Toto, I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas Anymore

The Silk Road Adventure, Part IV

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April 30-May 2, 2013

Turpan–I abruptly learned how distinct Cantonese is from Mandarin after a slew of Cantonese-speaking women stampeded through our train to Turpan at 3 a.m. and woke me and my friends from our sleep. If anything, I could say that this rude awakening was a foreshadowing of how different I would find Turpan, and the Xinjiang Province in general.

After a rough night of sleep post-Cantonese squawking, we arrived in Turpan early Tuesday morning and found the little town to be much more dingy than all the quaint cities we had previously visited. At one point, Erdem declared that the area looked as though “God had forgotten about it.” A depressing statement, but not entirely inaccurate. There were also glaringly obvious physical differences about the local people themselves; the majority of them were taller, had darker, olive skin, women wore head scarves, and a lot of the men had mustaches. The people are known as Uyghur, which is a completely different race from Han Chinese people in Beijing and they all spoke Uyghur (this is also the name of the language). It may have been because many are originally from Kazakhstan  but the whole area had a faint middle-eastern vibe.

The bus system wasn’t especially organized, but we lucked out with a bus that happened to be going toward the city center. While we were being jostled around a bus of strangers, Ivy, being the bubbly extrovert that she is, sparked a conversation with a woman wearing a head scarf and bouncing a baby on her lap. After speaking to her in Mandarin (all Uyghur people are required to learn Mandarin in school), we discovered that she can speak English, Mandarin, and Uyghur and she attended a university in Shanghai. Our conversation was interrupted by two police officers who suddenly stalked up the steps of the bus. I soon realized they were demanding identification from all passengers. The gun slung over the officer’s arm was intimidating, especially when he demanded identification from Bow, who was sitting beside me. He didn’t request my I.D. and we concluded that he asked her because he, like most other people, thought she was Chinese. It was a scene that felt as though it were taken straight from a movie, but the Uyghur woman assured us it happens all the time and everyone in Turpan is required to carry identification at all times.

Once we arrived in the city center, we bargained with a cab driver and a tour bus driver. After comparing the two against each other, we realized the men knew each other and quickly agreed to the cab’s fare and promises to take us around before they could devise a plan to hustle us.

We clunked through town in the man’s rickety old VW while, much to Erdem’s delight, our eardrums were blasted with Turkish music. Turpan is best known for producing excellent grapes and we stopped by a vineyard with rows and rows of grape-less vines. Apparently we were four months early for grape season. There wasn’t much to see in the fields, but we wandered into someone’s backyard courtyard and became fascinated with the beautiful patio, fenced in goats, and two little kids

As the mid-afternoon sun blazed to an almost intolerable level, we paid an entrance fee to tour an “ancient city,” which turned out to be a bunch of rocks with no shade to be found. After falling victim to a bird poop attack, I decided I had my fill of tourism in Turpan and we headed back to the city center to wander around the local markets while our hands became sticky from juices of the fruit we bought. Eventually we bid Bow farewell since she was heading north and as Erdem and Ivy and I were waiting for our train to Urumqi, a crazy old man began to converse with Erdem. Since Erdem speaks almost no Chinese, Ivy had to translate and she concluded that he was asking where we were all from and declaring that people are all the same no matter where they’re from. It was a pleasant thought that turned awkward as we realized that the old geezer who was missing a few teeth had also lost his marbles. He began ranting loudly and we received uncomfortable glances from the employees of the restaurants as he grabbed his walking stick and stalked off down the road.

Our train ride to Urumqi lasted only two hours but felt like 20 because of the extremely sketchy characters staring at me like I was a juicy piece of steak and they were lions who hadn’t seen food in days. It didn’t help that Erdem’s seat had been taken purposefully and rather rudely by a local guy which, evidently, angered him. For the rest of the ride, Erdem began making generalizations criticizing the local people which began to mess with my head. Naturally, his paranoia rubbed off onto me. I began to fear that Urumqi would be similarly grim, but when we arrived, it was just as developed as the first few cities we visited.

Instead of the intense touring I had done with Bow, Ivy and Erdem in the previous week, I wandered around the city aimlessly during my last day of travel, which I spent alone. It was a great change of pace and a relaxing way to end my trip along the Silk Road. Overall, it was a crazy trip full of new experiences and lots of staring, but, in the end, I was glad to be going back to Beijing.

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Crazy Canadians

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Chinese shot girls and two crazy Canadians

Back in February while I was visiting Hong Kong I had met two goofy lads from Canada. They had told me they were about to embark on a four-month-long journey, beginning in Hong Kong and ending in Russia. After spending a couple hours, a few beers, and a traditional Hong Kong dim sum meal with them, we said our farewells and went our separate ways.

Fast forward a few months and I found myself meeting up with Alan and Geoff after they emailed announcing their arrival in the capital city. When we met up in Beijing, they were a little worn out from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, but nonetheless enthusiastic to be in traveling. It seemed like just the other day I was giving them advice in Hong Kong on how to order food in Chinese and to beware of the bathrooms.

If you couldn’t tell by my lack of blog postings, the month of March has been a little dull and centered around work. It was definitely a nice break from my everyday schedule to meet up with people that had new and exciting stories from their experience in China. Specifically rabid dog stories.

I’ve found that some of the most interesting people you’ll meet while abroad are only with you for a fleeting moment, but you’ll remember them and hold the impression they made on you for even longer.

Pedal Practice

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Lorena trying her hand at DJing earlier that night

After pestering an old Chinese rickshaw driver (who spoke no English) during a night out, Lorena and I convinced him to let us pedal his bicycle and carriage down the street. I was able to get an awesome video of onlookers cheering and the driver chasing after her, but sadly there’s no proof of me navigating the bike. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

I must give those drivers kudos–the bike is much harder to get going than you’d ever expect!

YOLO: Might As Well Rock Climb

View of the mountains behind a village home in Cuandixia

Friday, my two roommates and I took a day trip to Cuandixia Village, which is just outside of Beijing. The village was established 500 years ago and is located 90 km (55 miles) west of Beijing’s urban area. It was interesting to see the difference in development from the urban area (which isn’t even extremely developed itself) to the ruggedness of dwellings and natives outside of the city.

Red vines covering a mountainside

I also learned a bit about my Chinese roommate, Jake. He grew up in a village, so I guess he felt right at home because when we entered the area, he ran up to a tree and began furiously shoveling the berries from it into his mouth. After Keith and I dragged him away from the tree, Keith decided he didn’t want to pay ¥30 ($4.75 USD) to get into the village, so he convinced us to sneak in. We pretended to be ignorant tourists, but ended up being chased by a security guard. We hid behind a bush to avoid him catching us, and I’ll admit; I had a fleeting image of myself in Chinese prison for illegally entering a village. After narrowly avoiding jail time, we found our way of the winding road leading through the mountains and up to the village.

Jake, the village man

We tried some food and hiked around the mountainside, but the most memorable part of the day was when Jake convinced us to climb up the side of a hill to reach the road leading back to the village entrance. He climbed up the hill made of loose rocks with ease, which made me realize that he must have done this as a kid in his village. At first, I was opposed to climbing, but realizing that I would have to trek about four miles through the alternative route helped convince me to climb the hill.

As Jake was looking down at us from the road at the top of the hill, Keith and I decided, you only live once; we might as well climb this. It was one of the scariest things I’ve decided to do, since these small rocks were not stable and kept coming loose under my hands and feet. I kept thinking the rocks were going to go tumbling into Keith who was behind me. I ended up at the top of the hill a while before Keith, who freaked out even more than I did.

Watch the last part of his climb here.

**I usually avoid the use of YOLO, but it is the only reasoning I could think of for why I climbed that rock hill.

Bright Lights and Frog Legs

The entrance to the Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square

Tuesday I had the opportunity to see Tiananmen Square in a way unique to the festivities of National Day. A friend from the U.S., his Chinese friend, Chen, and fiancé, and I visited the square, which was buzzing with excitement and illuminated with huge glowing shrubbery, gigantic panoramic televisions, and the flashing of cameras.

It was nice to have a native of China with us, since he had stories for us that tour guides would lack. Chen pointed out an intricately designed train station-turned-mall where his grandmother used to work. We also learned that the government hand selects soldiers of the same exact height and similar appearance to protect the Chinese flag in Tiananmen Square.

Lanterns of Ghost Street

Trying duck tongue

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After walking the square, we headed to a restaurant glowing red with lanterns on Ghost Street to enjoy Chinese food. Chen made sure we tried authentic food like duck tongue, lobster (including the brain), cow stomach, and frog. And, yes, I tried all of the above. Even though I stayed away from the roasted fish with eggs inside, I think Chen and his Chinese friends who dined with us were impressed by my willingness to try cuisine that would make most foreigners squirm. The food in China is certainly different from the U.S. and I’m thrilled to be able to experience new things.

