2004.05.05 Ghulja, China

Yan An Road, Urumchi

I've left Urumchi for the first time in two months. It's spring break, with a week of holidays to recognize Mayday.

Yesterday I took the bus to Ghulja, a historic city near the border with Kazakhstan. It's really nice to be here. Ghulja (a.k.a. Yili, a.k.a. Yining) is small as cities go, making for a pleasant change of scenery from Urumchi. It's much cleaner, and there are trees lining most of the boulevards. Also nice is that the broad bicycle lanes which have been removed from Urumchi streets are still in place here. It's a perfect town in which to stroll around and just be away for a bit.

I'm also keen to visit Chapchal, about an hour-and-a-half south of here. Back in the Qing dynasty the Manchus sent a garrison of troops out there. Their descendants, known as Xibe, are the only people today who speak Manchurian, so I'm curious to see what I find down there. Supposedly there are radio broadcasts in the old language, as well as newspapers still printed in that unique, vertical script (based on Mongolian) that looks like sideways Arabic.

Last week Paul and I had an interesting afternoon. We were looking for a particular barbershop, Te Bie Te, which has a reputation as Urumchi's best. After taking the bus to Nan Men (Southgate) we cut through an underpass crammed with shop stalls to cross the road.

David: The barbershop is somewhere across the street, right?

Paul: I guess so.

David: Hey, did you ever replace that watch battery? This might be a better place to find another. There's a stall ahead with a bunch of watches.

(We'd tried to buy a replacement battery a couple weeks previously and were asked for 120 yuan--$15 US--by an unscrupulous vendor.)

Paul: No, I never did. But didn't we ask these same two girls before?

David: I don't remember.

(Italicized text spoken in Chinese)

David: Hi there. Do you have watch batteries?

Shop Vendor I: We have.

David: (Handing over watch) How much for this one?

Shop Vendor I: 8 yuan.

David: She says it's just 8 yuan.

Paul: Cool.

David: We'll take it.

Shop Vendor I: It'll be 15 yuan.

David: Huh? You just said it was 8.

Shop Vendor I: I know. But she (gesturing towards other vendor) says it's 15.

David: Hmm. Well, I liked 8. If the price is actually 15, I'll have to ask for a discount.

Shop Vendor I: Sure, how about 10? (gesturing towards a pile of ladies' stockings and shoddy-looking purses) Want to buy any of our other merchandise?

Paul: What's she saying?

David: She's asking whether we want to buy any of the other crap here. Oh, the price is 10 yuan now.

Paul: Ten? Whatever. Tell her I think we're good on crap for the moment.

David: Nothing else, just the battery please.

(After replacement of the battery and payment of 10 yuan)

David: Hey, maybe these two can give us directions to Te Bie Te.

David: Do you know where Te Bie Te is?

Shop Vendor I: Huh? Where? I don't know that place.

Shop Vendor II: You mean the hair stylist?

David: That's right, we were told it's here in the Southgate area.

Shop Vendor II: (Shouting at random passer-by) Hey, where's Te Bie Te?

Random Guy: It's up in Northgate. You'll have to take the 101 three stops north.

Shop Vendor II: Yes, three stops north. Take the 101.

Shop Vendor I: That's right, the 101 to Northgate. (Waving purses around) Are you sure you're not interested in any of our other merchandise...

While headed towards the exit Paul and I questioned whether those directions could have been accurate. Several people had told us Southgate was the right area.

Paul: Northgate can't be right. Hey, how about that well-dressed older woman seated behind this other stall? If Te Bie Te is anywhere nearby, she should know. Why don't you ask her?

David: Why don't you ask? She doesn't look Chinese to me. Your Uighur is much better than mine.

(Italicized text spoken in Uighur)

Paul: Hello, do you know where Te Bie Te is?

Upon hearing this the woman started directing questions at me in rapid-fire Uighur:

Shop Vendor III: Where are you from? You're Americans, aren't you? Aren't you!

David: Uh... yes. We are Americans.

Shop Vendor III: Americans!

At that point she leapt up and held an imaginary machine-gun in two fists and started making rat-a-tat sounds while pretending to spray us both with bullets. I stared dumb-founded.

Shop Vendor III: Americans!

She then held her left arm up as if cradling a boom-box and started grooving around.

Shop Vendor III: Americans!

Despite her unexpected behavior, she and Paul did manage to have a conversation, giving us directions: go up the stairs and around the corner.

Five minutes later we did find Te Bie Te, which lived up to its reputation.