2004.06.15 Urumchi, China

The term at X.U. finishes at the end of June. I'll be leaving a week ahead of that time to rendezvous with Michael. After wrapping up his Oracle coursework in Bangalore he'll fly to Hong Kong, then make his way overland to Scandinavia. His mother will be flying in from the U.S. as well. They intend to travel around China for a few weeks, at the end of which she'll fly back from Beijing.

I'm planning to tag along for perhaps ten days. I've already picked up an air ticket (to border city Shenzhen) and obtained a re-entry visa. I'll likely take the city bus from the airport to the border, cross on foot, then take the KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway) into Hong Kong. It's far cheaper than flying directly from Urumchi to Hong Kong.

It'll be nice to get down to Hong Kong--I didn't end up making that trip I speculated possibly taking back in February. I've proposed that this trip include a visit to Macao, from where we'll enter mainland China directly by crossing into Zhuhai. I'm not sure where else will be on our itinerary. It doesn't matter much: it'll be good to just spend time with familiar faces from the US and get away for awhile.

I need to return to Urumchi by the 5th of July. The Uighur instructor I studied under at the University of Washington--Hamit Zakir--has arranged for an intensive summer language session to be taught at XU. Three of my former classmates from Seattle will be attending as well, which should make for quite the reunion.

I'd initially planned to spend the summer traveling after the end of this semester. There is a road which I've long wanted to explore, running from near Kashgar to Lhasa. It doesn't have buses or any other regular transportation, just cargo trucks. This would mean hitch-hiking, which is of course forbidden. The road skirts the northern side of the Himalayas, cutting through a slice of Kashmir occupied by China. (As I understand, India didn't realize that China laid a claim to any part of Kashmir until 1962, when some troops wandered far enough across the barren glaciers and wondered, "Huh? How did this road get here?" The two countries subsequently went to war over the matter.) Considering the altitude and geography, summer would be an ideal time to attempt a journey, and I'd hoped to do it this year. However, given the hand injury and intensive summer language course, I've figured it best to stay put in Urumchi. I'll save that trip for summer of 2005.

I'm contemplating the implications of living in China in relation to my annual birthday ritual. Since I turned 17 I've taken a trip out of the US on or just before that date each year. This started from a coincidence: I happened to be traveling internationally on both my 17th and 18th birthdays. Thereafter I figured it was a good tradition to maintain, and have observed it every year since. I've always summed it up as, "I leave the country on my birthday," which has generally meant the USA. But now that I'm a resident of China, does that mean I need to make a side trip elsewhere to be "out of the country"?

My birthday falls in mid-July, so it would be a shame to miss any of the intensive summer Uighur session. The expense of another re-entry visa isn't cheap, either. (I don't understand why student visas don't automatically allow for multiple entries.) I'm considering taking the train to Almaty, Kazakhstan if I do skip town. It's the closest international destination to Urumchi, I've never been there before, and I can get a Kazakh visa here in town.

I haven't spent much time with the miniscule ex-patriate crowd here in Urumchi, but did go along to a gathering with Paul and David (the Australian who lived down the hall from me) Friday night. Matthew, an Englishman with one of the nicest apartments I've ever seen, played host. I invited Shahnaz. We brought my hookah along, and the mint and banana flavored tobaccos. I often feel awkward in party settings, not knowing people and straining to make conversation. However this occasion was comfortable, casually chatting and getting to know more of the fellow Westerners in town.

Saturday night Paul and I enjoyed a concert. Arken Abdullah is a Uighur musician who plays flamenco guitar. His instrumental style holds closely to the Spanish tradition, though he sings in Uighur and Chinese. Occasionally he'll mix it up further with accompaniment on a traditional local instrument, such as a rabab or dutar. We both bought CD's of his latest release thereafter.

After the show we went to a nearby park for a midnight snack. I don't understand how street food can be so delicious, available 24 hours so many places around the world, yet virtually non-existent in the US. Our server was an ethnic Mongolian, who was eager to practice English. We chatted for a couple hours, though most of the conversation was spoken in Uighur and Chinese. I of course asked her to show me how to write some basic words in that unique sideways script the Mongolians use. I'm fascinated by it, though can't imagine that I'll actually be able to learn it without some stronger re-inforcement, such as living in Inner Mongolia, which I have no plans to do. (Outer Mongolia was still using the Cyrillic alphabet last I heard.)

Part of the reason I've been more social of late is because both the Ivy-league spies leave this week. Australian David already left this last Saturday to participate in a language course in Samarkand before his return to Harvard. Paul leaves tomorrow to travel with his sister around India, then return to the States. I'm glad my former UW classmates will be arriving shortly, though will miss the friends I've made here.

My right hand is healing. The center remains stiff, and its range of motion--especially in the wrist--is far short of normal. Still, I've been able to compose this entire entry using both hands, without pain. Each day the injured hand regains a small measure of flexibility and dexterity. The process strikes me as similar to thawing: starting from a solid, immobilized state, the edges have been gradually becoming more pliant, leaving a solid core which shrinks with each day.

Today I managed to hold a pencil and write with my right hand for the first time since the injury. The results were jagged and even less legible than my normally messy handwriting. Still, they were far superior to the level I brought my left hand up to in the last six weeks. It struck me what a process it is to build up and refine those fine motor skills. Even after six weeks of using my left hand exclusively, the resultant scrawl was about par with a kindergarten student. You'd think that as an adult there would be experience or knowledge that could be leveraged, but apparently not.