Monday, March 28, 2011

A Casual Survey of Kazakh Internet Access

Great success?

Firstly, sites such as Blogspot and PicasaWebAlbums seem to be universally blocked here. Both are owned by Google. This makes updating photos and text difficult, like in China. And the program I used to get around the Great Firewall - up yours, Chinese censorship! - only works in China.

However, this doesn't really matter too much as it's nearly impossible to find Internet cafes in Kazakhstan. I'm writing from a cafe with a slow connection at the top of a glitzy mall where I can hear the sounds of air hockey outside the door.

The place recommended to me by my CS host doesn't exist and the place advertised on a sign elsewhere is closed and vacant.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Urumqi - The Good and The Bad

In an interesting dichotomy, Urumqi is the place I found most interesting in all of China and the place where China really pissed me off the most.

Urumqi is interesting because it is probably about as diverse as China gets. It's the capital of Xinjiang (New Frontier) Province, and it's home to the Uighurs They're the region's largest minority, people who have been living in the area for thousands of years. They're largely Muslim and central Asian -looking. In Urumqi and the surrounding areas you can also find Manchu, Mongolian, Hui, Kazakh, Khalkhas, Xibe, Tajik, Russian, Tartar, Daur, and Uzbeks.

According to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum, "Since the modern times, the various nationalities in Xinjiang resited against foreign aggressions together, worked hard for development and unity together, and all these composed deeply-moving patriotic chapters."

In fact, the museum insists on ethnic harmony so often throughout the museum, you know it's a lie. Uighurs generally don't get along with Han Chinese, and for good reason. I met an Italian girl doing human rights research concerning the Chinese and the Uighurs as soon as I arrived in town. The Chinese government flatly denies Uighurs driver's licenses, passports without unpayable collateral, and forces Uighurs to study Chinese, among other things.

Urumqi's most appealing aspect is easy to see: It's the diversity of people. After the general homogenity of the rest of China, stepping off the train into the streets of Urumqi was a feast for the eyes. So many different faces and features from the long history of multi-ethnic land were everywhere. The women were stunning and beautiful in a way I had never seen before. The men seemed to have stories written into their eyes and mustaches that I couldn't even begin to imagine. It was my introduction to people of central Asia, full of enigmatic faces that look somewhere between European and Asian.

The best part about Urumqi was the people I met and the food I ate. The wide range of cultures and ethnicities hugely expanded the choices of food, already amazing as Chinese food is great. I ate a lot of great Uighur food - kebabs, round disks of bread, samosas, all sorts of lamb.

I would've gone crazy in the city for the eight days I spent waiting for my visa if I hadn't met Laura. An Italian, she was staying at my hostel, the only other westerner. She speaks Chinese and introduced me to Eunice, who introduced me to Jane, two Chinese girls who speak near flawless English. I spent time with them singing karaoke, playing Scrabble, dancing, drinking, eating.
I also got to meet Manus, the Irish owner of the only expat bar in town which happens to also be one of the only places to see Uighurs and Chinese coexisting happily. I went there nearly ever night I was in Urumqi. He's got a great corner on the market, there's nowhere else to go. He fleeced me and an British couple in poker one evening. He deserves a bit of pleasure though, he's been in Urumqi for a decade.

What drove me crazy about Urumqi was what had been driving me crazy about China throughout all my travels in the country: too many people, nothing organized, astounding inefficiencies.

I arrived on a Saturday, intending to apply for my Kazakh visa on Monday. I found the visa office Monday morning only to be informed by these helpful signs in Chinese and Uighur that it was closed until Wednesday.

Laura informed me that the offices were closed due to some software upgrades. Fair enough, I thought that might mean some decently paced service when I went back on Wednesday. I think it was actually closed for International Women's Day though, a national holiday in Kazakhstan, falling on Monday.

What a stupid holiday by the way. Now don't get all riled up ladies, I'm for equal rights and treatment for the fairer sex, but isn't giving a group of people a special day completely contrary to the point of equality and acceptance? Laura was incredulous when I said I'd never heard of the holiday before. I think she just wanted some chocolates from me.

Wednesday was worthless. I waited in a frantic crowd of Kazakhs and Uighurs for four hours. Everyone was trying to shove their way to the front of the seething mass of humans and force their way into the steel doors on top of a low cement stoop. The Chinese guards seemed to enjoy screaming and pushing people away. I was told to come back the next day. I demanded to talk to someone in English and at least get my application form, and I was let in briefly. The office was warm and empty and could've fit at least half of the mob outside. I got my application and left.

