2004.08.01 Urumchi, China

Aaron, Astrid, our prospective
landlady, and I

The topic of housing and rent came up in Thursday's Spoken Uighur class. Our instructor, Gul-Chehra, expressed amazement that I was still living in the foreign-student dormitory on campus. "They charge you 750 RMB per month (about 90 U.S. dollars) for that place. Why haven't you moved out? That much money will get you a much larger place anywhere else in Urumchi." I had known since the beginning of my stay here that the rate for the dorms was too high, but inertia kept me from finding anywhere better.

Gul-Chehra suggested a block of apartments just southwest of the campus. "So many other foreigners live there," she said, naming several of the longer-term missionaries who have a presence around X.U. "Just show up and ask the security guards at the gate. They'll connect you to a landlord who can show you around."

Yesterday evening I followed her advice, bringing along the reunited alumni of my 2003 UW summer Uighur course: Astrid, Yasin, and a just-arrived Aaron. None of them were keen on spending summer in the dorms either. Depsite Astrid and Aaron's ability to speak Mandarin fluently, the security guards at the gate were bewildered as to just what four foreigners might want. They eventually led us to the office where, happily, the building manager knew the routine: "Looking for a place? How big?" were the first words out of her mouth. The manager's immediate understanding of our situation and knowing that other foreigners already lived there made me hopeful that this might be a decent place to move into.

We were shown two units. The smaller went for 500 RMB per month, the larger for 700. Both were larger than the studio-sized dormitory I currently occupy, with several bedrooms, a kitchen, and a common-area; the larger unit even had two bathrooms. However, none of us could keep from laughing while viewing them. Both units were spare and depressing. The first was devoid of furniture. The naked cement floors and peeling paint stood out all the more, being the only things to the apartment. The second unit was even worse. What furnishing could be found inside was utter junk: a broken bunk-bed frame; a stiff couch missing its legs; a children's bicycle. I began to think that 750 RMB for my humble dorm was not such a bad deal. At least my dorm has tiles which mask the cement floor.

We regrouped in the courtyard of the apartment blocks, chuckling and contemplating where to go for dinner. Just as we were about to leave, a Uighur woman approached me, asking if we were interested in viewing an apartment she owned. As she was offering a unit in one of the very buildings we had just viewed we didn't hold high hopes. It was only the fact that she was entirely refurbishing it that brought us in for a look.

The place was fabulous. While viewing the drab layout of an identical unit a few floors below I could not imagine the possibilities. Hardwood planks had just been laid. Wallpaper enhanced the atmosphere. New bathroom fixtures were being brought in; the kitchen was undergoing a complete renovation. Pots, dishes, beds, tables, a sofa, and television were all slated to arrive within the next few days.

The rent is exactly double what I am currently paying to live on campus. The place should be ready somewhere between ten days and two weeks from now. It's a shame the other students are here for only the summer--sharing it with just one other person would mean no increase in my expenses. I have pretty well decided to take it, even if it does mean paying twice as much in rent every month.

Moving in with the other students strikes me as the premise for some reality TV show. What happens when you move a geographer from New Jersey, a musician from California, a linguist from North Carolina, and an aspiring calligrapher from Seattle into a house together in China's far western desert? Perhaps we should set webcams around the apartment and broadcast the result to the world.