Saturday, September 4.
The flight from Frankfurt went by quite fast. The Beijing airport is like other airports. The drive to the center of Beijing reveals an unremarkable landscape along the highway. As we expected, it is hot and humid. The hotel (Quianmen Hotel) is comfortable and located in a bustling part of town. Later, I will discover that this is a mildly lower class neighborhood. Crowds of people, small alleys with primitive dwellings. Pungent smells. The most striking aspect of these city streets are the thousands of bicycles on the streets (not on sidewalks). Bicycles with children in the front or the back, girlfriends balancing on rear racks or on front frame bars. The bicycles move at a similar pace, it is rare to see anyone pass other bicycle, the speed it steady and rather slow. Clearly, the idea is to get from here to there with minimum effort and sweat, and without a collision. Of course, there is no such thing as safety helmets or special clothing. The bicycles move several abreast, there appears to be a nominal bicycle lane but there is really not enough room, so bicycles and cars and busses all coexist. We walk at length this evening, trying to hold out against the jet lag. Eat a fine bowl of noodle soup at a Korean restaurant where a waitress is clearly offended by my offer of a tip. Lesson number one. We buy paintings in an art gallery. Fantastic renderings of horses galloping on Mongolian steppes. I suspect we are overpaying but the pictures are lovely. Lesson number two. This is the beginning of the journey.
Sunday morning, September 5.
Sylvie went back to the hotel to get more film. I am sitting on the already familiar wall on our corner. We have been here twice already, yesterday night and earlier this morning. After the coolness of the morning and a foggy protection the sun is getting hot and sharp. Five streets, really alleys, converge here, creating a small plaza. People live in hovels, one or two story high, not a single straight line or right angle, with tall grass sprouting from rooftops. Judging by the washing being done in basins on the street and in the courtyards, there are no toilet facilities in the dwellings, though there must be running water. I can see that each household is built around a courtyard but I cannot see beyond that. I wonder what it is like here during the harsh Beijing winters. They obviously heat these homes with coal (I see many carts filled with coal briquettes, probably getting ready for the fall), the pollution must be extraordinary in these narrow crowded alleys. Each alley has a public toilet, usually painted pink, men and women entries separate. The smell often announces its presence before we actually see it. I do not dare to even look inside, they look awful.
Three cars are parked in the center of the plaza, there is a noodle stand and a fruit and a vegetable stand, and a woman is selling eggs piled like Ping-Pong ball into neat pyramids in crates on the ground. I have no idea how they transport these eggs into here. Bicycles pass by. A man just swept the street, a faint odor of organic matter and heat — but nor really a stench– is filling the air.
The dwellings seem to be made of randomly assembled pieces as though a wind swept them here. Grey. Initially, I think that aesthetics does not play any role but then, a surprise. Around the corner from me an old man is cleaning a small section of light colored tile on the building’s wall. With a soaped brush not much bigger than a tooth brush he meticulously scrubs the grime, one tile at a time, until they all shine. Near me, in front of a shop, someone has created a patio of sorts by covering the ground with an odd assembly of highly polished flagstones. The stones are all oddly shaped and randomly colored, as though collected from a pile of construction remnants. The mosaic is elegant and proclaims someone’s personalized space of beauty. So, I do not really know about the sense of aesthetic among these modest city dwellers.
Unexpectedly, a young woman walks out of the door to my right and looks over my shoulder. She is intrigued by my handwriting. We silently smile at one another. Unceremoniously, she lifts the notebook out of my hands and closely studies the writing. With hand gestures, I tell her that I am describing the corner. She acknowledges the gesture, with what appears to be approval and understanding — as though sitting on crumbling little walls in the middle of this city and describing what one sees is a perfectly legitimate activity for a Sunday morning — and returns the notebook. She then passes the information to her female companion in the doorway, using the same hand gestures I used. Both comment, and without a second look at me, go inside. I will find that so common here throughout the trip: people are uninhibited in relation to one another. Personal space, safe distance, these concepts, if exist, must be defined differently. If I am worth a second look from a stranger, that look is direct, face to face, with eye contact though not necessarily an acknowledgement or a smile.
In general, however, most people this morning do not pay much attention to me sitting here, they are going about the tasks of their daily existence. I am just another individual in the mass of people moving in a steady stream through the streets.
The slum-like dwelling we see are, I am told by a casual acquaintance, an eyesore for city planners. A woman who sold us the pictures yesterday, an English teacher and a local artist, told us that the city government would like to eliminate these areas and is offering alternative housing to the residents. The latter refuse, counting on the future rises in real estate prices and the value of their modest land holdings. The story is more complex, I suspect. What I have seen of apartment dwelling in Beijing, apart form luxury residences, looks like dreary communist architecture of concrete, plastic and metal, probably heat infernos during the summer months. At least in these slums one can get out into a shade, cool the earth with water, maintain some personal space, and see the sky.
Sunday afternoon, September 5.
We walked for about six hours today. Formidable pollution. Low haze hangs over the city, thickening as the day progresses. We spent considerable part of the afternoon in the Beihai Park adjacent to the Forbidden City. The park is pleasant enough, especially in comparison with the noise and chaos of the surrounding city, but rapidly pales in comparison with Central Park. For lunch we try a local eating place in the park, a cafeteria of sorts. Standard communist décor: colorless formica tables and round stools, no other decoration. Four women and a man service the main counter although one or two would suffice for the rare customer that visits this establishment. I am beginning to see the overemployment at state-run workplaces. Probably this is how one can tell privately- from state-owned enterprises.
The menu arrives in Chinese. We take one look and giggle. I take out my notebook and draw a bowl of noodle soup with noodles hanging over the bowl. Two women contemplate my picture, consulting with each other, and give us a completely blank look of incomprehension. Other employees join in, to no effect. We now have a little conference but I am afraid that Sylvie and I will go hungry. And then a new persona appears on the scene: an older no-nonsense woman who appears be the cook. One look at my picture and she knows exactly what we have in mind. With a stern look that seems to be saying “you should learn how to talk intelligently” she marches back into the kitchen and the crowd around us disperses, now totally uninterested in us. Sylvie and I laugh uncontrollably while we try to draw a chicken, a pig, a dog, for future negotiations of our meals. When the food finally arrives it is exactly what we wanted: succulent broth with fat fresh noodles, vegetables and some kind of meat. Delicious.
Later on we try the public bathroom in the park. Not too bad. I am struck by women’s lack of need for privacy. Even though the stalls have doors, nobody closes them. Even women with menstrual periods attend to their tasks in full public view. I avert my eyes.
We walk along the Tian’ an Men Square. The street has six lanes of traffic in each direction (one dedicated to bicycles). It can be crossed only through underground tunnels. Its name changes every block or two, there is no way to orient ourselves. The map does not correspond to the reality. Tian’ an Men Square must be a mile long and half mile wide (I need to check the dimensions in the guide book). The space is enormous. A million people could probably assemble here without difficulty.
Large numbers of people stroll around, kites rise into the sky on this breezy day. The contrast between the whimsy of the kites and the seriousness of purpose of this political gathering place is striking. People seem relaxed, moving slowly, very different from the harried, industrious, impatiently driving people we have observed in our earlier walks. Families are taking obligatory pictures. The Chinese seem to love taking pictures. In the short time I have been in this city I have seen more photographic studios per block than I have in any other city I know.
In the evening we go to a fine restaurant with Isabelle, the permanent correspondent for French television. A poised and sharp woman. Large, very blond, with beautiful face. Insane driver. Watching her make a left turn across six lanes of traffic, in the absence of a traffic light, is an unforgetable experience. Two hours of conversation go by fast. We ask her a lot of questions about this country and about the life as an expatriate. She readily answers, filling the conversation with interesting commentaries, but throughout the evening she does not ask a single question about Sylvie or I. Not our professions, not our lives, not about the places where we live. Briefly, I contemplate this detachment as a personality flaw but quickly discard this explanation. Thinking about her job, which consists of drawing people out with questions, regardless of her personal interest in either the question or the answer, I imagine that she needs to protect herself from knowing too much trivia about too many people. Sylvie and I are just passing through her life crowded with casual acquaintances. Information about us would be of no use, just a clutter. I can sympathize with that. Despite this detachment, Isabelle invites me to stay at her place during my last night in Beijing. I shall take her up on this invitation.
Monday, September 6.
Off to the Great Wall. We get to the tourist bus stop #1, as instructed by the woman who sold us the paintings, but it is a wrong bus stop and a wrong bus. We cannot communicate with the crowd even when I show around the name great wall, written in Chinese in my notebook. I have a feeling that most of these people have never gone to the Great Wall, and have no idea how to get there. Just as we reach the peak of the frustration a young man steps forward and pronounces himself to be in charge of the situation. He clearly has no ready answers, and no specific plan of action, but is prepared to help us. Sylvie and I follow the man — who has by now introduced himself as a teacher, and whose English vocabulary is embryonic — through the environs of Tian’ an Man square, where every foot of distance turns into a yard the moment you start walking. He asks policemen and regular pedestrians, old ladies and business suit clad men. After a while, and older woman brightens up when accosted — I am not sure whether it is with the knowledge or with the pleasure of acquiring a mission — and authoritatively pronounces, with her body language and speech: “follow me”. We do. What else is there to do?
