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”.