Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I got nuthin'

The big advantage to traveling around in China is that I never am short of blog topics. Sitting here in Venice, I could talk about, I don't know, my cats. Or I could bitch about politics. It's funny, really, because Venice CA is a wonderful place. People come from all over the world to spend some time here, and I love it. Objectively, Venice is no less interesting than China. But I'm not especially inspired to post about it.

Partly I think this has to do with working more actively on my WIP again. Maybe I only get so many words per day. I wish I could write more eloquently or insightfully or...well, at all...about the process of writing, but I don't seem to be very good at that.

My amazingly talented buddy Bryn Greenwood has a cool post up about what she feels is one of the odder questions asked of writers - "where do you get your ideas from?":
Writers get their story ideas from everywhere. Everything.

A newspaper article. An overheard conversation. A non-verbal interaction glimpsed. A random string of free associations. A dream.
This is probably another one of those things I shouldn't admit. I have a hard time coming up with ideas. I always have. I tend to fix on something and worry it to death like one of those terriers with a rat. Not that I've actually ever seen a terrier with a rat. But I like the way it sounds.

Anyway, there was the time I fixated on blimps. Well, airships, more accurately. I had this script I could never quite make work that featured airships in a sort of cheerful dystopia - "Mad Max" as comedy. As is my habit, I tried to combine all sorts of things that didn't really go together: blimps, rain forests, rock stars, reality TV (this was before "Survivor," by the way). As mentioned, I never could quite make it work, but I liked the characters, and, you know, the blimps, so I proceeded to write six TV episodes based on that. Why? Who can say? I worked in film and TV and knew that the odds of my selling this thing were pretty much nil.

After that, I fixated on what I call my "Trashy Novel" series. I just wanted to write something for fun. I made up a world so I wouldn't be constrained by reality or have to do any research. The book turned out to be, oh, 540 pages. I had so much fun with this that I wrote a sequel. I am not going to admit in a public space how long that one is. See, I felt bad about how I'd left one of the main characters at the end of the first book. Thus, the second. The third is half-done, but I decided this was not a smart use of my time.

More recently, I fixated on...well, how incredibly pissed off I was at things like the Iraq War and trashing the Constitution, which I was certain would be the final straw that would collapse the American economy. Um, yeah. But since I had this notion that I really should write something I might be able to sell, I set the story mainly in China. China's big, right? And I threw a bunch of other disparate stuff in there as well. Another one of my, "Let's juggle a flaming torch, a bowling ball and a chainsaw and see how it all comes out!" projects.

I envy writers who are inspired by something and construct a story around that thing. I seem to spend a lot of time flailing around, trying to take in all this weird shit that doesn't go together and make it somehow make sense.

My reality is like that, I guess.

So, this latest book started with a setting, and then a vague idea. I can't remember where I read this or who said it, except he is a well-known author, and that was his story-building method, he said: a setting and an idea. I relate.

Then as is my wont, I started throwing some stuff in there that didn't go together to see if I could make it make sense. Not as much as some of my wackier projects, and when I worried that I was piling on too much with this one, what I thought was a disparate element turned out to be intimately connected with the main driver of the story.

Reality is getting too meta, even for me.

I still can't tell if the book is going to work, some 35K into it, but I wrote a scene the other night I really like. I like that I've got my main character in a real bind, with no clear escape from her situation. Whether I can sustain this for another 50-60K, I really don't know.

I'm going to go kill someone now. That should help. I mean, with the book.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday wrap-up

Sorting through CDs and clothing accompanied by an Oxygen Network America's Next Top Model marathon (Season 7 if you must know. I think this might be the best season I've ever seen). Since I'm about as disinterested in fashion as could be, I can't explain why I find this show compelling. But it works almost as well as football for housecleaning.

New favorite television series - still Breaking Bad. It's on tonight on AMC, thus the plug. Beautifully filmed in a way that you rarely see on TV. Bryan Cranston's multi-layered performance is a revelation. And the entire premise of the series for me, seems incredibly relevant in today's America, a country that truly seems adrift.

Speaking of, I've been in a notably cranky mood as of late. I should avoid political discussions when I'm in this mood. I got into it with one fellow who was arguing that if a lowering of living standards in the US resulted in a raising of those standards in China and India and elsewhere in the world, well, you could make the case that this was overall a good thing.

It's not that I disagree, intellectually. It was the way he argued it, with a smirk and an amused detachment, particularly when we'd been talking about the job loss and pain caused by the economic crisis in this country.

I was feeling anything but detached. I said something like, well, that's easy for you to say from your position of privilege. And you have a kid - you're telling me you want that for him?

He couldn't really answer me, when I put it that way.

Meanwhile his six year old boy was goofing around and making faces in the background, more than ready to go home.

What I figured out later is that though intellectually I could agree, and on every level I want to see living standards raised around the world, that there's no excuse for the extremes of poverty and wealth on this planet, the hard part is, we live in an actual place, not in an ideal. We have neighbors, we have communities, physical spaces in which we reside. If our neighbors and our communities are hurting, it's a hard thing to intellectualize.

Writing: it goes. Slowly. But it goes. Whether it's good or not, I'm not sure. I'm just trying to turn out the words regardless.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Happy Serf Emancipation Day!

Come on, everybody - get in the holiday spirit! This could be the perfect new celebration for post-Crash America!

(image courtesy of Stefan Landsberger's excellent Chinese poster site)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging!

An old tradition (in internet terms) but a good one...

Thursday, March 26, 2009


As mentioned in an earlier post, I somehow managed to break my point-and-shoot pocket camera during my trip, cracking the viewing screen on the back, which completely scrambled the image into TV test bars and lines. This was especially frustrating because this particular camera, the Olympus Stylus 850, is designed to be waterproof down to 10 feet of water and shock-proof up to a five foot drop - and I have no idea how I broke it, just pulled it out to take a photo, and there was the crack. I was really fond of the camera too. The image quality is decent and I liked that it would hold up to a certain amount of abuse...well, in theory.

