Asia, 1989. Part VIII: Urumqi

May 3-: The journey from Xi’an to Urumqi is said to be a beautiful trip.  The topographical diversity in just one day of train travel is astonishing.  The once ubiquitous rice paddies become fewer and fewer as the land becomes less arable.  Green mountains turn to brown rolling hills, then stretches of desert with sparse weeds, then black hills with snowcapped mountains in the background, then multi-colored clay and rock formations.

The train is hot and smoky, the air outside is dry.  There is hot water only periodically, and many platform stands sell only beer. For some reason I have no appetite today.  Glenn thinks he has a fever.  Kids squat and urinate on the floor by the bunks as they do on the streets of every Chinese city.  There are no diapers in China; children’s pants are made without crotches.  They just squat and go when and wherever it’s convenient.

Its not a bad day, just not a particularly good one.  The train makes its starts and stops with jarring lurches, the man in the bunk below and opposite me grins perpetually, I am in desperate need of a shower.  But the urge I feel to grumble dissipates with a visit to the hard-seat car.  Sprawling masses of people are packed into a long car with bench-like seats and tables.  People sleep sitting up, squatting, lying on the floor in between cars, under the sink by the restroom.  Two and a half days of living in such cramped conditions would be unbearable, it seems.  My little bunk seems more roomy.

I return from a typical dining car dinner to find Glenn taking a language lesson from a group of Uygurs, an ethnic group related to the Turks.  A fair percentage of the populations of Urumqi and Kashgar is made up of Uygurs, who look very Middle-Eastern and speak Chinese only when speaking to Chinese.  Their language seems easy after Chinese, and the lesson is short.  Glenn tells them I play guitar, and they ask me to play some American songs. Once again my knowledge of requests is inadequate; the only English speaker is disappointed at my inability to play any Lionel Richie.  I muddle through some folk songs on my ever-warping guitar until the overhead lights go out and we all go to sleep.

May 4: I’m starting to hate Chinese trains.  Spitting, abysmal sanitation, smoky, stuffy air.  This train provides almost no hot water for drinking.  At a stop out in the middle of nowhere, we pass an empty soda bottle to a young boy walking by with a thermos.  He fills the bottle with boiled water, then looks up expectantly.  I have no change; I hand him 5 yuan.  He snatches it and runs away cackling.  Well, fine.  He’ll be tormented by guilt later, when it’s far too late to rectify his wrong-doing.  I’m glad I’m not him.

Two rambunctious kids in our wagon are eager to play with us, and provide some diversion.  They are fascinated with my walkman, my camera, my nose.  I play with the kids, eat a hard-boiled egg, look out the window, play some more with the kids, sleep, write in my journal.  Such is our last day on a Chinese train.  Glenn actually deserves much of the credit for maintaining of my sanity.  In the middle of the second night he sabotaged the electric speaker at our end of the car that plays at a million decibels 15 hours a day.  Volume, but not time span, exaggerated.  A few strategic wires disconnected and wa-la!  My sanity is preserved.

May 5: Wake-up on the train begins at 6am for our 8am arrival.  The train ladies shout and pound on our bunks and pull at our blankets as we slowly sit up and try to figure out where we are.  Once in Urumqi, we catch a bus and find the hotel with no problem.

Urumqi looks a lot like a Soviet city.  Concrete-block apartments, not much color.  Signs are written in both Chinese and Uygur, which looks like Arabic.  Glenn and I get some shashlik from a little stand in a little market for a little money, and it’s very good.  Shashlik and fried bread seem to be the primary cuisine.  We enter a department store and get various important things: thermoses, flip-flops, locks, a small canvas bag.  Then back to the hotel for the priority activity of the day: showering.  But the line is horrendous, so for the time being I stick my head in the sink and wash my hair.  Life is good when such a mundane activity is so uplifting.

In the afternoon we find a park with a small lake and rowboats for rent.  We spend a pleasant couple of hours drifting in the sun, with a few unusual incidents.  A pedal-boat full of Uygurs zips by, the occupants leaning out and saying “Change money?  No?  Smoke some hashish?  Is very good.  You want beer?”

A young boy on the bank wants to know if he can get a ride with us.  Glenn beckons him aboard.  He hangs on the edge of the wall, feet on the front of the boat.  We drift away from the wall – in he goes with a splash.  The water is just above his waist, but he panics and cries and Glenn pulls him aboard.  A crowd gathers, the boy frets over his wet clothes, we pull closer to the wall and they pull him back up.  Brush with death.  If you could drown by immersing the lower half of your body he would have had something to worry about.

We get towed briefly by a couple of Chinese women in a Donald Duck paddleboat, then end our cruise to go play hackeysack.  The weather is perfect – sunny and mild, with an occasional breeze.  An interesting mix of Chinese and Uygurs populate the park, although it’s not actually a mix at all, as they stick to their own ethnic groups and speak their own languages.  Uygurs don’t seem to have anything in common with Chinese except citizenship.

We return to the hotel, shower, and head for dinner at about 8:30.  We have Chinese food at the “Blue House,” a small restaurant with an open kitchen and a grinning, grandmotherly cook.

When we leave the restaurant and are walking around at nearly 10pm, the sun is still well above the horizon and little kids still populate the streets.  All of China is officially on the same time as Beijing, so in the west of China a day measured by the clock isn’t exactly in sync with a day measured by the sun.  The same longitude in the USSR is at least 2, possibly 3 time zones away from Beijing.  It’s nice to have long evenings, but then getting up early in the morning is especially difficult.  Glenn takes advantage of the waning sunlight hours to give me a new, much shorter coif with the Swiss Army knife scissors.

May 6: Our destination today is the “Lake of Heaven,” which, according to the guidebook, looks like someone took a piece of Switzerland and stuck it in northwest China.  At the ticket office for the tour bus, we run into Lee the Loon from Hong Kong!  He’s just as goofy as ever.  We had known he had plans to come up to Urumqi, but wondered if he would actually be allowed back into China when, on his visa application in Hong Kong, he put “Investigation” under “Reason for travel in China.”  But he’s here, and has latched on to three British boys who are also planning to take the Kashgar-to-Pakistan bus trip.

The nearly 3 hour ride to the lake is bumpy, but scenic.  Run- down Urumqi suburbs turns to desert with yurtas quickly.  Mud houses, horses, sheep and a few camels dot the landscape.  Two- thirds of the trip is through desert-like terrain, then the mountains begin, pine trees, snow – and finally, at the end of a winding, steep road, is the lake.  It’s beautiful.  The whole setting is incredibly serene, it’s quiet, the air is fresh, the water is clear where it’s not still ice.  It really doesn’t feel like China anymore.  We hike about halfway around the lake, looking in wonderment at the trees and mountains.  We sit for a while on a grassy slope, relaxing in the sun.  Nirvana.

Lee and the Brits decide to spend the night, and hike away in search of suitable shelter.  We return to the bus after three hours and start the trip back.  Looking out the window at tiny mud houses out in the middle of nowhere, I try to imagine what their occupants talk about all day.  There’s almost no connection with the “outside world,” no television; I can’t imagine that they read too many books.  Are they as bored as it seems they would inevitably have to be?  Many of the little villages are very dirty – piles of rubble and broken glass.  Sheep herding, mud-brick-making seem incredibly mundane to be the day’s primary mental stimulation.  Do they ever think of leaving?  What the heck do they talk aboout at the dinner table?

We return to Urumqi around 7, eat a rice and vegetables and noodles dinner, and turn in early.

Back in the hotel, I have a brief but exhilarating conversation with a Japanese girl.  Everything I say, she repeats in a louder voice before answering, then laughs a high-pitched laugh.  This encourages me to shout my questions at her, which she finds even more funny.

“How long did you study English?”

“How LONG did I STUDY ENGlish?!  Ha ha ha ha!  Six years.”

“SIX YEARS?!  Are you a STUDENT?!”

“Am I a STUDENT?! Ha ha ha ha.  I used to work at Denny’s in Japan.”

“DENNY’S in JaPAN?!  Was it FUN?!”

“Was it FUN?  Ha ha ha ha ha.  May I TAKE your ORDER, PLEASE?!”

And so on.  She grabs a piece of paper and draws a map of Japan, then starts furiously putting dots all over it.  “What are those dots?”  “WHAT are those DOTS?  Ha ha ha.  They’re Seven-Elevens.”  She draws more, darker dots.  “And THESE are DENNY’S!  Ha ha ha ha.”  The conversation exhausts me.  I sleep well.

May 7: Rare is the morning that starts off so badly.  Glenn and I want to catch the 9 a.m. bus to Turfan, so we take local bus #7 to get to the long-distance bus station.  Only bus #7 doesn’t go to the station.  We end up in a part of Urumqi we haven’t seen, and are told to take bus #2, which doesn’t stop here.  We have to take bus #7 back a ways.  We get to bus stop #2, wait about 20 minutes, and I stumble getting on and get my bag and foot caught in the door.

The ticket-taker tells us when to get off, and the station is apparently a couple of blocks away and around a corner.  I don’t want to take any more chances on faulty directions, so we take a taxi for two blocks, and the driver tries to gouge us for 5 yuan.  Angry, I tell him just to keep my little guitar, which I was getting tired of carrying anyway.  It’s too late to get the bus to Turfan.  While Glenn is asking about tickets to Kashgar, I knock my thermos over, which shatters, spreading glass and water everywhere.  It was glass inside plastic.  All this trauma in a two-hour span.  But we got the bus to Kashgar and it’s not crowded and it’s a roomy, streamlined Hungarian “Ikarus” to boot.

It’s mostly Uygurs on the bus, and we are quite a curiosity, to say the least.  We drive through very arid, desert-like terrain and stop in tiny villages where it looks like no tourist has gone before.  Some people stare shyly, some stare openly, but almost all of them stare.

But we stare at them with just as much fascination.  They look like a big society of gypsies.  The women wear colorful scarves on their heads, and earrings, the old men have flowing white goatees.  Their coloring is Mediterranean.  Many of the older men wear embroidered Muslim skullcaps, and the young boys look like characters from Dickens – hats cocked to one side, dirty faces, hand-me-down suits.  I photograph a kid walking by.  Two boys see me and run over to get their picture taken.  Pretty soon all the kids have noticed and come running for a big group photo, smiling broadly, sticking their chests out.

On the bus, a shy young Uygur girl points to my walkman.  I put the earphones on her head and she beams.  Pretty soon it’s being passed all over the bus so everyone can have a listen.  She puts in her own tape of Uygur folk music and proudly hands me the headphones.

She wants to reciprocate somehow for my letting her use the tape player, so she goes through her purse and finds a spray bottle of green perfume, which she sprays generously all over me.  Next, some cream for my face, maybe?  Then she carefully pulls out the long black hairs from her hairbrush so I can use it.  Finally, she offers me some lipstick; this I decline.

Not having a common language, we just gesture and smile a lot.  I would really like to ask her about Uygur traditions, what they think of China, but it’s impossible.  She reacts strongly to a postcard I show her of a streetful of screaming neon signs in Hong Kong.  She hugs it and looks at me pleadingly.  I motion for her to take it, and she sighs with relief and says “Thank you” in Chinese.  It’s strange to think that she most likely will never see such a place.

The food along the route so far is adequate.  A rice and squash dish for lunch, flat bread for dinner.  Glenn doesn’t eat any dinner, as he’s not feeling too well.  We’re both getting over colds, and the incredibly dusty air aggravates the nose and throat.

At about 7pm, the bus conks out going up a hill.  We sit for about an hour and a half, then move on again with no further problem.  We stop for the night at the Chinese equivalent of a motel, where I see the Japanese girl I met in Urumqi.  We scream greetings at each other, and she goes off to brush her teeth.  Many of the Chinese and Uygurs crowd around a TV set until late.

4 responses to “Asia, 1989. Part VIII: Urumqi”

  1. Dave says:

    I love love love the characterization of the Japanese girl. Imagine, someone who’s memorized the location of every Seven-Eleven and Denny’s in Japan!

  2. reddog says:

    And now all the Uygurs are in Bermuda this week. It’s a small world after all.

  3. Natasha says:

    I’m truly enjoying this series! The most valuable insight that I am getting from your posts is not just the amazing variety of places and people that you encountered, but your own, unique, and in, many ways, irreplaceable perspective. It’s amazing to me that a twenty-year old person is capable of having so much graceful subsistence and effortless wisdom: the small attention to detail and surroundings, the conversations, the ability to appreciate each person for who they are regardless of their origin and language. It’s a talent!

  4. LP says:

    3: Thanks, Natasha! That’s a very nice thing to say. I’m really glad I kept these journals, as I wasn’t a journal-keeper in everyday life. So this is really the only writing I have from this age period.