The next day, Thursday, I came back and the guards let me through after having me wait in the surging crush of humanity just so I knew who was in charge. I guess sometimes it's good sticking out as the only westerner in Asia. You get noticed, but usually it's not for a beneficial reason like skipping the crowds at a visa office.

I was told to come back Monday, which I did. I took a reciept they gave me to a bank, paid, and brought it back and was told to come back at 4PM to recieve my passport back. My bus left for Kazakhstan at 7PM, plenty of time, I thought. I had to get a bus because getting a train ticket to Kazakhstan proved to be as simple as getting the visa. The special ticket office was only open certain times, and none of those times was when I tried to go there. I asked at my hostel about having a travel agent get my ticket. They couldn't even tell me where a travel agent was. Par for the course in China when it comes to simple logistics.

I waited from 4PM to 6PM. No one was at the counter in the office. I knocked on the glass and asked when I could expect my visa. I showed the beautiful office assisstant my bus ticket. She told me that the supervisor wasn't in. When is he coming back? 'I don't know.' Where is he? 'I don't know.' I got it at the last minute. I'd been imagining, to my horror, what it would be like to throw away my bus ticket and spend another night in this city - Laura had left by this point, and I'd said goodbye to my other friends as well.

I made it though, with enough spare time to pick up some food for the trip. I settled into my bunk, happy knowing that I was moving again, that I had gotten a good time out of this city that also harrassed my patience. I felt like I had nothing left to take from it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Surviving Another Train

Urumqi is the most remote city in the world, by distance from an ocean. It's actually the middle of nowhere. But for some reason 90 trains over 10 days had no sleeping compartments, and no seats. I can't believe I put myself through the hell of standing in hard class again.

I won't linger on that unfortunate experience too much. It was similar to my first terrible train ride. I spent the first night crammed in an aisle of sweaty stinky people, catching no sleep. I went to the dining car in the morning for over 24 hours, paying for food and, in between meal times, paying for the privelege of having a seat, 20 yuan each time. Best three dollars I could've possibly spent at the time.

There were a few notable parts to this ride though. One was that the dining car served no beer. I was able to play some games with Uighurs on the train: the simple game of Sevens with a family in my assigned car, and later in the dining car with some other strangers, plus pente with a young kid who was evenly matched with me, except for his father telling him where to put pieces to beat me.

Something I noticed about Chinese people that really pronounced itself throughout these games is that many Chinese don't possess the concept of waiting turns. You can see it in "lines" at train stations, and each time I played Sevens - a game where players take turns laying down cards - there was at least one guy, usually older, who kept putting cards down out of order, no matter how many times the other players told him how stupid he was for forgetting about turns.

The train cars were the standard scenes: humans crammed without dignity against each other, people sleeping on the filthy floor underneath seats, visible only by their protruding feet, and complete apathy toward any posted restrictions: spitting, smoking, littering.

The greatest abomination of the ride came when we were approaching Urumqi through the vast beautiful wasteland of western China. The train had emptied a fair amount so that most people had seats.

A car attendant began sweeping up all the trash that had accumlated on the ground like revolting leaves in a foul autumn. Processed "sausage" wrappers, greasy foam meal trays, fruit rinds, cigarette butts. The sight made me happy. I appreciate order and cleanliness, and the joy of seeing something wrong made right.

A great mound was forming, and passengers began to help him by sweeping under their own seats. The mountain of trash gradually moved down the car from one end to the other, and the floor became visible.

A warm stench of rot faintly wafted through the air from the old upturned garbage, but I ignored it, preferring to rejoice in the act of cleaning. My pleasure didn't last long. When the trash mountain finally reached the far end of the car, the attendant, with the help of other passengers pushed it into the vestibule and out the open door, scattering two days worth of 100 people's garbage out into the air as the train rushed through the desert.

It was truly revolting. Not just a slovenly passenger throwing a box of trash out of the window, but an employee of the train line, a representative of the government, and a citizen of the land he was polluting had just scattered dozens of pounds of trash across the land, and the same thing was presumably happening in the fifteen other cars of the train, and on the other 90 trains over the next ten days that came this way.

