2004.07.20 Urumchi, China
Today is my birthday. Since the year I turned 17 my annual ritual has been to "be out of the country" on this date. This marks the first occasion since that age where I've celebrated without crossing a border.
I had been contemplating a brief jaunt to Almaty, Kazakhstan--the closest foreign city to Urumchi. However, I balked at the expense of a Kazakh visa and re-entry back into China for such a short trip. Even as early as this morning I'd considered alternately recognizing the date with a trip to nearby Silk Road oasis Turfan--but ultimately decided not to visit somewhere even hotter than Urumchi. (The high temperatures in Turfan have ranged from 37 to 46 degrees Celsius over this past week.) I finally convinced myself that just remaining where I am meets my definition of being away. "Away" has always meant relative to the U.S.--Urumchi clearly fits the bill.
The main purpose of this custom has been to fix a regular date in my life for reflection on the year past and one about to come. It also serves as an occasion to look forward to: each year I have at least one international trip to enjoy, no matter what else may be happening in my life.
I've taken the day away from classes and decided to lounge about Urumchi. Had a rather mediocre pizza lunch and am now at the Eversun Cafe, one of Urumchi's few Wi-fi spots. The iced mochas are amazing here. I'm considering seeking out Peking duck for dinner.
I returned to Urumchi from Xi'an on July 5, just before the start of the intensive Uighur-language summer program. Around midnight the day I returned I was curious to see a busload of perhaps 18 bewildered-looking Americans moving into my dormitory. It was the latest batch from OBU, an American school everybody at Xinjiang University seems familiar with. The initials are thrown around by folks on campus as if the institution is as well-known as Oxford or Harvard. When I first came to Urumchi I was puzzled as to why people would often ask if I was from Oklahoma, or this OBU. I finally found out that the initials stand for Oklahoma Baptist University.
It's amusing to see the dance between the locals and missionaries, each pursuing their own objectives. The missionaries, of course, want converts for Christ. They'd have few people to talk with around Xinjiang if they presented that as their reason for coming. Additionally, I suspect their visa applications would be rejected were that agenda not kept sub-rosa. So, they instead host inexpensive "Summer English Camps" with lots of time for "English Corner"--free-form conversation.
People here of all ages are madly trying to learn English, so plenty of the students at X.U. are eager for time with a native speaker. Savvy locals have told me that most folks are aware what the true agenda is. They accept the frequent choice of topic (coming around to Christ) as a necessity to practice spoken English. What the missionaries really want is to increase the number of Christians, and what the locals really want is to improve their English skills. So both feign attention in the other's true interest over these "Summer Camp" sessions. Perhaps each batch does gain some bona fide converts, but I would love to see numbers of how many locals the missionaries believe have accepted Jesus against some figure given by X.U. students themselves.
America suddenly seems much closer: I now have a broadband connection in my dormitory. I'd previously been using slow and expensive dial-up connections when I wanted to update this log or connect to the Internet. The new connection is ten-times speedier and only 30 RMB per month. I now stream American radio stations and download new music. It's strange to have such an immediate connection to an existence so distant. I was especially surprised to hear a familiar voice from the past coming out of my speakers when I tuned into KUOW, Seattle's main public radio station. Phyllis Fletcher now has a regular spot as morning host on weekends. The two of us caught up over sushi while I was visiting Seattle this past December so I did know that she'd been pursuing her interest in radio. It was a pleasant surprise to find that she's come along so far with it.
I took this past weekend away from the city heat by camping out in the mountains. I went with Jonathan, a New Zealander who teaches English at the Xinjiang Medical University. We spent a couple nights in a remote valley of the Tian Shan mountain range, exploring glaciers and climbing around. The area wasn't that physically distant from Urumchi, but as different as can be found within Xinjiang. What few people we saw in the area were nomadic Kazakh shepherds living in yurts. We'd occasionally pass a herder grazing a flock of sheep or team of horses, but otherwise had the rivers, mountains, and valleys to ourselves.
We got as high as 3,800 meters, comparable to the altitude of the lower Swiss Alps. Jonathan is well-stocked with equipment, which was fortunate--I've never been much of one for the outdoors and have no gear whatsoever. I figured this would be good opportunity to get some experience (both hitch-hiking and roughing it) as I still hope to travel that Kashgar-Lhasa road next summer.
The intensive summer Uighur courses have begun. It's good to not be splitting my time with Chinese. Absorbing characters took up a lot of my time last term. I do enjoy studying both, but sixteen hours a week with just one langauge seems like nothing now.
Two students I knew from the 2003 UW summer program have already arrived, the fourth should be here after a few days. It's nice to have old friends--Astrid and Yasin--living in the same building as I. When I decided to pursue study of calligraphy in Xinjiang I envisioned a much more solitary experience in a more remote area. Ironically, I think I may now have more of a social life here in Urumchi than I did living in the U.S.
For those curious, here are the locations I've celebrated my birthday: