2017
04.30

3 GIRLS FROM SHANGHAI

SYNOPSIS:  About pagodas, an interesting bus ride, and about stumbling into the liveliest street life in Xian known as “Muslim Street”.

Why they are called Wild Goose Pagodas is beyond me, but there they are:  The Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Little Wild Goose Pagoda.  They are a must for every visitor of Xian, and are only two of the truly old treasures the city still boasts.  The easy way around in town is to take a taxi and that’s what I did.  It saves time and does not cost the world.  You click in at 8.50 yuan (or the equivalence of about $1.50) and before the meter is actually ticking onward, you have passed quite a distance.  I have never paid more than $3 for any ride within the Old Town.

To my surprise, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is part of a big, active Buddhist Temple.  There are two abbeys and a sizable number of practicing monks who live on the premise.  But I have the distinct feeling that this operation is run by the Chinese government.  They most likely collect the hefty entrance fee of $8 to visit the temple.  I wonder how much, if any, goes to the monks.  And I wonder how “real” these monks are.  The Dalai Lama is nowhere represented. In China he is no longer considered the head of Tibetan Buddhism.    

Nothing, except for the pagodas, looks old.  Those, however, are very old!  One dates from the 7th, the other from the 9th century. There aren’t many of those around in the world.  Most fascinating to me were some historic photographs on display that showed the development of the two sites from the early 19th century onward.  Less than 100 years ago, the pagodas stood within little village communities.  Now, they are the centerpiece of two sizable parks and are dwarfed by a 30+ million people megatown!  Entrance to the park of the little pagoda is free.  The park is open to the public and there is no active Buddhist monastery attached to it. 

Access to the pagodas themselves cost extra, and many people opt out of the rather exhausting experience to climb these towers, and the expense that goes with it.  I had to do it, if for nothing but the spectacular city views one has from either one’s roofs.  The little pagoda is so strenuous to climb that a big warning sign tries to deter people; if you are over 65 you will not even be permitted up.  I had to show my ID to have my age checked. The nerve!  There are some very fit 65 year-olds who should be the judge of attempting this adventure, not some ticket clerk.

A storm that destroyed the 14th and 15th level of the small pagoda left only a small area at the top intact.  You now have to pull yourself up by some metal bars to climb out of a manhole-sized opening.  Lucky me, I was the only one up there.  There could be room for about 5 or 6 people.  That was a spectacular moment, there were spectacular views; that was worth the climb.

At the little pagoda park, two people had set up an enterprise that reminded me of Shinto Temples in Japan.  There, you purchase a printed good fortune which you tie to a tree at the temple grounds.  Shinto belief has it that the tree spirit will either prevent a bad fortune from coming true or add power to a good fortune that is tied to its branches.  Here, you could purchase a blank red tag, write a wish onto it and tie it to the branch of an age-old tree.  Or you could purchase a number of strikes on a drum which would ring in your faraway lover’s ears.  I did not want to test that one only to be disappointed, so I opted for the wish-tag. 

Somewhere I had heard that it would be hard to catch a taxi in the afternoon, as drivers change shifts.  Why on earth would they all have to change shift at the same time is a good question, and why there would not be entrepreneurs who would want to fill exactly that gap, is another one.  But perhaps, these are questions driven by a capitalist mindset.  I experienced firsthand the impossibility of catching a taxi after visiting the big pagoda.  Several taxis actually stopped, but when I told them my destination, the answer was that they could not take me since they had to go home.  How did I know that?  After all, I don’t speak Chinese. 

Well, three young girls visiting from Shanghai were in the same situation as I was.  We were heading in the same direction.  For efficiency’s sake we had decided to team up.  They spoke some English.  Eventually, they managed to flag down an unmarked car that was willing to give us a ride.  Due to their smartphone savvyness, they directed me to a city bus which would take me from there to my next destination.  On the bus however, a helpful young lady who inquired about my whereabouts, started to tell me that I was on the wrong bus.  Who to believe?  Just as she had convinced me that I was on a wild goose chase — haha, I actually was, as I was looking for the Little Wild Goose Pagoda — I got off and… found myself exactly in the right spot, a block away from the pagoda.  Lucky me, and good for the Shanghai girls!

Riding the bus was a fun experience.  I did not have exact change, 1 yuan, or the equivalence of 15 cents.  I was willing to put in 5 yuan, or 80 cents, but the driver was not about to have that.  For a while he tried to have me wait for a person with change.  But everyone who entered had a bus pass.  When I had to leave and once again tried to put in my 5 yuan — after all, I could not be a free loader — he insisted that I get off the bus without paying anything.  Can you believe that!

It was so much fun riding the bus that after my visit of the little pagoda, I chanced another one.  I had read somewhere that #6 was going past the Drum Tower and indeed it was.  And if it hadn’t, I would have had a 1 yuan sight-seeing tour.  It was evening by now and I saw one of those Uighur family restaurants serving those delicious noodle dishes I had eaten in Urumqi.  Had I only known that I was literally one block away from the most amazing food street, I might have held out for a more exotic treat.  Just by chance, circling the Drum Tower, I stumbled on “Muslim Street.  It is designated a cultural treasure by the Chinese government, if you can fathom that.  It obviously comes to life at night.  This was a treat for the eyes and a challenge for the ears.  Hundreds of people were already filling the pedestrian zone and dozens of vendors were out-shouting each other praising their wares or foods.  You could observe entire goats being stripped of their meat, chilies being grounded under a huge grinding stone.  And that was just the beginning.  Stores were selling souvenirs and high-end Miao jewelry.  The Miao are another minority known particularly for their elaborate silver head-dresses worn by brides.  The fun on Muslim Street was endless.  I think I took more photos than all day elsewhere combined.  But it was dark and I did not want to use my flash, so many of the images leave much to be desired.  But I hope you still can catch some of those vibes.

Don’t miss it if you ever go to Xian.  The most eerie thing for me was, that as I was strolling the street, slowly, the memories of 16 years ago surfaced.  I had been here before.  I had even bought a piece of jewelry at the Miao store which I still treasure.  And once I came upon him, I even remembered seeing him 16 years ago.  In the very same spot:

At the end of the street, a lone man danced frantically in the middle of a dark, little park area to the tune of a little radio. There was no light, no more food vendor, no more action.  He was all by himself.  Not even a single spectator had gathered around him.  What was he doing there?!  As I came closer, I could not believe my eyes.  The man had no feet; only two stumps, enlarged at the bottom almost like a horse’s hoof.  The wild gesturing of his arms helped him to keep his balance.  And as if that was not enough of a curse, he was blind, too.  It was just way too painful to watch him.  I was glad to see a big bucket in front of him with lots of bills in it.  Who wouldn’t want to at least add to that!

That lone dancer weighed on me all the way home.  For more than 16 years, he had been doing the same old dance; most likely night after night.  How old was he?  Perhaps, my age?  He would never be able to do anything else in his life.  But despite all of this misery, he had found a way to support himself.  But what a way!

I am so lucky, so privileged, so healthy.  Why are some of us so burdened with challenges and others seem to get off easy?  It’s the million dollar question and to me, there is no God, no answer, no nothing that could explain this.

Thinking of those who won’t have a good night tonight, or perhaps, ever!

2017
04.29

FOR SALE

SYNOPSIS:  Pits and Mausoleum.  About changes in 15 and 45 years.  No terrorists in Shaanxi Province? 

