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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Zhangye’s Warm Welcomes and Striped Mountains

The Silk Road Adventure, Part II

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My traveling companions and I shared sleeping quarters on our train to Zhangye with an adorable, young Chinese couple and an old woman. The elderly woman repeatedly informed us that she and her husband were 86 years old and insisted on revealing her identification to prove it. Ivy shared conversation about the area with these new roommates who were native to Zhangye. We gained useful insight on the town and once we were off the train, the young couple was offering us space in their little shop to store our heavy backpacks and phone numbers to use if ever we needed a cab. It was heartwarming to see such generosity from people who were strangers to us just hours before.

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Zhangye served as an important location in the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and is now known for a series of mountains laced with layers of reddish sandstone called the China Danxia. I scrolled through jaw-dropping photos online that served as a huge reason I chose to take the whole trip so my expectations were high.

Although the tour within the mountains was set up with transportation, there was plenty of walking involved. It was difficult to mask my astonishment at the two giggly Chinese women who decided it was a good idea to wear their highest heels and shortest skirts to tour wobble through the landscape while clutching their boyfriends for stability.

After unsuccessfully attempting to catch the sunset against the crimson mountains, we scarfed dumplings and street food at what seemed to be a nightly community gathering in the city center. As we wandered past squealing kids and I fell victim to obvious stares, Ivy declared that she would begin charging people for gawking at me. We ourselves did some people watching that resulted in a man approaching me with a loud, “HELLO!” and taking my hand to declare that he loved me. It was definitely the only English phrase he knew, but amused me to see how a city like this was so fascinated by foreigners.

Sadly I had to part from the local man who had fallen for my charm as we headed to the train station to continue along the Silk Road to Dunhuang.

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Claw machine containing an eclectic mix of teddy bears, chewing gum and cigarettes

Claw machine containing an eclectic mix of teddy bears, chewing gum and cigarettes

Take a Picture, It’ll Last Longer

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During my first few months in Beijing, I received more stares than I had ever gotten in my entire life. At first it flattered and amused me. Later, that amusement grew to irritation, and eventually I began to ignore the stares. Now, the hundreds of looks I receive daily are just background in my commute to work or the supermarket. There is definitely a comical variation of how people look at me.

The Obvious Gawker: Most often, the perpetrator is an older male. This stare remains persistent and is often accompanied with an open mouth. It is unbroken, even after eye contact or a gesture, such as a smile, that would normally render the perpetrator embarrassed or indicate friendliness. The only way to avoid this type of stare is to leave the vicinity of the unbreakable stare.

The Stealth Starer: These kinds of oglers either know it is impolite to stare or do not want to appear uncool. Their gaze is felt just as much as the Obvious Gawker, but instead of maintaining their stare, they slyly avert their eyes to avoid eye contact. Despite their attempt at surreptitiousness, they are just as guilty as the others.

The Gossip Gaze: This kind of stare is commonly committed among several people in a group [typically teenagers]. The onlookers not only stare, but also proceed to whisper about the object of fascination despite the possibility that said object may understand them.

The Busted Onlooker: These are the perpetrators who, once they are caught staring, have no other tactic than returning a smile. Whether the intent of the stare was to establish a connection with the stare-ee, this onlooker usually gains the notion that they now have an established relationship and may attempt to make verbal contact.