2005.10.21 Urumqi, China Riding to Dunhuang from Nearby Buddhist Caves

After lingering in Lhasa, I completed the overland Xinjiang/Tibet circuit by taking buses, then a train back to Urumqi. I was surprised by how many direct buses there are from Lhasa to other cities inside and outside of China: Chengdu, Chungking, Xi'an, Kathmandu--driving non-stop these destinations must take three to four days to reach.

The majority of buses leaving Lhasa make a beeline to the nearest city with a railway station, Golmud. The road between those two cities is quite good. If the bus hadn't repeatedly broken down the ride would have taken 18 hours. Instead it took well over 30.

That sort of trip will likely soon become a thing of the past: train tracks parallel the motorway along the entire Lhasa/Golmud route. The Chinese government has been developing its remotest territories quickly. Much of this comes through offering incentives for ethnic Chinese to move from other areas and resettle in minority lands such as Xinjiang and Tibet. Both regional capitals of Urumqi and Lhasa now have over 80% Han populations. The line to Tibet is slated to begin passenger runs in 2007, I saw trains already running at various points along the railway.

It's hard to support a vehicle by which the population of a people's homeland is diluted, but on the way back I would have loved to have taken a train. The Golmud run was surely the worst sleeper bus I've been on. The pillows and blankets were dingy and grey, with hair of several previous passengers in evidence. The berth was more cramped than those on other sleeper buses: my upper back, shoulders and head got to hang above the passenger behind me. The passenger behind me was an adolescent boy with some of the worst-smelling feet I have ever encountered. To top all that off, the drivers had only two CD's. Not only did they play those same discs over and over, they would put the stereo system into a "repeat mode" where the same song would play four or five times in a row. After midnight that practice continued, but the crew additionally took turns singing along karaoke-style over the bus P.A. system.

At one point, feeling I was slowly being driven mad, I looked around and realized I was the only one with any problem. Yes, the boy's feet stunk, but they probably smelled equally rank to the passenger next to me. Everybody else was asleep, oblivious to the blaring karaoke which even my earplugs couldn't filter out. I passed the time contemplating which public habits in America might be acceptable to locals, yet drive visitors nuts.

We reached Golmud around midnight the next day, too late to move further on. Most of the other travelers disembarking were Szechwanese, hoping to catch the next train to Chengdu. Everybody stayed at dormitories in the back of a restaurant at the railway station, waiting for onward transportation after dawn. A group of three young women asked me if I was interested in hiring a car with them to Dunhuang the next day. After enduring the conditions of the sleeper bus a speedy private car sounded great, but the price was too steep. I was in no hurry; we in fact all wound up taking the public bus together for half the cost of a car. We didn't spend a lot of time getting to know one another, but it was nice to have companions to chat with and share a meal over the eight-hour trip.

I was rather taken by Dunhuang. The city itself had a relaxed feel, people seemed friendly and open. Having been disappointed by the Kyzyl 1,000 Buddha caves outside of Kucha a few months prior I expected the frescoes outside Dunhuang to be similarly lackluster. I hadn't realized how elaborate each cave would be.

Dunhuang Caves
Dunhuang Caves
Many centuries ago monks took existing caves along a range of hills and carved them into masterpieces. I found the interiors unexpected. Rather than a rocky cave, each was a perfect chamber with smooth, parallel walls, as would be found in the room of a house. The caves were unique: no two had identical decoration. There were not just frescoes, but larger-than-life statues of the Buddha and boddhisattvas. Many of the chambers had a small concave-pyramid apex at the center of the ceiling, decorated with lotus flowers and other common Buddhist motifs. A couple of the caves held nothing more than a massive statue of the Buddha, seven-, eight-stories high. There are hundreds of caves around Dunhuang.

Dunhuang is a major tourist destination, especially for people visiting from other countries with Buddhist tradition, such as Korea and Japan. There are plenty of pricey tours and buses to cater to them, but only one cheap public bus, leaving daily at 8:00 A.M.. That was too early for me, so I rented a bicycle to go the 25 kilometers later in the day. The ride was odd: the terrain around the city of Dunhuang was fertile, with trees and crops, mostly cotton. At the halfway point, the road forked off into the desert, where the only life to be seen consisted of low shrubs and scattered skinks hopping about the rocks.

I was happy that I remembered to bring my Xinjiang University student card. Entry tickets cost 100 yuan ($12.50 U.S.) for all visitors, with foreign visitors obligated to pay an additional 20 yuan for a guide-cum-translator. The student card allowed me to pay a discounted rate of only 50 yuan and waive the additional fee.

Most of the tour groups were impromptu arrangements, so it was easy to flit about from one to another, spending several hours longer than I could have were I to have stuck with one group. Most visitors were older: a 50-year old tourist would have been on the young side. The majority seemed to be Chinese and Japanese. The only people I saw who were close to my age were one small group of western backpackers.

