Archive for July, 2009


Week 17: Hanging out

   Posted by: Rhona    in China

Nothing overly fascinating to report this week, or so I thought until I tried to post this update to find my website blocked. Yep, the government of China has taken offense at my personal travel blog. And I was starting to think that there was rhyme and reason to their blockage of sites. After all, sites like Faceb00k, Tw1tter and Y0utube (all still blocked) can be used to spread rumours and false stories like those that have already led to the loss of too many lives in the Urumq1 “inc1dents”. But I can count on my fingers and toes the number of people who read this blog and let me assure you there are no terr0r1sts, separat1sts or people otherwise intent on the downfall of the glorious motherland amongst them. There is something paranoid about a government feeling in any teeny tiny miniscule way threatened by little old me. Thankfully where the front door is locked I know the back way in and so, for now at least, i can stay up to date on my scintillating weekly updates.

I’ve moved into the room, have been going to classes and catching up with some friends. I also spent a whole afternoon searching for the Kyrgyz embassy and organising our visas. There were two addresses listed on various websites but I went to the one listed on the official embassy website. Mistake, they’d moved. I was the second in line when the embassy opened at 3pm and managed to finally get out of there at 4:30 having given in Brett and my forms, passports and a formal letter explaining our purpose for visiting Kyrgyzstan. I should be picking up the visas on Friday as well as the translations which I ended up having to get at the 664 kuai babelfish place. This time though I was told they could be done in a week at that price instead of having to pay double to rush them through. They were going to charge me more but talked them down, that’s one thing about China, things change depending on who you ask.

On Saturday I went to a mixed martial art event where fighters from a variety of disciplines get in the ring with a minimum of rules. I’ve heard about these fights and was pretty excited to go but in the end a little disappointed at how few stand up fights there were, most of them ended up down on the mats wrestling, which I find pretty boring really. About half the fighters were Chinese and the rest South Korean, Mongolian, Thai, Polish, Uzbek, Swedish, French and Bulgarian. We saw 11 fights in total and the only one won by a Chinese fighter was when two Chinese were fighting, much to the dismay of the majority Chinese crowd. It wasn’t the most sportsmanlike crowd with some boos thrown out there when the young Uzbek fighter beat a much more experienced Chinese favourite. It was one of the quickest fights we saw and I’m still not really sure what happened; the starting bell rung, a flurry of action and the Chinese guy hit the mat. It was incredible. The fight between the Polish guy and a Chinese guy took longer – 10 minutes in the first round and a 5 minute second round. Mr Polish must have had a past injury because within about 30 second his right eye was almost closed up and very bloody. He was patched up and went back to the fight with only partial vision, insisting he was good to go. Not a guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley, he’ll probably go from fighting straight to being the bodyguard for the Russian mafia. Seriously scary.

After the fight we went to the best Ethiopian restaurant in Beijing. Not a difficult feat, but even if there were more than one the food here was fantastic enough to make it the best. We ate a sampler of dishes served on a huge round pancake of sourdough bread. I have no idea what any of it’s called but it was all amazing. The flavours and spices they created in a stew of lentils that looks like something I wouldn’t want to step in was unbelievable and we stuffed our faces as we watched two dancers in traditional costume convulse on the stage. Ethiopia is now firmly on the list of places I must see.

It’s a bit hard to summon motivation to go out and do much apart from the admin stuff I need to get done; the weather is just so hot and humid. Thankfully the apartment is down on the ground floor so it’s usually pretty cool, only in the past few days have I actually needed to use my air-con. It often rains in the late afternoon, sudden downpours that send torrents of water rushing into the street, hopefully washing away all the kids’ piss. I looked out my window in a break from studying the other day to see a little girl squatting on the steps where people from the compound hang out near a couple of trees. Mum was sitting right next to her. When little darling was done she put her undies back on, wiped her hands on her dress and went back to playing with the other kids. What a charming little princess.

The classes have been really good but make me realise just how much vocabulary I’ve forgotten. Since the end of 2004 when I stopped studying and started working I haven’t really used my Chinese all that much, only basic conversations that use minimal vocab. I’m now in the process of trying to learn it again but I’m not sure how much progress will be made before I leave again. And then there’s the question of whether there’s any point to me trying to keep my Mandarin? Anyway, for now I’m enjoying studying again so I’ll just keep working on it and see what happens next.

