Into the Wild West: Part 1

Ürümqi

The best parts of China are often the parts that don’t look like China. After all, China is a country so massive and varied that your preconceived notions are easily destroyed. This is especially true if you travel around the edge of the country. It is here, close to the borders, where things get strange and interesting. This is where you can discover nations within the nation. This is where your expectations get flipped on their head. This is where China will slap you in the face and ask, “Do you even know where you are?”

I was amazed when I saw actual skyscrapers in Ürümqi. The skyline was made up of a cluster of brand-new structures, one of which was a dead ringer for Philadelphia’s famed Liberty Place, reproducing its ziggurat top in smaller scale and reaffirming the Chinese talent for knockoffs. Ürümqi: it sounded exotic enough. I was half-expecting a desert bazaar, a meeting place dug out of the dunes full of camels, turbaned traders, and mud huts. After all, we were following the old Silk Road and about as far from Beijing as you could get. We were in Xinjiang province in the far west—Uyghur country—a massive territory that was supposed to be China only in name. But at first glance, central Ürümqi was an utterly Chinese place, with shiny cars cruising the streets and buildings that gleamed underneath the relentless desert sun. After all, the area was awash in oil money and the city was clearly benefiting. Its residents seemed to be thriving and happy, as long as they were Han Chinese.

Uyghurs are a Central Asian Turkic people, closely related in language, culture, and DNA to the folks who inhabit neighboring countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Their cities have a lot more in common with Kabul and Tashkent than Beijing. In 1949, when the Chinese communists took over Xinjiang, Uyghurs made up over ninety percent of the population. Today it’s less than fifty, thanks largely to Beijing’s policy of settling the region with Han Chinese, who hold most of the good jobs and pretty much run the show. Uyghurs, it seems, aren’t even invited to the party. They have been made second-class citizens in their own country. They widely consider themselves a colonized people and resent it. As a result, they’re beginning to buck.

Steve, Sam, and I had taken the train to Ürümqi all the way from Shanghai, crossing much of the country over the course of a week. It was the summer of 2008, and the Beijing Olympics were just about to get underway. The eyes of the world were on China and they knew it, so the whole nation had been spruced up in preparation. The locals were under strict orders to be congenial guests; “undesirables” were rounded up and hidden from view; travel was strictly controlled. Security was tight, even thousands of miles away from the action. The authorities were watching everyone, citizens and foreigners alike.

They were being especially niggardly with travel permits, as we found out in the lonely outpost of Golmud, when we attempted to get off the tourist track and head further along the Southern Silk Road. This is why we had come out west: we wanted to get into the heart of un-Chinese China. But we were denied, stymied by a chain-smoking official who repeatedly muttered, “I dare not. I dare not.” Unwilling to risk an incident, he turned us around and put us on a bus heading back north. It was their time in the sun, and they would abide no hiccups.

So after a few days in the touristy oasis of Dunhuang, we jumped back on the train and were now were traipsing the sidewalks of Ürümqi, surrounded by aluminum and glass instead of sand dunes and apricot groves. We weren’t supposed to be there until the end of the trip, where, after our rough sojourn in the sand, we would enjoy the trappings of Western-style luxury before flying back to Shanghai. But one of the hidden joys of travel can be dealing with sudden changes in itinerary. It is here where the happy accidents occur. We were now in Ürümqi whether we liked it or not, so we decided we might as well try to enjoy it.

That night, after resting up in our downtown hotel, we took a walk into the Uyghur quarter, looking for authentic Central Asian grub. This is where the city took on a very different flavor. Perhaps the town wasn’t as Chinese as we thought. The streets were darker and the buildings grubbier. There were far more people outside. Some were busy working and selling, while others just seemed to mill about. Smoke from cooking meat filled the air, along with music. The place suddenly jumped with life. It was poorer and more ragged, but humming with vitality. Moreover, we saw no Chinese faces. The people here were taller and light-skinned, with high cheekbones; round, wide-set eyes; and prominent noses. Most of the men sported moustaches and skullcaps; the women dressed modestly, with long sleeves, long skirts, and multi-colored headscarves. Some were strikingly beautiful. We had entered a different world in just a matter of blocks. An invisible border separated the two areas, but as tourists, we were allowed unfettered access.

