Sunday, July 16, 2006
And his disciples were not amazed, for this one wasn't too hard to figure out: Kyrgyzstan totally rocks the house. I joke you not.
I have so many fresh pictures but they're not uploading! I'm going to get them all to you within the week, though!
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
I took the train from Urumqi to Almaty, Kazakhstan on Monday, July 3rd. I presented my brand-new Kazakh entry visa at the border and got across no problem (unless you count waiting 6 hours as a problem...)
Quick fact: the Kazakh language is closely related to Uighur, Kyrgyz and Turkish, and although the new president is pushing Kazakh language prevalence over Russian, Russian is still the major language of education and business in this former Soviet Republic.
Almaty isn't the capital of Kazakhstan, but it's the biggest city, so it's the place to be. Unfortunately, I found out pretty quickly that if you don't speak the language(s) it isn't the place to be. I walked around the city a lot and scrambled to learn Russian as fast as I could. I totally support ethno-linguistic group language preservation, so I was going to try to learn Kazakh, but if you've ever tried to find an English-Kazakh language primer in China... well, I bet you haven't. So Russian it is. Anyway, Almaty was fascinating for what bit was (central asia, man!) but, I'm sorry to say, not a friendly town. So, on Friday, having spent a few days of not-being-helped by various aloof locals, I gave up and hopped a bus for Kyrgyzstan. Which is where I am now. And the rest is going to wait because I've got secret stuff to do!! Later fools!
3 awesome things about otherwise not-awesome Almaty:
- The Kazakh flag is the most beautiful flag in the world.
- I ate at an awesome Hare Krishna restaurant. The Hare Krishnas have been harrassed on and off by the Kazakh goverment, but they're still in operation, I was happy to see. I was going to go out to their farm, but the seat of my pants flew to Kyrgyzstan before I could.
- I arrived in Almaty with no place to stay, but one of my Chinese cabinmates from the train had a friend meet him at the station (a Chinese friend living in Almaty) and this friend, unsolicited: gave me some Kazakh money/drove me to a hotel in his car with a right-side steering wheel even though they drive on the right side of the road/paid for my first night/left without giving me a phone number or anything. Wo-oah. I know. What a sweet stranger!
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
An agricultural official in the Xinjiang regional government confirmed the continued existence of a system of forced labor called hasha in remote areas of the countryside, in which laborers are not paid for their work. The official told RFA's Uyghur service, "At the moment, there is no money to pay the peasants. The money given to the government is very limited." more
A couple of interesting Xinjiang tidbits while I'm at it: Uighurs are like, the most physically diverse ethnicity ever. In XinJiang, which is IN CHINA, remember, there are these people walking around with blond hair and blue eyes, speaking Chinese because they're Chinese! And they speak Uighur too, cause they're Uighur. They might look Arab, Persian, Scottish, small-town Nebraskan, or straight out of Beijing, but basically, this is the first time ever in China that anyone has ever had to ask me if I'm a foreigner. It's wild.
This blog is about a week behind schedule, so I'm going to catch it up pretty quickly in the next 5 days or so (depending on internet availability) pay attention now:
"shan" means mountain in Mandarin, so when I say I went to Nan Shan, that means I went to "Nan" what? Mountain, that's right. I went to Nan Shan which is an hour from Urumqi on a bus with standing room only and a video from the 70's playing the minor hits of euro-soul-funk group Boney M**. Most of them seemed to be about semi-historical characters who were 'bad cats' like Ma Baker and, hilariously, Rasputin.
Lover of the Russian Queen
There was a cat that really was gone
Russia's greatest love machine,
It was a shame how he carried on
Anyway, Nan Shan was a different groove altogether, being a large many-peaked mountain, with goats grazing in the foothills around Kazak yurts, some of which you can pay to sleep in. I was just there to hike, though, which was fun because you can hike anywhere on the mountain, unrestricted over and through the crags and brambles and dense coniferous slopes.***
So I went up, I came down, it was great. Highlights were playing Jeremiah Johnson on my little guitar, and crawling up a slope of thorny briar by following a little tunnel made by goats. I had to rush to get down, especially since I came down on the wong side of the mountain, but fortunately I ran into a man, in a tent, on a farm, with a motorcycle, who gave me a ride to the bus stop.
***I don't think a slope can be coniferous, no.
**Yeah, I hadn't heard of them either. I had to google it just now.
*Are you my homie? You can be. Send me an e-mail and I'll love you forever. matthewstirlingvaughan at gmail dot com
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Afterwards I decided to walk back to town, a long way which took me through vineyards and farmhouses and past donkey carts and Uighur locals who invariably told me to come play my mini-guitar for them. Asked me? No, told me. I let the kids play too. Everybody loves a guitar. One of the villagers, Mohammed, asked me to come home for tea, so I did. Mohammed is a grape farmer and his home had a traditional Uighur-style courtyard, overhung completely with grape vines heavy with fruit. We ate local watermelon and nan bread and drank tea and let me tell you, it was the hang-out joint of the century. He and his daughter both spoke a passable Chinese, but the others were Uighur-only. It was great, because I got hours straight of Uighur practice. We also did some religious study, since I had an English Qur'an with me, and he had done the Hajj twice! I was impressed. That's a huge expense, and he wasn't a high roller. At Mohammed's invitation I stayed over that night, since there were no late busses back to Urumqi. He set up a bed for himself and me out in the vineyard (it's cooler) but when the fireworks from the grape festival in town began, the whole family went up to the roof to watch them, and I ended up sleeping up there with two family friends from out west. The next morning I woke to sunrise over the vineyards, I almost peed my pants it was so beautiful, the end.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
XinJiang, if you haven't done your research, is the "Uyghur automomous region" of China. Sichuan, the province where I live, is bigger than France. XinJiang, I kid you not, is slightly larger than all of western Europe.
And Urumqi is the capital. Han Chinese have been pouring in in recent years, but the whole province remains, for now, decidedly Uyghur. Again, Uyghurs are a stateless Turkic people of central Asia. There.
I spent a lot of time down in the Uyghur core of the city, where I was reduced to pointing and grunting like a tourist because no one spoke Chinese, only Uighur. So, I did the only reasonable thing for the next few days: I hired a Uyghur tutor. Actually, it was a language exchange. He wanted to learn French, and it would have worked perfectly, but for a couple of snags.
- I'm, sadly, a more dilligent teacher than him. So I have a feeling I gave better than I got.
- He understood "tutor me in Uyghur" to mean "you're my best friend, Copper"
- He didn't speak Chinese (hardly) so I was essentially helping him in English the whole rest of the time. Again, kind of a lopsided bargain for teaching me the numbers one to ten (a.k.a "bir to teut")
- Fellow students of his kept "just happening" to be hanging around at our meeting times and getting invited to join my class. Oh well.
Be that as it may, I am learning Uyghur slowly. And he IS a genuinely nice guy. I think the most of the Urumqi sights I saw can be summed up in pictures. Some are on flickr already, the rest will be posted in a while (hold your horses!) by Laura, my gracious and urbane blog editor while I'm on the road.
I left Chengdu on June 22nd for Urumqi, XinJiang and if you haven't been clicking on my carefully-inserted XinJiang-related hyperlinks in past posts, then you'll just have to google it now.
The train ride, as I mentioned was 54 hours, a.k.a three days long, and here's the kicker: no bed. Ouch. Literally. I did sleep some, on both nights, though, by putting on a windbreaker to protect from spit and other filth and crawling under the shared bench. It was sticky down there, and too tight to turn over, but all-in-all it worked ok. I was woken up by feet in my ribs and crawled out bleary-eyed to greet the same nosy passengers I'd spent the previous 20-x hours beside.
I got to Urumqi safe and sound, though, and was greeted with a new challenge: no foreigners allowed in any of the hotels. No joke, I got turned away outright time after time. Some people thought I may have been Uighur, but once they found out I was foreign, it was "don't ven talk to me, get out." Finally I found a slightly sketchy place from a guy who thought I was going to buy a travel package from him, and was pretty disappointed to find out I wasn't.
That's enough of that story. I had more adventures in xenophobia, but they're for e-mail friends only.
Are you an e-mail friend? Find out by e-mailing matthewstirlingvaughan at gmail dot com ! It's just that easy!
A post on exploring the desert metropolis of Urumqi is coming soon, and in the meantime, you can spoil the surprise by seeing pictures on my flickr: http://flickr.com/photos/matthewvaughan/