There must be no terrorists in Shaanxi Province.  I guess, they all live in Xinjiang Province.  Security is back to post 9-11 levels as we know them in the US.  Even though I visited a UNESCO site, arguably the most famous sites of all in China — the Terracotta Army built by Chin Shih Huang Di — nowhere did I have to show my passport, and I only had to go through two bag checks, one at each of the related sites.

A clearly marked green or blue tourist bus shuttles visitors from the Xian train station to the Warriors.  At 6 Yuan, or $1, this is a true bargain for the 35 km out there.  The ride goes through the stalagmite outskirts of Xian into the slightly lower rising suburbs.  We arrived at a vast parking lot divided into bus and car parking areas.

Except for the Warrior Pits themselves, I would have sworn I had never been here.  Nothing resembled anything from 16 years ago.  I distinctly remember standing on the steps of the site museum looking down at a parking area filled with buses.  That was at a time when the Chinese were still going around on bicycles, motorbikes, only a few private cars, and mainly by buses.  These days… well, that is a different story.

A park-like area had been built to buffer the site and the parking area.  It takes a good 10 minutes to walk through it.  I am sure it is not mainly meant to be pretty, but to provide a security barrier.  You can’t easily “invade” the site anymore.  One bag check, I guess that is expected these days.  And then you mingle with hundreds and thousands of camera-snapping visitors, mainly Chinese, peppered with various foreign tour groups.  I heard everything from Dutch, French, German, to American tour guides chattering into their microphones, waiving their blue, green, white or red tour flags. 

I am so glad I had time.  I could wait out some of the crowds, and get front access to take lots and lots of pictures!  Well, if that was not a wonderful change of pace.  When I was here the last time, all of our cameras were confiscated.  We had to surrender them into a storage area.  Photography of any kind was strictly forbidden.  We then had our picture taken as a group (I had come with a group of teachers on a Fulbright-Hayes scholarship) at a predetermined spot and had to pay for it. 

But who can stop millions of smartphones?  I asked a young English-speaking guide when that policy changed.  He laughed at me and said: Yes, that was at my parents’ age.  That changed a long time ago.  Indeed, I am his parents’ age.  But 16 years, is that such a long time?  It seems so recent, and yet, we definitely live in a different world. 

In one area of the museum a fancy computer projected all kinds of multi-colored images for future developments of the site onto a ground map.  It’s the 2014-2030 “Master Plan”.  I am almost afraid to ask what that entails.  Turning this site into a circus? 

When you exit the Warrior Pit site you don’t even know how, but you get channeled into a 15-minute walk of souvenir heaven, or hell, for that matter.  Vendors galore want to sell you warriors and all kinds of other shlock and they succeed.  Food stalls offer delicious-looking noodle dishes and I probably would have stopped, if I did not have to get to the second destination of the area, the mausoleum itself.

The warrior pits are located 2.5 km east of the actual Tomb of Chin Shih Huang Di.  To date, the tomb has not been excavated.  According to Sian, a historian of the 2nd Century, the tomb is 5 levels below ground water, filled with rivers of mercury, stars of precious metals, a palace and a replica of China itself.  Chin was sure he could take it all with him.  But he was also sure that the enemies he had created all throughout his ruthless life would come after him.  And that’s what he built the Warrior Pits for.   

The tomb itself is said to be outfitted with booby-traps and filled with the corpses of hundreds of engineers of the tomb (they knew too much) and hundreds of concubines.  Even though it contained a lot more riches than the warrior pits, the mausoleum was never robbed.  Contemporaries had too much respect and most likely fear to do so.  They almost instantly ransacked the warrior pits though.  I am sure they felt that they had done their duty:  leave the hated emperor defenseless in his afterlife.

From Professor Kane, who made a trip to China as a member of one of the first delegations of American Scholars in 1973 (prior to the discovery of the warrior pits), I have a photo of the tomb.  It is a mud hill with a stele.  Hardly anyone paid attention to it.  After the discovery of the tombs in 1974, the stories about the mausoleum were taken a lot more seriously.  Even though nobody has opened the tomb itself (we just don’t have the technological know-how yet to excavate without destroying the site), probes have been sent down to confirm 100x the level of mercury typical for the area…  Side pits have been discovered and excavated, among them most famously, the Pit of the Two Bronze Chariots.   But excavations are ongoing and will most likely lead to the most spectacular archaeological discovery of the century — some day.

A photo taken by Professor Kane in 1983, shows a hill with a few souvenir stalls in front of them, a staircase going up onto the mountains and a few visitors in the infamous blue Mao Tsetung jackets.  No foreigners in sight. 

In 2001, the mountain was an afterthought, a quick stop.  One could still go up there and the souvenir stalls had increased alongside the stream of foreign visitors. 

Today…  I could not believe my eyes.  As part of the 2014 master plan, I guess, the entire site had been turned into a park, paved with asphalt for visitor carts to go around, and the mountain had been planted full of trees.  It was no longer possible to go up.  Not that there was much there, except for a great view into the surrounding landscape.

In 1974, there was nothing but landscape and mounds of graves by others, who had sought out proximity to emperor Shih.  In 1983, the hangar over the warrior pit was visible in the distance.  The landscape still was rather undeveloped.   Now, the town is encroaching from the West and the area has turned into a fully developed urban landscape.  Where are those mounds?  I could not tell from the ground level to which I was restricted. 

I had chosen to explore the site by foot.  But I completely underestimated the dimensions (not that any information was to be had to that effect).  Half way through, I had walked up a blister, and a desperate need for water.  A restaurant that had been listed on all the markers was closed.  I must have cut a sufficiently pitiful figure as one of the patrolling security guards invited me to ride along on her electric motor bike.  Twice she picked me up!  Thanks to her I made it back in one piece.

Take the go-cart!  Or… unless you really have the time, don’t feel bad if you skip this site altogether.  It’s more the thought of what is there that counts than what you can actually see.  But I needed to know for myself.  I am not exactly looking forward to the rest of the master plan.  But this is China.  If they have a plan, they will execute it.  There is no doubt about it.

I still had no internet, no warm water and no TV at my apartment.  Tao, my host will stop by tomorrow.  I don’t even know if Tao is a man or a woman.  I will find out.

Good night.

2017
04.28

BELL TOWER

SYNOPSIS:  About some unexpected hassles at the airport.  About Xian and my new, lovely AirBnB.

After a lovely breakfast made by Summer’s mother, Summer, my AirBnB hostess had indeed taken off to her new/old job 500 km away from home — J.B carried my luggage to the street and a taxi whisked me off to the airport.   Compared to Urumqi’s train station, security levels seemed “normal”; that is post 9-11 normal.  I guess, terrorists work the streets and the restaurants in Urumqi, not the airport (Don’t take me seriously here. To me this is all such utter nonsense and false sense of security, I can’t help but be sarcastic about it).

Of course, my luggage was 5 kg over.  I knew that.  But the price I was about to be charged, $300!, took my breath away.  The clerk seemed rather surprised when I told her that I would unpack, of course.  I guess she thought I was not prepared for that.   

On to the ticket counter check.  The clerk turned the ticket and my passport over and over and seemed rather unhappy.  He talked to me, but what good is that?  Another officer was called, and finally an English-speaking somebody.  My passport had a Z after my first name (my middle initial), and my ticket did not.  Now what?  After some internal discussion I was let go with the missing Z. 

