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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Peepshow at the Park

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Looking like tourists at Houhai park with Matheus and Maki

I had made plans to explore Beijing with new friends so I headed to the subway station closest to my apartment. It was a normal afternoon with the sun shining and birds chirping in the park that I usually pass through. A young Chinese guy ran past me and I thought to myself, “huh, he’s in a hurry,” but I continued walking. I got about 15 feet away from a tiny gate I have to pass through at the end of the park to get to the subway and the running Chinese guy was standing at the gate. He had his *ahem* man parts in his hands. At first I thought he was just finishing peeing (public urination is way common here), but he continued to shake his junk for a full minute! I froze right where I was and freaked out because he was obviously intending for me to see this and I couldn’t get through the gate without passing him closely. There was no way I was going near this man while he was shaking his wiener at me. I ended up hopping over a fence to get to the subway. Maybe he was welcoming me to China?

After that little incident I met up with Matheus and Maki and after dining on a super traditional meal at McDonald’s, we headed to the drum tower (Gǔlóu (鼓楼), the drum tower of Beijing) to watch a drum performance. The tower was originally built for musical reasons, it was later used to announce the time, and is now a tourist attraction.

Performance in the drum tower

Afterward we walked around a scenic park and lake in Houhai. The best part was the adorable rooftop restaurants and bars that line the lake.

Houhai lakeside restaurants

According to my Chinese roommate, my little incident that occurred earlier in the park is not a normal greeting, so I [thankfully] shouldn’t be expecting any similar encounters.

I Spy…

I have either read or been told about most quirky traits of Beijing before arriving, but they’re still surprising to me.

Things I can’t understand:

  • Men pull up their shirts to expose their belly buttons when it’s hot out. They believe the belly button is part of their “chi” and will release heat (or something along those lines). This city contains most shirtless men I’ve ever seen.
  • The squatters. These are considered completely normal toilets here. They are just porcelain holes built into the floor of public restrooms. They are tricky enough to figure out, but the fact that they don’t have toilet paper in the bathroom adds to the inconvenience.
  • Smokers. Everywhere. A man came onto an elevator and was smoking! I have a feeling he would get slapped in the U.S.

Things I find amusing:

  • The random cluster of English words mashed together on T-Shirts. Apparently the Chinese love English words and will buy shirts without knowing the meaning. Some of my favorite statements include:
    • “Take off your shiny tights.”
    • “Lazy…Talent” with a Nike sign underneath…
    • “The girl dances gracefully because of the ballet lessons.”

  • Natives who yell English words at you because you look foreign. I’m sure this will get old soon. For now, I shoot ‘em back a peace sign and a “ni hao!”
  • The insane drivers. Everyone honks. Everyone! At everything! Buses cram their way into the tiniest spots imaginable, cars come barreling at you in cross walks, and bikes sneak up behind you honking their horns. It’s scary, but slightly exhilarating.
  • How helpful everyone is. I have never seen so many people jump to help someone who dropped something or rush to the aide of a stranger. From what I can tell, Chinese people are extremely kind.

House Hunters: Beijing Edition

View of Chaoyang District

Friday August 31, 2012 & Saturday September 1, 2012

Friday and Saturday were dedicated to apartment searching. Based just on my experience with apartments in college, the conditions here would be unheard of in the U.S. The first place I was shown would have made my mother cry. Actually, I think it almost made me cry. But I’m glad it was first so that I didn’t expect too much from Beijing apartments.

It was located in a hutong, which are little areas within the city with narrow alleyways leading to village-like huts that have clothes hanging and dirt-covered bikes everywhere. The floors of the one-bedroom “apartment” were dirt covered concrete, there was a cot shoved in the corner of the room, a brown-stained sink, and some random tables. The shower? Oh, that was in a communal, see-through room on the side of a street. The bathrooms: Public restrooms down the street. Yep, this startled me a little [ahem, a lot], but the conditions only improved from there. In total we looked at about six places in two days.

It was evident that some frustrations throughout the day between Alex and me stemmed from cultural differences of handling stress and communicating. Chinese people are not afraid to tell you your faults. For example, when I was tired and slightly cranky Alex began realizing I did not remember how to navigate the roads or subway. He openly declared how ridiculous it was that I didn’t know where we were and it took everything in my power not to scream. I admit, I am [extremely] directionally challenged even with American roads, but in a foreign city with characters that look like jibberish, I was more lost than usual.

Finally after two full days of searching in the sweaty, smoggy city, I found an apartment located within several scenic parks and surrounded by local food shops. I will be living with a guy who is Chinese and I’ll have another roommate who is from Detroit. Even though his school (Michigan State) is far inferior to UW-Madison, he seems like an great guy.

Did I mention I can see the Olympic Stadium from my living room? Pretty awesome.

The “bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium

**My lack of blogging is due to the fact that my computer screen was cracked during the move to my new apartment 😦