The woman leads us through back alleys I did not know existed right next to the Tian’ an Man Square, following some convoluted route. By now we have picked up several other strangers eager to join this mission. I have no idea who these people are and why they are walking with us. But there is something in it for them, clearly, because the group is engaged in animated conversation. Unexpectedly, we emerge at an opening and find ourselves on a wide street lined in this spot with several minibuses. The woman takes us straight to one of them and, after talking to the driver, announces that he is going (or perhaps is willing to be hired to go) to the Great Wall. The price is 40 yuan, close to what we expected but not the same, which suggests that this is not the #1 bus we have been searching for. Our guide is triumphant, but only for a moment. The driver presently realizes that it is these two western women who would be his passengers, not the Chinese crowd, and immediately changes the prices to 200 yuan per person. The price is ridiculous and I let him know it. But even if it was not, Sylvie and I exchange looks that say: we are not getting on the minibus, alone, with this strange character who might take us there or not, or might take us there and dump us, or worse. No, we need an official tour. We turn around and walk away, followed by the driver quoting progressively lower prices for his services. Forget it, pal.
There is little to do but to thank our English teacher and the woman group leader, and be on our way. It is now close to noon, Sylvie and I have walked for two-and-half hours, we are tired and hot. It is clear that we shall not see the Great Wall today. I opt for the Forbidden City and Sylvie goes off with the cameras.
The Forbidden City looks just like in the movie The Last Emperor. Dwarfing, at time inviting but at times imprisoning. Making my way through the succession of buildings and open plazas I compare it mentally with Granada’s Alhambra. What a difference! None of the serenity and quest for perfect beauty that I found so appealing in Alhambra. No sounds of water. The Forbidden City was clearly a place of business and governance, and of a messy daily life of concubines, bureaucrats, free loaders. Efficiency, rather than aesthetic pleasure, is the theme. I see no place for spirituality and reflection here.
Getting deeper into the compound I find a cluster of six Western palaces. These are mostly residences of women: wives and concubines. Pleasant courtyards with large windows and glass doors looking into them. It is more cozy here than around the official imposing buildings in the front of the complex. There are even occasional trees and grass. But to get here I have to walk through a long passage, perhaps 500 meters or so, formed by two high blind walls, all painted in red (like most buildings here). It is here, between these eight feet tall cement walls that I feel imprisoned. There is no way in or out except for a small door somewhere in the beginning of the passage and another one at the end. No place to hide, either. An when I finally enter the pleasant courtyard of one of the Western palaces I find that there is no place to go from here but to another small courtyard, a mirror image of this one, and accessible only through a small door not immediately visible from all angles. The atmosphere of the movie, that of an emperor imprisoned in his gilded cage and isolated from the outside world, is palpable now.
Pushing on toward the far end of the Forbidden City, toward the garden (there are so few trees anywhere here) a come upon a little tea room on a terrace in front of a small pagoda. The royal garden — hardly a garden by American standards, just a tiny oasis of trees — is right next to it. This is the most charming place I have found so far in the Forbidden City. Sipping chrysanthemum tea whose delights I discovered yesterday at dinner. The proprietors — a gorgeous woman with long fingernails and cultivated body language, and a striking man looking like a proud Indian Chief — smile gently at me, and the man motions me to join him at his table for tea. I do so with pleasure, curious about the complicated implements he has assembled for making tea. This is an elaborate ritual, involving seeping, straining, decanting, transferring the tea to ever smaller containers, and culminating with a tiny amount of the hot liquid in a tiny cup in front of me. One long sip is all it takes to empty the cup. Oh, what a pleasure. And then he repeats the ritual again. This man is gorgeous, it is hard to take my eyes off him. We do not speak one another’s languages.
Another Western woman watches us shyly from her corner table. My host asks her to join as well. She is Austrian, friendly in some strained, heavy way. Shortly, two young blond women arrive, and by now I feel a sense of ownership of the place. We all invite them to our small table. Surprisingly, they are Polish. I delight them when I start speaking Polish. These are two college students majoring in Chinese, in Beijing for a year. They look no older than 20, with such blue eyes, fresh smiles and charming body language. There is a certain intimacy between them when they correct one another in their Chinese expressions, like girls accustomed to sharing a room and talking about boys. The girls speak fluent English. By now we are having a little party at this remote corner of the Forbidden City.
I take advantage of the girls knowledge of the language and ask them to unravel the mystery of the #1 bus to the Great Wall. After consulting with the host, and their own guidebook, they locate the bus stop on my map of Beijing. Apparently, there is a bus station behind the Mao’s Mausoleum and the large pagoda temple in the south end of Tian’ an Men Square. I feel greatly relived that this problem got solved. On the way back to the hotel I will stop there and confirm the existence of bus stop and #1 bus. I try to convince the girls to go with us to the Great Wall (they would be terrific interpreters and companions) but unfortunately tomorrow they have their first day of classes. We all say goodbye. Such a pleasant encounter.
On the way home, tired by now from a day of walking and exploring in this heat and humidity, I take a bicycle rickshaw. As it turns out, it is a mistake. My ride starts innocently enough after we agree on the price. I guess that a regular taxi (if the traffic moved) would cost between 10 and 20 Yuan so I offer the fellow 20 for the ride. Seems fair. The man is elderly but physically powerful, with terrible teeth and great enthusiasm for the task. He waves to his companions with whom he was playing some kind of game on the pavement, and we are off. Weaving our way through the traffic, sometime on the right and sometime on the left side of the road, I enjoy the breeze in my hair and a moment of rest. Unexpectedly, the man parks the rickshaw and disappears in a public bathroom. As I wait for him, a couple of women stare at me, commenting to each other. I am already used to this Chinese custom. The driver returns, and we continue towards the hotel. With pleasure I see the familiar building. I hand the man the money but he refuses it. After some more exchange I realize that I am to be his daily (weekly?) source of income. He demands 80 Yuan for the ride. Pretty soon we are in the midst’s of a heated dispute, accompanied by some casual observers. I am really angry now, but also afraid. This man is twice my size and visibly furious. So I insist that we take this fight from the street corner towards the hotel’s entrance, where I feel safer. The doorman becomes and intermediary as we both explain our cases to him (frankly, I do not think he knows English but it is easy to understand what the fight is about). Finally, I give the doorman 30 Yuan to hand it to the driver who will not touch the money from me, and storm into the lobby. I see through the glass door that the doorman gives the money to the driver and sends him away. So much for rickshaws for me.
Evening walk after dinner in a local restaurant. We stop to watch people practice western ballroom dancing on the sidewalks to the sound of cheap transistor tape players. As we move from one group to another the sounds of waltz, tango, foxtrot, and other tunes accompany us. Amazing.
Tuesday, September 7.
Today we go to the Great Wall. Getting up at 6 am is not hard because I did not sleep well.
The early morning is steamy. It will be a hot day though we hope that in the distant mountains the air and the weather will be better. Taking a taxi to the bus stop is a strategic error. Thousands of bicycles mingle with cars and buses in a horrendous rush hour traffic. We move at a snail’s pace. The car is filled with its own exhaust fumes. A man on a bicycle breaks off from the bicycle lane and squeezes his way between two buses. There must be no more than two inches of space on each side of him. My taxi driver angrily blows a horn, commenting to me loudly. I nod, guessing what he may be saying. The taxi meter hardly moves. The meters here are calibrated to distance only, not to time, so in a traffic jam a driver makes little money (ours makes only 13 Y). It is not fair. After half an hour we arrive at the bus station. It would take us perhaps 40 minutes to walk this distance.
It turns out that the Polish girls were correct. This is from where the mythical tourist bus #1 takes off. This is a real tour, with a guide and an itinerary. The dispatcher writes down for me that we shall return around 7 PM. It will be a long day. The bus is quite comfortable — without, however, air-conditioning or toilet — and we have good seats. The bus is completely full, including the folding seats in the aisle. People of all ages, mostly adults, some alone, others in groups. Except for two young athletic Germans in the back, this is an all Chinese affair. We start at 8:15. Sylvie and I relax in anticipation of an adventure.
Getting out of Beijing is torturous. For an hour we crawl and suffocate. The leaves on the trees lining the street are darkened by pollution. It is easy to identify new leaves because these are the only green components of the trees. Passing a park, I catch a glimpse of couples dancing waltz. One couple moves with spectacular grace. An extraordinary sight at this morning hour. We pass new skyscrapers that would feel at home in Boston. It is impossible to read on this bumpy bus so I lean back to take in the landscape. Sylvie is bubbly, I am more subdued after poor night rest.
The first stop after perhaps two hours of driving is at the Wall (though we were warned earlier not climb but rather conserve our energy for the second stop) and a cluster of Temples. The tour guide, a pretty woman who talks to the group with astonishing speed and fluency (too bad we do not know the language) lets us go and writes on Sylvie’s pad the time for departure. That will be our mode of communication with her through the rest of the tour. We have about an hour. Though Sylvie and I are a bit confused about what we see it turns out the Germans know even less. They are convinced that in an hour the bus will head back to Beijing. I fruitlessly try to explain the them that there will be other stops on this trip. They break off from the group and decide to hitch a ride back somehow. Of course, they are missing the best part of the tour: the second stop.
