Sunday, August 28, 2005

Vignettes From China - Part Three - Kashgar

From Turpan we went back to Urumqi, and then caught a flight to Kashgar, for less than $300 round trip apiece. Kashgar's old city was my favorite place in the UAR, with buildings that appeared not to have been built but to have grown over the centuries into long narrow brick avenues and small mosques hidden around corners. Many doors were left open or only loosely curtained, offering second views into courtyards with drying grapes, beds, and families preparing food. These permeable doorways, the crowds in the bazaar, the children playing in the fountain and the old men watching them, all put me into a soppy, romantic mood about the close social ties I imagined the people (who stared at us as we walked by) to have. Regan politely tolerated me.

The elaborate mosques and Islamic tombs of Kashgar are well worth a day of taxi fares if nothing else than for the fun of photographing the many ways in which these austere building seem to frame themselves in their own arches, doorways, and rooftops. One of the most interesting things about many of these buildings is that the patterns employed often didn't repeat themselves in parallel construction - for example, two pillars on the opposite sides of a doorway would be carved with patterns that were from a distance similar, but upon closer inspection quite different. Regan and I argued for the rest of the trip about why this might be - I thinking it represented a very different kind of asthetic than we're used to, and he saying that it was simply a result of employing artisans to construct components of a temple or mosque in a pre-industrial age.

From Kashgar we took a taxi up five hours of the Karakorum highway (which links Islamabad to Kashgar) to Karakul. The road itself through the Pamirs is worth the time and money, and I found myself envying the German cyclers we met in the hotel restaurant who had come through miles and miles of this from Pakistan. In Karakul itself, we passed the tourist hotel on the lakeside to stay with a Kyrgyz family in a village a mile further up the road. The town itself was at about 9000 feet. They took us on a very, very bumpy ride in a poor, breaking-down land rover, up to the base camp of Muztagh Ata, an ice-shrouded four mile-high peak, at the base of which there was a village of Kyrgyz yak and sheep herders. We had salty tea (Kyrgyz drink tea with salt and milk) and fresh yogurt (which made Regan sick for the rest of the trip) in one of their stone houses, and I chatted with the children (Kyrgyz is almost exactly like Kazakh). In a surreal touch, next to the yaks, stone architecture, cheese drying on hand-woven netting, and other signs of a pristine, ancient society, many of the houses had little folding solar panels on top of them.

That night, we were treated to a concert by the family father of cafe-pop on his Casio synthesizer. At first it was enjoyable because of its strangeness, but there's only so long you can enjoy solo synthesizer music, so we finally hurt his feelings and said we were ready for bed.

After Karakul, we gave up on sights and wound our way backwards through Kashgar and Urumqi, gathering souveniers as we went. (I resolve that if I ever have an absurd amount of money and time, and an empty house to fill up, I will go to Urumqi and Kashgar to furnish it. The carpets and furniture were wonderful.) The trip back was marred only by the inevitable lateness of Chinese airlines, but this went well with our lateness arriving at the airport.

Vignettes From China - Part Two - Turpan

From Urumqi we went to Turpan (Tulufan), a city on the Northnern silk road. There were a group of Uyghur boys who put on a Uyghur music and dance show every night at the hotel we were staying, and we made their acquaintance. Turpan is famous for its grapes, so Regan and I were excited when that evening after their show they proposed that we go out and drink some local "Akh Sharap", which translates to "White Wine". When the bottle arrived and was uncorked, we took a whiff, and were greeted with a strong boquet of moonshine nail polish. It turns out they call their local wheat vodka "Akh Sharap". Nevertheless, being the gracious guests we are, we did not decline to help finish the bottle.

The next day they drove us around to see the (fairly touristy) sights around Turpan. In early afternoon, one of them said that he needed to pick up some medicine that made him happy. We agreed, and so we drove to an old Uyghur man's house. The man produced a jar of brownish paste that smelled like honey and spices. The stuff was, according to our hosts, legal and local, made from some flowers that they couldn't name or describe very well. When they were young, their parents gave it to them for toothaches. Now that they were older, it seems they gave it to themselves for ennui. In a half an hour, they were incommunicative with giggling. No longer too interested in seeing the tourist traps of Turpan, they suggested that we order a watermelon at a cafe, where we sat drinking tea, Regan and I chatting and our hosts giggling uncontrollably, high as buzzards.

That night, one of the performers who had eaten the paste had to perform in the show. Regan and I went to see it again, and it was a lot different than what we remembered, mostly because our stoned friend was doing everything out of order. After the show I learned how to say I'm stoned in Chinese, which ironically enough is "wo you hao ganja." The next night we went to see the show again, and were told that another three performers had "ganja". Evidentally, this is a pretty regular thing. If you go to see the Uyghur music show in Turpan, this little behind-the-scenes factoid might make the show more enjoyable.