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Week 16: Back in the ‘jing

   Posted by: Rhona    in China

Brett and I parted ways on Monday for the first time since we got married in March and he jetted off to Norway to work north of the Arctic Circle. It’s his first stint since December last year so we’ll be happy to get some inflow into the bank account again much as we’d prefer to just keep travelling together. I’m spending the time Brett’s at work hanging out in Beijing, doing a bit of Mandarin study, getting us Kyrgyz and Tajik visas and (still!) trying to sort out my a new German passport in my married name.

Instead of staying in a hotel the entire time I’ve found myself an apartment where one of the tenants is moving out before her six month lease expires. The timing is perfect and it’s cheaper than any comparable hotels. Currently my main issue is trying to get the landlord to come to the police station to register me. Usually if a foreigner stays at a hotel the hotel does this but for rental accommodation or even if I was to stay at a friend’s place technically I need to register with the local police within 24 hours of arriving. Most of the time I wouldn’t really be too worried about it but I have to get one more visa extension before I leave China and the last one was painful enough without something like being off the official radar for the past month coming into play.

I haven’t actually moved into the room yet, the girl whose room I’m taking leaves tomorrow and at the moment I’m sleeping on the couch and littering the living room with my exploding luggage. It’ll be nice to move in properly, have my own key and play at having a routine for a month or so. The grass is always greener and when I’m travelling part of me craves things like getting up at the same time every morning, knowing where my next meal is coming from and having some consistency in my daily experiences. All the same things that I find dull and monotonous after a few months of settled living, when my feet start itching again.

As for the German passport… Well. Maybe its best not to get me started? In Tokyo we were missing Brett’s divorce papers and my birth certificate; in Beijing they wanted Brett’s birth certificate and an apostille of our marriage certificate. Through a combination of courier mail, hand delivery and express post we managed to get all the pieces together (with the help of long suffering families at our respective homes) and went to the embassy before Brett left as they needed his signature too. However they now also need translations of key documents which at the first place I checked take 2 weeks and cost 664 kuai (about US$100). They don’t have anyone who can translate directly from English to German and so it will go via a Babelfish-like process from English to Chinese to German (and I pay for each translation plus a myriad of other mysterious fees). God only knows what the Germans would think of the Babel-iscious outcome. Tomorrow I’ll try to find a better option but the chances of me getting a new German passport before I leave are slim, I’ve resigned myself to just getting the official name change document so I can organise the actual passport somewhere down the line. Maybe in Kyrgyzstan?

The class I’ve found seems like it’s going to be perfect. I went for the first time today and it’s a good combination of material that I know, material that I need revision on and new vocab and grammar. Much as I hate to bare my inner geek I’m really looking forward to hours on end copying out characters over and over again in the laborious process of trying to remember them. Somehow I find it soothing, like a masochistic form of meditation.

I should have warned you at the start that this update isn’t quite as exciting as the last 15 weeks. Consider yourself warned that the next 6 weeks will be sort of more of the same though I am planning on getting out more and taking some photos once I get settled and get some of the initial things ticked off my “to do” list. Today I checked out the Wal Mart superstore nearby and was amused at the contrast between a well stocked western style store and good old fashioned Chinese “service”. Actually she wasn’t all that bad and to be fair I haven’t seen anyone picking their zits rather than serving customers, so things are changing. That used to be a favourite China moment. It’s probably not often that you see a complimentary bottle of Coke attached to a tube of toothpaste though. In a way it makes sense: drink the Coke and you need the toothpaste, but they’re kind of sending mixed signals aren’t they? Not that “Darlie” toothpaste is overly good at subtleties, they changed the name from “Darkie” in 1985, as if that makes the caricature of a black man on their logo and the Chinese name of “Black man” less racist.

More again next week from Beijing and hopefully I’ll have some photos worth posting (or any at all!).

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Week 15 Markets and Mayhem

   Posted by: Rhona    in China

It was hard to tear ourselves away from Kashgar, particularly our hotel room. We don’t often get attached to hotel rooms but this was a heart stealer – the perfect travel room. The location, staff, bed and shower were all perfect and it was also the cheapest room we’d had so far. But quite apart from that little sweetener Kashgar is quite simply an amazing place. We spent the last few days wandering around what remains of the old town. The heart of the city is a rabbit warren of tightly packed courtyard houses where the Uyghur people have lived for generations. It’s also prime real estate. As we walked around it was easy to see that old town’s days were numbered – the houses are being torn down by the government to make way for the sort of generic city centre that they prefer. Uyghur residents are being moved to the outskirts where land is less valuable and as usual in China they’re not happy with the compensation. But what can they do? As one told us, “There are no laws in China”. We walked through large swathes of the old town that have been reduced to rubble and dust, small pieces of beautifully decorated walls peeking out through the destruction, reminders that someone’s house once stood here. Not far away green cladding covered a construction site.

At one stage we walked out to a main road and realised we were in what had once been the paid section of the old town, an area cordoned off where the local government charged a 30 kuai entry fee. There was nobody collecting tickets because there was nothing left to see. The ticket sellers have been moved to another area where an English guide tried to get us in by assuring us that this neighbourhood would be knocked down in a year or two so we’d better come in and see it now. We declined but a busload of Han Chinese tourists enthusiastically followed their pretty female tour guide into the pay per view city. It’s hard to comprehend or explain the destruction that is going on in China. The hutongs in Beijing, the old town of Kashgar, and I’m sure many other historic places around the country are being completely destroyed and there’s no point in protesting because it’s the government, in cahoots with developers, who are swinging the wrecking ball. Attitudes toward preservation are starting to change but not quickly enough to save these places.

On a cheerier note the bus ride to Hotan was horrible and first impressions weren’t great either. Maybe it was the brothels only thinly disguised as hotels that lined the street coming out of the bus station? The kind of place that every bed comes with an accommodating woman. I’ve been there twice before but struggled to find the city I remember. The Sunday market was great though and apparently it’s the biggest in Xinjiang. I thought that was Kashgar but I guess I got that wrong. Hotan’s jade has been traded since 5,000BC and there was still plenty of it left to sell – big sheep-sized chunks of it down to small pebbles polished and coated with oil.

Outside town we went to a place called Imam Asim which is the tomb of one of the first men to spread Islam in this area in the 11th century. The tomb was on the edge of the Taklamakan desert and we wandered for a while in the dunes before heading back toward civilisation in search of a drink. In no hurry to head back to Hotan we dallied in the villages along the road home, ate some freshly baked naan bread, visited a silk factory and had multiple cold drinks.

The next day we caught a bus across the Taklamakan desert to Aksu. The road we drove along had been open less than 2 years and is the second across the desert. Dune stabilisation is important to keep the shifting sand dunes from covering the road and about 3m on each side is covered in squares of reeds. Further out a fence of reeds stops sand from approaching the road but I wonder how easy it will be to stop the movement of the sands in the long term? I guess the first road across the desert, built in 1995 is still OK so they must know what they’re doing.

En route to Aksu a text message from my dad told us that something was going on in Urumq1. We were planning on arriving there the next morning but decided to avoid it after hearing details from him and also talking to someone we were planning on visiting in the city. At the time we thought it was a protest by Uyghurs and a brutal response by the army but the truth (when we finally found out) is that and so much more. We couldn’t book train tickets all the way to Beijing so we bought to Lanzhou (38 hours) and decided to look up options from there to Beijing online. Beware: saga following.

There was no internet connection in all of Xinjiang. We had to text a friend in Beijing to get the phone number of a travel agency because the local agency couldn’t book anything. Their entire system was based on having access to internet and so they could do nothing. We called and booked a plane ticket from Lanzhou to Beijing but couldn’t pay for it as we had to register our card details online. Back to trusty Robin (bless his heart) who went through the process for us from Beijing. The credit card was denied so we had to call the U.S. based bank but we were barred from making international calls (another part of the communication lock down). Thankfully at that time text messages still worked (later both domestic and international text services were blocked) and so we managed to get in touch with Brett’s family in the states. They could unblock the card but they needed to talk to Brett himself. Their department wasn’t allowed to make international calls and we couldn’t call them. Stalemate until Brett’s dad called someone in the bank that knows him and Brett. Small town connections came through and finally at 2:30am we managed to confirm our flight.