Now we are the only Westerners on the bus. When we return to the bus at 11:20 I discover the rules of the game on this tour. You fight for the best seat on the bus you can get, and this is the Darwinian system. Our seats are taken, and the only places available are on the bench in the back of the bus. Sylvie, who got back to the bus earlier, only to watch our seats being taken, looks annoyed at me. As the trip continues through two more stops we sink lower and lower in the social strata on the bus. On the last stretch of the tour we will be sitting on the folding chairs in the isle. I don’t care.
The second stop is the real thing. They give us about two hours and lunch tickets. The area extending from the bus is one gigantic bazaar and tourist trap. People (mostly natives) buy the junk offered at inflated prices. The heat and humidity are staggering. A thick blanket of mist hangs over the mountains. The wall is breathtaking, winding its way along ridges and peaks. The climb is at some stretches very steep, seems like more than 45 degrees. I am scraping the bottom of my energy supply to reach the top of the slope where a cool looking red brick lookout tower is beckoning. Once there, it feels wonderful. It is a breezy spot looking like a miniature castle. The view is impressive except for cable car gondolas I discover on the other side of the tower. Annoying.
After this stop, the rest of the day is a bit downhill for me. Not for Sylvie, of course, who just wants to take pictures of people. The Ming Tombs, our third stop, is just a succession of empty underground rooms. The fourth stop — Seven Dragon Amusement Park — is a real dog. While Sylvie wanders around I sit by the water’s edge (there is a large reservoir and a dam here) sipping Sprite. The trip to Beijing is exhausting. We are covered with grime and sweat, the temperature on the bus is over 90 degrees, the pollution is getting to me. The half an our walk in the evening air of Beijing from the bus stop to the hotel is a pleasure compared with the bus trip. Blessed be air-conditioning in the hotel.
Wednesday, September 8.
We get up before 6 AM to go to the Temple of Heaven Park. At this hour the city is relatively quiet. Heavy cloud hands over it, the yesterday’s smog which never dispersed. The sun, high up, is bright red. We are still tired from yesterday, my leg muscles achy from the climb. The street is coming to life. Vendors arranging their fruit carts, people squatting over basins of water placed directly on the sidewalk, brushing teeth, washing faces, shaving. Old men sit in groups on folding stools or crates, bird cages hanging over their heads from tree branches. We later discover that this is a common custom to take a pet bird out for air before the bustle of the day takes over. By 8 AM the birds and their owners will be gone.
It takes half an hour of brisk march to reach the Park. The obligatory ticket purchase (only for foreigners). Uninterrupted stream of people pushes through the gate, mostly elderly. As soon as we pass the gate the air changes. I can actually smell the trees and hear birds. The first time since we have arrived in this city. The park is unabashedly man made: the trees stand like erect solders in perfectly straight rows, immaculately spaced. Hardly any shrubbery, grass is sickly looking, and I see no flowers. No place to loose oneself here. Like everywhere in Beijing: one is always exposed, always in a company of others.
This park is large. In the center, the temple dominates the landscape, built on a pyramid-shaped high stone elevation. This place is crowded yet quiet. People are mostly exercising. Moving from one grouping to another I find every kind of exercise: vigorous calisthenics, slow motion to the sound of traditional Chinese songs, yoga stretches, a group of women holding bright red fans and dancing some traditional dance. There are chanters and there are the silent types. We even encounter ballroom dancers. Many people are simply doing their own thing: stretching, bending, walking vigorously. The steep steps leading to the temple serve as a popular exercise spot: sitting at the top of the pyramid I watch people running up and down. Some do it backward, using the ramp.
These elderly are in good physical shape. Women resting their feet on fences in their stretching routines amaze me with the flexibility. I would not be able to lift my leg so high. Under these baggy pajamas there are some fit bodies, notwithstanding the chubby hips and pendulous breasts. A man passes me, dressed immaculately in white shoes, shirt, hat and gloves, pushing a bird cage in a shopping cart. This is a talking bird, looking more like a small crow than a parrot. The man utters phrases and the bird repeats after him, both talking rhythmically and in perfect harmony. The man looks so content. We continue walking. A group of elderly are playing cards. It is only a little after 7 AM! I am lifted up by the spirit of this place and stretch my arms and shoulders as I walk. A few approving smiles and nods follow me. Sylvie is in bliss, clicking her camera.
By 8 AM we turn back toward the hotel. The city is already unbearable. Thousands of cars and bicycles mix with wheelchairs and pedestrians. A sea of humanity. We are back at 8:30, ready for breakfast, a shower, and air-conditioning. After breakfast Sylvie goes off with her cameras. In her absence I get a call from the travel agent that our train tickets for tonight are unavailable. Apparently, government officials took them all. This is China. I call Isabelle to her cellular phone, hoping to pull strings through the French connection. She answers from Northern Australia!! The world is an amazing place.
Isabelle refers me to her secretary Caroline who promises to try helping. After several more calls and a strategic session with Sylvie we accept the generous offer of the travel agent to put us on the plane to Urumqi tomorrow, and to pay for the extra night in Beijing. So we have another day in Beijing. I am actually ready to leave this heat and humidity behind. Even in Bangkok I have not experienced days like today. The cloud over the city is so thick that one can barely see one end of Tian’ an Men Square from another.
Thursday, September 9.
I feel being watched in this hotel. The other day I asked the housekeeping to bring another blanket since the nights in the room are cold. A woman in an official suit walked in only minutes after my call and headed immediately for my bed, to show me that I indeed have an extra comforter under my sheets (I put it there because the mattress is so hard). I was struck by the fact that she knew exactly what was going on under my sheets. Clearly, the cleaning people must be reporting on the comings and goings in guest rooms.
Before going to the airport I have enough time to see Chairman Mao in his mausoleum. Another 40 minute walk to the main square. The problem of security has been solved here ingeniously: a large sign in Chinese and English announces that no bags or cameras are allowed in the mausoleum. This saves everyone the trouble of checking bags, looking for weapons. Having seen the sign yesterday I come with empty hands, just some money in my pocket and a business card from the hotel (in foreign cities I am always fearful of not being able to find my way back to my hotel). I forgot to bring my passport and I hope that they do not decide to check peoples’ identities.
Large crowd, perfectly self controlling. The long line, five or six abreast, moves swiftly, drawing on this huge expanse of the Tian’ an Man Square a perfect geometric shape. Like this:
There are no markings, no crowd control personnel. Somehow, this multiperson pulsating organism knows exactly how to make perfectly straight angles. A lively conversation permeates the air until we approach the dwarfing entrance. People become silent and solemn. Many buy bouquets of flowers, awfully made paper creations sold at token prices. In the entry hall — tall, large and severe — a table has been set up to depositing these flowers. People bow deeply before it. The table fills up almost instantly, is rolled away like a corpse, and replaced with another. In my imagination I see, absurdly, some efficient incinerator in the bowels of the building which disposes of this used paper just moments after its deposition here.
From the entry hall we move to the actual mausoleum. As before, we move at a brisk rate but sufficiently slow to allow me a good look from the three meter or so distance that separates me from the elevated glass coffin. Mao lies there on a small pillow, wearing the familiar uniform, covered from the chest down with a simple blanket. I cannot tell if this is his mummy or a wax replica but I much prefer to believe that this is the real thing. People ahead of me bow reverently.
A minute later we are in the outer hall. The spell of solemnity is abruptly broken. The room is lined with souvenir stands selling Mao trinkets: pendants, portraits, watches, jewelry, other junk. The same people who maintained a respectful silence and order earlier are now pushing and pulling disorderly to get the attention of the sales people. The contrast is striking. I, too, push reasonably vigorously and buy some garish heart-shaped pendants and an even more garish portrait of the Chairman. I hope David will like these items.
In the afternoon we are on our way to the airport. Noisy, chaotic, drab tiring place. You can have a cup of tea for free, served in papers cups from large containers. Waiting for the boarding call I become engaged in a conversation with an American living in Beijing and trying to manufacture and sell musical toys. The man is a fanatic follower of the Mozart syndrome movement. He gets to be tiring after a while but is also very knowledgeable about many things so I continue the conversation. It all ends soon enough and we embark the plane. This is a huge things, Russian-made and with such high ceiling as I have never encountered before. I do not trust this plane but there is little we can do. There is not a single empty seat on this plane and I silently appreciate our travel agent’s efficiency for getting us two seats on a 24 hr notice.
As we sit on the runway I get the preview of the flight: it is hot and stuffy in this aircraft, and it smells like dirty socks and sweaty feet. I wonder whether the blame should go to my neighbors or to the sheer accumulation of these body odors during the long and arduous life of this airplane. Sylvie, to my left, is excited by the views of the desert down below. The man to my right, a tour guide with a fluent command of English, engages me in an interesting conversation about Chinese art and language. I learn how to read several Chines characters, including the two characters denoting China. After four hours of uncomfortable ride and a Chinese version of airplane food, I am glad to be on the ground. Well, we are almost 4000 kilometers northwest from Beijing. We are in Urumqi!
