2004.12.13 Urumqi, China

Last photo taken before
losing the camera

The length of time I'll live in Urumqi is open-ended at this point. The longer I stay here the less inclined I am to move on. Part of this stems from a contentment with the life I've established here. Part comes from a sense that I've not yet finished exploring what I came here for.

When I left the U.S. in autumn of 2003 my plan was to spend a year living in Kashgar. I had visited the city previous occasions and was taken by its history and mix of cultures. In addition to my fondness for Kashgar, I decided that any city in Xinjiang Province (the region in which Kashgar lies) would be perfect to pursue calligraphy study. Local languages--such as Kazak and Uighur--are written in the Arabic script here. But in many ways Xinjiang is just another of China's provinces, full of Han who have settled from the eastern regions. So both Chinese and Arabic script co-exist--an ideal place to play around with brushes, pens, and ink.

November of 2003 I visited the one school in Kashgar where I could enroll as a foreigner and get a proper student visa. The foreign admissions director assured me it would be no problem to begin studies the subsequent term. I would be able to practice both scripts with calligraphy instructors as well as the related languages--Chinese and Uighur--if I was so interested. I laid low in Beijing for a couple months, anticipating a return to Kashgar with the beginning of spring semester.

I received word in the last week of February that my application to study in Kashgar had been rejected. I decided that Xinjiang's provincial capital, Urumqi, would suit my needs as a place to study calligraphy. Urumqi is a far larger city lacking the historical romance of Kashgar. I'm not sure how many people live here, but I've heard the figure two-and-a-half million a couple times recently. If true, this city is over eight times the size of Kashgar.

I had not planned on living in a city of this size, but think I'm doing better for it. I suspect that I would not have stayed on as long in Kashgar. Urumqi is developed in a way that makes life as a westerner less difficult. There are around two-dozen expatriate English teachers working at various colleges and private schools around town--I can socialize sans language barrier anytime I wish. Additionally, there is surprising variety in food for a Chinese city out in the remote desert. I tend to default to Uighur cuisine: kebabs, polo (pilav), and laghman (noodles with spicy vegetables). But those times I crave something else, inexpensive and well-done options abound: my current foreign favorites include sushi, Brazilian barbecue, and Carribean rice-and-beans. Ironically, the food I miss most is Cantonese dim sum. I've found that available at just one location: the five-star Hoi Tak hotel. The Hoi Tak servers inferior, tiny portions at prices they should be embarassed to charge. Needless to say, I don't patronize their restaurant.

Much of my sense of contentment with Urumqi life comes from having settled comfortably into my apartment. I've been hosting friends regularly, both locals and fellow foreigners. I'm now in the process of selecting carpets and pillows to turn the tiny third bedroom into a cozy lounge. I really ought to post some photos of the new flat, though it may be after some time--I've lost my camera. I'm fairly sure it slipped out of my pocket, into the snow. There was a gap of only five minutes between when I snapped the last shot and noticed it was gone. Everybody here claims that Urumqi is full of skilled pickpockets, but I don't believe that's how it went missing--nobody came near me then. Or maybe the pickpockets really are that good.

So. I've decided to stay at least through summer 2005 and am in no hurry to pack up and go elsewhere thereafter. I could see continuing on in Urumqi for another year or perhaps even beyond that in my current routine: living comfortably in this city with a unique atmosphere while exploring areas of personal interest. Studies are going well--I spend most of my time attending Uighur language classes and have independent instruction with a teacher of Islamic calligraphy. That schedule does leave me feeling that I'm completely neglecting the Chinese end of things, both in terms of language and calligraphy. This lack of attention to Chinese contributes to my sense that I should stay on longer--I won't feel done here until I've improved my skills with the language and script.

As I've decided that my time here is open-ended, I'm mulling over a return visit to the U.S.. It's been a year since I was last in the States. The only aspect of life in the U.S. I miss is spending time with family and friends--seems like everything else is available for download. The break between terms should begin around the second week of January, running until the beginning of March. I'm debating how widely I want to travel if I do visit. My entire family lives in Seattle so would likely spend the bulk of time there. Other people I'm close to are scattered throughout the rest of the country as well--might be nice to turn it into a road-trip.

I also considered spending my entire break in one location, picking up work to earn money. I was immediately turned off to that prospect after looking at the website of a Seattle contracting agency I used to work through: all sorts of corporate jargon about "cutting-edge technology," how applicants are required to have "three years relevant experience in the industry," bleah, bleah, bleah. It's a role I've managed to play well-enough in the past and could do so once more. But part of coming out to Xinjiang was a pointed departure from that existence. I don't think I'd be able to slip back into that routine right now, even on a short-term basis. Better to just hang out with people and have fun this trip.