The few other western groups were clearly expensive private tours. Those were nothing but a big brag-fest. I eavesdropped as older women with British and Australian accents tried to casually one-up each other, dropping references to other places they had visited. "Have you been to Sri Lanka? Oh, you really must. The Buddhist works here are nothing compared to what they have there..."

On the way back into town I discovered the reason I was the only one to ride a bicycle out to the caves. A fine day with good weather, 25 kilometers should have taken between an hour to an hour-and-a-half by bicycle. However, strong winds meant not just fighting a headwind while pedaling, but choking blindly through a sandstorm. I hoped that upon reaching the fork in the road the sand or wind might lessen, but neither let up. It took over two hours to go the distance. That night I developed a raspy, hacking cough and runny nose which I attribute to that ride back into town. Those symptoms only now seem to be clearing up.

After returning the bicycle I found a ride to the railway head at Luyuan, 100 kilometers north of Dunhuang. I took the midnight train back home, the most comfortable leg of my journey. The trip to Urumqi takes ten hours, most of which I spent sleeping in a comfortable, clean berth.

I've been back in Urumqi for a little over a week. The sheer size of the city and comforts available here still startle me. While in rural Tibet spending time in remote locations (with the exception of Hou Er Shan) didn't strike me as that great of a hardship, after returning I've begun to feel that life in big, polluted Urumqi is ever so cozy and easy.

I'm not enrolling in courses this term. I am informally auditing a grammar class three days a week with my favorite Uighur-language teacher. She understands that I'm technically not one of her students this semester but doesn't mind if I sit in. I've also rung my calligraphy instructor--we should meet later today. Presumably I will pay him directly as I am the sole student--otherwise he wouldn't be paid for his time.

Monday morning I took care of some business at my apartment. I paid for the winter heat and an additional annual maintenance fee: 900 yuan, over $100. I decided that as I was forking over so much money I might as well see something for it. I asked the apartment management if they could send somebody up to look at my bathroom sink, the pipe had been clogged for some time. It wasn't completely blocked, but water had been draining slowly, sometimes dribbling out onto the floor as well.

They sent a maintenance worker up immediately. He proceeded to completely dismantle the sink, removing the porcelain from the wall. I knew this was unnecessary. A strong plunger might have fixed the problem, a plumber's snake or stiff bent wire would surely have worked.

Instead of fixing the problem, he made the situation far worse. Before, I had a sink which drained slowly but was functional. After pulling the sink off the wall he accidentally dropped it on the floor, cracking a large shard off the bottom of the basin. I now had a sink with a hole. I told him it was no big deal, figuring that the apartment would replace it quickly. The repairman went to the flat above mine to work on a separate issue; I went off to class.

When I came back to the apartment after class, I stopped in at the management office to ask the woman on duty about the sink. I again encountered one of those mei banfa situations common in China, where logic disappears completely. "Oh, that? Yes, we will re-install a new sink. But you'll have to go out and find another one yourself. At your own expense, of course."

The level of my Chinese being as basic as it is, I figured I was the one not understanding. How could there be any other side to it? I had just paid a steep maintenance fee for the apartment. They sent somebody into my flat to fix something, which he broke. How could they say that I should be the one to go out and find a new sink, pay for it, and bring it back?

The next morning I came back with Nisagul, to try to clear up the matter. Yes, it was on me to find a replacement and to pay for it. Nisagul started politely, but became more pointed in expressing our requirement that they be the ones to find, pay for, and re-install the sink. Typical mei banfa nonsense was the response: "Oh, the maintenance fee? That doesn't cover the sink. That's for sweeping and clearing the stairwells. Because you weren't paying for him to come in and fix the problem, the fault is yours. If you were to lend a friend a shirt for free, and they damaged it, that would be your fault, right?"

I felt the main point to be so simple: they were the ones to break something of mine, so should be the ones to replace it. With visions of additional headache and expense forming in my mind, I saw a lot of wasted time and money in my immediate future.

Nisagul and I returned to the office the next afternoon. At first it seemed that the story had changed: "Okay, that nice worker is going to go out and find a replacement sink for you." This was a good start. I know Urumqi well enough that I could easily go out and replace most household items. However, being a foreigner generally means paying much more: partly as I am not skilled at bargaining, partly as westerners are presumed to have unlimited wealth.

"What about the expense?" I asked. The woman seated behind her desk went from cooperative to hostile. "The cost? Well, that should at least be shared, as it is your fault." Nisagul spoke tersely, articulating why somebody coming into your apartment and breaking something is not your fault. I just smiled and shrugged my shoulders throughout the exchange, concluding with, "I'm not paying for it," upon which we left.