The next day, we went to a Uyghur wedding, where we mostly just felt awkward. There was a lot of silly string sprayed at the morose-looking couple during their First Dance. After that, we went to a Uyghur-only disco, and indeed, Regan and I were the only non-Turkic faces in the place. There were two kinds of dances at the disco - slow dances, which are ala American Grade School, and fast dances, where the entire crowd moves in a circle, executing in turn the gestures that characterize Uyghur traditional dance.

By the way, of the sights in Turpan, the best by far were the Gaochang ruins and the old city of Tuyoq, which has only been opened to the public in the last five years. They are best taken as a pair - Tuyoq gives one a glimpse of what Gaochang might have looked like when it was the capitol of a Uyghur empire; you can see echoes of the dead city in the living one.

Vignettes From China - Part One - Urumqi

After PST training, I spent ten days in the Uyghurstan Autonymous Republic (UAR), aka Xinjiang (Chinese for "New Land"), aka Western China. Because the train and bus only run on the weekends, and I was cutting the whole things close because of PST for the 17s and the start of the school year, I flew there and back through Almaty and Urumqi. I should mention that if you're flying with Chinese airlines, don't schedule any tight connections - no Chinese plane of ours took off on time the entire trip. As a travelling partner, I had Regan Tsui, an American born Taiwanese who speaks fluent Chinese, and the other core member of the Great Boise Road Trips. To recount the whole adventure in detail would be unnecessary, so here are some highlights.

Regan flew into Beijing and spent the night there before joinging me in Urumqi. On the plane he met a American-born Korean man who was coming to China to see family, and they decided to go out and have some drinks in Beijing. There they met a pair of beautiful Chinese girls, who invited them to a Karaoke bar. They sang the night away, and the girls ordered drink after mixed drink, many of which stood untouched. As the morning approached and Regan and his friend got tired, they asked for the bill. The bill came to no less than two thousand dollars - $25 per ounce, for many many drinks that were more than one ounce. They simply hadn't asked the prices at the door. Regan payed almost of his cash - a few hundred dollars - and his friend payed what he could, around a thousand dollars, and the bar let them go.

Regan did this banking on being able to cash travellers checks, or at least use his ATM card, in Urumqi. No luck. He arrived in the city with less than a taxi fare and no way to get money. Fortunately, he was able to negotiate the bus system (something I would never have been able to do), and we met at the appointed place at the appointed time.

The reason I say I wouldn't have been able to negotiate the busses is that nobody speaks English, and in Urumqi anyway, very few speak Uyghur, which isn't that similar to Kazakh anyway. If you're going to western China and aren't lucky enough to have a travelling friend who's fluent in Chinese, I recommend studying some before you go. Speaking simple Chinese isn't so hard; it has a reputation for difficulty because of the writing. As a confidence builder for you Central Asian PCVs out there, let me mention that we met some travellers who had been living in who said that they had tried learning Russian, but gave it up because it was far too difficult, and are now making their living on Chinese instead.

Though there's no single story that goes with it, a word must be said about the magnificent food of the UAR. Chinese and Turkic cooking has mixed there, and the resulting particulate is tiny restaurants everywhere off the main roads, where for less than a dollar you can get more than you can eat of plov, shashlik, spicy soup, long thin noodles, mutton, dumplings, or any number of spicy dishes. Though Regan spoke Chinese fluently, he couldn't read, so we ordered by asking, pointing, or, more than once, just got a surprise.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Kaz 17 Training. The Worst Host Family Visit Ever.

I went to Kaz 17 training, and lived the village life again - cold showers, pit toilet, cryptic host family, and all.

The overall diagnosis is positive. I did almost everything I wanted to - got my China tickets, distributed a blog-creation tutorial, organized ) a women's self-defense workshop (but I only one-third led it, as thankfully there was a woman in the group who could do the lion's share of teaching), and had a campfire for anyone who wanted to come (few did). I also think some of my practicum volunteers got something out of my being there, though two of them said in their reviews that they were afraid of me. There were some things I didn't get to do. Unfortunately, I didn't have time for Kazakh lessons, though I got to spend a lot of time with Saltanat helping her edit the new Kazakh-language textbook. There was no chess board in the hub-site anymore, so I didn't get to play any new volunteers. Unexpected positives were learning how to make tortillas and humus, and it was super to see all the old Kaz 15s who were working training too or moving through.

I won't name names, but there are some mighty cool Kaz 17s out there. You know who you are.

Of course, since I was in Almaty I tried to visit my host family. I called in advance, and they said it would be ok to come on Saturday. That afternoon I bought toys for my host brother and sister, and took the bus from the Sayakhat bus station to Koktobe 2. Just like in training, my taxi was free because I spoke Kazakh, and the children in the village said hello to me in English, without even giggling, so walking down the old road to my host family, I was feeling right at home.

When I arrived, my host brother, host sister, host Uncle from China, and a stranger were in the summer kitchen outbuilding. They were delighted to see me, and the toys were marvelled at. My host sister promptly fled, and I asked where host Mom and Dad were. They will come, they said. Where is Akhtaban (the puppy who had lived there) I asked. There is no Akhtaban anymore, they said. You should go get some vodka. Ok, I said, knowing how these things went, and my host brother and I set off to the Fatty Duken. Chatting on the way to the store, I asked where host mom and dad were. He said that host dad would come later, but that host mom is in the hostpital. Why, I asked, surprised. She's very sick, he said. It's very serious. Is she dying? I asked. No, he said. And no more information was forthcoming.