Anyway though the camera was still under warranty, I figured it probably would not be covered, with the damage excluded under the "misuse" clause. But I went ahead and sent it in, thinking that I might as well see if the repair would be cheaper than the replacement cost.

I walked it over to a UPS Store on Saturday. It went out on Monday. Today is Thursday. The camera arrived today, all fixed, no charge. I am amazed.

Also amazing...I wasn't home to accept delivery. I live in a house surrounded by a fairly tall fence on the street side. The UPS guy threw it over the fence. It was a good 20 feet away from the gate, so he must have really flung it. Now, I've left notes for UPS on occasion when I could not wait for a package, saying that if the gate was locked, go ahead and throw it over. You know, things like my Red Oxx deliveries. But this was a box, clearly marked on all sides, in big red letters, "Fragile."

Thankfully the camera is not cracked and does seem to work, but really, UPS guys. Would you toss a wine shipment over the fence?

Anyway, thank you, Olympus, for standing behind your product and taking care of the repair in such an amazingly timely manner.

I am,

Your loyal customer.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Random Thoughts on a Monday Night...

I just finished watching the championship game of the World Baseball Classic. Wow, what a fantastic baseball game! Sparkling defensive play, clutch hitting, great pitching, a bottom of the 9th rally to send the game to extra innings. Team Japan beat South Korea in 10.

I don't know why I didn't watch more of these games. Apparently a lot of teams improved this year, including Team China, Australia and the Netherlands. I keep thinking that baseball really should catch on big in China, given the game's popularity in so much of Asia. It will be interesting to see if the performance of Asian teams in the tournament increases interest in the sport there.

I'm still really annoyed with the attitude of U.S. baseball, which treated the contest as a glorified spring training game. Why even compete if you aren't playing to win? Isn't baseball supposed to be our national past-time?

Yeah, I know it's really football, or possibly the NBA. But still...

UPDATE: Check out this great summary. This one too. And this column o' snark about just how lame the US effort was.

Next Random Thought: I realized that in spite of the description under the blog title, I rarely talk about writing here. Maybe because my process is something I can't really recommend to anyone. I'm not even sure what it is. I figured out that to some extent I operate like I'm observing my characters and situations from the outside. I don't necessarily know who they are or what they are going to do or why they are doing it. After I've observed their behavior for a while, I figure them out and it starts to make sense.

This is not efficient, and I wonder if it might be a symptom of some obscure form of multiple personality disorder.

Writing's gotten a lot harder for me the last few years. I hope this is a sign that I'm getting better as a writer and trying to make that leap to the next level, and not some sort of mid-life crisis and/or brain dysfunction. In point of fact I've been having a mid-life crisis since I was 21, so it's probably not that, but I'm still worried about the brain dysfunction possibility.

Also, I've noticed no correlation of quality between writing that comes easily and writing that comes hard. You'd think that when you have those nights where everything just flows and it's really fun that the writing is better than those other times when every word is a pain in the ass to generate, but at least in my case, not so much.

This makes it hard for me to tell if what I'm doing is any good or not. Just because it doesn't feel good doesn't mean it isn't. But the converse doesn't hold either.

Where does that leave me? With a first draft of a novel that's somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 complete, featuring a heroine who isn't all that likable and whose qualities I'm still trying to understand.

In other news, I have two cats on my lap.

I may have to move in a few months or so, and said felines are much on my mind. If I move, it will most likely be to China, because, in what to me is weirdly ironic, I have a better shot at finding a gig there, at least one that is interesting and will cover the cost of living. And I could finally really improve my Mandarin, which is worth something, and I'd most likely never run out of blog material. But damn, the cats. I guess you only get this if you are an animal person, but even though I know they would have homes, it's still really painful. If I find work and settle in China for an extended period, I can take one with me. I have three. It feels like a feline "Sophie's Choice."

I don't even want to talk about how loathsome I find the whole process of moving, and about how scary the prospect of maybe trying to sell Shack By the Sea is...the key-word here being "trying."

Well, it's a tough time for a lot of people, and I don't expect it to get much easier in the near future. Unless of course you are a top executive at J.P. Morgan. The recent recipient of $25 billion in TARP (bail-out) funds, J.P. Morgan is now apparently doing so well that they are upgrading their corporate jets to the absolute best that Gulfstream has to offer. Oh, and they want to build a new luxury hangar too. With a rooftop vegetable "vegetative" garden. Which as I understand is an attractive target for birds. Just what you want to lure to airports!

I don't want to call the top management at J.P. Morgan clueless. "Clueless" sounds kind of...well, cute, in a dumb-blonde sorta way. "Clueless" doesn't really capture this:
...on March 11, the chairman of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, said he could not understand why corporate America has such a bad image.

"When I hear the constant vilification of corporate America I personally don't understand it," Dimon said.

Dimon, whose 2008 compensation package, according to SEC documents, was worth more than $19 million in salary, stock and options, declined to speak with ABC News about the proposed plans.
Like I said, writing's really been hard for me lately. I could use some help finding the words to describe these people and their decisions. Any suggestions?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Post-Dramatic Stress Syndrome

A good eFriend of mine told me recently her favorite real-life malapropism of all time: a friend of hers claimed to have "post-dramatic stress syndrome."

I am pretty sure that I suffer from this malady. I don't think I'm a full-fledged drama queen, but I have on occasion been a drama princess. Now that I'm older, perhaps a Drama Duchess.

On the other hand, you can find plenty of evidence that over-the-top drama plays a large role in our lives, and you don't have to look very hard for it either.

Take the latest wrinkle in the meta-infuriating AIG scandal: AIG executives in fear of their lives! Apparently there have been death threats, and, even worse, a planned protest involving unemployed people bussed in to an exclusive Connecticut neighborhood to "share their stories" of job loss and economic devastation with the beleaguered AIG execs. Which I guess means standing on the street by the lawns in front of their homes and talking to a TV camera, god willing.
"It's scary," one executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. "People are very, very nervous for their security."
You know, I realize that AIG has become a symbol, easy shorthand for everything that's gone wrong in our economy in the last, oh, twenty, thirty years. I know that in real life, things are more complicated, more nuanced, that we're all (or most of us) culpable, and how lovely that two of the execs have volunteered to return their bonuses, and, look, one of them contributes to a homeless shelter!

