On traveling, teaching, learning and living in far western China.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Camping at Kanas

As the semester draws to a close, I've had a few weeks to travel between the end of classes and the beginning of final exams.  I had originally planned to go to Kyrgyzstan, but to avoid 麻烦 (the inconvenience) of getting a visa and since Ana decided to go to Japan for a world ultimate tournament, I concentrated my travel efforts on more of western China: Kanas Lake in N. Xinjiang for a week, and W. Gansu province for a week.

Kanas Lake is a long, skinny lake (a "finger lake") near Kazakhstan and Russia, spanning only a few kilometers in width, but stretching up through a glacier-carved valley towards its source high up in the mountains.

The entire place is a nature reserve, and they've actually done a good job of keeping all of the development at one end of the lake, leaving the rest of the park relatively pristine.  Unfortunately my travel partners and I (Ana and Nabil, also PiA) didn't get a chance to venture away from the main tourist hub because the park is so big and our time was limited.  As a result, we did a lot of sneaking about the main roads trying to set up our tent in places where we wouldn't get caught, since camping is not actually allowed, and, as we discovered when a policeman questioned us about where we were staying, foreigners are "required" to stay in official hotels.  

Being three foreigners with backpacks, we were approached by the policeman as we entered a Tuva (a Mongolian minority group of China) village where we had discreetly pitched our tent in the small space between a wooden Tuva house and a yurt.  (We happened to have shared a car to the lake with a villager who offered us his land to camp for free!)

Luckily he didn't give us any trouble after we said we didn't remember the name of the villager who let us stay there and that we were leaving.  We then waited until he drove away before ducking through a fence and pitching our tent in the woods beside the lake.  Chinese tourists don't venture off the road  much, so we had little to worry about despite camping a stone's throw away from a hotel.

The next day we moved our tent to the other side of the lake, just up the hill from where some Kazakhs had set up their yurt.  I felt like there was at least some sense of understanding between these nomads and us foreign strangers/strange foreigners:  As long as you make your camp and don't bother the people around you, they won't bother you.  They did bring a horse to graze near our tent during the night, but otherwise our things were untouched.

The ticket price for Kanas was rather steep, so I was glad we actually got to use the tent we borrowed and save some money.  We weren't out in the backcountry (certainly not with our multiple trips per day to the Welcome Center to fill our water bottles!) but we got some good day hikes in, and the scenery was beautiful once we got away from all the people.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Meat and Wheat

It's getting to that time of year when I'm sick of Chinese food. Luckily, Xinjiang's Uighur cuisine adds some diversity to the palate. Xinjiang food is mostly wheat- and meat-based - mutton, nang (flatbread), and noodles.

There's no shortage of  bread substitutes here, as nang forms the basis of the Uighur diet.  There's nang of all kinds -- large flat ones that look like pizza crusts, hard round ones that look like bagels,  nang with meat inside, nang with onions...life is good with nang.  A hint of thickness around my waist has developed, but I've got left than two months left, so I'm going to enjoy all the nang I want -- who knows when I'll have it next?

Then we've got the mutton skewers, or chuanr. The Chinese character for meat skewer "串" perfectly captures it. It's an essential street food here. There's always one or two chunks of pure fat on the stick, which is actually quite succulent after it's become crispy over the coals.

Aside from chuanr and nang, life would be incomplete with banmian (拌面), or literally, "mixed noodles."  It's topped with a spicy, tomato-y stir-fry of onions, green peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and mutton.

The freshly pulled noodles in banmian beat the best pasta I've ever had anywhere.

I'm going to miss this stuff when I go home!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

China's disaffected youth / My obscured identity

Sitting in a smoky KTV (karaoke) room on Saturday night, I was painfully aware of two things: I don't know how to talk to China's "lost generation", and it's awkward to look like a Uighur in a room full of Han Chinese people who don't know you're American.

Why was I sitting on this sofa, watching as empty beer bottles collected on the table and waiting as my song kept being pushed to the end of the queue by eager singers?

I was in Urumqi to see my friends compete in a Chinese competition, but the night before I crashed with a couch surfer.  I accompanied my host to a party she had organized for 30-odd young Chinese people who had met on local QQ chat group, expecting to have a marginal amount fun.  It was a typically Chinese affair: twin screens showing music videos (and at times low-budget videos of sultry women in swimsuits, paired with a bad club mix), lots of people sitting on couches not talking to each other, and some group games that required these people, many of whom were strangers, to interact with each other at least minimally. 

Shortly after my nonchalant entrance, I grew tired of sitting silently on the couch, all too aware of the difficulty of breaking the ice.  I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me.  He was in his early twenties and bordered on surly. It went about like this:

Me: Hi, what's your name?
Him: (something I can't remember)
Me: Are you from Urumqi?
Him: Yeah.
Me: So what do you do?
Him: Sell houses.
Me: Oh, so like, real estate?
Him: No, second-hand.
Me: Ok. So...do you know these people?
Him: No.
Me: So you met them on the QQ group?
Him: Yeah.
Me: So...what do you usually do on the weekend?
Him: Nothing.
Me: How's that possible?  Don't you have any interests?
Him: No.
Me: How can you have no interests? 
Him: Nothing's interesting.
Me: But you're a human being, come on!
Him: I like to spend money.
Me: On what?
Him: Anything.
Me: Spending money isn't even an interest! It's a waste!
Him: Maybe.
Me: If nothing's interesting, then your life has no meaning.
Him: Yeah, I guess so.

I tried to engage him on the topic of music but it failed.  Finally, I couldn't control my exasperation:

Me: You know, if you want to have a conversation, you need to ask some questions.  This like an interview, and it's boring.
Him: This is my personality.
Me: You can change your personality.

At this point, I decided it was better to sit in silence.  On the way over to the KTV spot, my host had told me, "You know, a lot of young Chinese people are lost.  They don't know what they want or where they're going.  So this party is about getting people together to meet new friends, create a community."  My host seemed like a very motivated, energetic, social, smart young woman (she is a graduate student at Xinjiang University) -- not a member of the Lost Generation at all.  But many of the people there did seem lost. 

It must be hard to grow up in a country where the population is so large, you get lost in a school of anonymous fish, carried along by the current.  Unless you're truly outstanding, you're just another one of the masses, destined to mediocrity and a mundane life. 

My host finally introduced me to the rest of the room, safely ushering the white elephant out the door.  I was free to relax in my now public American identity.  A girl came over (one of the ones who was sitting next to me earlier, ignoring me) and introduced herself.  She ended up being the only person I actually had a real conversation with all night, and for her I was grateful.  She told me she thought I was a Uighur before I had been introduced, and that most Chinese people won't take the initiative to talk to a foreigner.  Great, so if I look like a Chinese citizen, albeit a minority, no one will talk to me.  If I am a foreigner, still no one will talk to me.

This issue of looking like a minority has bothered me a bit ever since coming to Xinjiang. 

On one hand I enjoy blending in.  But on the other, I have grown tired of the puzzled stares, and wish for clarity.  I feel most comfortable in public when I'm around my tall, white friends, speaking English, because this is when it's clear that I'm not a Uighur, or Uzbek (as my Uighur classmates mistook me), or something else both non-Han and non-foreign.  It's not that I feel some kind of foreign superior to Uighurs and therefore resent being mistaken for one, not at all -- it's just that I'm unsure how my obscured identity will influence my social interactions in this region of ethnic tension.  Did my appearance prevent people from talking me that night in Urumqi?  Maybe it was just lack of social skills on the part of all the people around me.  But I still felt very aware of being the only non-(full)-Han in the room.  Also, Uighurs often speak to me in Uighur, and it feels awkward to reply in Chinese, and possibly be mistaken for a minority who was brought up speaking Chinese and has lost their native language (a phenomenon that draws the disapproval of Uighur-speaking Uighurs, for obvious reasons).  I just want to scream, "I'm American!!! Some of us have black hair and Asiatic features just like you!!!"  Instead, I just pay for my nang (flatbread) and go on my way.  It's as if I'm veiled, even though I don't wear a veil over my hair the way many women do here. 

Maybe like those lost 20-somethings looking for themselves in KTV room, I'm looking for somewhere where I can fit in.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

My new favorite place in Xinjiang

On a Friday night in the end of April, a friend and I boarded a night bus and got off the next morning in Yining City, Yili, Xinjiang, gateway to some of the most beautiful places in Xinjiang (and arguably all of China).

After napping in a public park as the old people did Tai Chi around us, Graham and I set off to see the sights.  Unfortunately our first destination was the decrepit joke of the "Xibo Folk Minority Tourist Village" (AAAA level!) where the only thing worth seeing was this cool calligraphy:

The Xibo minority in Xinjiang were Manchurians who migrated westward under the Qing dynasty over 200 years ago.  Whereas the Manchurian language has died out in the northeast as assimilation with the Han has occurred, the Xibo in Xinjiang still retain their language and customs.  More interesting than over-paying for China's laughable idea of a tourist destination was chatting with two Xibo women while sharing a cab. They said that despite their small population, they're not worried about their culture dying out because all the children are brought up speaking Xibo (which sounds unlike anything I've ever heard) and learning the traditions. 

We decided not to dally in Chabucha'er (home of the Xibo) any longer, and the next day set off for what would be one of the most spectacular places I've been in China: Sayram Lake. It's the highest alpine lake in Xinjiang and surrounded by a ring of snow-covered mountains. 

Unluckily, we arrived under storm clouds.  We fended off the advances of men on horses urging us to check out their accommodations, until finally allowing one Kazak to tow us along on horses toward his yurt.

After checking out the inside of the yurt, we agreed to stay there for a nice price of $15/night, total! Check out the beautiful rugs and embroidered bedding.


After a short hike during which we got very cold and very drenched, we returned to the comfort of the yurt to eat nang (flatbread) and drink milk tea, which the Kazaks, Uighurs, Mongolians, and other milk-tea-drinking people of this region take salty.  I'm actually accustomed to it now!

The fact that we went to sleep to the sound of storm was actually good luck: the next morning it was beautiful. That's our yurt on the far right and the mountain we climbed later in the background.

Determined to get some views, we sneaked under some fences around grazing land and headed up the mountain.  It was the best hike I've ever done in China.

After getting to the lower peak, Graham, who had never been this high up on foot before, took the lead to make it up to the higher peak so that later we could get a Google Map reading on the altitude (over 10,400 ft!). Needless to say, it was FREEZING on top with knife-like winds that threatened to push us over.  We were shamefully unprepared but, hey -- still alive!

The descent:

That night we met up with some friends from Shihezi and squeezed a crowd into our yurt before heading back to Yining City the following morning.  In Yining, we hung out with one of the Uighur students in our Chinese class, who took us around the city and fed us all day!  Yining has the best ice cream, jam, mutton skewers, and, thanks to Paruk's mom, the best 抓饭 or polo (a Central Asian rice dish).

We also tried this really yummy combination of shaved ice and fresh sour yogurt with a little sugar mixed in.  

One of Yili's specialities is a honey "beer" -- basically a fermented, but non-alcoholic beverage made from honey.  A bit like hard cider in flavor.  It's sticky sweet but the carbonation adds a freshness that's delectable.

Yili is an awesome place and, being only an overnight train away, one of the more convenient places for us to travel to in this big big land of Xinjiang.  I can't wait to go again!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Turpan / 吐鲁番

We have three shorter breaks in the spring: Tomb-Sweeping Day in April, May 1, and Dragonboat Festival in June.  The long weekend isn't enough time to go too far away, but it is a good opportunity to see more of Xinjiang. 

During the Tomb-Sweeping Day holiday, I headed southeast to Turpan, an oasis town in the desert, near one of the lowest points in China and the world.  I spent 3 days riding a bike around town and to nearby sights, including 700 year old underwater irrigation canals constructed and still used by the local Turkic population, the remains of an ancient city from the Han dynasty, , the "Flaming Mountains," and some caves containing ancient, mostly defaced Buddhist art.

Here is a model of an underground irrigation canal, or karez in Uighur (坎儿井).   They span for miles into the desert, using gravity to bring water down from the Tian Shan mountains into the Turpan depression.  The Turpan area has several thousand miles of karez channels, built hundreds of years ago by digging wells deep into the earth so that workers could be lowered underground using a hand- or animal-powered wench to dig out the channel. It was really cool to see the water running through the karez that I visited.

