2005.07.07 Urumqi, China
Happy Milky Way Day!

Matthew and Bonnie play Mah Jong
Matthew and Bonnie
play Mah Jong

Classes are over. All of my local student friends have just been graduated. This past week the campus has seen a lot of bag packing, tearful farewells, and classmates trying to gather everybody for one last time together.

With graduation comes the job-hunt. Rahila is the first among my local friends to land a "real" job. Despite never having driven any sort of motorized vehicle, she now sells Mercedes-Benzes at the Urumqi dealership. I'm not quite sure how she landed the job or how long she'll continue on in that role. Ironically, I don't think that she'll have the opportunity to learn to drive as part of the work. Right now she's absorbed in learning model specification information and reasons to convince prospective buyers why an expensive new car is a necessity in their lives.

The end of the school year means many of my foreign friends are moving on as well, with most leaving the country. Naoko, perhaps the only (non-missionary) student at X.U. who is older than I am, hosted her farewell/35th birthday party last week. She's maximizing her remaining sabbatical by traveling around Xinjiang over the next couple weeks, including a trip with Bahargul from Aksu to Kashgar. However, her time away is limited: Naoko must be back at her job, working for Tokyo's Kuroneko Yamato (The Black Cat Couriers) before the month is over.

Naoko explores Nan Shan
Naoko explores
Nan Shan

Rian and Laura will soon be off to Boston to finish their doctorates; I'll say goodbye to Friederike today. Bonnie and Matthew leave Tuesday for a jaunt around the world, getting married and paying respects to family and friends across three continents. Bonnie and Matthew are the only departing foreign friends who intend to return to Xinjiang this year.

I've been spending a lot of time being sociable, and not only because so many people are leaving. Calligraphy teacher Abdu-Shukkur's son turned seven, the age at which local tradition requires a circumcision ceremony and elaborate reception. I attended with Tiffany; it was fun to catch up with many of my former teachers also in attendance. The reception itself was no longer as novel though, being fairly similar to the function I attended last September.

The regular competitions that started a couple months back have continued on. Frisbee brings together a good mix of my foreign and Uighur friends. Card and board games are still hosted weekly. I decided to break out of the hummus routine and baked a chocolate layered cake with icing for last night's Cranium play. It was the first time in decades I've baked a cake from scratch.

I'm preparing for summer travels as well. My birthday is coming up in two weeks. My personal ritual has been to leave the country to mark that date. This year's trip will take me to neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. I already have visas for both countries, which happened through a random stroke of luck--I had thought that I could get only one visa before leaving. I applied for a visa at Urumqi's Kazakhstan consulate last week. The standard processing time for a Kazakhstan visa is three days--rather than picking up my own passport I bribed Nisagul to help me out.

At home that evening she reported back the expected problems: large crowds, inefficient service, and a general waste of time standing about doing nothing. When relating the experience, she surprised me by mentioning an issue I had not anticipated:

Nisagul: "At first I went to the wrong consulate."

David: "What do you mean, you went to the wrong consulate? There's isn't any other consulate in town besides Kazakhstan's."

Nisagul: "No, when I got off the bus I turned right instead of left. I saw these large golden signs in English, Russian, and Chinese for the consulate. But when I walked up they told me it was the Kyrgyz consulate--I'd have to continue another three minutes up the road to get to the right place."

David: "Huh? Are you sure? If there's a Kyrgyz consulate in town, I'll go there tomorrow. I was going to kill a couple days in Alma-Ata waiting on my Kyrgyz visa. A consulate here in Urumqi will spare me the hassle of trying to run that errand in a place I don't speak the language or know the city."

I headed off in search of this rumored Kyrgyz consulate the next day. I wandered along the road north, then south of the Kazakhstan consulate. Nowhere looked right. I finally eyed the golden signs with Cyrillic, Roman, and Chinese script on the side of a shabby apartment block.

I was skeptical on the likelihood of even submitting an application. It was 3:30 Beijing time and most consulates seem to limit reception to a couple early-morning hours to receive visa applicants. On top of that, the place looked all wrong. The building was a nondescript Chinese residential apartment. The tenant of the ground floor flat to the left of the main door was an elderly Chinese woman, sitting at her window, staring vacantly at the street. This was the consulate?

I rang the bell. The old woman sized me up for an uncomfortable length of time. I still wasn't sure what to expect when the door was opened by a young man with fair English.

"Please, come inside."

"Uh... yeah. Are you guys open?"

"You're here for a Kyrgyz visa?"

I stepped into his apartment, which was opposite that of the bored old woman. It was bare, excepting a large oriental rug and a couple of desks. Nobody else was inside, the only illumination was what streamed in from the exterior windows.

"Please sit down. Which type of visa do you want?"

This wound up being the most painless experience I've had applying for a visa. I didn't have to wait in line. It didn't matter that I arrived after business hours. The young man waited patiently as I filled out the application at his desk, offering me use of one of his own pens. When it came time to pay, he gave me the option to use either U.S. dollars or Chinese RMB. The rate was marginally better in dollars, but I elected to pay with Chinese money, figuring the dollars might be useful in future travel.

When I laid out 500 RMB for the 476 RMB fee, the consular official delicately handed me back one of the 100-yuan notes.

"I'm terribly sorry. I don't have any change with me. Why don't you just pay the balance when you pick up your passport?"

I've been in similar circumstances before and the onus has invariably been reversed. Anywhere else a notation would be made that 24 RMB was owed to me upon retrieval of the passport.

I suggested an alternative:

"How about this? I've got 71 RMB in change here. Why don't you take that, and I'll owe you 5 when I pick up my passport?"

"Sure, if you want to. Don't worry about the 5 when you come back."

I was astounded.

"Uh, how long has this consulate been in Urumqi? I didn't know there was one here."

"Six months. But we're going to move next month. We'll have a separate building and compound: just like the Kazakhstan consulate," he said with a nod that seemed to signify something.

"Thanks a lot. When should I pick up my passport?"


"Okay. What time?"

"Doesn't matter. Noon might be good."

If only applying for visas was always this easy.