We sat down at a plastic outdoor table next to a street cart for our meal. An old man and his son were grilling chicken, and the aroma of the meat cooking over open coals proved too much to resist. He was also the only vendor we could find who would sell us beer, so the deal was sealed. We sat there, under a single fluorescent bulb, grubbing on delectable barbecue chicken and sipping cold lager, while the mournful melodies of Uyghur pop songs warbled from the man’s cheap stereo. We didn’t see a single tourist walk by, just a procession of Uyghur men and women, a few of whom cast curious glances our way.

“It looks like we finally made it out of ‘China’,” I said, raising my glass.

On the walk back to the hotel, we decided that we needed whisky. We had finished our last bottle a few days back and that just wouldn’t do. Once we crossed back into the Chinese zone, we quickly found a liquor shop, where I shelled out 125 yuan (about twenty bucks) for a bottle of Johnny Walker Red. But we had one problem: there was no ice in our room and no ice machine on our floor. We’d have to track some down at the hotel.

“I’m sure that they’ll have some at the bar in the lobby,” said Steve.

The hotel’s bar was tiny affair: just a bar with a few stools. I never saw anyone drinking there. It was staffed by a single bartender in a black jacket and bow tie.

Ni hao.”

Ni hao.”

“Do you have any ice?” I was slow and deliberate, but it didn’t register. Like the rest of the hotel’s staff, the bartender spoke pretty much zero English.

I tried again: “Ice?”

He leaned forward with his eyebrows raised and his mouth slightly open, trying his best to decipher the foreign noises emanating from my mouth.

“Uh… ice?”

He responded in Chinese and then just stood there.

I took a shot in the dark and tried Korean, since sometimes it uses Chinese words: “Eoreom? Eoreom isseoyo?”

No luck. I’d have to resort to charades.

I mimed dropping ice cubes in a glass.

Nothing.

I then wrapped my arms around my torso and shook my body: “Brrrrrrrrrrrr! Cold! Brrrrrrrrrrrrr!” This only furthered his confusion.

Finally I took the bottle out of the bag.

“Ice!” I said, shaking the bottle. “We need ice for our whisky!”

The bartender looked toward the bottle, cocking his head like an inquisitive puppy. He then took it from me and stared closely, scrutinizing the label. A smirk overtook his lips as he looked up and shook his head “no.” He pointed to the label, which, instead of “Johnny Walker,” read “James Worker” in identical lettering. It was a knockoff, and probably undrinkable. We’d been had. We were clearly back in China again.

 

Heavenly Lake

“Is there a problem with the tickets?”

The wooden kiosk was manned by a different guy than the day before and he didn’t like what he saw. Mumbling to himself, he examined all three pink slips as if I had just presented him with a series of advanced calculus problems.

“I bought them here yesterday,” I continued. “Right here.” I tapped on the counter of the creaky kiosk for effect.

The attendant stared at the papers, picked at his ear, and spat.

“Do you think he can read English?” asked Steve.

“I doubt he can even read Chinese,” said Sam

The man shook his head, pulled out his cell phone, and punched in a number. Soon he was yelling at someone on the other end (perhaps the vendor who had sold me the things). He ranted and howled, seemingly livid, but maybe he was just asking about the weather. After all, with Chinese it can be hard to tell.

After more examination and phone squawking, we followed him to the other end of Ürümqi’s People’s Park to a waiting bus—where he proceeded to have a shouting match with the driver. Stymied, he led us to another, where, after more verbal pyrotechnics, we were also turned away. Finally, we were ushered into a totally different tourist office (this one in an actual building with electricity), where our man locked horns with the woman working there until—after handing over a wad of paper Mao portraits—she reluctantly agreed to honor our tickets. Her name was Miss Yi and, after the man left, she was all happy teeth and shining eyes, depositing us on a forlorn and empty coach just outside. We looked on in helplessness as all the other buses pulled away, leaving us to broil in the brutal desert heat.