The scene with taxi cabs is predictable but particularly unpleasant. As we approach a taxi we are surrounded by several men who grab our luggage and pile it into the trunk before I have a chance to discuss either the price or the use of the meter. If I were alone I would tell them to take the luggage out but Sylvie worries about loosing track of her equipment, so she gets in. By now we have no negotiating leverage. The man starts moving and now Sylvie asks him about the price. The reply enrages us but we have little choice. In any case, we make it safely to Urumqi City Hotel and there is a room available despite our arrival two day earlier than planned. The room is small but very comfortable, and the view from the 18th floor is splendid.
Friday, September 10.
We do not have a map of the city so I draw our route as Hansel and Gretel would.
The first stop is Holiday Inn, a luxury hotel with English speaking personnel, comfortable armchairs and sofas in the lobby, and a functioning business center. We act as though we are their guests, and so we are treated as such. There, we find an excellent map of Urumqi and directions to John’s Internet Cafe. At the café we are greeted by a sign “Well Come”. Well, we have come and we are well. It is now late morning and it is still quite cool. For the first time since arriving in China I actually feel cool. Our host is in no rush, while we eat he tells us about sights to see in Urumqi and about Turfan. Later we shall find out that all his information about Turfan — approximately two years old — is wrong, especially the prices.
Urumqi seems like a prosperous city and more fashion conscious than Beijing. Women we see seem to strive for their own personal styles, and there are many more clothing stores than I saw in Beijing. Even older people seem to dress with care and sometimes flair. Crowds of young adults — either highschool or college kids, I cannot tell — fill the clothing stores. Their dress and body language are no different than their American counterparts. People also seem less harried and tense. Even during the rush hours we do not see traffic jams. There is also an unmistakable mixing of two cultures. Most signs and billboards are in Chinese and Arabic alphabets and I am beginning to distinguish between the Chines and non-Chinese faces. These must be Uzbekis, Khazakis and, the ethnic majority here, Uigouru. Their eyes are narrower, the cheekbones more prominent, and features sharper, than those of the Chinese. And the sound of the two languages are far apart. Some men wear colorful skull caps, and older men often sport beards. Some people have blue eyes. There are a lot of children, teenagers and young adults on the street. It appears that the one-child-per-family is either not imposed or not enforced in the Xianjing Region of China. I would very much like to ask about race relations in this city but there is no one to satisfy my curiosity. The hotel staff does not speak English and I see few Westerners, other than Russians, in my hotel.
We head for People’s Park. A modest place by Central Park’s standards. A smaller version of one of the Beijing’s parks we have visited. An open space with a small lake, lawns, trees here and there, dusty paths for pedestrians. In a round dusty opening a groups of middle aged women dressed in red and white are practicing a traditional Chinese dance with red fans to the tune of a small transistor tape player of poor quality. Another woman is videotaping the dance. Now the red fans are gone and the women hold swords, two per person. The same slow, deliberate, careful movements I have observed in other traditional Chinese dancing. In another part of this open area a group of street sweepers are sitting on two benches facing each other. It is easy to recognize them as street sweepers because of the surgical masks on their faces. Oblivious to the dancers, and to everything else around them, the sanitation workers are engaged in an intense conversation, with the masks on. I hope Sylvie captures this comical scene on her film.
A man walks buy, fascinated by my writing. Without much ado, he lifts the notebook from my hands and examines it. Then returns it and walks away. In another part of the park we stop to listen to two women sing Chinese opera to the accompaniment of a man with a strange-looking string instrument, a sort of lute. Even with a generous allowances for their amateurish voices and technique, I do not like that singing. It sounds like cats miauing.
Two other men engage us in a conversation. One of them spent a year in the US as a visiting scientist. His teeth and gums are a wasteland, I cannot bear looking at them. The older of the two wants to know how old we are and where are our husbands. We tell them our age and wave away the idea of husbands joining us on this trip. “Who needs them” we seem to be saying. It amuses me to see the blank look on the man’s face as he tries to process this incomprehensible message.
We experience and amusing situation at lunch. The restaurant we enter is full of schoolchildren, solders and what looks like teachers, all having a banquet. They occupy several round tables in the center. Sylvie and I are the only ‘non-affiliated’ customers, watching the scene from our small table by the wall. The atmosphere in the place is lively, informal, unhurried. The food on their tables looks great. I wish I could partake in it. The waitress — actually there are several young women attending to us, there seems to be some kind of hierarchy among them — does not speak either English or Russian. Not a word. The menu is, of course, in Chinese. To everybody’s consternation, we make no progress in communicating our modest wishes. It is worse that ever before. They just do not get it at all. My drawings of vegetables, chickens, etc, do us no good. As this pantomime continues, one of the young waitresses has an idea. She approaches to crowd of schoolchildren with the teachers to discuss something. At that moment, one of the women teachers rises and approaches our table, introducing herself as a teacher of English. While the entire populace of this establishment watches in serious anticipation, she navigates through her very rudimentary English to develop some kind of lunch menu for us. I am not quite sure what it will be, but I now know we shall not go hungry (the meal turns out to be very nice: a chicken dish, which Sylvie claims to be some other unidentified animal, a rice dish, and a vegetable dish). As we all nod to signify the end of the ordeal the waitresses are beaming and the whole restaurant breaks out in an applause for the teacher. She is the hero of the day. I am sure that this episode will enter into the mythology of the school. The solders join in the applause, and so do we. This is a celebration of international ingenuity and good will.
Later on, after the group leaves and the cleaning starts, I am struck by the large number employees. I count seventeen people cleaning after 40-50 customers. Overemployemnt. I saw the same phenomenon in our hotel. At any on time there are 6-7 attendants at the reception desk.
Another observation about Urumqi: the presence of solders in all public places. I gather that there are plenty of unresolved issues of the autonomy of this remote province, and its uncertain loyalty to the central government.
Later in the evening, while Sylvie is using internet in the business center at the Holiday Inn, I sip beer at one of their several restaurants. A tall blond American enters, sits at an adjacent table, and orders pizza. The pizza looks good and I cannot resist stealing looks at the man as he begins to devour it. The man notices me and, in a most unselfconscious gesture, introduces himself (a businessman from the American Midwest) and offers me a slice. To my disbelief, I accept. Just as I sink my teeth into the pizza, Sylvie shows up. Of course, she gets a slice of the man’s pizza as well. We must make for a silly sight to the impeccable restaurant staff: a man handing out pizza slices to two strange women at another table, who eat them instantaneously, without napkins, plates, paraphernalia. I would never behave with such familiarity back home. I reflect on how the barriers between compatriots get lowered while traveling in foreign lands. These barriers seem to be no more than mobile office partitions, to be rearranged according to the context.
Saturday, September 11.
We go on a tour to Heavenly Lake. The mini van departs at 8:30 in the morning from the North Gate of People’s Park. The van is filled to capacity, the seats are miniature. The driver brings aboard a large rectangular metal container. I worry that this is for storing gasoline but it turns out to be for water for the radiator. A huge screwdriver on top of the container does not bode well for the condition of this van. Soon after the departure we discover that the fumes from the exhaust pipe penetrate the van. I can actually watch thin cloud of fumes rising from the floor. This will be some intoxicating experience…
The road is good, a new two lane highway with hardly any traffic. Once the city is behind us the landscape becomes moon-like. There is evidence of extensive strip mining. Sylvie tells me that these are gold mines. The land looks raped and deeply wounded. Miles and miles of such scars. We also pass some factories with tall stacks and what looks like chemical processing towers. Pollution hangs heavily over this land, mixing with morning mist into a visible blanket levitating close to the ground. The toll collectors (all these paid roads in China!) wear military uniforms. There is not doubt who is in charge.
The natural landscape in this area is drab. Hardly any trees. Except for occasional fields of corn and other crops I do not recognize, the land looks dry and colorless. People in the van are quiet, nobody pays any attention to us. The last half an hour of the two hour trip takes us on a treacherous winding road carved from the side of a mountain.
The lake is indeed picturesque, surrounded with snow capped mountains keenly resembling Alps or the Rockies. The tourist scene is horrendous. Crisscrossing of busses, vans, and cars, all spouting frightful fumes and stirring up dust in the parking area. The locals assault us with offers of horse rentals, dressing up in local costumes, including wedding outfits and aristocratic clothes, offers to take our pictures. They sell terrible junk and are irritatingly persistent. It takes an effort to shake them off. A blond, blue-eyed attractive woman in her mid twenties offers her help, speaking in heavily accented English. At first I keep a distance, taking her for another vendor of one thing or another. It turns out that she is just a hippie from Spain, living near the lake with the family of a local guide. She came here months ago and just never left. Strange people we meet. I ask her what she will do when the harsh local winter arrives. She plans to go on, comes the answer. I wonder where to.
The most interesting site is a Khazaki Village on the side of the hill overlooking the parking area. They live in large round huts, perhaps 15 meters in diameter and quite tall. The outside is tightly wrapped in rough cloth kept in place with rope. The top of the conical roof has an opening for smoke but which can be put down, like a lid on a kettle, in case of rain or cold. The nights get very cold here in the mountains. Today the sun is very bright and keeps us warm but I can feel the sharpness of the air underlying the solar radiation. In the shade I need to wear a sweater. The doors to the huts are made of wood, framed nicely and colorfully decorated. Colorful cloths usually hang on both sides of doorframes.
An old woman allows me to go inside. It is immaculately clean and amazingly colorful. The internal walls and ceiling are covered with colorful cloths, looking like quilts. The area by the entrance is a small bricked rectangle which provides space for removing shoes and for a small iron stove. Next to the stove there is table covered with a colorful cloth. The rest of the interior is elevated in relation to the brick rectangle and essentially consists of a sleeping area. The elevated area closest to the table and the stove serves for sitting at the table during meals but the rest of the hut seems to be a bedroom. I guess it sleeps at least twenty people. The bedding is arranged concentrically so that everyone’s head against the external wall. Right now at the head of each sleeping unit there is a neatly rolled up comforter. All are colorful and each has a different pattern.
I do not see any bathroom facilities either inside or outside the huts. They must be in the woods. A twenty year old girl with some knowledge of English, and a perfectly round smiling face tells me that the villagers live here from May to October, herding sheep (and probably selling to tourists) and in the winter move into their village in the valley. Life is teaming among the huts. People are cooking , sitting around, talking. Children follow us, clearly accustomed to tourists, pushing bicycles and giving us sly looks. I feel that they would gladly accept money from us but we do not make any offers. The girl I spoke to earlier approaches again. She tells me that she speaks Khazaki, Japanese, and Chinese. Her eyes are the clearest blue. Now and again a cloud of dust is raised by a four wheel drive vehicles rushing by on the side of the hill. This, and the familiar plastic chairs, are the visible links to the global economy.
Sylvie is ecstatic, roaming around the village with a line of children behind her. Then we hike around the picturesque lake. The air is pure and the light very sharp. In a while Sylvie turns around, unable to stay away from the lure of a perfect picture. I place myself on a very large rock protruding into the water and in the warmth of the sun take a nap. I am developing a cold and the nap is welcome. Voices of men picking mushrooms in the woods wake me up. A lot of mushrooms here, I am not familiar with them.
The ride home goes by fast. This time we choose a seat in the back, away from the source of diesel fumes. We arrive in the city that is all dressed up for Saturday night. How different from the bedraggled residents of Beijing. Women are fashionable and self conscious about their looks. There is leisure time in the air.
Back in the hotel we need to find out what happened to our laundry and how to confirm flight reservations back to Beijing. Nobody speaks a word of English. On a wild chance the assistant manager starts speaking Russian to me. I nod and she lights up. Turns out that her Russian is fluent and fast, too much so for me. This hotel is frequented by many Russians. Elevators and the lobby are full of them, and there is a discotheque on one of the floors with a Russian name. A noisy group occupies a room across the hall from us, I hear them going in and out at all times of night. This must have been a favorite stop for Russian officials in the old days.
Today, out approach to the dinner in a small café next to the hotel is “I’ll have what she has”. Not great but not bad. Very inexpensive.
Late in the evening, around ten o’clock, we find an internet place. A simple room with perhaps eight computers, each occupied by a young man under 22, playing computer games. When we enter, they all look at us with silent curiosity. I ask my question in one word: internet? They all smile instantly and say yes, internet, and make room for us at two computers. An amazing international language. I sent notes home.
Sunday, September 12.
We are off for Turfan. The day starts on a good note. Checking out of the hotel we discover that we owe them nothing. I believe that this is an error on their part, because we stayed here an extra night. They are completely unaccustomed to individual tourists (not groups) registered by travel agents. Somehow, the assumption is that if a travel agent booked us then he must have paid in full in advance. I try to actually pay for the extra night but soon discover that this will complicate the matters so much that we shall not get out of here this morning. So it is easier to just agree with them, say nice goodbye and leave. Everyone is relived that the business has been concluded and no more officials and managers need to be called in.
The taxi takes us to the bus stop that turns out to be a bazaar. As usual, we get immediately surrounded by a crowd of men pulling on our luggage, helping, but not accepting no for an answer. Fortunately, as we follow our luggage into the bus, it turns out to be the right bus, heading for Turfan. The seats are comfortable and there are not too many people. Looking around, I discover a bunk bed right behind the driver. Shortly after taking off, two men climb up on the bed and instantly fall asleep. A young woman sits behind us, a police woman off duty as we discover, who knows a few words in English. That will help. The assistant to the driver collects money for tolls.
The trip does not drag. I nap here an there, nursing my cold. I probably caught it on the plane from Beijing, the Chinese custom of spitting in public places does not make for very hygienic life. Half way to Turfan we the bus stops in the middle of the flat uninhabited land for a bathroom break. The men go to the right, women to the left, all with their backs to the bus, and do what is needed. Sylvie and I remain on the bus, to the great amusement of everyone. I can gather from the commentaries that they predict that we shall be in trouble before getting to Turfan. I silently decide not to drink too much during the remainder of the trip.
The arrival in Turfan means entering a hot oven. Two o’clock in the afternoon, the sun is high, it must be around 40 degrees in the sun. We have no hotel reservations, assuming that we shall find a small town, no tourists, two hotels, and short distances. The young police woman takes us under her wings. We get off and follow her towards a hotel. With all this luggage it is an interminable drag. Along the way we get picked up by a local tourist hunter who offers us a ride since “he works at that hotel”. Later, we find out that this is Amim, famous in Turfan for doing business with tourists, mostly selling them sightseeing tours. His “office” is in the John’s internet café and he ruthlessly fights off any attempts to create local competition to his little empire. Right now, however, he is just a friendly guy with a car and some knowledge of English, and he is taking us to the hotel. Once we are here Sylvie tells me that this is the wrong hotel, that we should be looking for Turfan Hotel, not Oasis Hotel. But it looks really nice, and I am willing to pay extra for it. To our surprise, there are no rooms available (later I discover that this is basically a standard answer one gets walking from the street. They prefer to deal with prepaid groups). The only option is a high end suite at a pricey $83 per night (so much for the guide in Urumqi telling us that we can get a room in Turfan for $25 per night). I am so hot and dreading this luggage that I am willing to pay, but when the woman requests payment in advance for five nights and in cash, we decline. I ask her to call Turfan Hotel on our behalf and check the room availability there. One night only, comes the reply. I already know that one night can easily turn into two or three nights in China, so we are off .
Our friendly tourist hunter suggests another hotel, presumably a great bargain, clearly owned by his relative or some member of his business enterprise. We agree to go there, only to find a miserable depressing place. Not for us. Take us to Turfan hotel, we demand. I begin to wonder about this stranger and his companion, who have us and the luggage in his car, in this unbearable heat. But nothing bad happens, they actually take us to Turfan Hotel. I give him money for his efforts and send him away. The price in this hotel is more than twice of what the fellow in Urumqi told us, but it is a much better deal than Oasis Hotel. It turns out that there is a room for five nights. Paid in full and in advance, but at least with Visa. Another crisis averted, the room is pleasant, air-conditioned and clean, and the shower feels wonderful.
At 6 PM we stroll the streets of Turfan (Turpan, Tulu Fan). Heat and dust are formidable. This is Central Asia, not Far East. Majority of the population is Uigouru (Wee-groo). All the sings are in Chinese and Arabic. Very few western faces on the streets. The hotels are apparently filled with tour groups of Americans, Japanese and Europeans, but these people are not keen on walking the streets. We are spotted, children call out “hello” and giggle.
The main street is a canopy of grape vines running its full length, probably 2-3 kilometers. Ripe grapes hanging overhead. This is harvest time in Turfan. The tempo of life seems slower than in Urumqi. Pool tables are set up on sidewalks, empty still, but these fill up in a couple of hours when it gets cooler. We stroll for an hour and half, filling our body crevices with dust and then we settle at one of many outdoor eating spots to have shashliks cooked over fire. Tasty, though the meat seems a bit tough.
I feel very tired tonight. It must be the cold.
Monday, September 13th.
A perfect morning. It is cool. There is something serene in the air. Sylvie left early with her cameras. I treat my inflamed sinuses and then go across the street to the John’s Internet Café for breakfast. Instant coffee, rubbery bread with honey, good fried eggs, and ham which looks like a sliced hot dog. Altogether, not bad. I move slowly, deliberately, enjoying the fact that we are at the end of our road into China. Several days ahead of us and no other places to get to.
A solitary American sits across me at the next table, perhaps 30 years old or so. I want to start a conversation but do not succeed in making an eye contact with the man. He seems very shy, or simply wants to be alone. Pretty soon our tourist hunter appears and takes the American and another Western couple on a sightseeing tour in his minivan. I begin to see how his operation runs. Amim is the boss who markets, rounds up customers for sightseeing tours, and negotiates prices. Other people do the driving. There must be a wide network of drivers on call, with their own and borrowed cars. Before Amim departs, we negotiate a tour for tomorrow. The standard package, which is advertised in our hotel for 40 yuan but which is never available, I book for 50 yuan per person. In a minivan.
Sylvie joins me, has breakfast, and we head for the local food market. This is harvest season, time for marketing raisins freshly made from the famous seedless grapes of this region. There are mounds of raisins everywhere, in hues ranging from light yellow to golden to brown and even red (brick bright red!). The merchants shape these mounds with shovels, like mound of sand of potatoes. Some are taller than me. Other merchants put the raisins in cotton sacks, sorted by color, and load them on trucks which, amazingly, move through this pulsating mass of people, donkeys, carts, and food stands.
In one place two women are washing the raisins from dust. They dump them into a large water basin, decant the sand and dirt, then lift them with a colander to another, identical bath. After the second bath the raisins are spread out on a cloth and let dry in the scorching sun. Now I see that it is safer to eat unwashed raisins than washed ones. The water in the basins comes from the open canals running through the area. I hope the Turfan sun has great bactericidal powers. Elsewhere, a group of women and children sit on large cloth and conduct quality control: the stems are removed from the raisins, and those not meeting the standards of size and appearance are discarded. The group reminds me of a quilting club in New England. The conversation is rolling, the sense of relaxation prevails. I am tempted to join them. That is, of course, impossible.
The bazaar is a crowded, colorful place. Mud sticks to my sandals and dust fills my lungs. My lips are parched, a condition that will prevail throughout my stay in Turfan. We navigate among trucks, carts, vendors, donkeys, bicycles, motorcycles. Occasionally, an old man walks by, looking like a character from the Old Testament. We found the place where all the lost tribes went: Turfan. But many have blue eyes! People watch us, often smile. Several offer handfuls of raisins. I eat them, ignoring my knowledge of the hygienic history of these raisins. I put my trust is in the antibiotics I took for my inflamed sinuses. Sylvie nibbles occasionally but is more cautious than I. The raisins are very sweet. I buy a large bunch of grapes. Once or twice we pass other westerners, but mostly this is a local gathering place.
We spent maybe two hours at the market. Sylvie has difficulties capturing the life here on film because people notice her and pose. She would rather be inconspicuous. I follow Sylvie around, content to do nothing in particular. Back in the hotel, it takes all the prowess of my Swiss army knife to remove the layers of muck — mix of donkey dung, raisins, mud and who knows what else — from the soles of my sandals.
Lunch at John’s café. Our outdoor home away from home. Two hours of leisure during which we eat, watch a group of high pitch voiced British tourist ordering potato soups, tomato soups, meat balls, french fries and the like. I find their high pitch voices penetrating and amusing at the same time. They seem to be transplants from the British sitcom Faulty Towers. Their leader loudly ruminates about the excess time they have set aside for Turfan. What are they going to do here? While they try to deal with their dilemma of Turfan’s boredom, Sylvie and I investigate the e-mail situation. The manager of the café is a skinny chain-smoking 20 year old kid who keeps a computer and a cot in the back room. His manners are angled yet easy. The charges for the use of internet are very modest by all standards, and especially relative to those we encountered in the hotels in Beijing and Urumqi. I send a letter to Julia and a short note to Jerry.
Coming out of the computer room I see that our British tourists are consuming their tomato soups, potato soups, french fries, and all that stuff that does not belong here. They seem quite serious about their business of eating and being tourists. One of the women (later it turns out that she is from New Zealand) is sitting with a blank face over an enormous plate of rice, eating it slowly, meticulously, with a teaspoon. She is either suffering from some intestinal irregularities or is avoiding them in an absurd way. Sylvie and I watch the woman making inroads in the rice pile.
At night, we eat dumplings at an outdoor Chinese café, following it with a movie. Ten o’clock show of Genghis Khan. The theater is mostly deserted, our entry creates a small stir as the people wonder why two western women would come to see a movie in the language they do not know. The plot is rather transparent, the scenery beautiful. In this rendition, Ghengis Khan had a unresolved Oedipus complex.
Tuesday, September 14th.
I have a feeling that we are being closely observed in the hotel. My paranoia, no doubt a legacy from Poland, reaches its peak when I decide to check if the smoky-colored mirror on the wall may be an observation window. Of course, this is not possible because our room is the last in the long hallway. The mirror hangs on an external wall of the building. Sylvie gives me a look when I mention my thoughts.
We get up before 8 AM to go on a standard tour of the sites surrounding Turfan. A minibus without air conditioning. There are seven of us: a middle aged Chinese couple, a couple from Manchester in their early 20s, and a German biology graduate student in his thirties. We actually make a nice team, the conversation flows from the start. The British couple — he with matted hair and she with attention-drawing enormous breasts — are into the third month of what is planned to be a two year odyssey through China and the neighboring countries. The girl is already tired of China. I give them another six months of traveling before things begin to unravel. There are only six seats for seven passengers in the van. That does not stop Amim, he just shoves a little step stool into the van. I make a mental note that I will not sit on this thing, no matter what. So far, the middle aged Chinese man elects to travel on this awful thing.
The heat and dust of this day are shocking. My cold makes it even worse. The road is very good most of the time, clearly because it is relatively new. And this is a blessing, considering the almost non-existent shock absorbers in this van. At times we travel on bumpy roads, which is rather exhausting. Our tour includes Astana Ancient Tomb (nothing interesting), Goachang Ancient City, Bezikelik Thousand Buddha Caves, Karez Wells, Valley of the Grapes, and another abandoned ancient city whose name I do not recall. The caves remind me of pueblo Indian dwellings in Colorado, also carved into the side of the mountain. Most of the wall paintings and carvings have been either stolen by German archeologists or defaced by the Muslims who consider images of people to be sacrilegious. The wells are actually interesting: an over a thousand year old sophisticated underground and over the ground irrigation system that keeps this land from turning into a desert. The Chinese copied the idea from other cultures. The little museum consists mostly of drawings of the irrigation plans, and photographs of the Party officials looking at water canals.
The most interesting thing I see is the making of raisins. The rectangular buildings made of unbaked mud bricks layered in an open lattice allow air to blow through freely while keeping the inside shady and relatively cool. The bunches of grapes are hung on horizontal spokes protruding from what looks like tree trunks, or on some horizontal ladders of wood. The effect is striking: walls and columns of grapes extending from walls to ceilings. I watch an old Uigouru man with deeply lined face (I, too, would look like that in this dry heat) delicately arrange the grapes for drying. A small boy and two other men watch, chat, hand him grapes. One of them hands me a bunch. These grapes are small, round, seedless, and very sweet. A wonderful taste, apparently the results of the heat and plentiful water in the region. The grapes are so ripe that within a few hours they turn brownish. I eat them by the handful, despite the warnings not to eat unwashed fruit. I shall take an antibiotic when we get back to the hotel.
Everywhere we go it feels like a tourist trap. Endless stands of tacky junk which seems to appeal to local tourists. We get fleeced shamelessly. Entry tickets for everything, expensive. They overcharge us for water, bread, use of bathrooms. Crowds of people at parking lots. It is time to stop traveling to the developing world. Western tourist we meet talk about Mongolia and Tibet as their planned and past destinations. I am losing interest in these place which are becoming fashionable.
The landscape of northern China is strikingly naked, free of trees or bushes. The memory of the lush New England is increasingly appealing. Near Turfan, the landscape seems particularly inhospitable, partly because of the monotony of the lightly beige color of everything. In Arizona and Nevada, my closest mental analogs, the rocks were white, sometimes pink. Here, everything’s is beige, muddy. The German tourist explains to me that this material is silt which is deposited with water coming down from the mountains. I forgot to ask him what kind of rock this is.
Water is gold here. In each village a canal passes thorough the center, filled with briskly moving water. The canals are used for washing and cooking water. I hope nothing more than that.
A lovely evening at John’s Café. A large group of Dutch tourists and other westerners. It is perhaps 25 degrees and very pleasant.
Wednesday, September 15th.
The guidebook claims that the Uigouru people came here from the general direction of Mongolia in the 5th or 6th century. Someone else tells me that that is false, and that these people are related to Turks and other Central Asians. I cannot tell beyond the fact that they are distinctly different from the Chinese.
Amim talks us into going to the Tuya Valley to see a Muslim village of Uigouru. We agree half enthusiastically but it turns out to be one of the most amazing trips into a different world. This time we travel in the comfort of an aging spacious VW with 170,000 kilometers on the odometer. Just two of us and a friendly driver.
It takes a little over an hour to get to the village. The terrain is familiar by now: monochromatic and exuding heat. The village is situated in the valley, with tall slopes on two sides and plateaus bordering two other sides. This is where the river must be flowing. The sound of running water is the first sound I am aware of as we approach the village. This life-giving sound follows us everywhere. The river comes from the mountains and it is dammed right before the village’s entrance, creating a small reservoir and a waterfall. Throughout the village, the river is neatly tamed in a canal which nourishes the households and irrigates the vineyards on the lower plateau. The vineyards are lush.
Looking around I am struck by the moonlike texture of these mountains. Made of a gray-beige rock covered with a thin layer of clay which from the distance looks like velvet, these mountains are unwelcoming. Their surface reminds me, as Sylvie points out, the rhinoceros skin: all deep, uneven folds and ridges. The guide book says that their age is the same as the Himalayas, which is geologically young. Later, the driver will take us high up on the slope of the mountain range and the tremendous depth of the river bed will become visible. Also, we shall discover a Buddhist monastery carved into the mountain side across the river from where we stand.