The next day we went to try to extend my visa and the amount of security was incredible. As we were waiting for the PSB (Public Security Bureau) to open a convoy of trucks full of soldiers in riot gear parked outside. Surveillance vans bristling with communications technology and small round windows for video cameras cruised the streets. Inside I was told that I had too much time left on my visa even though in Hotan they could have extended it the day before if we’d been there. We mentioned that we’d been planning on going to Urumq1 but now simply wanted to leave Xinjiang and in an exchange that I still can’t quite believe happened the officer told us that Urumq1 was now safe and that there was nothing abnormal about Aksu at the time. I could use (and have used) all manner of expletives to describe this irresponsible (adjectives deleted) man who would toe the party line ahead of looking after the safety of two bumbling tourists. Urumq1 is a chaos of vigi1ante attacks and people are being murd3red by mobs based purely on their ethnicity. The army is sho0ting into crowds. The train station where we would have come in is listed as a hotspot. The chances of being caught in the crossfire of racial hatred are extremely high, to say the least. And yet on July 7th Mr Chen (badge number 140486) assured us that it was safe to go there.

He also told us that the 40 s0ldiers in full riot gear with machine guns encamped in the PSB a few metres from where we were talking were simply “relaxing”. A prisoner shuffled past with hands cuffed to his shackled feet. Walking as he did, completely bent over, it was impossible to tell if he was Han or Uyghur. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Our 38 hour train took us into the province neighbouring Xinjiang. It’s easy to forget how big and far away Xinjiang is from the rest of China. From Beijing to Kashgar takes about 75 hours on the train and we weren’t really far from Kashgar. Our flight from Lanzhou to Beijing accrued more frequent flier miles than the one from Seoul to Beijing. Security on the train was tight, my bag was opened going in to the train station for the first time in years of travel in China and before we left Xinjiang a policeman came through and scanned people’s ID cards in a device that obviously had a list of people who should not be allowed to flee. As soon as we left Xinjiang we could send text messages and make international calls. In Lanzhou we went on the internet and found out for the first time the true extent of the chaos gripping Urumq1. Convoys of army trucks headed west as the trains of oil headed east.

Back in Beijing it’s easy to be optimistic about China’s ability to change but at the same time the divide between the coastal and interior areas is growing. Even within the city there are migrant workers barely eking out a living as Ferraris drive past. It’s easy to be cynical about people with a lot of money in China but I think the best thing that can happen is for a growing middle class to realise that their own country needs to change. It’s hard as an outsider not to come across as anti-Chinese when I get frustrated with China and I hope that the Chinese themselves can make it a better place.

Talking about Xinjiang it’s very easy to make it into a black and white picture but that’s not how it is. Hatred and tensions have been simmering for decades, exacerbated by pro Han policies promoted by a government terrified of Uyghur autonomy which they fear may lead to Xinjiang breaking away. The individuals being murdered by vigilantes in Urumq1 (Han and Uyghur) are no more to blame for the situation than I am for say the White Australia policy (as an Australian) or the Nazi Gas chambers (as a German). Having said that both of those are in the past and I hope that Han Chinese today take a good look at their government, themselves and what’s happening and find a way to make things better. I can’t do it; I’m just a little outspoken laowai who tells it like I see it.

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Week 14: Kashgar

   Posted by: Rhona    in China

On our last day in Turpan we headed to the Emin Minaret, built in 1777 by the head of the Turpan prefecture. The 37m high tower and accompanying building are constructed out of mud bricks and while you can get to the top of the building you can’t go inside the minaret. That afternoon we got on a 22 hour train to Kashgar, the last major city in Xinjiang/China before you hit Central Asia. We arrived on a Saturday along with a whole lot of other tourists who were timing their visit to coincide with the Sunday market.

We started our Sunday in Kashgar at the Livestock market, where people come to buy and sell sheep, goats, cows and donkeys. It was a dusty mayhem of animal noise and bustle as men sheared sheep, argued over prices and animals made their discomfort known. The sheep for sale were the local variety known as fat tailed sheep for the lump of fat hanging off their backsides, and in the process of evaluating the worth of a sheep the men would fondle the bottoms in a most indecent way. Those who had a lot of sheep for sale often tied them together by their necks with every sheep facing 180 degrees in the opposite direction to those on either side (hard to explain, look at the photos). Next to the area where sheep were tied up was an area of complete chaos by the end of the day, where every person with a few sheep to sell wandered around with them tied to a leash. We saw one very lost old man with a lone sheep who broke my heart. He was completely out of his depth and struggling to make eye contact with buyers, while protectively shielding the sheep’s head from the surrounding chaos. We almost came away with a lone sheep and an adopted grandfather.

