5-Day Stay

April 4, 2009

I am thoroughly enjoying being back in Urumqi. The city may offer little superficial charm, but it is the city I last called home.

I'm in town for only five days. That won't be enough time to visit all the friends and familiar places that were part of my life over recent years. I've booked up a heavy schedule to meet with as many people as I can: former teachers, local friends, and the few foreigners I knew who are still out here.

It feels good to be speaking other languages again. Actually, it doesn't feel just "good": it feels right. Somehow, it feels normal to be communicating in something other than English.

I'm often addressed in Uighur when I go about town, which I find both a- and be-musing: this must be the only part of the planet where I am consistently mistaken for a local at the outset of every interaction. My appearance doesn't usually stand out in most of the other countries I travel through, but it doesn't usually blend in perfectly either. When in other parts of the world, people often assume that I'm from some region nearby. But here in Xinjiang, people are shocked when I open my mouth and they first hear my accent--it is only then that they realize I'm not from these parts.

Enjoy Urumqi as I may, I haven't been swept with that sense of nostalgia that came upon every previous return to this city. Prior occasions when I came back I felt an immediate excitement. On this visit--while I am enjoying seeing the familiar faces and places--I haven't experienced that same sense of thrill. I don't feel drawn to being here without further purpose. Unless I had some other concrete goal in coming back to Urumqi (perhaps finally opening that hookah lounge) why would I want to spend more than a few days here?

Money to Burn
I've bought my ticket back to Seattle. I'm thankful that just a couple days ago World Vision magazine deposited payment for the final articles I wrote. (Earlier this year, I told the editors that I could no longer continue to write a monthly article about travel in China while stuck in Seattle limbo.) I'm pleased: the amount they deposited was more than I expected and covered nearly half of my ticket back.

I had to travel on specific dates so the ticket wasn't cheap. Though pricey, it will allow me to be in the places I want to be in over the next months: I have stopovers in Beijing going both directions. Then, this Thursday, that temporary two-month job in Seattle begins. Come July, Jochen and Gulaim will host a traditional wedding ceremony in Kyrgyzstan. That country lies just across the border from Xinjiang, so I booked a return leg back here at the end of June. I'll probably make my way to Kyrgyzstan overland from Xinjiang again, either via Kashgar or Almaty.

After the wedding, I'm hoping to observe my annual ritual: being "somewhere out of the country" on my birthday. I'm contemplating a trip to Tajikistan for this year. That country shares a border with Kyrgyzstan: which is where I'll already be to attend Jochen's wedding. Staying on in Kyrgyzstan through my birthday would suffice to recognize my birthday tradition--but I'd like to travel somewhere new this year. Everybody I know who has been to Tajikistan has raved about the mountains, the lack of connection to the rest of the world, and--above all--the people. Further driving my curiosity are Tajikistan's historical ties to the Persian empire; crossing Iran was the highlight of my travels in 2007.

Finally, Tajikistan is the only country ending in "'stan" that I've never visited. That seems as good a reason as any to try to get there for this next birthday.