Over the next hour and a half, Chinese tourists trickled in, and by eleven our bus was full and ready to go, though only after a case of what seemed to be a case of flagrant racial profiling: for some reason, a young couple—the only Uyghurs on the bus—was booted from their seats and ejected from the bus. Perhaps it was a simple ticketing mix-up, but the whole affair seemed suspect. They were soon replaced by two smiling Han Chinese. The passengers of the bus exhaled and collectively unclenched their assholes, and the bus finally jerked into gear and pulled out onto the road leading out of the city.

Our destination was Tian Chi, also known as Heavenly Lake, a natural alpine reservoir nestled high in Tian Shan Mountains, just two hours out of town. This picturesque lake sits right under the nose of the 5445-meter Bogeda Feng (Peak of God). According to the brochure photos, it’s surrounded by pine-covered mountain slopes, looking more like Switzerland than China. But it is in China and the Chinese know when they’ve got a good thing going, so it’s definitely on the map as a major tourist attraction. After some sour incidents earlier in our travels, we had sworn off the big tourist sights, but the photos of the mountains and the lake looked majestic and inviting, so even if the lead-up was touristy, we could at least get in a hike, or perhaps even sneak in a swim. I knew from experience that in China if you’re willing to walk just a little a bit, you can beat the crowds; most bus tourists don’t stray far from base.

About twenty minutes into the journey, as we rumbled across the flat desert plains, Miss Yi got up out of her seat and fired up the karaoke machine wired into the front of the bus.

“Uh-oh,” I said, nudging Steve.

She appeared to be testing the microphone. Her voice echoed from the speakers, drenched in the wet delay effect that is the default setting on all karaoke machines in Asia.

“Please tell me she’s not going to sing,” muttered Steve.

“Dear God no.” Sam pulled down the bill of his baseball hat and feigned sleep.

Fortunately Miss Yi did not sing, but she did talk. Lacking a grasp of the language, I assumed that she was giving us a prelude of what we were about to see, maybe describing the sights and the history of the area. But as her spiel went on, I realized—from her sing-song tone and animated eyes—that she was delivering a sales pitch. Her presentation was fully memorized and well-rehearsed; it was obvious that she performed it daily. Her voice bounced and ricocheted off the many surfaces of the sealed vehicle, lubricated and propelled by the power of Asian karaoke super-reverb. This went on for over forty excruciating minutes; after just twenty, I was ready to garrote her with the microphone cord.

Eventually, after a prolonged pee-stop, we began our climb into the mountains. The weather was gorgeous—literally not a cloud in the sky—and it was wonderfully warm. I was looking forward to getting to the lake and taking in some nature, but going straight there would just be too easy. This was modern China, after all, and there was commerce to be done, so soon we stopped at the side of a road in front of a mystery building.

“Chinese herbal medicine shop,” said Miss Yi. “We stop for thirty minutes. Come in and buy!”

Feeling no need to purchase any ground-up bear claw, aromatic tree bark, or deer penis, I stood in the gravel parking area with Sam and smoked in the heat. Steve sat on a nearby stump in the shade, glowering.

After the herb store, we wound further up the mountain and finally made it to the lake, or at least the parking area below, which was crammed full of what looked like at least one hundred other tour buses. From there, most all visitors elected to take the cable car up the five kilometers to the lake. These were small, covered two-seaters—more like chair lifts, really—strung up the face of the mountain like lanterns.

“Let’s hike up,” Sam said. “Isn’t that why we came here? We can take the gondolas down.”

When we broke the news to Miss Yi, I could almost hear here synapses sizzling

“No cable car? But it is very far!”

“It’s okay,” I said. “We really want to walk.”

“Why?”

The three of us had thrown on our hiking boots before leaving. We brought daypacks and sun hats. We had plenty of water and were ready to go. When I looked at my bus mates, I saw that most of the women wore skirts and high heel shoes, while the men sported dress slacks and cheap oxfords. Perhaps the cable car was the best choice for them.

We waved goodbye to our Chinese comrades and climbed up a trail made of concrete and stone. This paved path followed a stream tumbling down the rocks; we passed a series of impressive cascades. We saw no one during our sweaty ascent, which took a little more than an hour. When we finally cleared the hump, we arrived at a vista overlooking the lake. I was taken aback by its beauty. The water was deep blue and looked pristine. The lake was surrounded by rocky, ice-capped peaks, with Bogeda Feng ruling over all at the far end. It was gorgeous, just as impressive as the photos.