On to the baggage check.  No flammables, no weapons, no liquids, the usual list.  I had packed my beloved Milk Tea and I held a little tea break for myself on a nearby bench.  A small, empty water bottle was stuffed into the side of my backpack.  It was square, and the perfect travel size.  I have had it with me for a while.  I made sure it had no liquids in it and proceeded. 

In China, my preferred TSA status means nothing.  Back to the old routine:  off with the shoes, out with the computer, on with the luggage.   Busy with all these tasks, I took my eyes off my stuff for just a moment, when the officer at the other side of the assembly line snatched my water bottle right out of my backpack and tossed it into a bin on the ground.  Wait a minute!  I called out.  This one is empty.  It is mine.  I want it back.  He just shook his head.  I kept arguing but stone-faced he ignored me.  That was my property and no security requirement was broken.  Since he and his consorts spoke no English I launched into a barrage of swear words hoping somebody would take me to task so I could argue the case for my beloved empty plastic bottle.  But nothing happened. 

Now I was in a really bad mood.  These Chinese!  At times you forget that this is still an absolutistic, communist government.  At times, it seems so free, open, full of progress and opportunities.  But beneath it all is the iron fist; is total control.  This incident was a good reminder of that.

Flights are good opportunities to write and sort photos.  The three hours to Xian went fast.  Once again, I had an empty seat next to me.  It makes all the difference.

Xian is a hot-spot for tourists and they just made this too easy.  Already at the baggage claim, there was a tourist office.  I obtained a small map of downtown Xian and a ticket for the bus to town.  Town is over 40 km away, but every 20 minutes an affordable bus takes you to the center.  No need for a much more costly taxi. 

Xian is a big city, but I had not expected for it to be this big.  It is a sprawling metropolis that stretches miles and miles in each direction.  New “neighborhoods” spring up everywhere.  I would rather call them stalagmite stone forests or something like that.  Nothing but stalks of high-rises crammed together in clusters.  Architectural styles vary only by “neighborhoods” but are monotonous within a cluster.  One of those clusters easily houses the equivalent of people within a village, perhaps even a small town.  You can feel the weight of the millions of people that live around here.  Yet, traffic is flowing, food is provided, garbage is picked up, and we all breathe.  How is this possible?  I felt reduced to an ant in this environment and reminded of one of the many Chinese creation stories I have come about:  how Pan Gu, the creator god is creating the world out of his deconstructed body and the people from all the lice in his hair.  We are but lice in this world.

But I had booked my AirBnB in the Old Town, behind the ancient (or better, reconstructed) famous City Walls of Old Chang’an.  On the map my home was a few blocks away from the bus station.  I was about to walk, but double-checked with a bus clerk.  A vigorous shake of the head told me that a taxi would be in order.  No kidding.  The “couple of blocks”  on the downtown map turned into a full 15 minute taxi ride.  What looked like I was a stone’s-throw from the ancient Bell and Drum Towers turned into 1/2 hour walk.  And what I had pictured as an old town was as modern and glitzy as the rest of China.  The only difference between old and new town, was that there were none of these stalagmite neighborhoods.  Growth seemed more organic and varied and perhaps, some height restrictions applied in order not to completely crowd out the Bell and Drum Towers.   They once ‘towered”.  Today, they barely assert their presence, aided by lots and lots of neon lights.  This was overwhelming.

With the help of some locals, I found my AirBnB, despite a few mistakes in the directions.  I am in a 13-floor high-rise.  That is a bit above average height around here.  I live on the 10th floor in an apartment for myself.  The apartment is equipped with an electronic number lock.  Most likely, I will never meet my host.  I have space, a kitchen, fridge, a lovely bed and an interesting alcove which doubles as a laundry drying area.  Floor to ceiling windows in the alcove easily open up — in the 10th floor!  Any child can open these…  My slight fear of heights instantly gave me butterflies.  I don’t think I will go near those windows again.

A quick stroll through the back alley gave me all I needed.  The alley is lined with little eateries and stalls full of the basic groceries somebody like me needs:  water, yoghurt, fruits.  Bread, I brought myself (German bread).  🙂

At that time, I was still under the impression that I could go to the towers in just a few minutes and I headed out.  2 hours later I returned, completely exhausted.  The walk was over 1/2 hour each.  A brand-new massive underground passage had been built near the towers.  None of this was there 15 years ago when I had laid eyes on this monument for the first time.  It was as if I had not ever been here.  The obligatory metal fence-wall had been erected around the tower, as well as an ugly metal barrier.  No more lovely flower beds as in the pictures you still see all around…

When I returned home, I could not figure out the TV, nor could I get the hot water going, and the internet was also not working as promised, but all that was too much for me to deal with at the moment.  It was time to call it a day.

Good night. 

2017
04.27

WINDMILLS

SYNOPSIS:  Transit Urumqi.  A train ride across the new Silk Road. Dinner with U-man.   

For two full days I had explored remnants of the old Silk Road.  They were impressive and they spoke volumes of the days when camels were crisscrossing the desert and spices, textiles, pomegranates, grapes, tea, bronze, gold and silver, horses, and ideas were traveling from Xian as far as Rome

As my high-speed train left the ultramodern, mega-sized Turfan train station — this time I managed to get to the station close to town and board one of the fast trains — I could not help but reflect on what seems to me the Silk Road of our times, a new Silk Road of sorts. 

On and off, the desert was filled with fields of windmills producing green energy.   Instead of mounds of soil indicating the path of the Karez water channels, pumping stations dotted the desert harvesting oil and gas.  Refinery plants popped up in the middle of nowhere.  Electric lines seemed to go nowhere and two-, even four-lane highways, dams, and bridges,  crisscrossed the desert in all directions.  Human intervention was evidence everywhere.  Something was transported somewhere.  Is energy the new silk?  The infrastructure even out here in the middle of the Gobi Desert was vast, complex, modern and geared towards a future perhaps not even fathomable now. 

The old Silk Road was a conduit for ideas and goods to spread far and wide.  It was a melting pot in the making.  It mixed people from different races, ethnicities and belief systems.  Cooperation was needed and tolerance, to make trade possible and to allow participants along the way to prosper.  Cities like Turfan and Xian profited from this enterprise.  Yes, the ancient cities were walled for protection.  But they were open to all.  I think the Silk Road was a bit what TV, social media, and international trade shows are today.  It was a connector, a living newspaper; it was setting new standards.   

Looking at the Silk Road today, I still see the transport of goods, particularly energy-related ones, but I also see the crushing and the policing of ideas.  Not only Urumqi and Turfan, or cities, but even the train tracks are the subject of “safety measures”.  Miles and miles of tracks were equipped on both sides with barbed-wire fences and walls that could put the Berlin Wall to shame.  Are we all happy now that we can travel safely?  I bet, anyone who is determined to find a way to derail a train or bomb a park will find a way, especially if they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the process. Caravans were raided then, and bombs will fall today.  Security is an illusion. But we fall for it, and we give up one right after another for this illusion, don’t we?

Since I was back in town, I invited U-man for dinner.  It beats eating alone.  He suggested a fabulous Uighur restaurant so well hidden, that I almost didn’t find it.   I left ordering to the expert and we ended up with a table full of polo (a fried rice dish),  mushrooms, pickled carrots, stir-fried vegetables and meat.  Once again I was sure we would never be able to finish all of this, but we managed.   Once again, a beautiful dance performance with traditional music rounded out the night.  A young man did a spectacular single dance on the wooden floors of the restaurant. 

And after that, with the guidance of U-man’s GPS and bus map, I chanced the bus.  I almost felt like a local.   We walked almost  2 km.  At night, the police presence can be felt even stronger.  Police stations flash their blue and red lights.  Tanks are positioned in front of government buildings. And thanks to the new governor in town, every park is closed and fenced in, changes made just in the last two years.  Will they become the new normal?  Most likely, yes.

Summer, my AirBnB host had left and taken that far away job.  At least for now.  And so it was quiet at my “home”.

I packed for the next stretch of the trip, revisiting Xian.  Not only is it the starting point of the Silk Road, it is also home to the Terracotta Army buried underground.  And I have seen it 16 years ago. 

Good night from Urumqi.

2017
04.26

GAOCHANG

ET WITH TANDEM AT GAOCHANG

SYNOPSIS:  MORE EXPLORATION WITH THE UIGHUR-MAN FROM URUMQI.  A FEW TOMBS, A FEW MUMMIES,  AND A DANCE IN THE PARK.

There was still time to see yet another ancient adobe city. It is located much farther than Jiaohe;  46km southeast of Turfan.   Like Jiaohe, it was founded in the 2nd century BC as a Chinese city.  It is located in the plains.   No natural protection is available and so, contrary to Jiaohe, it was fully walled in.  Xuanzang, a famous Buddhist monk, visited here in 7th century teaching Buddhism.  In the 9th century it was conquered by the Uighurs who at the time were Manichaeists.  A small Christian church at the site attests to the presence of yet another religion.  At one time, it seems all of them co-existed, most likely because the dominant religion was tolerant and non-violent Buddhism. The conquest by the Mongols in 13th century ended both Buddhism and coexistence. Fighting in the 17th century destroyed most of the Karez water system.  The city had to be abandoned.  That makes these ruins much younger than the ones at Jiaohe.  Yet, less is preserved.  In fact, most of the structures standing are the protective walls of rammed earth and a few Buddhist temples. 

Of course, U-man had been here before.  He wanted to do the site on foot, all XXX hectares.  It was midday and the sun was beating mercilessly.  I took one look at the enormous expanse of this city.  There was no way I would walk this.  But the go-cart did not seem a viable option either even though most visitors opt for that.  In 1/2 hour you will have been whisked through — not mine, and not U-man’s style of exploration.  We spotted a few bikes.  That was it!  First, we tried to just “steal” well, “borrow” one of them.  Nobody was around to even mind.  This site was utterly deserted.  But we could not get the brakes undone and had to resort to renting it the legal way. Best decision of the day!  With the bike we could stop where we wanted and explore on foot some of the areas we were curious about.  We even climbed (nobody was there to stop us), one of the corner walls for a better view.  What I had taken for the whole city turned out to be only half.  Behind the wall I had seen, a centrally located palace wall, there was just as much town as in front of it.  We would have died had we attempted this on foot.

This town even more than Jiaohe reminded me of a fun chance excursion to a desert town in Syria, near Palmyra.  I had met a most interesting character from New York at a local restaurant; the only person I know who has traveled to all (and that is all!) countries in the world.  His crowning prize:  Saudi Arabia, including Mecca; and that as a non-Muslim.   That is as daring as it gets.  In my off-the-beaten-path German art history book, I had read about this abandoned town beneath the desert sand.  He had never heard of it, but was up for the adventure.  It was a very special discovery. 

After another delicious Uighur noodle dish at a small family restaurant, we headed to the rather underwhelming site of Astana.  It must have been an archaeologist’s dream to dig there.  400 tombs revealed thousands of burial objects which now are on display in museums in Urumqi and Turfan.  Of those, 3 tombs are open to the public.  They are shaft tombs leading into the burial chamber on downward sloping ramps.  Two antechambers typically hold a husband and wife’s bodies.  The central chamber may be painted, and depending on the status and the wealth of the deceased, may have been filled with objects. A few more of these surreally well-preserved, grotesque mummies I had already seen at the Urumqi Museum, were on display in situ.  But that was all there was to be seen.  To beef up the site, the Chinese government had erected a completely out of place palace tower flanked by over-life size figures of the Chinese zodiac circling a huge public sculpture of two embracing goddesses.  Yes, these designs were loosely based on some of the objects found in the tombs, but the incongruity of the plain desert-grave yard and the red and marble structures just did not do it for me.  This stop could have been skipped, but we were in the neighborhood anyhow. 

This completed the day.  Once again, we had overstayed our welcome, but Achmed had something to make up to both of us for that messed-up morning. 

U-man took the night train back to Urumqi to be at his law firm the next morning.  He is a lawyer.  I might as well say that much.  I asked him many questions but he would only answer so much.  I think, back in his mind he still thinks I might be a spy.  And rightly so, he is on his guard.  In a country like this, the wrong word by the wrong person can get you behind bars.  He of all people knows that better than most.  Every day he is dealing with cases of people who ran afoul of somebody’s rules or ideas.  And he is part of a minority under suspicion.  I felt very lucky to have run into him.  This made my excursion into Uighur land that much more meaningful.

For the last night in town I went for another stroll under the vineyard alleys.  It was the weekend.  Locals had gathered at a park to do all sorts of things.  After the obligatory bag and passport check — each ID was actually swiped into a computer! — I was in.  Tai Chi was performed by one group; in another corner at least twenty people danced to the sound of a recorder playing traditional Uighur music.  I could tell that much, since Achmed had introduced me to a variety of Uighur sounds.  The dance movements are quite distinct.  With wide outstretched arms, people swirl and turn, and at certain beats they lift their shoulders for just a quick twitch.  It looks very cool.  Men danced with women, men with men, and women with women.  Some had dressed up for the occasion and others just came in their plain clothes.  Was this a recurring weekend, or perhaps even a daily event?  People truly enjoyed themselves. 

And with the music still ringing in my ears I headed back to my desolate hostel.  By now I hardly noticed the dirty floor.  I was just looking forward to a warm shower.  Even the hard bed could not prevent me from sleeping like a rock.  I am sure once again, I had managed about 10 km of walking, blisters or not.

And for just one more time, it is good night from Turfan, the old Silk Road hub.

2017
04.25

WOMAN WORKING ON A TYPICAL UIGHUR BENCH IN TUYUK

SYNOPSIS:  About Uighur culture and Karez constructions.  About exploring the area with my new Uighur friend.  About a traditional Uighur village.  And about an ancient cemetery.

Yesterday, when I sat down at one of the far-flung parts of the Jiaohe Plateau, a young man entered the scene.  We exchanged a few words about the site and it became apparent that he knew a lot about local history.  He had been at Jiaohe three times already and had come back again.  Before long I asked him if he wanted to join me on my next excursion.  Every tourist here pretty much has the same or at least similar one or two day itineraries.  After some hesitation — he later confessed that he thought I was a spy! — he agreed.  And so I will have a travel companion today who can bridge the language gap and whom I hopefully can ask a lot of questions.  I will just call him a Uighur man from Urumqi who speaks English!  Who knows?  Perhaps, there are spies who would cause him harm. 

But first today came Achmed, my driver, who messed up everything.  The Uighur man (U-man for short) and I had made a great plan.  I would visit a few local sites first so he could have his morning, and then Achmed would call him to join us for the long-distance part of the tour. Long story short, Achmed refused to take me to the local sites but I did not know why.  When I finally got him going, he stood up the U-man whom he had ordered to meet us way before the agreed time.  It was a mess.  It was not so much a language problem (that, too), but that Achmed was simply a very stubborn man set in his way.  You could see that in his driving style.  Super slow and unforgiving.

In order to make up for it I sped through the local “Karez Paradise” which, as everything else around here, was unprepared for visitors but rather in full swing of remodeling.  Are all the tourists gone already, or do they come to roast here in the middle of August?

Karez are super cool ancient marvels of engineering which I have encountered in Iran.  There, they are called Ghanat or Quanat.  From a source, often a mountain far away, hundreds of channels are dug, often through deserts or dry terrain, to provide far-flung places with water.  These water channels transport crystal clear drinking water.  Some have been in use for thousands of years.  In this area, many of these channels have dried up due to neglect.  But many are still in use.  Both the Karez Paradise and a small Karez museum provide insight into the making of these structures.  Above ground, you can follow the path of the Karez by looking for small round earth mounds dotting the landscape.  When I was on the road with my self-appointed taxi driver coming to Turfan, I passed many of them.  I should have followed a tried and proven travel rule:  If you want something and you see it, get it then and there.  Do not wait!  Well, I thought I would have more opportunities.  Not so far…

Not all was well in Karez Paradise.  Ground workers had carelessly dumped some of their construction waste into the channels, and brown, contaminated, dirty water was flowing down the “drinking water” lane.  I was about to photograph both the sign and the dirty water flowing right next to it, but a guard sprang into action preventing me from doing so… 

Eventually, we fetched distressed Uighur man, and were on our way.  Tuyuk, a traditional Uighur village in the Flaming Mountains was our destination.  There was finally a village to my heart’s content.  Traditional one-storied adobe homes were lining the U-shaped village.  Each of them was equipped with beautifully carved and painted doors, some of them fading, showing their graceful aging.  Between the two roads, a valley was filled with fruit trees and vineyards.  A large waterfall at the entrance to the village brought the water, much needed in this desert landscape.  This was a 100% Uighur village, except for the newly erected police box which uglified the scenery. 

In our culture the doors are always open, U-man instructed me.  He was right.  Even in this village, filled with several dozen visitors from near and far, the doors were open, allowing glimpses into the daily life of the locals.  The immediate space behind the doors always seemed to be a sizable courtyard.  Some had cars parked, tools perched on wooden benches, or laundry strung across the space.  Kids were playing, adults dozing off in the heat of the day or working.  Private rooms were on either side of the court or in the back. 

Inside the courtyards and even out on the street a peculiar piece of furniture caught my eyes.  It is a low-standing bench-table, deep enough to hold up to 8 people in a circle and large enough to provide work-spaces for all sorts of activities.  I have encountered it in Uzbekistan before.  And for that matter, the shape of the bread in the market, and the colorful designs of the silks worn by the women reminded me of Uzbekistan as well.  Of course! U-man exclaimed.  We are descendants of the Uzbeks.  And another history lesson followed.  It was way over my head and information overload, since all of this is new to me.  But I felt so vindicated that my art-historical, visual observations were bearing out in school-book history.  Thumbs up for the visual arts!  They do speak volumes.

As open as the doors were in the village, the other attraction, over 40 Buddhist Caves, some of them considered the oldest in the region, were all closed.  Supposedly, for restoration.  Only nine of them have some traces of frescoes left.  After I saw Bezeklik yesterday, I was not as disappointed as I otherwise would have been.   There was a shrine in town, U-man had read about.  It meant a lot to him.  Supposedly, it was the tomb of one of Mohammed’s companions, a local saint, who in the days had spread Islam to this Silk-Road corner of the world. 

Well, the locals know how to make a buck.  There was an entrance fee to the “scenic village” and now there was a special ticket to visit the shrine.  Muslims only!  The ticket man pointed to me and shook his head.  I can become a Muslima in no time.  I whispered to U-man.  He did not seem to object.   I signed my name in Arabic letters into the guest book, took out my scarf and made a hijab.  Off to ablution.  U-man showed me just how many and in which order I had to proceed.  So glad nobody was watching.  I would have been called out as a fake immediately.  I practiced the Shahada with U-man, just in case I had to pass a test with the Uighur men in charge of the shrine.  He had already eyed me with lots of misgivings. 

But without further scrutiny, we were able to enter the shrine, a typical square shaped, domed cell lined with prayer rugs.  The shrine imam performed a prayer.  By now we were four men and two women.  I just followed suit. 

U-man and I were the first to enter the main attraction:  the cave in which the saint is not buried, but believed to still reside (at least in spirit).  U-man was movably impressed.  He recited some more prayers in beautiful Arabic.  And I snatched a picture of him (with his permission).  Well, saint or not, this was an interesting experience. 

U-man and I got into a long discussion about Islam after that and how everyone interprets things differently.  He did not think that non-Muslims should be barred from the shrine.  Says who?  Obviously, he also does not agree with a lot of the strict Salafi interpretation of Islamic scripture.  But then, who decides who is right?  That is the million dollar question.

And since we can not solve all the world’s problems in a single day,   I will say good night for now.

2017
04.24

RARE SCULPTURAL REMAIN

SYNOPSIS:  About 1000 Buddha Painting Caves and 100 Mud-Stupa Cities in Uighur country.  About VPNs and social media in China. 

My taxi driver Achmed, a local Uighur with a stoic face and no knowledge of English, showed up at the agreed hour.  He would drive me to the local sites over the next two days; there is no other way to see them unless you dare to drive yourself.  Not me!  Under luckier circumstances, I would have shared the taxi with other tourists, but there seemed to be none around.  We bonded over the nice Uighur music he played.  And all I could figure out is that he is married and has one child.  He also got us into some nice, cheap and tasty Uighur family restaurants that prepared delicious local food.  The good things about being the only customer is that I could set my own pace, which is quite slow.  What had been estimated to be a tour from 9:30 to 4:30 turned into a 9:30-8:30.  But Achmed did not seem to mind.  “Time is money” is a Western concept.  Distance is money.  That’s how this trip was calculated.

Turfan is situated near a breathtaking mountain range referred to as the Flaming Mountains. On a clear day, the mountains and the sand dunes are said to turn dark red when the late afternoon sun hits it. But it was rather hazy.  Bezeklik, an ancient Buddhist monastery in use between the 7th and 14th century , is nestled in the middle of some magnificently swooping sand dunes. It was my first stop.  Along a cliff, two terraces of Buddhist cave temples, 83 in all, had been carved to provide ancient Silk Road travelers the spiritual encouragement to venture on.  I can only imagine how daring a trip along the Silk Road would have been with all the dangers and the lack of all the modern technology which make traveling today a piece of cake.  Only the upper terrace is accessible and of the dozens of caves, only about a handful are open to visitors.  A group of school children had entered a minute before me.  They were in and out in 10 minutes as there was “nothing to see” at least nothing that would pique their interest.  I became their main attraction with some of the youngsters shouting a daring “hello” and a few of them snapping stealth pictures.  Finally, the teacher took charge and arranged for a group photo of her hoard and me.  Now they were happy.

