Okay, so do we need to make a reservation? Do they come to our room? What do we need to do?
ATTENDANT: Um…that is a specialty service, ONLY for men.
US: (turning bright red). Oh. (run to the elevator).

Clearly, we were at another love hotel. And after being in Kashgar for less than 6 hours, we once again tried to hire prostitutes. Who knew “foot massage” was code for…something else??? Judging from how our trip started, the next few days would be quite interesting!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reminder about viewing pictures

Just a reminder--if you can't see the pictures in your email, you can:

1)click on the link at the bottom of the email to change your settings to include pictures
2)go to the blog itself at www.cristinburke.blogspot.com to see the pictures.

Daily Life for Rural Uyghurs-pictures

1) carrying water to the house (notice veil that woman is wearing, and also donkey cart in background)

2)waking up the baby (and untying him from the cradle!)

3)mother and son

4)living room (note musical instrument)


Pictures of the World's Freshest Chicken, before and after

Camel riding in the Taklamakan Desert-pictures

1)Writing in the sand 2)sand dunes 3)me and my camel 4)camels

Pictures from Kashgar-en route to go camel riding

1)Willow tree that is over 1000 years old (and yes, that is me--in a typical travel outfit over here. There really is no need to get all dressed up so that you can go ride a camel, after all!). 2)doorway to an Uyghur house. 3)Man and his wife on a donkey cart (on the highway). 4)Muslim cemetary at sunrise.

Pictures from Kashgar

Pictures are: (it appears that they posted in the reverse order from the numbering). You can click on any of the pictures to see a larger image (or, if you don't see the pictures in your email, go to http://www.cristinburke.blogspot.com/)

1)entrance to bazaar in Kashgar (note the man in dressed in green--he is one of the Mosque authorities that patrol the area). 2) Id Kah mosque (the largest mosque in China, I believe) in Kashgar. 3)restaurant in Uyghur section of Kashgar. 4) Statue of Mao. 5) street of artisans and craftsmen in Kashgar. 6)making the bridge for Amelia's Qutar. 7)Dinner that night! Spicy intestines. YUM!!

updates and Urumqi to Kashgar picture

I haven't had the chance to get much writing done the last few days, as I have been instead drinking vast amounts of tea in my kitchen and trying to get rid of a sinus infection/bronchitis. Apparently, I must have sat in a draft or had cold milk to drink. These are clear causes of illness over here, and I have been told to avoid them.

Anyway, depending on the Internet speed at the cafe near my house, I will be posting as many pictures as possible from the trip to China. Updates WILL follow soon...as long as I continue to avoid those drafts!

(the picture in this post is from the train ride between Urumqi and Kashgar)

Friday, January 4, 2008

Mummies, Mullets, and Miscommunication

Our first full day in China was a busy one. Sarah, Amelia, and I all wanted to travel to Kashgar during our trip, so we needed to find out about travel arrangements. Our plan was to buy either train or bus tickets early in the morning so that we would have the rest of the day to explore Urumqi.

The night before, we had arranged to meet Jackson at 11:30am Beijing time (9:30am local time). Before meeting him, we had breakfast in the hotel (included in the price of our room). It was not quite like any breakfasts that we were used to—pickled cucumbers, bean sprouts, and several other salads. Strangely enough, we had to ask for tea. Normally, every meal automatically includes tea—but apparently breakfast was the exception.

After eating, we met up with Jackson. The very first thing on the agenda was finding an ATM. There was an initial moment of panic when Jackson told us that we would not be able to use our ATM cards in China. It seemed rather strange, particularly since the upcoming Olympics will be in Beijing and all of the tourists pouring into the country will need some way to access money. Anyway, Jackson took across the city on a small bus to a location where he thought there might be an ATM that would take our cards. There was actually no problem with the ATM—and it later turned out that there was a small ATM right next door to our hotel that would allow us to make withdrawals. The immediate question of money being resolved, Jackson began to show us around part of the city.

We first visited a mosque constructed in the more traditional Chinese style during the Qin dynasty (late 19th century). It is actually a complex of buildings, all ornately decorated with geometric patterns, lotus blossoms, and protections against the evil eye (there is a picture posted on the previous blog entry about Urumqi). We spent about an hour walking around that quarter of the city, which has numerous mosques and is clearly the center of Uyghur life in Urumqi. Walking down the street, we saw cages of chickens outside the doors of several buildings—and large pans filled with the evidence that these chickens were not used for egg production. We wanted to take pictures, and asked Jackson to translate our request to some of the people we saw in the street. However, he didn’t see why we would want these pictures and wouldn’t translate our question. We later found out that there would have been no problem taking pictures—he just didn’t want to ask the question (he also admitted that he had failed the test to become a licensed English-speaking tour guide—which explained quite a bit!).

After exploring the Uyghur section of the city, we then went to “Da Bazaar”. Literally translated, it means “Big Market”. The bazaar was unlike those in Almaty—it is a series of buildings with indoor stalls. Plus, there is a KFC! There are some outdoor stalls, but most of the business is conducted indoors in a relatively clean and open space. Definitely NOT like the bazaars here in Almaty—where you are usually pushed and jostled around, and where stall-keepers appear to take pride in their lack of customer service. I was able to find a suitcase to replace the one that was stolen from my house. Jackson insisted on bargaining with the shopkeeper for me—and managed to get the price from 320 quai ($43.25) to 300 quai ($40.50). Returning to the bazaar later in the week (without Jackson), we found that the quoted price is actually about twice the actual price. And that was without speaking the language!