Still, at the moment, all I can think of is Livia Soprano's line: "Oh, poor you!"

To quote Gawker:
Anyway, the Times' story has precisely one secondhand report of a death threat, one angry neighbor in a driveway and a couple of pissed off Connecticut residents. None of the various Connecticut police departments contacted by the newspaper has heard anything about any sort of danger to these rich guys.

But still, let's feel anxious and a little ashamed of ourselves, on behalf of these wealthy executives. All that stands between them and terrible, fearsome populist mobs are their private security guards, their lawns, their state-of-the-art security systems, several flights of probably marble stairs and the entrenched political/law-enforcement establishment they bought over the past couple of decades, when the gettin' was good.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ethnic dances...

Xinjiang has long had the reputation of a place of exile - for Han Chinese, that is (I doubt this applies to, say, Xinjiang's Uighurs). A place to send troublemakers, people with inconvenient opinions, whose transgressions don't warrant imprisonment, but whom authorities prefer to isolate, keep out of the centers of power and opinion. Lin Zexu spent time in Xinjiang, and just a few days ago, AP spoke with He Weifang, well-known Beijing law professor and co-signer of Ch. 08, who was involuntarily transferred to an obscure Xinjiang college.

As places of exile go, Xinjiang, at least the part I visited, is pretty nice. He Weifang seems to agree: "I don't think it is a bad thing," he told AP. "It is quiet here. I get to read. I get to interact with fellow professors and students. It's a good thing."

My friend Susan, who is on a temporary assignment at a Xinjiang university, has found, I think to her own surprise, that she's liking Xinjiang a lot. I can see why. Yili, the Kazak Autonomous Region, is a beautiful area: grassland valleys, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The air is clean, nature within easy reach; the food plentiful, fresh and tasty. The city itself is pretty ordinary: your basic Chinese frontier city, dusty, a hodgepodge of nondescript buildings in various shades of beige, with the occasional faux Roman columns to add a little...well, actually, I've never been sure what the whole faux Roman temple architecture in China was about. But there are surprises here: sudden, ornate Uighur homes, with carved pillars and eaves, an old Chinese temple transformed into a Muslim restaurant.

And, at the risk of dropping a big, ole' cliche...it's the people. I don't know when I've ever been welcomed more thoroughly and with such genuine warmth. You know those drinking nights out I mentioned? I know they have their obligatory aspect, but everyone seemed to be having...well, actual fun. Real friendship, or comradeship at least. I don't want to go into too much detail, because I was not there as a journalist or even an amateur blogger; I don't want to repeat overheard or shared conversations. But on my last memorable night out, at a Kazak restaurant (it involved, um, dancing as well as drinking), what I heard people say was, "we're friends here. Not just work friends. After we retire, we'll still be friends." Who knows if that will actually come to pass, but they meant it, at that moment.

My favorite exchange was with one of the University officials, who along with everyone else at the table urged me to return to Xinjiang and that my friends and family should come too, because they would be equally welcome. Susan and he proclaimed their friendship over baijiu (they'd bonded on a school sponsored trip to Kashgar), and Susan told him about our friendship.

"You and your family and friends are always welcome here," he said. "Because she is your friend. And I am her friend."

"Ah, I see," I said. "Therefore, I am your friend."

"Yes! It is mathematics!"

And he's a mathematician, so he should know.

I also really appreciated that he didn't pressure me into ganbei-ing baijiu (he was the one who suggested that I try it with garlic, to treat my cold). But I will admit, after I, uh, had to get up and dance with the Mongolian woman and she presented me with the ceremonial shot, I downed it. Rather neatly too. I think this sealed my friendship with the group.

I don't want to idealize Xinjiang; obviously I don't know it well at all, and there are serious problems there, particularly between the majority Uighurs and the incoming Hans: issues of ethnic and religious oppression and loss of cultural identity. The city where I stayed was the site of violent demonstrations in 1997; in the run-up to the Olympics, Chinese authorities supposedly thwarted a suicide bombing attempt on a China Southern Airlines flight in Xinjiang - I say "supposedly" because Uighur activists and some foreign observers accused China of exaggerating and fabricating such plots to justify a pre-Olympic crackdown on any potential dissent. Again, I am so far from expert that I hesitate to comment overmuch on these issues.

I will tell you what I saw.

The students - and the teachers - here don't encounter a lot of Western foreigners, so my coming was seen as an opportunity to meet a real, live American and get some English practice with a native speaker. I'd done this kind of thing thirty years ago, but this was one of the only places I'd been to in China recently where I was really a rarity, a novelty.

I loved the students. They were enthusiastic, sweet, a little shy but not so shy that it stopped them from asking questions, excited to have a foreign guest and to share their culture with me.

I went to their "English Corner." They'd arranged a presentation with me, all about Xinjiang, about the local foods and customs, and the particular cultures of Xinjiang's "ethnic minorities."

This was a mixed group of students. Most were Han, but there were Kazaks and Uighurs as well. Now, everyone seemed happy and excited to participate. But...the MCs, the kids doing the explanations and introductions, were Han. "And now this Kazak girl will show us the Kazak dancing!" The Kazak girl did, with a big smile. A Uighur couple did a traditional dance, acting out the roles, having fun with it. All the performers were really good - I learned later that they were either enrolled in the arts school at the University or were at members of the dance club or the music club. Then, a young Kazak man played a song on the dombra, the Central Asian lute. He was dressed head to toe in black, his hair spiked like an early 80s punk, his collar turned up. He played with fierce concentration. No pro-forma smiles here. When he finished, he made a little, abrupt bow, stone-faced, and left shortly after. Elvis has left the building, I thought.

It was just a little strange, hearing these Han kids talk excitedly about the quaint local customs, introducing the "ethnic minorities" to perform in front of me.

There was one particular Uighur girl there, outgoing, a live wire, wearing a sweater with some slogan spelled out in sequins, I forget what it was. Regardless, she sparkled. After an explanation from the MCs about several aspects of Uighur culture, she stood up and explained things from the perspective of an actual Uighur. "This is why we make the chanr on iron and not wood." "This is why we eat this dish with our hands." She laughed a lot, seemed to be close to many of the other, Han students. But she was not shy or apologetic about explaining her own culture in front of them.

When it came time for questions, she stood right up. Her first question I couldn't exactly understand. It had something to do with how young Europeans were portrayed in films and television that she'd seen. The gist of her question was, were they really as sexually active as they appeared? Did they kiss and do such things on busses, in public?

Perhaps, I said, it's true that Europeans are more sexually active at a younger age than most Chinese, but I am not an expert. Perhaps they are more demonstrative in public as well. But different European countries have different cultural norms in this area. And of course, films and television tend to exaggerate.

Her second question: "Is it always true that the more powerful people in a country will always cover up the less powerful? Will the less powerful always lose their culture? How do you solve this problem?"

I paraphrase, but this was the gist.

The other kids in the class reacted, but I wouldn't say they overreacted. No one passed out in astonishment; I didn't get the sense that anyone was running out to inform the local Party representative (though who knows, really?). Still, I was impressed by her fearlessness. There's no more loaded an issue in China than anything smacking of "splittism."

As a member of the majority culture in my own country, what could I say? Well, that, to start. I'm in the Han position, you know?

And: "It's a very difficult problem. And it's really up to you and your children, how much you can preserve your culture, what's really important to you." I couldn't say, "too bad the Chinese government doesn't support an official bilingual policy, so if you have to learn Mandarin to advance in education and government and business, maybe the Han should have to learn Uighur or Kazak too." I don't know, maybe I could have said that, but I didn't think of it then. The whole issue of whether Xinjiang was "Chinese" or whether it should be something else, East Turkistan, maybe, well, I wasn't going to get into that.

What I did think of to say was this: "You know, it goes both ways. In America, African Americans are a minority, but African Americans' contributions to culture are so significant that African American culture really is a huge part American culture - all Americans' culture." I talked about Chinese people in California - "that cultural influence is a part of our larger culture as well. Maybe here in Xinjiang, it's a little similar. Maybe Han people are also influenced by Uighur culture and by Kazak culture - maybe you are creating a new culture, that is a blend of all the people here."

I think it's true, from the people I've met. The Han cab drivers, with their Uighur accents, the love of the food and the land, the way they socialize and drink and dance - it's different there. China, but not China. Chinese but not Chinese.

But is this enough? Enough for Xinjiang's Uighurs and Kazaks?

I have no way of knowing.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gear review!

I still have more to say on Xinjiang, and I never did write about Dufu's Thatched Cottage, come to think of it. But while I psych myself up for those topics, here's a little gear review - what worked and what didn't on my month of travel.

WARNING: this might be boring. But I thought about these issues a lot while traveling, and, you know, I'm kind of obsessive.

First off - I am a bag junkie. Not designer purses, I mean travel bags and gear bags. I'm not sure why, but I just love really well-made and functional bags. Well, part of this is logical enough - if you've done any amount of traveling, you know what a difference it makes, having a good bag versus a bad bag.

For this trip I took Red Oxx bags - their Skytrain and Mini Ruck.

Here's what you need to know about Red Oxx gear - it's expensive, extremely well-made (the owners are former paratroopers and it shows), very functional and awfully cool-looking. I hesitated over the cost but the stuff has a lifetime warranty, and ultimately I'd rather have something I can use for a very long time than a piece I'll have to replace after a few years of hard wear. Plus, on the off-chance that I do end up with a job at some point in the future, I wanted luggage good-looking enough to use for business travel, and while this definitely is in the "rugged, functional" category, the quality really shows.

I'd gotten the Mini Ruck months earlier to serve as my all-purpose shopping bag around town, now that I'm not commuting and pretty much walking everywhere. A load of groceries gets really heavy on one shoulder after a few blocks. I loved the Mini Ruck enough to invest in the Skytrain - after much serious consideration of Tom Bihn's Aeronaut. I've heard many great things about Tom Bihn's products, and like Red Oxx gear, it's all made in the USA. But for once, I wanted luggage that matched, so I went for the olive Skytrain.

The Skytrain was everything advertised and more. It's incredibly rugged and holds a surprising amount of stuff for a carry-on bag (including that huge pair of Sorel boots I got for the cold weather that never materialized. More on that later). There always seemed to be room for one more thing in the Skytrain, and the sturdy seams and zippers never showed signs of strain. Plus, I never saw another bag like it the entire trip. No worries about finding your Red Oxx on the luggage carousel - it really stands out.

If you don't want or need backpack straps and still want Red Oxx, go for the Air Boss. Because I had the Mini Ruck, I generally carried my Skytrain with the Claw shoulder strap - the strap is designed to stretch and for whatever reason, it makes carrying a load on your shoulder a lot more comfortable than you'd expect. But I'm still glad to have the backpack option, because I may be changing up my second bag in the future.

The Mini Ruck made a great bag for all-day trips, especially with the changeable weather I encountered and the need for room to stuff a spare layer, hat and gloves. One caveat - well, two. I like to take photos on my trips, and along with a point and shoot (loved that camera. Somehow managed to break it. Was seriously bummed), I use a compact digital SLR (the Olympus E-410 - love it, though I still have much to learn - I've linked to the last page of a very technical 28 page review - it's a great deal compared to its competitors, and slightly more compact), which while small, still needs some space to carry it in. While there's plenty of space in the Mini Ruck (and the enclosed foam padding along the back offers some protection), it's not the most convenient way to carry a camera, as you are constantly having to get the pack off your back and open it up and take out the camera. Also, the Mini Ruck will not fit neatly under many airline seats, particularly if it's stuffed full. For both of these reasons, you may want the Gator, which is specifically designed as an under-the-seat camera and gear bag. I wished for one all the way across China.