We were both angry and upset, I tried to figure what we could do to improve our mood. Nothing seemed right. We didn't feel like distracting ourselves by meeting up with anybody else. We weren't hungry. Even going for a massage wouldn't have been relaxing. Finally, I decided that we should rent bicycles on campus and ride them around the city. Engaging in physical activity while exploring somewhere new appealed to both of us.

While leaving the apartment, Nisagul idly mentioned the cost of a new sink: "That's going to be at least 50 to 60 yuan to replace a nice sink like you had." I stopped in my tracks. "50 to 60 yuan? We're having all this argument over $6.25?"

Nisagul: "Yeah, but they broke our sink."

Me: "Well, we both know that we're right and they're very wrong. But I'll tell you, it's worth it to me to unjustly pay 50 yuan to not have this kind of frustration."

Nisagul: "Yeah, but they broke our sink."

Me: "Do you remember how I told you about how I got into a fierce argument down in Kashgar over 2 yuan? I was absolutely right, but believe me, it was not worth it to get so frustrated over such a small amount. If that's how this one works out, so be it. To me paying six bucks is a small price to avoid such stupid conflict."

Nisagul didn't seem convinced, but the tension was broken. We found that the shop on campus that rented bicycles was no longer in that line of business, so spent the afternoon walking around the Russian part of town. I found good prices on items difficult to find other parts of China: halva, dill pickles, and sour cream were all cheap and abundant.

Yesterday morning I was awoken by pounding on my door. The repairman who broke my sink came in, replaced it was an identical model, then asked for 20 yuan to cover the installation fee. I paid it without argument. I may well be socked with the cost of the sink itself sometime later (which I would pass on to my landlady, anyway,) though it seemed like the affair was over. No matter how long I live here, or how fluent I become in the language, I shall never understand how it is things work in this country.

I've been in a cooking mode of late. Last night I prepared burritos for dinner. I found that chappatis from a nearby Pakistani restaurant can serve equally as flour tortillas. Yellow lentils from the same location substitute well for refried pinto beans. If I hadn't prepared the food myself, I would swear both ingredients were the genuine article.

I used the last of the cream cheese brought by Auntie Martha to make one final cheesecake. Nisagul's tastes have tilted towards foreign flavors. She celebrated her 24th birthday while in Tibet. I told her I would bake her a cake when we returned to Urumqi, she requested that it be a cheesecake. Knowing we would share it, I was more than happy to oblige.

A few days after returning to Urumqi I bumped into Zhi Shuang downtown. We hadn't seen each other in about half a year. No falling-out had taken place, we'd just neglected to call each other. We arranged to meet up again, over dinner Wednesday night.

When we did meet, I became miffed almost immediately. Zhi Shuang pulled a move typical in China, asking if she could introduce a friend of hers who was interested in meeting a foreigner to improve their English. (At least she had the courtesy to ask me instead of just bringing her friend along, which is how it would more commonly be done in this country.) I laid my feelings out: "I wanted to catch up with you over dinner, not some friend who is only interested in meeting me because I'm a native English speaker."

Zhi Shuang acknowledged my displeasure, but told me she felt pressured by her friend, an old mate from both high school and university who was now teaching English at one of Urumqi's colleges, the Institute of Foreign Trade.

I relented, agreeing that her friend could join us. I made it clear that the extent of what I was willing to offer was one night of conversation over dinner. I was wary of encountering yet another language-leech trying to get free English lessons, even if it was the friend of a friend.

My attitude began to change after being introduced to Zhi Shuang's friend, Bahar. I expected to meet somebody Chinese, Bahar was half-Kazakh, half-Uighur. My language focus is presently more oriented towards Uighur than Chinese so I figured Bahar might offer fair prospects for a balanced language exchange. Her being svelte and cute definitely swayed me. More than anything I liked that she was direct: without request she corrected my Uighur. Times I made grammatical mistakes, she would repeat the phrase as a native would. The Uighur language has several vowels which don't exist in English, she helped me practice pronouncing them. We easily began sharing the four-lettered words in each other's language, a territory I hadn't broached with my other local friends.

I found the evening to be the opposite of what I feared. After dinner I asked Zhi Shuang and Bahar if they wanted to grab a milkshake at Papalu, a hip new restaurant with a decent menu of western dishes. We chatted mostly in English, the common language we were most adept at. We occasionally slipped into Chinese, but that's the weakest of my languages. I often spoke in Uighur with Bahar, but doing so alienated Zhi Shuang. Despite being a Xinjiang native Zhi Shuang doesn't speak a word of Uighur.

At the end of the evening I happily surrendered my 'phone number. I'm pretty sure I'll be seeing more of Bahar.

Trivia: Bahar's name means "springtime".