For now, we set off to explore the village. It is a small habitat, with perhaps several hundred residents. Until two years ago it was off limits to foreign visitors. All the dwellings are built of unfired bricks made of the mountain silt and clay. I saw such bricks made in Turfan: dirt mixed with water and dusty hay, shaped into rectangles and dried in the sun. The results is that the village looks like it is made of the mountains and land that provide its backdrop: colored photography makes no sense here because everything is of the same shade. In the blazing sun I can barely distinguish man-made structures from the natural ones. The lush vineyards provide the only contrast. It is very hot, at least 36 degrees.
At two edges of the village there are cemeteries. I have never seen Muslim burial places. Here they are shaped like coffins put on top of square mounds. All made of the same mountain dust. Most graves stand in the open air, but some are sheltered within elegant, mosque-shaped mausoleums made of real bricks and ceramic tiles. Only these distinguished graves have names and dates inscribed on them.
Adjacent to one of the cemeteries is a sacred praying area surrounded by a tall impenetrable wall. The only gate is locked. I can see a small, green-domed mosque within the perimeter of the circular wall. Sylvie tells me that this place is a destination of pilgrimages. I walk around the wall looking for another opening but there is none. In the process I have to climb the side of the mountain quite high. The view from here is panoramic: the cemetery, the village houses below, the vineyards, and the desert beyond the vineyards. All monochromatic, all blazing in the sun, all whipped by the wind. I imagine that everything, including the graves, become dust within a decade, one with the landscape. No better illustration of the transitory nature of it all.
But this is not the time to reflect on mortality. We agree with the driver to meet in two hours, and descent towards the village. Narrow passages, the sound of the waterfall and the brisk canal water, familiar looking dwellings with large double doors and spacious courtyards within. The roofs of the homes are made of straw mats. It hardly rains here. Sometimes, the mats are covered with a layer of climbing grapevines. Very few people are outside, only some children who scrutinize us. We are spotted while passing an open door of a household. People readily return our smiles and greetings. An elderly man invites us to enter his home. I eagerly follow him. The floor of the spacious courtyard is dirt. In one corner men are working. It looks to me like installation of a kitchen stove. A woman in her forties or fifties is crouching over a basin with laundry. An iron bed serves us as a couch. We sit down, the woman interrupts her washing and brings us two cups and a pot of hot tea (czay). Shortly, a younger woman (her daughter) emerges from one of the upstairs rooms which open onto the courtyard and offers us a plateful of grapes. She brings an infant son with her.
Another young woman, very pretty and care-free in demeanor, drops by. She is a friend of the young mother (we later learn she is 20). We all communicate with our hands, faces, bodies. Information about our husbands, children, our age and jobs gets exchanged. The infant intrigues me. Well dressed and clearly cared for, the boy is immobilized by straps of cloth tying him to the bed at the chest and knee levels. No motion is possible. The boy must lie straight on his back. The mother gently pulls his arms from under the upper strip of cloth but the boy does not move them. He is so placid! As I continue my exploration I discover an even more bizarre custom. A small wooden funnel is placed over the boy’s penis, with a rubber hose connecting it to a container under the bed. This if for urine collection. Now I understand why the boy must be immobilized.
The whole arrangement horrifies me a bit. Although the boy is perfectly comfortable, he cannot move. Bits and pieces of developmental psychology rattle in my mind as I think of the loss of IQ (as we know it) caused by the infant’s inability to explore and experiment with the world. What kind of people does this custom produce? Gentle, placid, peace-loving? Slow witted? I have no idea. I would like to ask what they do with infant girls but our pantomime is insufficient for such advanced conversation.
After leaving the hospitable household we wander through the village. This place has an unworldly feeling about it, there is not sense of time at all. Warm smiles follow us, children stare and show off.
On the way back to Turfan the driver stops at a village and buys several watermelons. He cuts one of the melons into slices and the three of us consume them right there, in the middle of a dusty road while the villagers silently watch. This is the best watermelon I ever tasted.
In the evening a wind from the desert blows. Instantly, Turfan is enveloped in a gray cloud of dusts. The dust gets into every crevice, into my eyes, my mouth, my fingerprints. It is hard to breathe. At John’s café, which has become our dining room and living room, we chat with an American woman traveling alone through eastern Asia. She is in her early thirties (looks younger than that) very pretty, waifish, like a well nourished Twiggy. A vegetarian, she is eating some vegetable concoction and washes it down with one their 20 ounce bottles of beer (12 proof). We do not introduce ourselves to one another by name, which seems to be the social custom at John’s café. Not that people are hiding their identities, but names are irrelevant in these casual encounters. The woman spent several years in Japan teaching English and now moves through Asia. Finished with Mongolia and on her way to Tibet. On a small budget: sleeping in dormitories, taking buses and trains, learning from others like her how to get around in one city after another. I realize that there is a whole subculture of these low budget nomads. I am fascinated but also acutely aware that I could not do that. I need steady company and friendship. And more bodily comforts. I admire the woman’s courage and spirit though I do not understand what drives her in this solitary journey.
Thursday, September 16.
Exploring Turfan. In its long and rich history this city was probably never explored as thoroughly as Sylvie and I have done. In Sylvie’s search for perfect pictures we have gone into every alley, every nook and intersection, every corner of the food market and the colorful bazaar. I keep her company most of the time, carving 2-3 hours a day for myself, to read, write, soak my tired body in a tub.
In the morning we visit the well-known Mosque with its famous tower. A lovely place: cool, tranquil. To my surprise, nobody cares about my exposed shoulders and my shoes. The entry ticket is required here, as everywhere else in this country.
Turfan is a bustling city. The center is unremarkable, with its large Soviet-style cheaply made buildings. The merchandise in the stores is of low quality, clothes look ill fitting and carelessly put together. The worst of the socialist mass production. As in Beijing, bicycles, pedestrians, and cars of various vintage, coexist on the streets. Occasionally, a man walks by dragging a cow with a rope tied around the animal’s neck. We later discover a cattle market which is the destination for these trekkers. Unlike Beijing, however, the tempo of live does not appear to be hectic here. The noise level is low, traffic density is incomparable, and the air is breathable, despite the formidable heat and dust.
Turfan is long and narrow. The main street, with wide sidewalks and two lanes of traffic in each direction (donkey carts travel in the sidewalks, leaving behind piles of shit), runs the full length of the city and empties out into a high speed road at both ends. In the center there is Culture Park. The park has no trees, only lush lawns maintained by an elaborate sprinkler system. In Chinese parks we have seen so far walking on grass is forbidden. This is no exception. Despite the lack of trees and minimal shrubbery the park feels friendly. I realize that it owes this feeling to the nicely paved paths, laid out with multicolored flagstones. Other parks we visited had only dusty paths, creating a sense of dilapidation. The pamphlet available in the hotel tells us that the park consists of three distinct areas: commercial one, for recreation, and for political gatherings. The commercial area is easily identifiable by shops and food vendors.
The narrowness of Turfan means that it is easy to exit it. Indeed, turning left from our hotel I need to walk only a few hundred meters from the hotel to enter the ‘village’. Here, the road is unpaved, the inner courtyards of the dwelling are dirt, and many houses are built of the familiar unbaked dusty bricks. Children are dirty (no one can stay clean here, including me). People are friendly. As we walk through the village this morning we are offered bunches of grapes. I see an infant tied to a little bed, just like the boy we saw yesterday. Later, in John’s café I learn from a Chinese woman English teacher that these children are kept that way until they start walking. She tells me that infant girls are also treated the same way but cannot quite explain the design of a contraption used by the Uigouru to keep the girls dry.
I go to the bazaar to buy presents for my boys. While negotiating the price of a knife I am immediately surrounded by a tight semicircle of men intently and silently watching the proceedings. Their faces are serious and expectant. I image a crowd around a roulette table looking like that when the stakes get high. At some point during my negotiations I become aware of the presence of these men, and look at them, smiling. Nobody smiles back, their faces are blank. When I finally settle on the price and walk away with two knives I wonder how well I did in their eyes. The less I paid, I am sure, the more respect I earned.
Tonight we sit on one of the park benches, enjoying the cool evening, when a middle aged man accompanied by two young men and two boys approaches us. With his command of minimal Russian we engage in a conversation. These men follow the Chinese custom of staring at us as though we were curious objects. The concept of ‘private space’ does not apply here. Eye contact is acceptable without a smile or an otherwise acknowledgement of the contact.
I wonder about race relations in this city but can learn very little about it. The poor neighborhoods and the bazaars are racially mixed, and the signs are bilingual. The schools are either Chinese or Uigouru, and parents have a choice for their children. Not surprising, there are many Uigouru children in Chinese schools, but not the reverse. Bilinguality is also more common among the Uigouru than the Chinese.
Friday, September 17th.
A slow day, nothing special happens. I am mildly bored, ready to leave Turfan. I walk, read, write, watch the thriving tourist business from the hotel’s lovely patio under the canopy of grapevines. Beautiful weather, despite excessive heat. Sylvie tirelessly wanders with her cameras.
We have become part of the landscape of the John’s café. We visit it at least three times a day. Western tourists come and go, the evening conversation is good. No particular group predominates. Various Europeans, Canadians, Americans. I sip beer from these enormous bottles and get lightheaded. The food in the café is good enough.
