Monday, March 02, 2009

Toto, we're not in Beijing anymore...

Wow. You know, I've traveled in China enough so that most places, even if it's the first time I've visited, still feel pretty familiar to me. You know, it's China.

But Urumqi is definitely different. Unfamiliar languages, unfamiliar faces, signs I have no hope of reading, even with my handy Chinese Pleco dictionary.

I was a bit put off by my arrival at the train station and started off today fairly annoyed because the Xinjiang Museum is closed on Mondays, and the gentleman in the guard house/ticket booth didn't speak enough Chinese to explain that to me, just that they "xiuxi" ("rest") and he pointed to a time on my analog watch that made no sense at that moment - but now it does. He meant 10 AM Beijing time, tomorrow. Anyway, I could try and rush and visit for about 45 minutes before catching the plane to Yining tomorrow, but I'm inclined to skip it. You know, the popular saying in China when you're leaving someplace, "Man zou." Which literally means, "go slowly." Be careful. I'm sort of a "man zou" person myself. I don't like rushing around.

Anyway, after that frustration, I returned to the hotel to recharge myself and various electronic devices, then headed to the Uighur market and area at Erdaoqiao.

Again, wow. I wandered around, looked at Uighur handicrafts, getting lost in the chaos of the street vendors, the music, the mix of people and cultures...

I like it here.

Turning a corner, I came upon a sign for the Castle Restaurant, which looked suspiciously like a Bavarian hofbrauhaus badge to me.
Well, I had to go inside. I was getting hungry anyway.

Women and men dressed in fancy traditional Uighur costumes greeted me at the door. I gaped a little. In general, restaurants in China are not notable for their ambience, but this place was an exception. Carved wood everywhere, and traditional music playing at an appropriately ambient level (as opposed to bad pop blasting through tinny speakers). There has to be a backstory here - I mean, why is this place called "The Castle"? And then the menu is in Chinese, Arabic and Russian.

A Uighur waiter with an amiable slouch, his round cap tipped back on his head, came and took my order. I asked for recommendations (the Cyrillic was beyond me). We chatted a little. He complimented me on my Chinese, which honestly is not great, but I do have good pronunciation, and in Urumqi, I speak more Chinese than a lot of the locals do. Which is strange. I somehow never thought that I'd be using Chinese as a common language with other non-native Chinese speakers.

Anyway at one point I said that I was going to Yining to visit a friend, but that she wasn't American, she was Chinese - using the term, "Zhongguoren." He said, "You should say she's Han, not Chinese. A lot of us are Chinese who aren't Han - all of the national minorities." I apologized, saying that I spoke incorrectly. "Mei shi" - "No problem." But I thought this was pretty interesting, this example of a sense of national Chinese identity that both transcends and insists on the ethnic one.

After that, I wandered around some more, past the mosque - at least, I think it's still a working mosque. It was a little hard to tell because of the infiltration of shops all around it.

Then I came across this scene, installed in front of the mosque by a minaret-style tower monument to Uighur culture: a lit Christmas tree, with ice sculptures of Santa, a sleigh and reindeer, edges slightly blurred by melting. Well, it is a little late for Santa.

Only in China.

Net Nanny willing (it's making publishing a beeotch, especially uploading images), I'll write up my train trip next. And I still need to post about Dufu's Thatched Cottage, which is a lot more interesting than it might sound.

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