A Gator would not have solved my capacity issues the way the Mini Ruck did, and even with that, especially after I got some unexpected gifts, I was really glad I'd packed my Patagonia Lightweight Travel backpack (mine's a few years old and a little different, but the one linked is close). This is a great, tough little pack that compacts down to nothing and holds a lot when you need it, and even with heavy loads, it's surprisingly comfortable to carry. As mentioned (parenthetically) I've had mine for a few years and it's held up well under difficult conditions.

I needed all that space because I'd packed for cold weather that mostly didn't materialize. It was the weirdest thing. Everywhere I went, there was a mysterious warming spell. I had maybe two cold days, one in Urumqi and one on the Kazak border, in Xinjiang. Otherwise, it was spring and even summer. I never put on a pair of long underwear, wore my scarf once, wore my gloves twice.

For that reason, the Sorel Caribou boots were a big bust. I almost didn't bring them and almost left them behind in Beijing, it was so unseasonably warm there, and I wore them exactly once, in Urumqi.

Don't get me wrong. The Sorels were a great deal (if they don't have your size at 6 O'Clock, check Amazon), they fit me perfectly (I ordered the men's size 7), were really comfortable and kept my feet warm and toasty. They were just way too much boot and took up way too much space for the use I got out of them. I could have easily gotten by with my North Fake, er Face short hiking boots, or the insulated Caterpillar Boots I'd taken to be stretched that weren't ready in time.

That left me with one pair of shoes, and those were a winner: Merrell's Prague boot, ankle-high, water-proof, cozy, very comfortable (I walked for hours on end) and even kind of stylish. As the linked review notes, they have Velcro closures, the perfect thing for airport security lines.

Other clothing: even with the unexpectedly warm weather, it was still pretty cold compared to Los Angeles in a lot of places. But with the downright springtime conditions in Kunming and Dali (during the day), I was really glad that I went with multiple layers as opposed to a heavy jacket.

Now for the winner of the Single Most Invaluable Piece of Clothing Award - REI's Belltown Parka. Okay, along with my strange bag fixation, I have this...jacket thing. I'm always searching for the perfect jacket for every (non-formal) occasion. This one comes awfully close. It's water-proof, breathable, long (comes over the hips), makes a great shell, even looks kind of nice thanks to the drawcord waist, and most importantly, it has really good pockets. Handwarmers, an inside security pocket, and best of all, a disguised chest pocket that's BIG and, well, doesn't hit you right in the boob so you can actually put stuff in it without looking like you've stashed a projectile on your chest. When you're running around with a wallet, a passport and two cellphones (one global with Chinese dictionary, one Chinese only), not to mention a constant tissue stash for uncertain toilet conditions and chronic upper respiratory bugs, believe me, these things become important.

What else? A good pair of stylish enough cargo pants. I wore my pair from the Gap to death. Why cargo pants? See above. Pockets are good.

On days where I might have otherwise needed long underwear, I relied on Ex Officio's XTT pants, which kept me warm in temperatures in the 20s. Be warned: the pants run small (I don't know if this is true of the men's sizes). Bonus: they have lots of pockets. I got them on sale, as I did all of the winter gear I bought. One upside to the global economic crisis, I guess.

Another piece I only wore a few times but was really glad that I'd brought along: the Patagonia Micro Puff jacket (yeah, I got it on sale). I chose the men's because the women's only came with a hood, which I didn't need, and it was too fitted - I wanted something I could layer over a sweater and under a shell. This worked wonderfully, and best of all, it stuffs into a little sack and is really packable. Plus, it's actually kinda cute. And what's really important here?

In general, Patagucci, that is, Patagonia, makes great stuff. Yes, it's pricey. But just about everything I've ever purchased from them is good quality, highly functional and lasts a really long time. I would love to provide a link for my favorite sweater, which has served me so well through so many winter trips, but they stopped making it years ago. For the record: it's black wool, with a full zipper (very useful when going from cold outdoors to overheated inside), handwarmer pockets, and looks nice enough to wear in all but actually dressy situations. I also took a women's long-sleeved shirt, another sweater and a classic fleece vest of theirs. All of this worked really well and held up to a lot of pretty hard travel. Add to that a couple of long-sleeved T-shirts, two short sleeved ones, one other pair of pants, a pair of light gym pants and that was pretty much all the clothing I took (well, socks and underwear too). Except for a technical layer from REI that while very nice and warm, I never needed. I should have left that in Beijing, with the boots.

Oh, I did take one other clothing item: a pair of flannel pajama bottoms. I know the One Baggers will scoff, but I spent a lot of time sitting in hotel rooms, writing posts and such. I loved getting into those pajamas at the end of the day.

What else? An L.L. Bean toiletries kit. Loved this (thanks, Mom!). I got the medium, and it was plenty big for everything I needed for a month, and really nicely organized (even if it did get me in trouble at the Urumqi airport). I'd be tempted to get the small for trips of shorter duration.

A laptop. This is my backup, an old Mac 12" iBook. I loved having it - most Chinese hotels have broadband these days, and blogging and uploading my photos on the road was a blast. But after a while, it really started feeling like a brick. Okay, I get the Netbook idea now. Anyone have any recommends?

And finally, my TRX. I couldn't use it in a couple of my hotels; the doors were too flimsy and the entries too small, even for a device designed to work in very compact spaces. But it's a great thing to have if you want to get a little extra exercise while on the road.

What I wished I'd brought: more books. I was reduced to begging for a novel - any novel - from Richard at the end, so I'd have something to read on the plane. Given my space limitations, I finally see the rationale for E-books and an E-reader. Next trip.

As you can probably tell from the tedious detail above, I'm really interested in what works and what doesn't work on the road. Any of you who travel, I'd love to hear what you've found essential and what turned out to be a pain in the ass. Really! I like this stuff!