Photography was strictly forbidden in the caves.  And that order was enforced by several eager-beaver guards who would not take their eyes off me.  I snatched one or two images and at one point almost had to open my camera to evidence that I had not broken the rule…    A few sad remains hint at the bygone glory of brightly painted caves.  The desert winds and the brittle mud on which the frescoes were painted are surely to blame for some of the damage, but to make matters worse, several Western archaeologists from Germany, France and Great Britain chiseled out images in the last century which they carted off to various museums around the world.  World War II took care of most of them…

At the site I ran into Tom from Great Britain, a teacher of English stationed in Shanghai.  He had just taken a few days off to visit the Western frontiers.  He told me about VPN to bypass the Chinese firewall blocking Google and all Western social media, including facebook and twitter.  China has of course developed its own take on all those things:  Their Google is called Baidu.  Their Facebook is called QQ.   And the equivalence of What’s App is  WeChat.  This is an interesting “middle path” between the completely media-isolated North Korea, and the internet-backwaters of Cuba.  Might I get the internet going after all?  I am just so inept in all these things.  I have to get with it for my next trip and prepare for these things ahead of time!

A stop along the road is labeled “Flaming Mountain” and I expected some nice viewpoint or perhaps a path up the mountain.  Wrong.  It was a street-side theme park and entertainment area which I could and should have skipped.  But I paid for it, so I snapped some pictures:  Do you fancy yourself riding on a camel?  Or would you prefer perhaps to be carried around like a Tang empress?  Or is a goat cart or a tank more to your liking?  Some dressed-up people walked around as cartoon characters ready to pose with you for a vacation snap shot.  A culturally redeeming feature of this circus was a Hall of History filled with reliefs depicting major battles and events along the Silk Road, and a Hall of Murals replicating some of the lost fresco of the area.

One of the highlights of the day was a visit to Emin Minaret built in 1777 by Emin Hoja, a local ruler and finished by his son.  According to an unsubstantiated Chinese belief, a Muslim should circle Emin Minaret first, before embarking on the journey of the Hajj.  Emin is considered the third most holy Muslim site in all of China.  That’s why this mosque and minaret are surrounded by a circumambulatory path that before Hajj season reportedly is crowded with pious Muslims.  That’s also why there is a cemetery on the grounds for the lucky few who could manage to be buried near this holy site.  But just like my hostel, the grounds were deserted and neglected. 

I loved this solemn, monochrome sandstone minaret built almost entirely of bricks.  With its circumference of 10 meters and its height of 54 meters it is an imposing structure. The hypostyle mosque inside was dim and quiet.  I was only one of perhaps 5 visitors at the entire site.  It came as no surprise that an armed guard was holding watch inside the mosque. 

But the main site was still ahead of us:  UNESCO protected Jiaohe.   It was started in the 2nd century by an independent local king who found the most amazing natural stone plateau sitting at 30 meters height, embraced by two arms of a river. He set up the capital of his kingdom up there, and did not even need to fortify it!  For 1500 years the town was in use until it was abandoned in the 13th century.  More amazing even,  that so much of the town is preserved today.  Jiaohe is considered the best and most completely preserved adobe city from that time, in the world.  No doubt a claim well deserved.  It was hot and sunny and I was there in my winter clothes…  A turban made from a scarf I bought at the many souvenir stalls, topped off my ridiculous outfit.  Who knew?  I actually did not even look so different from the locals, to whom this was the cool weather.  It is all relative.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Jiaohe sweltering in the afternoon heat.  As the shadows grew longer, the colors of the stone turned deeper, and it was hard to stop taking pictures.  One could almost feel the ghosts of the people who once lived here.  From their stupas, to their businesses, their homes and their grave yards, it was all preserved.  A fair number of visitors were here, but in the maze-like vastness of this city, they got lost.  I often found myself alone for long times in one corner or another of the town.  Time slowed down.  And as the day went on, temperatures dropped, and I could have spent a few more hours just taking it all in.  But everything has to come to an end.  I had already overstayed my tour schedule by three hours, and I could barely walk on my blisters anymore.  Time to call it a day.

A lone bowl of noodles at my dirty hostel put a rather mundane end to this sublime day. But I did not mind.  I am glad I came all the way out here.

Good night.

2017
04.23

TWO UIGHUR MEN

SYNOPSIS:  About a train ride into the death kettle of China.  About a youth hostel, a self appointed taxi driver, grapes, and a stroll through “grape town”.

At my little guest house in the remote desert town of Turfan (also known as Turpan), I was greeted with — you could call it “Still life with Helmet”.  A police shield was leaning against the receptionist’s table, a steel helmet decorated the desk and a scanner such as the ones used at the airport, as well as a club to beat down on rioting crowds, waited nearby.  They weren’t serious?!  Oh yes, they were.  I had seen some of this in Urumqi, but I had not expected it in faraway Turfan.  I finally had arrived.  That had taken 2 unexpected additional hours.

A quick stroll to round up some groceries and necessities for the next three days taught me that even out here, every little store owner was equipped with at least one of those shields and a club.  Every hotel, every market, every parking lot had a guard checking every car for… Explosives?  Terrorists?  Criminals?  Every major intersection had a makeshift police station housed in metal containers of varying sizes, just like in the big city.

Turfan was once a major hub on the Silk Road  in the middle of the Gobi Desert and still has remnants of those bygone days in the area.  That is what I had come to visit.  I had pictured Turfan as a small little town with one-storied buildings and a sleepy little market somewhere.  Wrong!  This was a metropolis by far not as big as Urumqi, but on the ground it felt just the same.  Four-lane roads crossing town in a grid system, 5-10 storied high-rises, and densely populated neighborhoods.  But there is more.

This town sports two train stations; one old one, about 45 km away and the other, a modern, more recent one, about 10 km away.  That one is fit for a metropolis!  A humongous plaza lies in front of it.  On the left a palace-like structure may be a hotel.  The building on the right, no less humongous, might be a government center?  All of this sits in the middle of nowhere, about 10 km away from downtown.  Dusty desert surrounds it.  I guess, there is a 50 year plan in place here.  Or is it just a 5-year plan?  With the Chinese you never know.  But they obviously designed this station and its plaza with enormous growth in mind.  Before long, the town might actually have reached the station and one generation later nobody will remember it any other way.

Every hour at least one, if not two, affordable regular and high-speed trains leave in each direction.  I could not help to compare that with our train service between Chicago and Detroit… 

Without internet access to information, and without the huge and heavy Lonely Planet of China — which I had decided to leave at home — I had not realized that Turfan had those two stations.  My luck had it that I had arrived at the older and farther one…  But as I did not know otherwise, I was convinced that I was in town.  It was Friday afternoon and I was looking around for a bank to exchange money before looking for my guesthouse.  There was just one main street going up the hill from the station and a crossroad.  Well, that was not quite how small I had pictured Turfan.  Nobody knew the word “bank”, but finally, a local guy took pity on me and walked around with me. It took almost another hour for me to figure out that I was nowhere. 

The friendly local offered his taxi services to downtown.  A young guy assured me that it was OK for me to ride with him.  And so I got into his car.  My self-appointed taxi driver took off.  Taxis around here reliably turn on their meters when you get in.  You never have to worry about being cheated.  Tipping is not customary.  Neither after a taxi ride, nor at a restaurant.  But this guy had no meter.  I had taken enough taxis to be confident that I could figure out approximately what I owed.

It was hot in Turfan!  Coming from the 30’s and rain in Urumqi, I had not expected that much of a climate change after less than a 2-hour train ride.  But soon enough I found out that I had arrived at the equivalence of Death Valley.  This was one of the lowest points on earth!   In the summer, the thermometer could easily climb to 120+ degrees.  April was one of the best months to visit.  It was only in the 90’s; winter for the locals; bearable for visitors.

We soon left the one street which I had taken for Turfan and rode through the dusty desert.  In the distance, a green spot of trees appeared. That must be it!  But as we approached, it was a mere single lane of homes.  A town surrounded by vineyards, the single most important crop of the area.  This is raisin country!  I had read that somewhere.  As the consumption of raisins worldwide is dropping, this area is hard hit and struggling for alternatives.  I am just amazed that in the middle of the desert grapes are the culture of choice.  Don’t they need water?  Lots of it?

We went back into the desert.  Where the hell was Turfan?  By now we had been on the road, paved two- and four-lane highways, surrounded by dust, for nearly 40 minutes.  Two more oases appeared but we passed them by.  And finally, there it was:  Turfan.  Nothing like I had pictured it, but a huge, big, modern, buzzing, dusty, Chinese town.   This trip cost 6 times the train ticket!  I obviously had done something wrong.  This commute was meant to be done in large shuttle vans, or share taxis, not a single passenger via a self-appointed driver.  Oh, well.  Things happen. 

My White Camel Youth Hostel was deserted.  The security officer dozed off most of the time and obviously had stripped himself of the cumbersome helmet and staff.  The grounds were neglected and dusty, and aside from a few workers, I seem to be the only guest.  My room was dirty but big.  It could have looked almost impressive with its vaulted arched and stuccoed ceiling.  I had hoped for some other foreign travelers.  Who knows why there was nobody around. 

I was not keen on traipsing through a dusty modern Chinese town.  But imagine dozens of alleys with green foliage, and grapes dangling above your head.  The grapes were not quite in season yet, but the foliage was sprouting.  The Turfans had come up with an ingenious solution to offset their unbearable climate with what they had in abundance:  grapes.   Some of these alleys were full-scale asphalted streets with traffic.  Some were polished marble, lined with sculptures and benches, and for pedestrians only.  And yet some were plastered full of posters and propaganda.  And so Turfan, aside from the generically Chinese downtown, had a unique, lovely, and human feel after all, only disturbed by the outlandish number of police containers that put the finishing touch on every street corner.

Just down the road from the hostel, there was a Uighur bazaar.  That was more like it!  Dozens of stalls with the necessities of life, strange herbal remedies, baked goods, and food stalls held my attention.  I was hungry. But would I dare the soup this one guy prepared from a metal pan filled with goat heads?  That must be some local specialty!  Maybe some other day.

I resorted to more ordinary looking dumplings.  And with a full belly and a driver arranged for the next couple of days, I returned to my dirty room for a much needed rest.

Good night.

2017
04.22

TANK AT THE TRAIN STATION

SYNOPSIS:  A fortified province.  About security and “the situation” in Xinjiang.  About this trip, a museum visit,  a hot pot dinner, and a difficult decision for my host, Summer.

If I hadn’t known any better, I would have mistaken Xinjiang Province for a war zone, or a country under martial law.  Far from it.  This was only the Chinese government hard at work to ensure the safety of its people.

At Urumqi (pronounced:  You-room-chee) — the capital of the province, where my journey in China begins — the train station was barricaded as if they expected the return of the Mongol Army!   A tank was positioned in front of the train station.  I had to pass at least five security checks before I could as much as buy my train ticket to Turfan, my next destination.  Crowds were led through metal corridors serpentine style.  A once-beautiful big square in front of the train station, surely laid out envisioning romantic strolls in the evening a few picturesque moments before boarding a train, had become an ugly bastion of fear-mongering and military might.

Urumqi and the train station were one thing and bad enough, but I was almost willing to excuse all of this muscle-flexing there.  But when I had to show my ID and have my bag checked to enter the museum, a pedestrian overpass, and later a restaurant, I had to wonder how much further this all could go, and where all of this had started?  What little I could gather without access to Google is this: in 2009, a scuffle at a work site broke out between workers of the Chinese Han majority, and the local Uighur minority population.  Three Uighur were killed.  Following this incident, students in Urumqi took to the streets demanding justice, and from there protests spread further throughout the province.  Uighur are associated with terrorist incidents in recent years here, and in the rest of China. Uighur are Muslims, and have made news even in the West.  Some Uighur have been radicalized, and about 5000 of them are reported to have joined ISIS.  The radical Uighur population seems to be concentrated in the south of the province.  Radicalization and terrorist attacks are alarming indeed, but they are not unique to this region.  Unfortunately, they mirror developments in so many other parts of our world.

My hosts referred to this as “the situation” and warned me to get ready to face armed guards and passport checks everywhere.  Aside from policing, Han Chinese have come up with another response mechanism: infiltration.  A policy is in place in Xinjiang that gives preferential rights of residency to Han Chinese.  I was told by a local that 60 years ago, the Han population was between 1-2%.  Now it is 40%, and in Urumqi as high as 80%.  Uighur, especially from the South, who want to set up residency in Urumqi are systematically denied access.  A new, high-ranking Han government official was recently appointed to the province who is enforcing and developing even stricter measures than before.  He used to work his “magic” in Tibet…

What was seen after the 2009 incident as a temporary measure to keep unrest in this province under control, soon became the new normal.  What started with a few dozen police stations soon boomed into hundreds if not thousands.  What started as the occasional check of vehicles and property, now constitutes about 10 checks per day if you are on the move like I am.  Security checks that were concentrated around government buildings, train stations, and airports at first, now have spilled into hotels, markets, stores and public parks.  Is this kind of blanket policing the answer to this problem?  Is this where we are heading in the US?!

To keep a police force like this going must cost the Chinese government millions every year, if that is enough.  Good for us, I would say.  If the Chinese would put all of these resources into research and development, we in the West would be doomed.  It is already scary to see what they accomplished in the last twenty years compared to the stagnation we experienced in the US over the same time period.

Urumqi.  And you thought I was going some fun places like Beijing, or Shanghai!  Well, the centerpiece of this trip is Tibet, or the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) as it is referred to.  Even though China claims Tibet as a fully integrated Chinese province, many restrictions for entering Tibet apply.  I will write much more about this later.  One can enter Tibet via Nepal but entry through China provides more guarantees.  In 2001, I had been to China for the first time with a group of teachers through a Fulbright-Hayes scholarship.  For six weeks we made a big circle through China.  This time, I wanted to go to some places I had not seen before, but also to places that felt relevant to my current teaching. 

I chose Xinjiang Province specifically, because it is the province with almost 60% of the population from the Uighur minority.  With my lack of speaking Chinese, I don’t expect to gain much of an insight into “the situation”.  But I wanted to have a bit of a firsthand feel.  Seeing all this police presence was an unexpected and insightful beginning. 