Favorite Weekend Adventures

Simply being in a foreign country like China has given me opportunities to experience things I would never otherwise get a chance to do. Here are some of the more recent and favorite ventures from last weekend:

Wall art that says inappropriate things in Chinese

Stage where the bar has live music

Giggle: My co-workers and I stopped at Giggle Bar and Restaurant for lunch on Friday and I instantly fell in love. I couldn’t resist the charm of the random Chinese cartoons painted on the walls, a [fake] tree in the middle of the room, plush white and black leather cushioned chairs, which were comfier than my bed, and even the broken English statements on the menu. And with a name like Giggle, how could I not love this place? Okay, so this isn’t the most adventurous or authentic Chinese experience, but I loved it anyway.

The many options of snack street: scorpion, starfish, seahorse, centipede, and lizard

Yep, I ate three of these little scorpions

Snack Street: Having heard about a “snack street” that allows us crazy foreigners to try cuisine like donkey, scorpion, and lizard, I decided this was a must-try while I’m here. The little street is crammed between a large, western shopping area (Forever 21, Zara, Sephora, heaven!) I guess the picture speaks for itself: among other things, like yogurt that is in a glass container that Chinese people drink like milk and some barbequed squid and octopus, I tried scorpion!

Awesome chair in the lobby of KTV Ibiza Karaoke

Marck and my roommate Keith singing their hearts out

Our awesome karaoke room

Karaoke: Karaoke is huge here. Huge! Every Chinese person I have met sings at the drop of a hat and isn’t afraid to belt out a tune when I request it (and I have). Because of this, karaoke is a common bar-time activity. This past weekend I got to partake in karaoke with some friends from my program. The Ibiza KTV was ridiculously lavish, with the lobby decked out in gold couches and crimson wall decorations.

Moon Cake: Yesterday was National Day, which celebrates the day the People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949. Along with having this entire week off from work, people celebrate with moon cake.

Now, I really don’t enjoy moon cake. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to enjoy it, but it’s just too dry for my liking. Even though it’s not my favorite, I was really excited that the company I work for gave everyone a big box of moon cake. Even though I don’t love the stuff, and have no intention of eating it, it made me feel like part of the celebration.

View of a temple in Summer Palace from across Kunming Lake

Summer Palace: I took advantage of my free Monday and went to Summer Palace with a few friends. The tourist attraction was originally constructed in year 1122. Hundreds of years later, it became a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi who blew a ton of money on its reconstruction and enlargement. The day was perfectly sunny and mild for walking around Kunming Lake, which surrounds the palace. It’s usually during tourist-y moments like this when it hits me; I’m in CHINA! Sometimes it’s nice to stop and just be amazed at where I am.

Rickshaws Are The New Taxi

Monday, September 3, – Friday, September 7, 2012

My office building

This week launched my normal working schedule. Everyone at the office was very friendly and seemed to get along well with one another. I especially appreciate little quirks like their knowledge of Mexican restaurants hidden in hutongs or that they take juggling breaks during the day. Over half of the office speaks English while only a few are solely Chinese speakers. Most are bilingual, which is impressive.

As irony would have it, I had cracked my computer screen a day before my first day of work. My new boss was understanding and told me several interns before me had also done the same thing before their first days. Maybe it’s a company curse?

After I had set up an appointment at Apple, I had to navigate my way there. As advised by my co-workers, I opted to take a cab. I had heard that cab drivers don’t like to pick up foreign-looking people, but I had no idea so many would pass me by with empty backseats. After several drivers had clearly seen me and waved me away I became frustrated.

Beside me in the bike lane was a man on a bike pulling a two-seat trailer. We made eye contact and I thought, oh, what the heck.

After crawling onto the little bench behind his bike we took off. Besides feeling absolutely ridiculous on this thing, I began to sense it probably wasn’t the safest mode of transportation. At several points during the ride I genuinely thought we would crash. I cannot even begin to put into words how severely he swerved through traffic, so I have posted a video to fully explain the ride. I thought I might as well capture what could have been my last minutes on earth.

Toward the end of my ride, I noticed several pairs of men in business suits taking rickshaws rides as well. Evidently rickshaws are a typical mode of transportation in Beijing.