Just as I thought that this would be entirely uneventful day an opportunity presents itself to go to Aydingkol Lake. This is a dying salt lake, second in size after Dead Sea. The landscape leading to the lake (about 60 km) is greener than I have seen before in the environs of Turfan. At times it resembles the agricultural landscape of the American Midwest, other times it looks like prairie.
The lake is a stunning site. Complete silence and stillness. There is no life in that spot of the globe. In the glaring afternoon sun the salty water surface shines silver-like. Approaching the edge of the water we are in effect walking on what used to be the bottom of the lake. Intermittently, the ground is hard and muddy, crystalline deposits building around us. In a distance, we see the abandoned factory and a village, now decaying remnants of past commercial activities. Everything is literally blowing away in the wind, turning to dust. No people, no motion of any kind. Death.
Saturday, September 18th.
Checking out of the Turfan Hotel is complicated. First, the floor attendant (who, no doubt, has been watching us) checks the room for damages. When she signs off, we pay the bills downstairs. There are some complications with paying the bill partly in cash and partly by credit card, and in addition by splitting it into two parts (for me and Sylvie). When it seems that all is finally set, it turns out that we undercounted one night when we checked in, and the hotel attendant runs after us on the street to come back and pay the balance. I will never know if they believed us that it was an honest mistake on our part or proof that you can never be too careful with tourists who do not pay cash and in advance the full bill. Somehow, I think we are pronounced guilty. Once again, it feels like Poland of my childhood. The socialism promised to unite all the proletariat of the world. Instead, it united all the clerks and petty bureaucrats.
Back on the bus, heading for Urumqi. The sense of familiarity is strong as we walk in the same neighborhood. The hotel where we stay is very inexpensive, and shows it (Urumqi City Hotel is fully booked). The lobby is enormous and has a great potential with its marble and stone. The rug in the room is dirty, wallpaper is peeling and drywall protrudes in the bathroom where tiles are missing. Trying to use my hair dryer I blow all the fuses in the room, and perhaps on the floor.
Like all other Chinese cities we visited, Urumqi has an astonishing number of photo studios. Taking formal photographs must be very popular in China.
Otherwise, I feel as though I am in Manhattan. Nondescript skyscrapers interspersed with older, shorter buildings, fast moving dense crowds on the streets, many clothing stores and fast food places. Street entertainers, including a fashion show featuring bridal and evening gowns. Anorexic models in Cinderella dresses with hoop skirts. Contrary to my expectations, mostly men are watching. We go for a cup of tea to a fast food place, only to find out that there is none. They offer us coke and other carbonated drinks. No tea in an eating establishment in China! The homogenization of culture I witness is depressing. Pretty soon Tibet, my last mental frontier, will look like that.
We use the luxury Holiday Inn across the street from our hotel as a business center and an escape into the American culture. As we enter, the doorman says “Welcome back to Holiday Inn.” Does he really remember us from six days ago? Perhaps. A hippie woman and a Talbot catalog woman on their own do not come by everyday. I need to call Isabelle in Beijing to confirm that I can stay with her, but nobody knows in my hotel how to make a long distance call from my room. The fact that the number I have is for a cellular phone makes it even more complicated because the area code does not apply. After various frustrating efforts with the hotel staff bring no results I go to the Holiday Inn’s business center. We used them before but this time I have to confess that I am not their guest. The charming woman behind the counter connects me with ease and I am relived to find out that I have a place to stay in Beijing. The woman asks me, out of curiosity, which hotel we are staying in. “City Hotel’ I lie. Somehow, I am embarrassed to admit how low we have slid on the economic scale of China travel. Our current hotel just will not do.
Tonight, the last night together, we eat at the Holiday Inn. Their pub is cozy, with deep armchairs, soft voices of efficient staff, and piano and saxophone music in the background. We consume a great tasting pizza and drink the strange but wonderful tasting local wine. Life is good. I appreciate the comforts of fine hotels. Just before we leave, the tall American from the Midwest walks in. The familiarity created by our surroundings takes us far enough in the conversation to hear about his intestinal difficulties and other private affairs. Traveling makes for strange bonds among strangers.
Sunday, September 19th.
Return to Beijing. My objective for this day, almost the last in China, is to negotiate taxis without being ripped off. This will be a test that I can stand up for myself in this country. The first trip is good. A pleasant taxi driver charges me exactly what the meter states (less than half of what we paid coming to Urumqi). The airport is dismal but easy to navigate: at this morning hour only one flight, mine, is taking off. The people in the ticket counter line travel with most unwieldy large luggage; boxes of grapes and what looks like other types of food from the harvest in the Xinjiang Region. As usual at travel points, this is a nervous crowd. People are pushing, blocking one another’s way with luggage carts. A woman elbows her way in front of me in line. I have come to expect this behavior. It reminds me of Poland of my childhood. Chronic shortages, uncertainty about getting a seat on the bus, train, plane. Although there is only one flight and all the seats on the plane are numbered, people behave as though they might not make it to the plane on time, and once there, not get a seat. Hard to break this social conditioning. I therefore remove myself mentally from the squeeze, let the anxious woman get ahead of me, and just go with the flow.
The flight eastward takes a full hour less than the westward flight a few days ago. It is a cloudless day and from my window seat I can see the landscape. At least two thirds of the trip takes place over a desert. That would make it about 1500 miles of desert. Astonishing. Sometimes I see mountains, other times it is a flat land. Once, I can even identify sand dunes. There are no human settlements or land cultivation. Dry and empty land. Now I believe the statistics; this province has only 17 million inhabitants and is the least densely populated area of China.
The man next to me in the airplane speaks fluent English. Born in Taiwan, he is an American citizen with home in Los Angeles, doing business in China. He tells me about hopeless corruption of the Party apparatus and the environmental destruction of the country. By his account, the wealth of the Xinjiang Province originates in oil, natural gas, and coal. Also cotton cultivation in irrigated areas. The environmental costs of these activities is high. He tells me about wastewater discharged directly into rivers and lakes, and about burning of the natural gas at the refineries because building infrastructure to utilize it is too expensive. Apparently, Urumqi in winter is the 10th most polluted city in the world.
I am intrigued by the man’s remarks about the use of land and water. The land is practically free in the dry regions for those who are willing to settle them. The government gives 30 year leases to peasants for next to nothing, but does not regulate how the land is used. In some case, whole villages from the impoverished eastern parts of the country relocate into this area (which plays, of course into the government’s aim to dilute the Muslim populations with ethnic Chinese). The settlers drill deep wells and invest in water pumps. Since the soil is in many places excessively rich in minerals and salts, groundwater is used not only to irrigate crops but also to ‘wash’ the soil. In a classic scenario of the tragedy of the commons the aquifers get depleted, to the demise of all.
I take the man’s stories in with internal correction: he is hardly neutral about the mainland China.
At the Beijing airport I line up in the taxi line. When my turn comes the dispatcher motions me to a taxi. Only in the last moment, with luggage already in the trunk, I notice that the price displayed on the window is much higher than all the other taxis I have seen so far. I tell the driver to remove my luggage and ask the dispatcher for another taxi. I know I am making a scene but I am determined to assert myself. The dispatcher brings another cab, just as expensive. Though it holds the line, I refuse to go in until a regularly priced taxi pulls up. Finally one does, and I go, followed by fiery looks from the dispatcher. I relax for the ride, assured by the sight of a ticking meter. Until, of course, we arrive at Isabell’s compound. The meter shows 56 yuan but the driver demands 85. Another exchange of quick words. Interesting how easy it is to fight in two different languages. Much easier than ordering a good meal in a restaurant. I give him 70 just to have some peace, and go inside the building. No thanks from this cabbie. Still, I have done comparatively well: we paid 200 when we arrived in Beijing two weeks ago.
Another meal and long walk in Beijing. I savor the coolness of the evening, the scent of fall is in the air. After my short absence, the city seems like a familiar territory, I do not even carry a map. In this part of the city people are dressed fashionably and the many restaurants are packed. The main throughway is lined with hundreds of red lanterns. I am mentally saying good bye to this city to which I have formed some attachment through my endless treks and discomforts.
I am staying in the offices of the French television. There is a well appointed guest room and a bathroom with a shower, right next to the regular functioning offices. It is Sunday night, nobody is working. I will be gone in the morning before the office fills up with people. I briefly socialize with my hosts. Isabelle is out of the country but her associate, a very handsome young Frenchman with a strikingly beautiful Chinese wife (a former model, close to six feet tall Chinese woman, very unusual), host me graciously if absentmindedly. A friend of their is also visiting, a woman of undetermined nationality, race and age. I am not really interested in much conversation.
Monday, September 20.
Bright, beautiful day with a promise of warmth. I am glad to head towards cooler climates. My last taxi drive and I am not ripped of. A tiny little triumph. Why does it matter to me so much? It certainly makes little difference when converted to dollars. But it does. It has something to do with not allowing to be pushed around, with being in control of my surroundings, with ascertaining that I can survive in this culture if I choose to live here.
Good bye China. I learned a thing or two about surviving here and will remember you more for your glorious discomforts than your comforts. I will not be back any time soon.