UUU Reunion II

Green Lake Park, Kunming
March 30, 2009

It's been a long way up from Laos. Just a couple hours after leaving Luang Prabang the bus broke down. It wasn't repaired for another twelve hours. Though the breakdown meant one fewer day to spend with friends across the border in Kunming it wasn't such a bad experience. I got to spend more time in northern Laos and had an unexpected opportunity to play Chinese chess.

When it became clear that our bus wouldn't be moving any time soon, all the passengers hopped a ride in a passing minivan to Oudomxai, the nearest town. Most of the passengers were from China; we passed our time waiting in a Chinese restaurant. I got to talking with some of the people around me, both fellow travelers and locals. At one point I asked a restaurant worker if they had some distraction--a deck of cards or a chess set--to help pass the time. Hearing this, one of the men sitting nearby asked if I could play Chinese chess. When I admitted that I could, he invited me back to his home.

"It's nearby, just behind the restaurant. My uncle loves Chinese chess! You'll have to play against him."

I knew that accepting the invitation would mean uninteresting matches for his uncle and quick losses for me. Still, with no bus in-sight, I figured that it was my best option of finding anything to do.

The chess matches were exactly what I expected. I do know the rules of Chinese chess--but I have no sense of strategy and don't know even one opening gambit. We sipped lukewarm tea and played a few rounds--one of which I lost in just six moves.

By the final game my opponent was kind enough to offer instruction and show me the logical sequence of how a bad move would play out:

"If you move that cannon there, I'll move my horse here. Then you'll have no choice but to protect your cannon, either by moving it elsewhere or moving some other piece. But no matter which method you take, I can then capture either this piece of yours or that one, there."

"Oh. Now, I see..."

I was reminded of other table games I had played so often that both strategy and sequence of logical moves seemed transparent--until teaching the game to a new player. I recalled how one time I played chess against a child who moved the same pawn forward with each turn. I realized that playing Chinese chess against me probably felt much the same.

Since arriving in Kunming five days ago I've been spending most of my time calling on foreign friends who have moved here from Urumqi. I've divided my nights staying here first at Logan's, then at Fausto's apartment. Both of them were also enrolled as foreign students at universities in Urumqi over the same time I was attending classes there. Then, they both separately but simultaneously made the decision to leave Urumqi and continue studies at universities here in Kunming. I hadn't seen either of the two since the spring of 2008: I've had so much fun catching up.

Logan Bemoans the Demolition
of her Favorite Dumpling House
Much of our time spent together has been over coffee or a meal, both of which Kunming has much on offer. Kunming might be one of those few cities in China where a good cup of coffee is easy to find. The province Kunming lies in, Yunnan, now has plentiful coffee plantations. Yunnan is on the other end of China from Xinjiang: we've gone out for food which is common here but I never found in Xinjiang. There are Thai (Daizu) restaurants everywhere, most of which are built to resemble a traditional bamboo hut. Sticky-rice served in a hollowed-out pineapple, fried-up morning glory: I don't think these dishes were available anywhere in Urumqi.

Both Logan and Fausto do express a nostalgia for our times back in Xinjiang and the place itself. However, they've transferred down here at least in-part because everything about being a foreigner in Kunming is far easier than it was back up in Urumqi. Residence registration with the local precinct is a formality of minutes rather than the trial of repeat visits and wasted days it was with Urumqi police. The schools Logan and Fausto attend, Yunnan Minorities University and Yunnan University, offer better facilities and instruction than X.U. did--at the same cost of tuition. It's easier to focus on study of Mandarin when away from the temptations of Kazakh- or Uighur-language course options. There is a much larger set of foreigners studying, working, and loitering about Kunming. Small comforts seem easier to find.

Nikolaj, David, Susi,
Fausto, and Logan
Yesterday, my final full day in Kunming, was spent just as we spent so many days when living back in Urumqi: playing Frisbee. Rounding-out our crowd of former Urumqi expats were Nikolaj and Susi who also happened to be in town, here on a brief visit from Denmark. What are the odds of five Frisbee-playing former foreign residents of Urumqi gathering together at the same time, in some city thousands of miles away? Pretty high, evidently.

Now, it's early morning. I'm at the Kunming airport waiting to board a flight back to Urumqi, itself. I won't be there for long: just enough time to call on some of my friends who never left. Naturally, everybody I've seen over these past days around Kunming has expressed extreme jealousy that I'm the one making a trip back to Xinjiang.