It was the easily the most appaling thing I saw in all of China, and that's no small claim.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

XinJiang - Town, Not Province

It wasn't easy convincing the Chinese in Xi'an that this town existed, but I finally found a bus. Everyone thought I meant the province XinJiang. Only in China is a city of more than 300,000 people unworthy to be considered existent.

I made the trip out to the "countryside" to visit a couple Irish lads I met on the horrid bus from Vientiane to Kunming. They got on at Vang Vieng in a state of near-fatal hangover, which is probably the only way the bus ride could have been worse. I think we bonded in shared misery.

I stayed at Mike's place, a large apartment in a teacher's building on the enormous school compound. It overlooked the exercise yard, and every morning the children stomped around the yard in formation, classes forming phalanxes, chanting and yelling like good little communists.

Mike is an enormous man whose size stopped him from climbing to the top of the town's pagoda, one of two sights in the town. He just wouldn't fit. Patrick is a thoroughly Irish looking man: sandy hair with a wide jaw with a big cleft in his chin. I almost expected him to burst out giggling like a leprechaun at times. I hope that's not racist. The two have been friends since grade school and came to XinJiang to teach together, and have been bearing it impressively for nearly two years.

The town itself is truly unremarkable. It consists of a few long streets branching off each other at right angles, lined with clothing shops, cell phone stores, dumpling shops, an arcade market, fruit vendors, and men sitting on the sidewalk with Industrial Revolution-era sewing machines that Patrick claimed "can fix anything".

There's a bridge going out of town, and a hill with the pagoda Mike nearly got stuck in, and the sorta-Catholic church, the town's other attraction. I say sorta-Catholic because Patrick explained that it's run by the Chinese government who decided to just start sainting people at will. The old Pope wasn't cool with that, and cut them off - across all of China, I'm told - but the Chinese people probably don't know, and if they do, they make no distinctions.

Anyway, it's a lovely church that was built by some Dutch missionaries or something like that. I was related the story of Patrick and Mike's Christmas Eve visit. They strolled up the alley leading to the church to find it swamped with Chinese screaming, spitting, yelling, and shooting off fireworks. Traditional Catholic boys, they left disgusted. I must admit, it's not the sort of Christmas Eve ritual I'd expect either.

Patrick and I got lost in tiny hilltop lanes, edged by high walls of mixed earth and clay. It was a small neighborhood with tall wooden doors and bright red frames. We were trying to make our way to the church via a back route and the quiet maze proved to be far more pleasant than the dusty cement streets and crowds down below. We stumbled into a Buddhist altar where sticks of incense as thick and tall as baseball bats were burning.

Waking up after my first night, Patrick and I went downtown and got roped into the beginning of a day long funeral ceremony. We ate some suspicious and unidentifiable food in a smoky restaurant and excused ourselves. Later, I had dinner in a local canteen with one of the other 5 English teachers, a veteran ex-pat Aussie named Guy who said, "I won't discuss politics in a place like this, you never know who's listening" before he started discussing Chinese politics.

XinJiang was a nice break from the massive cities of China, of which it seems I've seen far too many of. It wasn't the countryside exactly, but I think it was as close to it as I'll get in China.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Terracotta Warrors VS Hype

"The Eighth Wonder Of The World!" That's the claim, at least, about the terracotta warriors. I went to see for myself. It was a miserable rainy day in Xi'an, and the bus ride out of the city took about an hour.

I wasn't even sure if I wanted to go see them. Another case of The Dread. I even checked reviews and thoughts of people online and everyone was soaking their pants about how stunning and "worth it" it was. I decided to blow the 110 yuan it takes to get in. That's a small fortune in China, about $17.

The experience starts with a kilometer-long walk through a gauntlet of tourist shops selling obligatory warrior statues, stamps, carvable name seals, postcard, knickknacks, and all sorts of predictable souvenir crap, right down to porcelain figurines of German Shepards. Don't ask me why.

All the shops are in a western-style outdoor mall. There's even a Terracotta Warriors KFC and Subway. It was a real travesty, and to make matters worse, when I got to the gate finally, I was told the ticket office was back down towards the start. "By KFC".

Fortunately there was a ticket hawker who inexplicably gave me one for face value after I refused to pay extra, though he kept asking for a tip, which I probably would've given him if I wasn't already so disenchanted with getting hassled for being a foreigner throughout Asia. He was standing around in the rain, saving me a twenty minute round trip, after all.

So I saw the terracotta warriors, and learned a bit about their history: commissioned by a 13 year old king so he'd have some friends when he died, rank discernable by size and decoration, blah, blah, blah. Just google it if that's what you're really interested in.

The statues are in three pits of varying sizes. The big one, pit A, the medium one, pit B, and the small one, pit C. After being thwarted by horrible sign postings, I went the recommended path, C to B to A, building up for the grand finale.

Sure, the size of the crumbling army is impressive, but who doesn't know that already? Who hasn't seen photos of the cavernous pit A, or close-ups of the faces, or heard that all of the faces are different? Tourists walk around the pit perimeters, looking down into them from a distance. Many warriors are lined up in battle formation, but most are still yet to be excavated, and many others are being patched together, to be ready for presentation.

What I did learn was how superior Chinese civilization of 2,200 years ago was to modern day western civilization: "Some of the unearthed brass weapons bore chrome-plated edges. This technology was discovered by America and Germany in the 1930s, but it was already mastered in China of 2,200 years ago! How impressive!"

Pit B still had a lot of unexcavated statues. They were under the original covering: thatched mats laid over wooden beams, resting on packed earthen walls. The soldiers stand in the corridors between the walls. Like I said, most of the roofing was still up, making the pit look like a field of petrified blankets thrown over wooden ribs.

I'm glad I went just because I would still be wondering if I missed out on anything had I skipped it. But I would recommend anyone else against going, unless you are going for one of the following reasons:
  1. you (or your travel companions) have never heard of the "Eighth Wonder Of The World" somehow
  2. you really need to see with your own eyes the scale of the pits (one thing that no photos or documentaries can really give you) and appreciate the feeling of space
  3. unlike me, you're not a dirty traveler burnt out on tourist traps

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Coming To This

I've added a little box of links (a single link for now) to the articles I'll be writing for the Exeter Newsletter. You'll find it to the right with all the other crap. I'll list them by date published.

Come to think of it, I should really start writing my next one.


Xi'an is the end, or the beginning, of the Silk Road. If I had given that any thought I probably would have been more excited to be there. But I arrived to a city of cold, unrelenting, soft rain. The train station spit me out into a crowd of people milling about the city wall.

I trudged through the rain to find a hostel I checked out online. These two things would be the theme of my brief visit to Xi'an: trudging around the city, and cold rain.

I stayed in the 7 Sages Hostel. It's in a beautiful complex of traditional Chinese row houses. There are circular doorways, and clean white-washed walls and gray paving stones. Sadly, because of the dreary, miserable weather, the courtyards and open spaces were unenjoyable.

I heard so many good things about Xi'an when I was passing through China last year. But arriving there, I wasn't very impressed. But to be fair, I didn't really try to explore much. I learned, too late, that it's possible to rent a bicycle on top of the mammoth wall that encircles central Xi'an and spend a couple hours cycling around. I learned, too late, that it has some pretty lively nightlife. I spent my nights at the hostel, in the near-empty bar/restaurant butchering songs on my guitar.

What I did do was slog through the gutters and poke around the train station until I found the tourist bus to the terracotta warriors. Later, I slogged right back to the train station to wait in line to buy an onward ticket to Urumqi, just to be told there was nothing available.

Also, I slogged through the rain to an outlying bus station to pick up tickets to Xin Jiang, a small city I was told doesn't exist by a woman at the local bus station and two people at my hostel. My friends living in the city would be upset to hear their home doesn't exist.

The problem was that people thought I was looking for a bus to Xin Jiang province. No one even heard of the small city - different, obscure characters made it's name, and it's a place so inconsequential that there is no reason to hear of it. I guess I don't blame them. I finally got a ticket to visit my friends for two days.

I also slogged through the rain to hunt down a smaller train ticket office, armed with a piece of paper explaining what I needed in Chinese. I thought there had been some sort of mistake at the station when the clerk told me he couldn't give me what I wanted.

I was willing to try alternate trains and times, but I was to discover, quite clearly after having a hostel staff member translate for me on my cell, that on the 9 trains per day that go from Xi'an to Urumqi, there wasn't a single bed for ten days.

That's 90 trains without a goddamn bed. I wasn't willing to get up first thing the next morning just for the chance to book a bed ten days later. I wanted to get the fuck out of China. All the people on the train to Beijing, my wasted days in the capital, the hordes of humans everywhere, and now this: no beds or even seats to Urumqi, the farthest city in the world from an ocean, literally the middle of nowhere. It was all getting to me.

I figured I'd get it over with. I booked a standing seat in hard class. Another 40 hour ride in a steel tube of sweating humanity. The sooner I was to get out of China, the better.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Goodbye Beijing

Even her friend, who first met me at the subway station since she was busy, gave me the obvious advice, "Never travel anywhere for a girl." He had come to Beijing the previous year to follow his girlfriend, and they broke up, but he wound up staying for lack of anything better to do.

I met Audrey, a Chinese girl, in Phuket as I was vainly trying to find a boat to India. After the first few days searching for the boat I just spent about a week straight with her, and things were great, to make a long story short.

Audrey said she wanted me to come see her in Beijing, a thought that didn't really appeal to me at first, but then I realized I wasn't going to be sailing to India, so why not? Even if things didn't work out - and they didn't - the only way overland to anywhere but Australia was back through China.

Audrey flew back to Beijing. I took a bus from Phuket to Surat Thani, and overnight train to Bangkok, killed a day in Bangkok until my night train to Laos. I spent the weekend in Laos, then rushed my Chinese visa through on a Monday, $160, and got on a bus on Tuesday afternoon.

The bus, as I wrote about, was awful. The train, as I wrote about, was far worse. But all the while, the thought of Audrey kept me cheerful. I figured I'd get to Beijing and things would be rosy, but I guess I forgot that our time in Phuket together, though just part of my normal life at this point, was a vacation for her.

She was busy beyond belief planning some huge press conference for work. I didn't get to see her much except in the evenings, and even then she had to do late work and whatnot. The third night she finally sat down with me and told me things wouldn't work out like they did in Thailand. I wasn't surprised, but I was interested.

Audrey gave me an ever-changing list of reasons why. First excuse: she didn't want her boss or friends to think bad of her for seeing a traveler who might not be around in a month. Lots of ex-pats in China told me that was a very Chinese perspective to take, but she had already told me her boss wanted to meet me and take me to dinner, and I met her when she was with her friends in Phuket.

The last one I got was that she just wasn't over an Italian boy who had treated her like shit before she left for vacation. She'd referred to him many times in Phuket as "that Italian asshole". I guess I should've know if she was referring to him at all, it was a bad sign.

The rejection hurt, but not because I had traveled all the time to get to her. I'm traveling anyway, so it's not a big deal. It was more because I had convinced myself things were going to be great, and I was wrong. I liked her, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. I told myself the worst part was that she didn't even give me a chance to spend time with her once I was in Beijing - we didn't even get a date together. Maybe she was worried about me leaving, but she didn't even see how things would be if I had stayed.

I moved into a hostel for another four days, wondering if we'd get a chance to talk again - everything had been rather hasty and she was still legitimately busy at work- and wondering if I should go straight to Urumqi and Kazakhstan, or if I should try to deal with the cost and hassle of Tibet to get to India.

I gave up on India and got a train to Xi'an, where I'd relax a couple days and visit the two Irish guys I met on the bus to Kunming.

It snowed the last two days I was in Beijing. It was nice to see, but slippery to walk in. I got a lift of spirits from having dinner with a friend from Korea on Saturday night. I bought a 1st class sleeper on Monday morning, and was gone in the evening, wishing it hadn't been such a pathetic visit to the city again, but glad to be moving on.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

I'm Famous!

I've had my first column published in the Exeter Newsletter. I'm famous!

They even graciously corrected the fact that I am a 2001 EHS graduate, not a 2006 graduate, although being 23 again wouldn't be so bad. And they corrected my blog address so that it brings curious readers to the main page instead of the peripheral map page that was originally listed.

The upshot of all this? Money? Nope! But I can expect my readership to skyrocket from about 10 to 15. Watch out world, here I come.

Also as a curiousity, check out this old article about my cross-country motorcycle trip.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I Can't Wait to Leave China!

I can't wait to leave China. Things didn't work out with the girl I came to see. I spent a rainy miserable day looking at the terracotta warriors of Xi'an and trying to get bus and train tickets for onward travel. The terracotta warriors were underwhelming, the bus ticket a hassle, and the train ticket a further disappointment - I'm going to be standing for another 30-something hours to Urumqi. More to come on all developments!