Urumqi China 3
Zhang Ye China
Wu Wei China
Lanzhou China 2
YINING: These letter writers offer their services in front of the main Post Office, suggesting illiteracy remains a problem in this frontier region of China.
Hello from the far northwest of China,
Clearing Kazakhstan immigration and customs formalities went smoothly this second time around. For some reason, the Chinese immigration people wanted to know everything possible about my financial worthiness and travel intentions before honoring my new visa. No perfunctory glance at the passport and a quick rubber stamp like entering from Hong Kong several months ago. After keeping me and a Canadian hippie waiting for half an hour, we were put through a good cop-bad cop interrogation, the "bad cop" being an unsmiling senior inquisitor. As soon as they had finished the immigration badgering the smiling young officer arranged for me to be taken to the bus terminal in a three-wheel taxi. Then the real fun began.
The "bus terminal" turned out to be a "police station" staffed by a uniformed female officer. She couldn't sell me a ticket, but graciously walked me out to a small booth where someone would, explaining my desire to reach Yining... not pronounced anything like it is spelled! Ten minutes of confusing conversation among various van drivers, the ticket seller and cop finally identified a van heading east for Yining in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (Map).
Three seats remained available, the one next to mine sitting over the protruding wheel well, making it next to useless by all but a legless midget. During the negotiations for my ticket(s) the price bounced from 10 to 15 to 20 Yuan, at the end of which they handed me two tickets with some Chinese explanations. As the two seats I'd taken would barely accommodate me and my bag, that appeared to be what everyone intended. Gesturing to the other adjacent passengers my willingness to pay more money for the second seat, they all in unison indicated that would not be necessary. By then we had engaged in "conversations" about our countries of origin, the cramped condition of the small bus and our relative ages... the Uighur people here seem preoccupied with the subject.
As the van began to move, the conductor bellowed when he saw more potential passengers approaching, bringing the vehicle to a halt. A young couple and their two-year-old daughter climbed aboard. As there remained only one vacant seat, it looked like another attempt to pack the isle and break the sardine can record. Not this time. The conductor started shouting directions about reshuffling the current seating arrangements. I held up my "two tickets" and a fistful of money gesturing my willingness to pay more, if required. Two nearby passengers clearly gestured my fare had been paid in full. The shouting escalated, never being directed at me specifically, but clearly related to the "vacant" seat next to me.
Finally, the conductor motioned for me to put my bag on the isle floor. Pointing to the bottom of my shoe, my concern over the dirty floor quickly became evident. The conductor produced a dirty rag and spread in on the floor. I moved my bag to the covered floor reluctantly. More shouting ensued. The young father saw the seat next to me without any space for legs or feet and started shouting himself. At this point I'd had enough and struggled through the tangle of people in the isle to the front door of the van and tried to get out. The door handle had been removed making an exit by any but the conductor impossible.
By now the whole bus had become pandemonium, my champions among the other passengers arguing with the conductor, the young couple arguing with themselves and the driver trying to calm everyone down. Suddenly, the conductor shut up and pulled me back into the seating area against my insistence that I'd solve the problem by finding another bus. The couple and their confused tot had made the same decision to get off the packed bus. Faced with everyone jumping ship, the conductor and the father arrived at an interim arrangement that seemed to satisfy all... except I felt bad about the father's willingness to sit on the floor for the first fifteen minutes of the journey until two of the other passengers got off. So began the second half of my adventure through the far northwestern frontier regions of China.
After two hours of stop and go driving in the direction of Urumqi, we arrived in what appeared to be the center of Yining. Wrong. However, I've learned that a number one bus in any city of the world always goes through the central business district of that city eventually. So, along came a Number One and off we went in search of hotels and the city center. The Yilite Grand Hotel sits across the street from the Northeast corner of People's Square and looked inviting as old Number One passed it. At 140 Yuan (about $17 cash only) it offered a quite acceptable room, a meager Chinese breakfast (chopsticks only), the city's only airline office in its lobby as well as being conveniently located across from the interesting People's Square, named Qingnian Park here.
The first evening during my stroll around the Square I met Pretep, a 35-year-old Uighur man who explained how lucky he felt to be employed. "Uighur people are second class citizens, often unemployed and always underpaid." Even those with university degrees like his have difficulty finding professional work for which they are qualified. He is employed as a clerk in one of the government departments. Unemployment is a major problem and explains why one sees many young Uighur men sitting around doing nothing or drinking beer. Pretep says the central Chinese government has been encouraging Han Chinese to move west by offering financial incentives, high wages, good housing, schools. People who could not do well back east, come to Yining and get good jobs. Uighur people in the mean time get by on slave wages. The average salary is under 700 Yuan per month (about $88!).
One of the English speaking waitresses in my hotel eagerly shared information about her life until told not to spend so much time with the foreigner. She works 8 hours seven days a week and is paid 400 Yuan a month (I suspect she also gets various perks like meals, though she didn't say so). To be fair, the cost of living for residents is also very low, so money buys more here than in other countries. Still, she confided: "I can't buy the things I want with what I am paid." Born in Yining to a Uighur family I assumed she must be a Muslim. However, this Beijing University educated woman of perhaps 24 did not recognize the English words: religion, Muslim or Islam! She did recognize the words "philosophy" and Confucius. On return to Yining after receiving her international marketing degree last year, the job as a hotel waitress is all she could find, a situation that clearly did not please her.
As is my custom, hotel shopping and bus riding took me all over the city. People's Park is pleasant, but no big deal. More interesting is River Park and the rural areas below the river where I found the Saturday animal market. Horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, cattle plus wagon loads of hay to feed them and an endless variety of farmer's produce tempted the throngs of peasant people, mostly Uighur and Kazakh. My presence among them caused a constant diversion from the main job of buying and selling livestock. Friendly to a fault, good-natured people of the soil greeted me with wide smiles and invitations to take their pictures time and again. I couldn't help contrasting all the easy smiles with the grim, unsmiling Russians and Kazakhs among whom I'd lived for the previous month. The gathering had attracted several thousand people from the surrounding farms.
My second hotel, the three star 258 Yuan (about $32) Hongfu Yiyan deserved a four star rating. While English language television programs were limited to what the National Geographic channel offered, the kitchen served up a substantial Western buffet three times a day ($4.75 lunch and $5.15 dinner). Several staff spoke understandable English and the Front Office Manager, Helen appointed herself as my local guardian, insisting that her cell phone would reach her any time day or night. When I mentioned my need for easy access to a public WongBa (Internet cafe) she offered to let me use the terminal in her office for up to several hours a day during my stay.
Twice I attempted to use outside WongBa’s. Both required me to register my passport number and receive approval from some telephoned authority. Neither gave me unfettered access to the World Wide Web! One allowed me to read Yahoo e-mail messages, but not reply to them. One of my friends forwarded a message about a Kazakh Baptist minister that spoke of church persecution in his country, ending with a plea for Americans to re-elect GW Bush. As I formulated a thoughtful response to that letter, my interaction with Yahoo suddenly froze up. It appeared that real time censorship had discovered prohibited mail content and had blocked its transmission, something I managed to confirm by successfully working with other more innocuous messages during the same session.
A little research with the Internet confirmed the astounding dimensions of the Internet censorship problem in China. A Google.com search with the terms [china "internet censorship"] produced 12,600 hits: the vast majority of which were blocked from viewing! An objective review of the government's efforts to limit the deleterious effects of religions is discussed in an excellent article I found during my search... and in this one. My personal experience suggests Internet censorship becomes progressively worse the further West one goes, but I have seen it everywhere I've checked. My own web site at samplers.com has never been reachable anytime I've checked since entering China.