UPDATE: Something I forgot to mention about the Skytrain - it has a nifty interior zippered pocket, which I think is intended for cosmetics and sundries. I would much rather carry those in a separate bag, like the L.L. Bean mentioned above. I found this pocket incredibly useful for storing the myriad cables and chargers that our electronic/digital age requires.

Also, despite the stated dimensions of the Gator, it easily holds a 12" laptop in a padded sleeve (I use the nifty one by Built, available at REI, though mine was on sale), along with a digital SLR. A larger MacBook will fit too, though you'd probably need a fitted sleeve a la Built for it to work with a case.

One more note: as mentioned, both Red Oxx and Tom Bihn manufacture their products right here in the USA. Another thing they have in common - both are small, "family" companies with excellent, personalized customer service. If you care about these qualities, think about what you are getting when you spend a little more to buy one of their products. It's worth it to me.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Strangers on a train...

Two days on a train is a long time.

Maybe if we were talking the Orient Express here, it would be more of a vacation, like a cruise, but most Chinese trains are decidedly not the Orient Express (is the Orient Express even the Orient Express these days?). Even if you take soft sleeper.

I am past the point in life where I need to take hard sleepers to save money and/or prove a point. Not like thirty years ago, when we were students trying to save every kuai we could. More to the point, the Chinese authorities back then didn't want us saving money by taking hard sleepers (and not paying steep "foreign friends' rates" on just about everything else), and they wanted to keep us as segregated from ordinary Chinese as possible, which was all the more reason to fight for them at every opportunity.

Of course, sometimes we were grateful for the privileges granted "foreign friends." Like the time our Chongqing minder had his final act of revenge.

I don't want to smear the guy inaccurately, so I'll have to double-check my old notes and letters home, but I'm pretty sure he was the person responsible for handling our train tickets from Wuhan to Kunming - a long trip, more than thirty hours at that time, as I recall. And he booked us in hard seats. At the height of Spring Festival. And didn't tell us.

Hard seats are the only option for many Chinese, and just because you've purchased a "hard seat" ticket doesn't guarantee you anything like a seat. It means you can get on the train, cram yourself in somewhere, on a table, in the aisle, in the corridor outside the toilet, with everyone's bundles and baskets and TV sets and earthly goods, and make do. For over thirty hours.

We crammed ourselves in two actual seats, amazingly enough, with space on the little table to rest our things, and told ourselves okay, thirty hours plus of this. At least we saved some money. Meanwhile the car continued to fill with passengers and their baggage, to the point I wondered how I would ever get out of this seat to, you know, use the toilet. Which on a ride this long I would certainly need to do.

The train crew saw us. They were horrified. This. Would. Not. Do.

So they took us to their xiuxi car - the rest car for train workers. A lovely, nearly empty hard sleeper.

We shared the car with the train workers when they took their breaks and with another passenger, a pretty young woman who'd been traveling alone and had gotten a top bunk - the train personnel were afraid that she would be "bothered" there, or maybe she already had been, so they brought her to our little sanctuary as well.

Paul at the time wore a baseball cap sent to him by a friend in America - after months of hearing us complain about Chinese bureaucracy, she'd found a cap with "KAFKA" embroidered on it. Baseball caps were a novelty in China at the time, and all of the workers and the young woman, wanted to try it on. I have slides of them, smiling, wearing the Kafka hat.

So. Anyway. Nowadays, soft sleepers are fine by me.

A soft sleeper is a closed compartment with four beds for four passengers (a hard sleeper, by contrast, is an open car with three pallets facing three pallets in an open compartment). Your experience on a soft sleeper, therefore, depends largely on who you share your compartment with. Particularly when the trip is two days long.

My cabin-mates: an older Chinese couple who looked to be from the countryside. Their relatives, presumably, had helped them load their things onto the train. The woman was short and round, heavy, almost appearing swollen, skin brown as a nut in a way that did not look to be from the sun. She had some kind of chronic illness; one had was partially paralyzed and she had difficulty sitting up and getting to her feet, something serious having to do with her brain, her husband explained to me. "But she can still walk." That was as much as I understood of his explanation. He spoke a heavy dialect, Sichuan, I gathered, as that was their original home, though they'd lived in Turpan for the last twenty years. Her dialect was even thicker; I could hardly understand a word she said. I don't know whether this was due in part to her illness, whatever it was. She seemed a little odd. Her husband spent a lot of time out in aisle, gazing out the window, and sometimes she would become agitated and call for him in a hoarse voice. He either couldn't always hear her or had learned to ignore her when it was convenient. By contrast he was thin, wiry and seemingly fit, except for an intermittent cough, so severe it sent him into near-convulsions. He didn't smoke, so maybe he was sick. His wife had it too.

Oh, great, I thought.

The fourth person in our compartment I dubbed, "Slightly Obsessive/Compulsive Guy" - the first thing he did when he entered the compartment was to straighten up the communal table so that the newspaper lined up perfectly with the little aluminum tray. He was my age, and kind of a health nut, one of the rare Chinese men who doesn't smoke and doesn't approve of smoking. He also had a lot of ideas about diet, and about healthy psychological attitudes (he found me admirable for some reason that I've forgotten now). He spoke in Sichuan dialect too but was able to reply to me in Mandarin and translate my Putonghua into dialect so that the old woman understood what I was saying as well. She seemed unable to grasp why it was that I could speak some Chinese but not understand her, so this was helpful.

The first morning I woke up to the loud, cheesy guangbo (broadcast) telling us that it was, in fact, morning. Yeah, I needed to know that. Outside, steep peaks and snow. Gravestones interspersed in the fields with ragged paper flowers and lantern tributes, facing the tracks.

I was restless, that first day. I finished one novel and read another. And realized that I was out of books, and my Treo was nearly out of juice. The Treo has my Chinese dictionary (I do have a paper backup), my ability to connect to the internet on the road and all kinds of things I could potentially read on it. None of the electrical outlets in the soft sleeper car worked, and it was the only soft sleeper on the train. Hard sleeper cars, at least on this train, don't have any outlets. The train worker tried to explain the situation to me, why the plugs didn't work; there seemed to be some larger reason, but I couldn't understand. Later, she took my Treo and the charger to the xiuxii cabin, where there was a working outlet. She seemed happy to be there, doing this job, a woman around thirty with big, striking features accentuated by the makeup she wore, precisely applied; she was always singing, humming along to the guangbo, singing her own songs when the broadcast was silent.