Throughout the entire morning, we were trying to get information from Jackson about train and bus tickets to Kashgar. After all, we wanted to leave the next morning and needed to make the necessary arrangements. Below is a sample conversation:

Us: Jackson, we need to find out about tickets to Kashgar. Can you call your friend at the travel agency and ask about times and prices?
Jackson: Yes.
Us: Can you call now??
Jackson: Oh, okay. (makes a call). Yes, there are tickets.
Us: Okay, how much do they cost? And what time does the train/bus leave?
Jackson: Oh, I don’t know. I will have to call back.

This entire process was repeated at least half a dozen times, since there were multiple options. There are two trains to Kashgar, and three different options on each train (hard seat—which are just seats, hard sleep—a coupe that does not have a door, and soft sleep—a coupe with a locking door). Jackson couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t opt for “hard seat” and kept ignoring our requests for information about “hard sleep”. We explained repeatedly that we did not want to sit for 24 hours on a train—which he just didn’t seem to comprehend. And then he asked if we wanted him to come with us to translate on that part of the trip....

We took a break for lunch during this process, visiting a restaurant near our hotel. How did we know it was a restaurant? It was very easy—by the sheep (or was it goat) hanging by the front door. And the block of wood with a hatchet embedded in it, with miscellaneous chicken parts scattered around. Even after living in Kazakhstan for four months, I was very glad of the cold, since it provided some type of refrigeration for all of the meat. And it kept the flies off!

The restaurant was a typical Uyghur restaurant—no menu, green tea brought to the table almost immediately, and packed full of people all dressed in black (black is a common color choice over here, since it hides dirt/stains rather well). Our choices were langhman, manti, shashlik, or plov (called poulo in Xinjiang). We opted for plov, which was served slightly differently. Instead of the meat being fried and mixed into the rice, a large piece of boiled meat was put on top of the rice. It didn’t take long for the waiter to bring our meals—less than a minute after we heard the sounds of meat being hacked up in the kitchen, we were enjoying what Jackson told us was a very healthy meal. After all, it had carrots! Of course, everything was coated with mutton fat—a minor detail!

Our next stop after lunch—and after repeated conversations with Jackson about train tickets—was the Xinjiang Museum, which has a display of Indo-European mummies discovered in the region. Touring the museum was quite an experience. We began with the artifacts—many of which are similar to those in the National History Museum here in Almaty. That was when I had the following conversation with Jackson.

[A display with an armband that had been discovered on one of the mummies. An enlarged picture of the armband hanging above]

Me: What a fascinating piece of clothing
Jackson: Yes, it is a great picture.
Me: No, I mean the actual armband
Jackson: What armband?
Me: The armband that is on display below the picture
Jackson: No, there is no armband on display. It is too fragile—I have seen the original.
Me: Jackson, the original is RIGHT THERE
Jackson: Oh, no. That is not the original. They don’t display it. That is a reproduction, which is why there is a picture.

And the frustration mounts…

We spent a few hours at the museum—the mummies were fascinating. It was amazing to see something that I have taught about—and I bought several books at the museum store that will be helpful for future classes. After seeing the mummies, the three of us were more than ready to leave the museum and buy our train tickets. However, there was another exhibit that Jackson wanted to see. We had to track him down and tell him that we were leaving NOW. Really, a very strange tour guide!

When we left the museum, the next question was how we would get to the train station.

Us: Jackson, do we need to take a cab or a bus to the train station
Jackson: Do you want to take the bus?
Us: We don’t know. Is it faster?
Jackson: We should take a cab. Unless you want to take the bus
Us: Jackson, what buses go to the train station? (Jackson had already proven unable to hail a cab—Amelia and I had hailed the cabs we had taken earlier in the day)
Jackson: The 906 bus goes to the train station. We should take that one.
Us: Okay. Hey-Jackson, where does that bus go to? (The number 52 bus had just pulled up at the stop in front of us).
Jackson: That one? It goes to the train station.
Us: Why don’t we take that one?

The train station was incredibly crowded—the wait appeared to be upwards of 2 hours. After waiting about 20 minutes, Jackson mentioned that there was actually another station we should try. Apparently, this one was nearby but no one really knew about it, so there were no lines. It took us about 15 minutes to walk to the other station, but we were able to buy tickets without any problem. Afterwards, we told Jackson that we would meet him later for dinner.

It was with a huge sigh of relief that we said goodbye to our guide. On the way back to our hotel—which was nearby the ticket office—we stopped at a small prodykti (grocery store). The first thing on the list? Beer. We each bought 2 bottles—one of which was the normal 640 mL bottle, and another smaller bottle. Returning to the hotel, we all shook our heads at our guide and spent the next two hours trying some of Xinjiang’s finest malt beverages. The time to relax definitely helped calm us down, so that by the time we met up with Jackson for dinner, we had recovered some sense of equanimity.

Dinner was another unique Jackson experience. He had invited two of his friends to join us (which we thought was odd, since it wasn’t a social dinner). Sarah, Amelia, and I all ordered a beer to go with our dinner—to which Jackson responded “you want one beer—EACH?”. The restaurant itself was a Russian restaurant with “Uyghur dancing”. Somehow, I don’t think that Uyghur women perform bellydancing in public, though. Nevertheless, it was interesting. Especially the rather creepy Russian man with a mullet (and really bad plaid suit) who periodically sang. I took a picture, which apparently was all the encouragement he needed to think that we were huge fans. He came over to serenade us and ask where we were from. His next song-a dedication to the “three women from Kazakhstan”.

All in all, it was an interesting day. It was enjoyable, but we all realized that we were happier without a guide with us at all times. We were going to try our luck in Kashgar with our extremely limited language skills—and trust to our ability to smile and give the internationally understood symbol of “thumbs up”.