The next day I pedaled out of Turpan city to the Jiaohe Ruins.  Jiaohe was a capital city of the local kingdom from 108 BC to 450 AD, the westernmost Chinese military post during the mid-600s, and an important Silk Road stop.  However, it was abandoned after the Mongol invasion in the 1200s, and not unearthed until the 1950s.

 Turpan is a major grape-growing region, so as I was biking I passed a lot of grape vines and mud-brick structures used for drying raisins and other fruits (visible behind the vines in the picture below).  These low rectangular structures, which are built with the bricks staggered so that there are many holes in the walls, are unique to the Turpan area, it seems.

During my last day in Turpan, I headed east on the national highway that leads out of Xinjiang.  As I was biking, I met a Chinese girl and a Taiwanese Brazilian who were also crazy enough to do the 40km ride to the Flaming Mountains.  These mountains, which are famous in China because they were supposedly created by the Monkey King according to the Journey to the West, get really hot in the summertime and are supposed to look like they are on fire, but we didn't get the effect at this time of year.  Unimpressed, we continued on to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves.

Most of the caves date back to between 900-1300 AD. Unfortunately only a few of them were open for viewing, and the Buddhist images were hard to see, as some of them had been stripped off the walls by a German explorer, and others had been damaged by local Muslims, who seemed to have particularly concentrated on gouging out the eyes and faces of the Buddhas. 

Turpan was an interesting place to visit for historical reasons, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by everything except the Jiaohe Ruins. However, for the next break (this past weekend), I went to an overwhelmingly beautiful place in northwest Xinjiang near Kazakhstan, so expect a new post soon!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Road We Rode

Finally, here's the epic post about our Vietnam bike trip that I've been promising for a while...

We (Kim and I) started in Hanoi and biked to the northernmost region of Vietnam near the Chinese border, with our endpoint at Meo Vac in Ha Giang Province. Then we cycled back to Hanoi (okay, with the help of a bus), with a total of 12 days on the bike.  Kim has documented most of the journey, starting with day 1, here.  For our route, see the map below:

View Vietnam Bike Trip in a larger map

It all started in Hanoi, at our couchsurfing host's apartment.

We packed our things and set off in the drizzle, stopping to buy plastic ponchos before crossing the a bridge we weren't technically supposed to ride on to get out of the city.  We headed to Bac Giang, about 50 km away, where we had dinner with a Vietnamese friend that I met in Dalian.

On the way we passed a lot of very skinny buildings, an apparent architectural trademark of northern Vietnam.  Check out the fancy decorations on the top of building to the right:

From Bac Giang we headed northwest, aiming for Ha Giang, the capital of Ha Giang Province, which we had heard had "stunningly beautiful" mountain roads from a friend of Kim's who has cycled almost all of Vietnam. We made it to Ha Giang by Day 5.  Here are some pictures from along the way.

Townspeople gather to watch the foreigner work on her bike:

Rice paddies made up much of the scenery in the greater Hanoi area.

 Vietnam has great signage; we were almost always able to calculate our mileage just based on the road signs. We also knew whenever we were entering or leaving a town!

Riding into Ha Giang Province, we finally got our first glimpse of a blue sky and the mountains that awaited us.

After obtaining the permit necessary to ride into the northernmost part of Vietnam, we reveled in the beautiful weather of Ha Giang city, which would be the last gorgeous day until leaving Vietnam!

Vietnamese people are really serious about their car and motorcycle washing. Having ridden on some muddy roads, now I know why!

The market in Ha Giang:


The next day we set off on the hard part of our trip -- up, up, and over "Heaven's Gate" pass and then 3 days along high mountain roads.  Well worth the pain!

One of the towns we stayed in:

The ride to Meo Vac, our final destination in the heights, was the most spectacular scenery.

On Day 10, we rode a bus from Meo Vac back to Ha Giang, taking our first rest day.  The next morning we took a bus from Ha Giang to the city of Tuyen Quang, which put us in a good place to roll into Hanoi two days later so that Kim could catch her flight out.  In the Hanoi area we were back on flat roads passing paddies.

We entered Hanoi in style: drenched but elated.

Kim was an amazing bike buddy, and I can't wait for our next ride!