2005.10.30 Urumqi, China
Neon Sculpture: People's
I'm a steadfast convert to my new policy of N.I.C.A.H.: No Internet Connection at Home. I now spend my time at home in ways that feel more worthwhile. I'm also getting out and running errands that have been on my to-do list for months.
Finding yesterday's weather fair and warm I figured it might be one of the last days of the year to run an errand I'd long postponed: I carried two of my potted plants to a greenhouse about ten-minutes' walk from my house. I reasoned that once cold temperatures have set in here taking my houseplants outside--even for a ten-minute walk--might be too much of a shock for them.
Upon moving to Urumqi in the spring of 2004 I bought a couple cheap plants to offer atmosphere to my dorm. They were sold in thin plastic pots which I had always meant to replace. I figured the greenhouse would also be a good place to force myself to speak Chinese, even if I had no idea what the words for ceramic pot, soil, or transplant might be.
I think I'm in the process of overcoming some unconciously-set language barrier. Before, when running an errand that required Chinese-speaking ability at an intermediate level, I would enlist the skills of a local friend--usually Nisagul. Now I'm making it a point to go solo. A few days ago I went to the local China Mobile office and switched to a new cell phone plan without assistance. I now have a cheaper cell-phone rate and colorful new pots at home. I attribute it all to N.I.C.A.H..
I got together with Bahar again last night, the first time we saw each other since our initial meeting last week. I took her to The Vine, one of Urumqi's few foreign-operated restaurants.
The Vine is a pleasant Caribbean joint, run by a couple women from the island of Curacao. It's the only place I regard as "neutral ground" in this city.
(There are loose categories I lump westerners into in Urumqi. Certain factions seldom mix. As a generalization I'd divide westerners into three groups. There are academics from elite schools (i.e. Ivy-League Spies) who are taking a year to do research out in the field. The English-teachers usually hail from England, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia. Christian missionaries come from the American South and Midwest. There also are a few westerners who have come here as ex-patriate salarymen, though in such small numbers that I wouldn't create a separate category for them.
The former two cliques mix fairly easily. However, about the only time I see the missionaries outside of the classroom is when I take a meal at The Vine. Curiously, I don't see much common-ground between the Korean missionaries and the western missionaries. They're both here for Christ, but seem to be working more in competition than cooperation. Whatever the level of camaraderie, the Korean missionaries don't hang out at The Vine.)
Dinner last night was Bahar's first time trying western food. Uighurs here generally fear that any cuisine other than their own will not have been prepared in a halal manner, perhaps tainted with pork or some other forbidden ingredient. Even the food prepared by the Donggan, the local Chinese Muslims, is suspect. Every now and again I hear silly rumors that such-and-such noodle shop uses donkey-meat--not halal--as a secret substitute for lamb or beef. Additionally, the spices and flavors of western dishes are unfamiliar to locals: it's taken awhile for a few of my friends to develop a taste for foreign dishes.
Time spent together felt comfortable. Bahar ate enough of both her black-pepper chicken and my chili that I could tell she wasn't thoroughly grossed-out by the experience. Again the focus of conversation revolved around points we find difficult in each other's language. I instructed Bahar in the basic use of silverware: she'd never before eaten with knife and fork. (Chopsticks are the default implement used here, even by the Uighurs.) We strolled to the bus stop after a couple hours at The Vine, I invited her to a small gathering I'll be hosting next week. She accepted.
Upon returning home from The Vine I heard Nisagul speaking on her mobile phone in the kitchen, sobbing. Presuming it was some sort of argument or other personal business, I went into my room and picked up a book, though left the door ajar in case she wanted to talk.
I was wrong: she was crying in pain. While roller-skating that evening she took a nasty spill and had intense pain througout her left arm. I offered several times to accompany her to hospital, she would have none of it. My guess was that the pain she described was the result of a broken bone, and told her so. She still refused to go to hospital so I asked if there was anything else I could do for her. She replied that she was famished and wanted a hot meal.
I took her to Eversun Coffee, a cozy--if pricey--cafe in central Urumqi. If she was too stubborn to seek medical attention, I figured the least I could do would be to treat her to a nice meal in pleasant surroundings.
Those travel plans I was so in the dark about in my last entry now seem to be gelling. About an hour after posting the last entry, my father called from the U.S.. It seems that he and his brothers will hold a sort of reunion around various locations in Asia this January. Hearing that, I figured that even if I didn't make it back to the U.S. this winter, I'd surely be able to meet up with them in Southern China, Hong Kong, or Manila.
The next day I found that the fares on Northwest Airlines have dropped further. 3,888 yuan is the price for a round-trip ticket to most cities across the U.S. and Canada. I found a couple of reasons to yet give me pause, though. The price quoted doesn't include extra, artificial surcharges, such as "tax" and "fuel surcharge". Additionally, Seattle is one of the few destinations that is not available at that rate. However, Portland, Oregon is on the list, and close enough that I think I will go.
So, my rough plan for the winter is:
On a final note, I've updated my website with entries from the recent journey across Tibet. I kept a pen-and-paper journal while on the road, I've only just now managed to transcribe them all into digital form. I slipped them in, posting each as they were completed. However, they were buried beneath more recent entries: even those who subscribe to my update notifications may not have noticed them. For the true weblog junkie, here are the entries I posted well after they were written: