Urumqi China 3
Zhang Ye China
Wu Wei China
Lanzhou China 2
Greetings from Korghas,
Almaty: The house lights dim; the audience hushes. The curtain rises and the full symphony orchestra comes to attention as the conductor strides to the podium to polite applause. (I am back in Almaty to get a new Chinese visa that could take as much as two weeks!) On the backlit curtain behind the orchestra, the shadow of a bent old man shuffles slowly from stage right; seemingly unaware the audience can see his shadow. I am attending an evening performance of the State Academy Theater of the Opera and Ballet of the Republic of Kazakhstan here in Almaty. The Abay State Academic Opera and Ballet House sits directly opposite the Hotel AlmaAta where my tiny monks cell is located. During this brilliant performance of Schubert's Eighth Symphony an occasional sparkle appeared over the orchestra. Tiny slivers of cellophane descend slowly in the updrafts creating artificial shimmering butterflies periodically throughout the performance. As the end approached, that lone shadowy figure behind the backdrop curtain ambles back across the stage left to right. Far from distracting, it adds an element of intrigue to the performance.
The next night Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Ballet entertains followed the next evening by an extravagant performance of a colorful Kazakh Opera. The next night an enjoyable, if quirky Avant Guard program bewitched the audience with somber-religious-black magic and dance-chorus-loud sound effects. Stark black and white robes gave way to wild color as witches became priests and a crucified Christ ended the performance nailed to a giant hanging ox-cart wheel.
I never know for sure in advance what I'll get as the program announcements are all in Russian... or worse, Kazakh. After all these years of avoiding the Opera, I found the stratospheric soprano voices spine tingling, the costumes extravagant and the sets inspired. Operas have never been high on my list of entertainment, usually being sung in one foreign language or another making it difficult to follow the story line. But here with the alternative being another rerun of the current day's BBC news and with the admission price a paltry $3-$5, opera suddenly became an attractive option.
Verdi's totally unintelligible tragedy LaTraviata (The Fallen Woman) came up the following night. Every evening at 6:30 Thursday through Sunday there is something new. The performance of the Swan Lake Ballet confused me until I realized the order of the music had been juggled and some of the dances choreographed backwards with interjections of short showcase pieces featuring young talent that had nothing at all to do with Tchaikovsky's original work. The most popular dancer by far played the Jester, playfully popping up in the most improbable places throughout the performances, without any discernible effect on the other dancers at all. You do remember the jester in Swan Lake, don't you?
The day after my visa came through, the theater presented Aida by Giuseppe Verdi, (Joe Green, in English). Friday gave us a spectacular performance of the Ballet Giselle and Saturday we were treated to a visiting British dance company's effort to be innovative. This has been the most cultureful period in my life and easily the cheapest; about $3 to $4.50 for seats toward the back of the opulent theater. So, bad news turned to good and a border crossing disappointment turned to ballet delight. Isn't serendipity wonderful?
Korghas is a small Chinese border town not far from Zharkent Kazakhstan. It reminds me a lot of Tijuana fifty years ago. Tourist buses bring bored Kazakhs and Russians here for an overnight taste of China. About the only stores here are souvenir shops and cardboard fast food stands serving noodles and duck. Touts, moneychangers and hustlers of every sort bombard recent arrivals with every scam know to humankind. Nothing here tempted me to spend more than enough time to find onward transportation. As a result, there are no photos for this brief encounter with Korghas.
My last postcard from Zharkent chronicled that first attempt to re-enter China and the visa debacle. It is my responsibility for failing to learn everything necessary to use the double entry visa properly, but I can't help feeling someone along the way might have given me answers other than what they thought I wanted to hear. The problem turned out to be the requirement that both entries into the country had to occur before the "Enter by:" date on the visa, not unreasonable in hindsight.
Back in Almaty the Chinese consulate has been playing hide and seek, moving most recently three weeks ago. Naturally, no one knew the new location... or phone number! Eventually, one of my hunches paid off and a group of us stood outside the consulate for two hours waiting for our numbers to be called. My turn brought no satisfaction; the curt agent behind a glass window told me in what seemed to be a memorized English speech to "get a letter of invitation from a Chinese company and to return with a photo." Easier said than done. None of my contacts in China could issue such an invitation, suggesting a local travel agent in Almaty should be able to act as a facilitator. Two days later on the next day the consulate opened 09:00-12:00 no one would take my name or issue a number. Finally, the officer in charge looked out over the crowd and called a name; something like "Lannery." Yep, that's my name, though it took several pronunciations finally adding "Fred" to get my attention. The whole time the guy kept looking at me periodically repeating "American."
Inside the visa process again came to a standstill, my English entreaties being total unintelligible to all. Finally, the exuberant officer in charge motioned for me to stay put and shortly arrived with a woman who spoke a few words of English. Through gestures and terse written notes she made me understand that for $25 she could make the visa process totally painless. The Immigration chief ushered us into his reception office and indicated to me with a smile that the procedures had his full approval and all would be well.
So, handing over my passport and a photo "Far-ee-da" scribbled her name in Russian, her cell phone number and a date seven days hence on a scrap of paper. "You call" she says pointing to first the phone number and then the date... "at zxyuczh whoer" she added pointing to her watch and then adding 17:00 to the scribbles. Nodding agreement, my thoughts of a lost passport and this unknown person who had taken it made me wonder if Kazakhstan soon would have another illegal alien on its hands.
The seven days passed slowly. Had it not been for the wonderful Abay State Academic Opera and Ballet House, this would not have been a memorable interlude. As it turns out, Far-ee-da did show up at my hotel a nervous hour and a half late and traded me a passport with Chinese visa for $75. As the cultural season still had several days to run, my trip back into China got delayed another few days.
My two weeks detention in Almaty dealing with the new Chinese visa gave me a chance to learn more about the de facto capital of Kazakhstan (The government moved the actual capital north to the city of Astana in 1998, but most government business continues to be done in Almaty). The city is sprinkled with pleasant parks full of monuments and fresh cherries are sold on street corners throughout May.
While here this time I witnessed a peaceful protest. A government decree had forced many mineral water stands to close near the Central Market, throwing a hundred people out of work. A large crowd had gathered to voice their opposition. One woman had removed a manhole cover and conducted her loud, angry vocal protestations clinging to the ladder going down into the sewage. Thirty police, some government officials and a television crew conducted negotiations and interviews for more than an hour during my observations.
Having previously made the same trip to the border, this time went more smoothly. Immigration took only thirty minutes and I soon found myself in tourist hell. A helpful Chinese Immigration officer who spoke some English helped me hire a taxi to the bus station, adding, "pay him two RMB... only two." After the five minute ride the driver tried to extort a higher fare, jabbering away in Uighur with gestures of demand. I gave him two RMB and went off searching for some way to get on down to Yining. More when I am next able to use the Internet.