The Provincial Museum at Urumqi seemed another good starting point for somebody like me.  It is a big, impressive building complex at the north of town, with four major permanent exhibits, various temporary exhibits, and a couple of high-end art stores.  One of the most famous sections of the museum is filled with ancient mummies which have been remarkably well preserved in this desert climate.  With grotesque facial expressions and bent limbs and some of their clothing still intact, they lie in dusty plastic coffins, preserved for eternity.  One of them is considered the primordial Mother of the Uighur. She is highly revered.   My favorite section displayed costumes and textiles, living quarters, instruments, and daily life implements of the various ethnic groups of the region.   I wish at least some of the signage would have been in English…

I guess not too many foreigners come here, or perhaps, it is just off season right now.   I provided great entertainment at the museum as the only foreigner in sight.  The museum guards took turns taking selfies with me, and a few attempted to make conversation.  But we failed.  Language barriers suck.

At 3 PM I very much missed a nice museum cafeteria which could have given me the much needed caffeine shot after I almost slid off a bench, having falling asleep when I sat down…   Jet lag is a drag, especially when you get older.  And so, I headed home. 

At night, I invited my AirBnB hosts for dinner.  They choose a nearby restaurant serving a specialty of the season:  Hot Pot.  Into a sizzling pot of broth, you put a variety of small pieces of meat, tofu, or vegetables.  The amount of food on the table seemed prohibitive.  But between the three of us, we polished off the plates.  Summer was in great distress as she had to make a life-changing decision:  The government job she holds, secure and with good pay and benefits, requires her from now on to work in a different location.  She will have to fly 500 km back and forth to work, adding hours and hours to her commute each week!   Her choice: take it or leave it.   She has only been married to J.B.  (that’s how his name sounds to me) for one year.  They want to have a family.  She hates the idea of going so far away.   But her family is pressuring her into not giving up a secure government position.  All of this was weighing heavily on her.   

I could not quite picture a request like this without a hefty pay raise or some sort of incentive, in the US.  But this is China.  The individual will submit to the needs of the community.  It is exactly this right the government is able to exert over its people that makes it so powerful.  And perhaps by extension, it is the insistence on individual rights regardless of the needs of the community, that has put the Western World on its slow but sure descent.

And with that heavy thought, I am calling it a day.

Good night.

2017
04.21

33 HOURS

ENTRANCE DOOR

SYNOPSIS:  From Pinckney to Urumqi.  About a few characters on the plane(s).

Three plane rides were ahead of me.  1.5 hours, 13.5 hours, 4.5 hours, and a few hours of layover along the way.  Between getting up and going to bed, there would be 33 hours in transit.  A wise saying by Lao Tzu always comes to mind:  A journey of 1000 miles has to begin with a single step.  So true.  No point in fretting over the hours yet to travel or the destination to be reached. What matters is to manage the next step in front of you and to observe the people around you.

Do orthodox Jews have to pray at a specific hour?  I had never heard of that.  But watching the father-son team of Jews on the plane to New York you would almost think so.  About 20 minutes into the ride, the man whose fringes under the vest and black top hat gave him away as a practicing Jew, got up.  He fudged and fiddled with his overhead luggage and emerged not only under a white and black prayer shawl but fully outfitted with two tefillin, or prayer boxes.  Standing in the aisle he performed his prayers in the typical bobbing manner, as you would see men praying at synagogues or the Western Wall.  This took him a good 10 minutes.  Just when I thought he was done — he had unwrapped his tefillin — he fished out a second set of boxes and started the whole procedure all over again.  Now I was really intrigued.  His son was handicapped.  He had come in a wheel chair.  Was the father doing his prayers in his spot as the son could not perform the prayers himself under the circumstances?  Was there any other explanation for the second round of prayers with a second set of tefillin?  I was reminded of the practice of sending a proxy on the Hajj in Islam if you yourself are incapacitated.  I also tried to picture a whole group of orthodox Jews on this plane performing their prayers this publicly.  Could anyone have gotten to the bathrooms?  Would we ever have been served our drinks?  And finally, I asked myself if this man would have refused to sit next to me, a woman, should the plane have been full?  I just could not help but wonder. 

My Nutella had been refused into the cabin, but I could not believe my eyes when I approached my assigned seat and a woman with a squiggly, squeamish poodle on her lap was sitting next to me.  How did this creature get here?  No box, no carrier; the dog was jumping around on her lap.  Oh, she just wants to play.  No way was I going to sit next to a dog who would think my face was a playground. 

But it was my lucky day after all.  Every one of the three flights was under-booked.  On every one of them I managed to have an empty seat next to me to stretch out just a bit to get away from licking dogs, screaming children, or loudly talking youngsters.  I think I even got in one or two hours of sleep.

Beijing airport is vast.  I had three hours of layover.  I had worried I might fall asleep somewhere and miss my plane.  But I did not have a minute to even sit.  It took a full hour to get through immigration, a full hour to fetch and re-deposit luggage after customs inspection, and another 1/2 hour to make it from one end of the airport to the other.

I was just in time for the announcement that boarding for my last flight was delayed.  Not that I would have known that.  I had to ask a gentleman next to me as all announcements were made in Chinese only.  No other foreigner was in sight.  The man did not speak English, but he (and as I soon found out many other people) had an app on his phone that translated anything he said in Chinese into English.  What a world we live in.  Why did I not get such an app myself?  I could instantly speak Chinese!

Two hours later than anticipated, late at night, I arrived in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province.  Would my AirBnB hosts be there?  Panic struck, when I arrived at the luggage belt and nobody was there — no people, no luggage.  I had dilly-dallied looking around at the airport for cool posters and signs and, lo and behold, they had emptied that plane at lightning speed.  Now the hunt for my duffel bag begun.  Had it even arrived?  Had I doomed it with my Nutella escapade?  No.  But it had already been hurled away as unclaimed.

If my hosts had been here, I would only have myself to blame now, if they had already left.   But J.B., a young man of 28, hung in there!  In a brand-new SUV equipped with the latest technology I was driven home to a small, bright apartment at a high-rise, in the center of Urumqi.  His wife, Summer, eagerly awaited me.  For only three months the couple had listed their small second bedroom as an AirBnB rental.  They had three guests so far.  But I was their first foreign visitor.  Both J.B. and Summer speak English and when everything fails, one of their apps comes to the rescue.  J.B. works for an oil company.  Summer has a government job.  By all standards, they are well to do and typical products of the economic boom of their country.  They met three years ago and have been married for one year by now.  Lucky for them, J.B.’s grandparents owned this apartment and his parents live two floors above. When the grandparents died, his parents kept the apartment for the time their son would start his own family.  Now J.B. and Summer benefit from this foresight and can live for free.  They also benefit from J.B.’s mother’s love for cooking!  They started to become hosts with AirBnB not for the income, but for the people they meet.  We instantly bonded and had lots to talk about. 

I love my new home.  It is simple, but has everything I need: a big bed, shelves, hooks and a whole string of electric outlets.  If you have traveled you will know that there never can be enough hooks or outlets.  Summer even emptied a whole row of cupboards for me.  The room was located in the back of the high-rise facing an interior court.  I could not say that the view was pretty, but it was quiet, another big plus.

I should have been dead tired, but I had made it through the worst slump hours ago.  For me it was now “morning” and I was full of pep.  But it was midnight and time to go to bed, no matter what.  A Benadryl will help.  33 hours had passed.  It can be done.

Good night.