Interestingly, pornography is claimed to be a major concern of the government, but nearly every public terminal I've used in China has a porno site saved as the homepage and many systems have been infected with spy ware that pops up advertisements for porno pages. Most terminals in public access WongBa's are being used for playing games, with only a small percentage being used to access the Internet. Of those, most are being used to view girlie sites or match making services. Rare is the user obviously doing serious research or business, possibly because most WWW research content is in the English language.
After a week exploring Yining, heading back to Urumqi by road with a pause at a popular lake appeared an attractive option. At the bus station only vans seemed to be making the run north to Lake Sayram and all of the waiting vans claimed to be going my way. Saying the name of the lake over and over while jabbing a finger at the little blue blob on my map produced a chorus of nodding heads and reassuring Chinese babble. Finally, several touts guided me to a van nearly ready to leave with a full load of passengers. No one on board spoke a word of English. No one on board understood any of my meager attempts at using what little Chinese I've learned.
The guidebook estimated the trip should take about two hours and exactly two hours after our departure the van stopped in what seemed to be a small town and everyone got off… but no lake in sight. Repeating the name of the lake and again pointing at my map, the driver responded by pointing first down the road and then at the rank of waiting taxis. After two hours travel we should have been right on top of the lake so I figured it couldn't be far.
By now, a Uighur tour guide and her two Western tourists had noticed the commotion and moseyed over to offer assistance. "Sayram Lake? Yes, you are close. It is only about sixty kilometers from here!" The first part of the 200-kilometer ride had cost 10 Yuan; the taxi drivers wanted 50 Yuan for the remaining 60 kilometers. Obviously disgusted I pondered my options while the very pushy "tour guide" tried to persuade me to join her little trio for lunch with a "real" Uighur family. Anyone attempting to sell me anything under these conditions is in for a polite rejection, especially if the offer sounds too good to be true. Lots of past experiences make me wary of such generosity. Rarely do the perpetrators have my best interests at heart. The Danish tourist in her group, a woman of about 25 had traveled the road from the lake to Urumqi and noted the condition of the road made comfortable travel impossible, a trip advertised as taking eight hours actually taking twice that long... and bumpy, dusty at that.
That did it. Lakes are no big deal with all the time I spend living next to one in California. So, one of the shared taxis heading back to Yining offered me a ride for 10 Yuan. The driver drove round and round the business area of the little town looking for more people wanting to go to Yining. The fifteen minutes we spent searching went quickly as little human dramas unfolded with each pass around the town.
Two hours later Helen watched me trudge back into the hotel sheepishly asking her to help me book an airline flight to Urumqi. That turned out to be exceedingly easy and cheap (370 Yuan or $46) with her help. An extra night in the excellent Hotel Hongfu Yiyan gave me some needed rest and recuperation from the day's aborted adventure.
The flight back to Urumqi aboard the Dornier 328 thirty passenger two jet engine aircraft made me feel like a privileged millionaire executive. The elegant small plane had a single row of seats on the left of the isle and two on the right with plenty of legroom for all fifteen passengers on board. Flying over the mountains required the plane to circle the Yining airport for ten minutes before heading east to our destination. The wonderful five stars Hoi Tak Hotel in Urumqi had a room waiting for me. Executive staff members Morris and Muhammad waited at the entrance to greet me like an old friend. What a place! That's it until serendipity selects my next destination.
PS: Since my failed attempt to re-enter China three weeks ago, I've been hounded by the blues. While I did make good use of the two-week delay in getting my new Chinese visa, a good deal of uncertainty surrounded the entire process. During that stressful interlude, I learned the friend to whom I'd sold my old car with deferred payments has fallen on hard times and can’t pay for it. Repossessing a car from ten thousand miles away makes for some complex logistics and more stress. As a final insult I must once again make allowances for quirky Internet interactions and Chinese censorship. All in all, this has been a period of serious challenges to my Buddhist tranquility training. Having spit all that out I feel the calm returning. F
Lovely water lilies in a pond at People's Park.