I calmed down after that. The Treo would be charged. This did not solve my problem of running out of books, or being stuck in a cabin with an ill, maybe slightly crazy person, her husband with the consumptive cough, and Slightly Obsessive Compulsive Guy, but I'd managed to slow my mind enough so that I thought I could deal with it all, and anyway, they were nice people, really. And I'd started feeling bad for the woman. Occasionally she would look down at her lap, at her hand that didn't work properly, and sigh, looking as sad and alone as a lost child, and say, "Wo bingle." "I am sick."

Other times, she seemed obsessed with feeding me. Cherry tomatoes. Peanuts. Hunks of smoked duck. "Chi yidian," she would say. "Have a little." I would politely decline. "Chi," she'd repeat. "Chi," and then, angrily," Chi!"

She was a little scary. So I ate.

By now the green of the south was far behind us; the land had grown hard and brown. We entered Ningxia province. Little villages of brown brick, old mud walls, eroded battlements. And in most towns, a new mosque: usually white, often constructed of the ubiquitous white tile still found out in the countryside and less sophisticated cities. At first the minarets were usually topped by green Chinese style roofs in miniature; as we headed further west, the Chinese ornamentation fell away. How were these mosques funded, I wondered, in villages that looked too poor to build them?

I spent most of the day gazing out the window, taking occasional notes. The woman stared at me as I wrote, because I'm left-handed, and this is still seen as very much an anomaly in China. I remember on that train ride to Kunming, when we stayed in the train workers' rest cabin, trying to write letters to our friends. Both Paul and I were left-handed, and the workers and the young woman couldn't get over this. At one point we told them that all Americans were left-handed. Hey, how would they know?

Nowadays in China, all I hear is that if you're left-handed, it means you're really smart.

"Look!" the old woman said, pointing at me as I wrote. Her husband and Slightly O/C Man looked and nodded. "That means she's clever!"

Here's what I don't get: if Chinese people think that left-handed people are so clever, why don't they let Chinese kids be left-handed?

Late in the afternoon, somewhere past Zhongxin, we passed a wall, a fake Great Wall, something built for tourists, and then giant "sand" constructions, steep pyramids with a vaguely Babylonian vibe. I have no idea what it was, why it was there, in the middle of nowhere. The Chinese equivalent of giant dinosaur statues in the middle of the Arizona desert, I guess.

Darkness. Music on the guangbo: super-cheesy Chinese pop, with a female singer whose pitch could break glass. Slightly O/C Man has retreated to his upper berth with a beer. He keeps slapping himself, mostly on the forearm. Is this some kind of, I don't know, weird wuxia practice? Some form of acupressure? Now he's singing along to the music, off-key. The old man grins, and cranks up the volume. It's so loud the speaker rattles, and every time the singer hits a high note, I'm pretty sure my eardrum is going to burst. I smile rigidly.

"She doesn't understand," the old man says.

Which is true. I really don't.

Around 9 PM, everyone decides they want to shui jiao (go to sleep) early. Fine with me. I read a few more pages in my last available novel and switch off the light. Fall asleep.

A couple hours later, the old woman calls loudly for her husband. She wants...she needs...to do something. I don't know what. Her husband, meanwhile, decides it's time for an 11 PM snack. Then my three cabin-mates have a conversation about where and what time the train stops and the relative merits of train versus long-distance bus. This goes on for quite a while. Finally, the old woman yawns, loudly, theatrically and repeatedly. On the one hand, it's annoying. On the other, maybe it means we get to go back to sleep soon.

Apparently it does. Everyone quiets, and we sleep.

Hours later, I am awakened by a loud, high, HEH! A sneeze, of sorts. It repeats, at escalating volume. The old woman pauses in her "HEH!"ing to laugh at my funny sleeping habits, among those, apparently, my blinking confusion at being awakened by this. Then the old man starts coughing, that horrible, wheezing cough choked by phlegm that sounds like he's going to die on the spot. The old woman coughs along. I think uncharitable thoughts about TB and bird flu and urge my immune system to be strong.

Around 4 AM, Slightly O/C Man gets off the train. But first, he gets his stuff together and makes a phone call. All of this is done at a normal, daytime volume. I'm coming to the conclusion that sleeping in China is meant to be a communal experience, which is to say, everyone sleeps, or no one sleeps.

When he's finally ready to leave, he wishes everyone "Man zou," and in spite of my irritation, I manage a big smile and a wave. Because everyone seems truly kind, beneath it all.

The next day: we know we've entered Xinjiang because the guangbo tells us so, beginning a recitation of the province's qualities, its natural resources, "ethnic minorities," main cities, extremes of temperature, progress in economic development, and mostly, the food. A lot of talk of mutton and Islam. For a while they play some really cool traditional music, and then they switch to this tenor going on and on about how "everyone" (which I'm assuming means Han people) should "lai lai lai!" (come, come, come!) to Xinjiang, the land of opportunity.

So far, Xinjiang is desert, miles and miles of it, open land that stretches on until it meets distant mountains.

The old couple live in Turpan, about an hour from Urumqi, the train's final destination. The woman starts getting agitated about an hour and a half away from Turpan. I try to tell her, you still have a while to go, but she's anxious - "zhaoji." She can't move well, can't carry things, they had help back in Chengdu, who will help them in Turpan? I offer but the husband politely turns me down. Finally, about 20 minutes before we're due in Turpan, she convinces her husband to move their things to the front of the car for a quick exit, and we say our goodbyes.

Alone at last. As we pull into Turpan, I watch for the couple, but I can't see them in the crowds that exit the train.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I'm sitting on the couch with a couple of cats on my lap, so that means I must be home. It's always interesting coming home after a long and intense period away from it. Everything is exactly the way I left it, but I'm not.