In the donkey section men wandered around with their animals and prospective buyers checked them out by riding them, prising open their mouths to look at teeth and squeezing meaty backsides. Some of the donkeys were feisty little things and you could see buyers move away when an animal wouldn’t do as it was told. One donkey had been tied to a cart but simply pulled the cart along behind it when it wanted to move. Every now and again one donkey would start braying and soon enough a whole chorus would join in, just like babies crying. There was a lady selling a donkey and once again we would have loved to know her story because she was the only woman we saw buying or selling livestock. Nobody seemed to be paying her much attention but when we went back later in the day she wasn’t there anymore, hopefully she sold at a good price.

Goats weren’t as common though those that were for sale were near the sheep, tied together in long lines of bleating animals. Cows had their own section, with a solid framework provided to tie them to. On the way in there was the Ferrari of cows, a bull of such gigantic proportions that it must have made buyers drool and curse their limited finances. It truly was a monster. Cows were unloaded from trucks in a most inelegant way. The tailgate was lowered and the animals were unwillingly pulled from the tray by the rope around their neck, some of them protesting pretty effectively until 3 men helped with the pulling. It’s quite a jump for a cow to come down off some of those trucks and I remember in a previous visit a cow breaking its leg in the fall.

We spent most of the day at the animal market until we were so covered in dust that a shower became a priority. After washing the dust and animal poo off us we headed to the Sunday market, a massive convergence of buyers and sellers which must be one of the biggest markets in Asia, if not the world. The market actually happens every day which is why we focused on the livestock market, but Sunday is busiest with an extra 50,000 people coming to Kashgar to buy and sell. If something exists then I’d say it’s for sale at the Kashgar Sunday market.

On Monday morning we left for a 2 day trip to Karakul Lake, toward the border with Pakistan. Actually it’s also near the border with Tajikistan and Afghanistan though there is no crossing into Afghanistan and the Tajik border is closed to all apart from Chinese and Tajik nationals. We tried to go along the road toward the Khunjerab Pass (Pakistan) but the official guarding the checkpoint wouldn’t be swayed by my smiling pleas. It was a matter of safety and Pakistan is a “messy” place at the moment. I protested that we were always going to be within China and surely he knew that China was a completely safe place? He laughed, agreed, but still said no. Oh well, it was worth a try.

That was in Tashkurgan on Tuesday morning, we spent Monday night at Karakul Lake, at 3,600m elevation in the Pamir mountain range. Overlooking the lake and our yurts was Mustagh Ata, a snow capped mountain towering to 7,546m, a little lower than Kongur (7,719m) which we’d passed en route from Kashgar. We talked to a guy who’d been a porter for a foreign expedition to the summit of Mustagh Ata and he said it took about a week to climb up the southern slopes. He only looked about 20 and spoke fantastic English which he’d learned from tourists who stayed in the yurts around the lake. He was Kyrgyz, as were most of the people living around the lake, but his experience of learning English without going to school was similar to what we’ve heard from Uyghurs we’ve met. Our driver for the two days taught himself to speak Chinese and spoke it fantastically, though he said in English he was “like a mute”. To be fair I think he understood English pretty well and the words he did say were pronounced excellently. We’ve certainly been impressed with the amount and level of English spoken by Uyghurs. Despite the fact that they don’t necessarily study it at school, they speak it better than a lot of Han Chinese who spend their entire schooling life studying but can’t speak a complete sentence. Of course the Han Chinese can often read and write due to their formal education. Uyghurs are the opposite as they’ve often not studied formally but speak very well.

In the afternoon of free time at Karakul Lake I walked around it (3.5 hours) and Brett did what he loves most – picking a high point and finding out what you can see from up there. The yurts we stayed in were disappointingly made from concrete instead of the traditional felt but it seemed to be where the family usually lived so I guess that’s modernisation and progress? Meals were noodles and rice with a vegetable sauce and delicious nan bread. All washed down with salty milk tea. The stove was fed with animal dung and kept us toasty warm as the cold wind howled outside. It was hard to believe that we’d been roasting in Kashgar when I was wearing my fleece, big winter coat, scarf and was still shivering. Still, at least I got to use the big winter coat that I’ve not used since the first week in Japan but been carrying ever since. On the way back to Kashgar it snowed on us and when we arrived back in the big city we sweated in t-shirts. Like our driver said, in the morning it was winter but by afternoon summer had arrived.

Now we’re back in Kashgar hanging out for a few days before heading to Hotan, then across the Taklamakan desert to Urumqi and back to Beijing.

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