Sunday, March 01, 2009

Urumqi. Greetings from.


Okay, I'm tired. Trying to decide if I should open the beer I bought or whether that would induce hallucinations. I already feel like things are a little surreal around here. After 48 hours on the train, I arrived in Urumqi at about 7 PM - well, depending on who you ask. Even though all of China is officially on Beijing time, here in the Wild Wild West, they also observe local time, which is two hours earlier. Sort of. There's also "business time," which I haven't sussed out yet, except sometimes if it's 9 AM Beijing Time, things don't open for business until 10 AM Beijing time, making that 9 AM business time, Urumqi style. In other words, I have no idea what time the hotel breakfast is tomorrow.

I'm going for the beer.

The train ride was interesting. I haven't yet decided if that's interesting as in, "I'd like to do that again sometime," or interesting as in, "no flippin' way, you must be joking! But I got lots of blog material out of it." The experience is a little colored by my arrival at the Urumqi train station, where I was greeted by THE most chaotic taxi situation ever. It was Darwinian. Absolutely no order or line whatsoever. Lines apparently are for suckers. One cop/security guard now and again instructed the cabs to drive ahead to the front where the line should have been, but wasn't. Instead, would-be passengers swarmed the cabs as they approached, grabbing onto the door handles as they slowly cruised forward, and if they could get the door open and a bag tossed in the back seat, the cab was theirs.

All of this was compounded by more touts per square foot than I think I've ever had to deal with, little Uighur kids demanding my used train ticket (why? Who knows? Probably a variation on the fapiao scam), people trying to sell me SIM cards, all kinds of "drivers" offering to take me to my hotel, or to find me a hotel, to which I replied, repeatedly, "I am waiting for a cab," and finally, "do you have a black car? Because I don't want a black car!" This at least got a laugh.

I finally used my superior (which is to say, "larger and heavier") Western build to shoulder-check a slender Chinese girl who tried to swipe the cab out from under me (I was there first, I swear), elbowed another guy out of the way (using my suitcase as a blocking device), threw my luggage in the back seat, and victory was mine.

Then the hotel address that my booking agency provided was wrong, and I pissed off the cab driver by questioning his judgment (I was still a little raw from the asshole cabbie I'd experienced in Chengdu - and don't get me wrong, nine times out of ten, I find Chinese cab drivers to be lovely people; I've had some great conversations in cabs), but I made it.

Yay.

So far, I'm disoriented. The pun is inadvertent but sort of fits. Street signs are in Chinese and Arabic script, which I'd been seeing ever since Ningxia, but what's weird is all the Cyrillic. Welcome, Russian comrades! A lot of signs don't have English at all, and I mean in the obvious places like the train station (English signage has become pretty standard in larger Chinese cities. Thankfully, though my written Chinese sucks, I can at least navigate the basics). And on the streets, there are all these people who aren't Chinese, speaking a language that's totally unfamiliar to me. In a way I guess I don't look as "foreign" here. Though I doubt I could pass for a Uighur - my coloring isn't right, and I don't think the shape of my face is quite either - but who knows, maybe I could in an uncertain light. Still, it's not the China I recognize, and I'm more at home there, even if I'm unmistakably a laowai in that environment.

My hotel is quite nice, the staff at the downstairs restaurant friendly (they like my Chinese, I get a lot of mileage with my "Northern," "standard" accent); I found a local market to buy water and tissue paper and beer, and once again, I seem to have brought a warming trend with me. After several weeks of temperatures in the single digits (going all the way up to 16 F or so in the heat of the day), today was, if not exactly balmy, just below freezing, with no wind. I put on a hat, which was nice, and gloves, which I could have managed without.

I have not once on this entire trip put on a pair of long underwear, and why is it I've lugged the freakin' Sorrel boots all this way?!

I may wear them tomorrow, depending on the weather report. I plan on going to the Xinjiang Museum, where the "European" mummies are, and then to the Uighur market. After I wake up. At some Beijing, local or business time, take your pick.

p.s. My beer's label claims, "The entire process is of asepsis." That's a good thing, right?

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