I have a lot of things to do and a lot of decisions to make, but for the moment, I feel suspended in a place that somehow feels outside of time.

Maybe because I'm slightly feverish.

On my "to do" list: a few more posts about my trip, and a gear review. First post coming up as soon as I retrieve my trip notebook, which means evicting the cats. So, just give me a few more minutes outside of time. I'll get to it.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

On the road...

I tried to finish the post about the train trip to Xinjiang, but the interwebz would not cooperate last night. I'm about to head to the airport for the long trip home. I can't say I'm looking forward to the trip. I still have an intermittent cough, and last night, a mosquito - yes, a mosquito, in Beijing, at the beginning of March - scored multiple hits, including one on my eyelid, so I look I've been punched. Lovely. I can sort of open my eye but would rather not.

Oh well, it's been an amazing trip, and all things are possible with coffee, so I'm having a cup now. Cheers!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Back in Beijing

Halfway through a long post about my train ride from Chengdu to Urumqi, and a bunch of stuff I want to write about Xinjiang. But right now, I still have the dreaded grunge, so more tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Some quick notes on flying in China...

Every country seems to have its little idiosyncrasies when it comes to air travel (shoes, anyone?!), and China is no different. Particularly when you are flying to or within a "sensitive" area like Xinjiang.

Here's what I experienced flying from Urumqi to Yining.

I had packed a small Uighur knife I'd bought as a gift in my bag to be checked. This was clearly a souvenir, in a cheesy leather sheath, and more to the point, it was going in my checked luggage.

Nope. No way. Why, I asked? You can't take knives on the plane, I was told. I understand that, I replied, but I don't understand why this is a problem. I can't possibly pick it up while I'm on the plane. Why is it dangerous?

No explanation. I could however take a folding knife in my checked luggage. Um, okay.

Someone actually explained to me later, and I think he was serious, that the people making these rules have watched too many action movies. Please, everyone, picture me as an action heroine, prying up the floorboards to access the cargo hold and my deadly Uighur knife.

(a Chinese friend experience the same problem, she told me. She managed to talk her way around it by explaining that she'd been sent by the Central Government to improve educational conditions in Xinjiang, so clearly, she should be allowed to take her souvenir back to Beijing. I should have called her, dang it)

Next, clearing the security check. Chinese airlines have the same regulation about laptops as the US does, so I'm used to that one. They also don't allow lighters or matches - I don't smoke, so no problems there. No outside beverages - check. But those little toiletry bottles that meet US requirements? Mmmm...problematic.

First, I was patted down in a way by the security officer (female) that suggested we were far better friends than we actually were. This seemed to be standard operating procedure (remember, there have been "issues" in this part of China with, well, things blowing up). The consternation with which some of my toiletries were greeted was something else entirely. After explaining that, yes, those little bottles were for cleaning my hair and that my deodorant was not a dreaded bottle - thankfully I didn't have to explain what it actually was, I just opened it up and said, "See? It's not a bottle" - I was finally allowed to proceed.

Oh, but not before I had to take off my boots.

My advice if you are traveling by air to Xinjiang - check your toiletries kit. Remember, a stick of deodorant in the wrong hands could be a dangerous weapon.

On the border...

Behind me is Kazakhstan.

By the way, though I don't think I could pass for a Uighur, I've had several people ask me if I were Kazak.

Note to self: in the future, do NOT engage in rounds of toasting when coming down with a cold. It actually doesn't prevent the cold and it can give one a beastly headache.

I'm taking it easy the first part of the day tomorrow (after two days of pretty much non-stop activity), so I hope to post something more substantial then. Right now I'm taking my pile of Kleenex and going to bed.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Shout-out from Yining!

Wow. I'm sorta out of superlatives at the moment. This might have something to do with the local red wine I've been drinking - it's not exactly Western style, but it's crisp and dry and really nice. I was given the barely touched left-over open bottle from our dinner tonight and have nothing to seal it with but a wadded-up napkin. It seems a shame to waste it.

What I can tell you is that at first glance, Yining has a frontier vibe, a unique and vibrant mix of cultures, friendly people and a beautiful natural setting. I'm so happy that I have a decent amount of time to spend here, even if I do have to give a lecture about "Living and Working in California." Luckily I have a few days to figure this out.

After checking into the hotel, my hosts took me to the Kazak Autonomous Region Museum. It's a small museum with an amazing collection, including a Scythian statuette (referred to in the museum as "Sakas") that I've seen in numerous history books. Highly recommended. Plus I learned the Chinese word for "fiberglass" ("boligang").

We then visited a memorial to the Qing Dynasty General Lin Zexu, who confiscated and destroyed opium shipments in the midst of the Opium Wars and was rewarded for his patriotism by exile to Xinjiang. I was sort of overwhelmed at this point but did point out that the display they'd labeled "Marijuana" was actually "Hashish." You know, doing my bit for historical accuracy.

After that, we had a dinner at the University restaurant. Delicious! I met some of my friend's colleagues, locals from Xinjiang, visiting scholars from Beijing and the head of the Department, a Henan man and former Army officer, who even though I couldn't understand a lot of what he said, really knows how to tell a joke.

Much toasting went on. I think I had a job offer. You know, I'm tempted. Can I bring my cats?

Tomorrow we're going to the Kazak border and I'm not sure where else. I'll keep you posted. Speaking of posts, I have a lot of catching up to do, but contrary to my fears and my experience with the internet in Urumqi, I have a really fast connection here. Assuming I'm not out drinking to the wee small hours, and even if I am, look to these pages for fresh content.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Onward to Yining...

I head to the airport to take a plane to Yining in a few minutes. I am not so crazy about the flying part (it's one of those little jets. I don't like those) but my enforced stay in Chengdu got me too far behind schedule to car it and stop in Kuitun (I think that's what it's called) for the night. So, light a metaphoric or literal candle for me, and keep your fingers crossed that the intertubes there allow me to post.

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.

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 Western build (which is to say, "twenty pounds overweight") 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.


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?