When we returned, it was well after dark. I put the vodka on the table, and shots were poured. I asked where the host mom was, and they told me that she was simply pregnant, and was had been the hospital for high blood pressure for three weeks. (Since hospitals in Kazakhstan get paid per inpatient hour, there's no disincentive against hospitalizing people for minor illnesses for long periods of time.) Relieved, I said a toast, and we drank. This formality being taken care of, I asked for something to eat. I hadn't eaten yet, and no food had been so much as offered -- which, by the way, for a Kazakh family treating a guest, let alone a returning member of the family, is very unusual. They said, we are preparing food, and poured another shot. We talked a little, drank the shot, and I asked for food again. It is being prepared, they said. I looked at the stove. It was cold, and there was a giant pot on it. Please give me some food, I said. All right, we are preparing it! they said, and got up and turned on the stove under the pot. Fifteen minutes later, as the host uncle and stranger worked on the vodka I had bought, I served myself a re-heated bowl of old pasta and beef fat out of the bowl. There was bread, but only because I had bought it myself at the store.

Is my host dad coming? I asked. Yes, he's coming, they said. It was then about 11:00pm, and I knew he wasn't coming. We ate and chatted a little, and by the time I had eaten they had drunk the vodka. They stood up noisily. We're going to a birthday party, they said. I don't really want to go, I said. Maybe they could let me into the house so I could go to bed? We don't have the key to the house, they said. Your host dad has the key. When he comes, he will open the house. We will sleep in the kitchen. You can sleep in the bed (there was one bed in the kitchen) with Askhat (my host brother). And they left for the party.

I made up the bed, and Askhat thankfully, without being asked, made his own bed on the floor. And so, after wrestling the door shut, we went to sleep.

About 3am, my host uncle banged on the kitchen door. I opened it, and he staggered in, stinking drunk. What are you doing? he asked. Sleeping, I said. Don't be offended, he said. I'm not offended, I'm just sleeping, I said, and to illustrate this, I laid back in bed and closed my eyes. He stood there staring at me. I kept my eyes closed. Don't be offeneded, he said. I am not offended, I am sleeping, I repeated, not opening my eyes. He stood, swaying and staring at me for another minute, as I grew more and more uncomfortable with my sleeping charade. Finally, he said, "good fellow", and face-planted on the floor with a thunk. Once again, I counted myself lucky to have the bed to myself.

In the middle of the night, in the darkened kitchen, I heard moaning. My host uncle was having a drunken sex dream, it seemed. It went on for a while, and suddenly my host brother, who was also sleeping on the floor, started yelling, get off me, get off me, what the hell are you doing? There was a tussle, and all was quiet. I looked up to see that host uncle had stolen the blanket from my host brother, who was laying in the cold, probably too scared of being mistaken for a dream vixen again to risk taking it back.

I woke up early in the morning. The dirty dishes were now covered with little ants, as was the bread. Besides the cold pasta and ant-bread, there was no food to be found. I left without waking anyone up to say goodbye.

On the way out of town, I stopped at the hospital to see my host mom. I brought flowers, and we were very happy to see each other. She looked to be in fine health. I asked her how much longer she would be there, and she said maybe a couple weeks. I asked if she was bored in the hospital, and she said no, she liked it fine. Who takes care of the family if you're here and host dad is on the road with his truck, I asked? Oh, Askhat and Aiko do, she said. (Askhat is nine, and Aiko is seven. Askhat has a learning disability, and when I lived there, Aiko was completely uncontrollable, and often missing.) Although I didn't say anything, my host mom probably guessed what my visit had been like. Next time you come, when I'm there, we will have a nice party, she said. I look forward to it, I said.

We talked a little about the baby. What will you name it, I asked. If it's a boy, we'll name it Ryan, she said, and grinned. If it's a girl? We'll still name it Ryan! she said happily. I left the hospital feeling that my return hadn't been a complete waste of time.

Friday, August 12, 2005


I am presently working training for the Kaz 17s, and as there are three computers and one dial up connection for all forty-eight of us, my poor internet access has prevented me from posting. Soon I'll go to Urumqi, and will get back to site just in time for the start of the school year (if all goes according to plan). I'll post news then, including the conculsion of the Aktau trip.

Since the phone situation is sketchy in the village I'm staying in, my parents have been unable to call me for a couple weeks. Missing actual contact, my mom turned to google for comfort, (O! Scratching at the cold digital highway, searching for traces of the living voice of her son!) and found this:

This blog was misguidedly nominated for "Best Central Asian Blog", (testifying to the thinness of the cateogry, I suppose)! It came in an admirable third place out of three, deservedly losing to the well-known Registan Net and (go there, then pick a post from the index on the right), both of which I encourage y'all to check out.