From our vantage point, we could see a set of stairs heading down from the cable car terminus to the shore. Tourists poured over the stairs like insects, crowding and then queuing up at large dock. From there, they donned orange life vests and boarded sightseeing boats that took them out onto the water. Every time a boat left the dock, the skipper blasted the mighty horn for several seconds, which echoed around the lake, shattering any tranquility that may have existed. This occurred with disturbing regularity—every two or three minutes, it seemed.

Avoiding the mob of boat boarders, we scurried down to the lake’s edge and hiked around the shore. A wooden walkway was constructed for part of the way, anchored into the sheer cliff face with large bolts and steel cables. As we made our way around, we saw few other walkers. The air was sweet and remarkably free of the dust that perpetually lingered near the sands of the desert lowlands. It was a perfect day to ramble in the mountains, and I was very glad we had come.

As we hiked along the shore, we came upon steps that led up to a “temple”—more of a tourist show than an actual, working house of meditation. The boats disembarked here, as well, so we joined a steady line of bodies jostling and climbing the stairs to the site. Colorful flowers bloomed in profusion among the shrubbery that lined both sides of the stairs. As we came to the entrance, we were stopped by a couple of gatekeepers. They wanted a fourteen-yuan entrance fee. This was only about $2, but I’d been to so many temples in Asia that the last thing I was going to do was to pay for one so obviously set up for tourists. My friends agreed, and we turned around. As we began our descent to the lake, Sam stopped and examined a couple of the mountain flowers.

“Check it out.”

They were fake, hundreds of paper cutouts that were literally pinned to the bushes.

“So beautiful!” said Steve, rolling his eyes.

If the flowers weren’t bad enough, the temple did more to disrupt the tranquility of the surroundings than enhance it. The stairs led to a platform up top, upon which sat a giant bell. This is typical of many Buddhist temples, but in my experience, only the monks are allowed to ring the bell, which is often struck with a heavy log mounted on a kind of pendulum. This particular bell was open to the general public—which that day meant several thousand tourists—each one making it their personal quest to climb up to the temple, pay two bucks to a fake monk in a costume robe, and ring the damned bell:

DONGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!

Wait twenty seconds:

DONGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!

Wait twenty seconds:

DONGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!

Combine this with the constant blare of boat horns, and you had a positively resounding din.

Ah, nature.

“This is really getting on my tits,” I said.

We managed to escape the evil temple bell by hiking further in, by climbing over one ridge and then another, letting the land itself act as a sound barrier. As expected, it took no time to lose all other tourists, and we were now on our own, save the herds of sheep and Kazakh shepherds who inhabited the lakeshore in their yurts. It finally felt like Central Asia.

My objective was to have a swim, and we found a spot, though it was uncomfortably close to a small herd of cows raised and tended by the Kazakhs. You could see the brown haze of some cow shit particles in the water near the shore, but we moved down to what seemed like more acceptable, hygienic environs. The lake looked clean, though I knew that appearances meant little: with these amounts of people and livestock, the water was probably dirtier than I thought. But we settled on a spot and I stripped down to my swim trunks and jumped in, relishing the bracingly cold lake water.

“You guys coming in?” I asked.

“No, man,” said Sam. “It’s all you.”

I swam out from shore, to where the water was well over my head. A sightseeing boat approached, stuffed with camera-toting passengers. I waved to them as they passed by; they looked at me like I was on fire, and then started greedily snapping pictures. I got the impression that to them, swimming in the lake was the height of insanity.

I got out of the water and dried off and, after about an hour’s hike back, we found ourselves at the cable car station. The line was much longer than anticipated, and after an interminable wait, Sam and I slid into the contraption, and the attendant locked us in. Steve was just behind us, sharing his car with a teenage Chinese girl who appeared horrified to be riding with a lanky, bespectacled foreigner.

The drop down the mountain took about twenty minutes. The cars descended quickly, and several times I had to take my eyes off of the ground to avoid spins of vertigo. Heights have never been my favorite.

I hate cable cars. If we hadn’t been running late, there’s no way I would have agreed to ride in the loathsome thing. Cable cars are awful because they clutter up the natural scenery, but worse than that, they ruin mountains by transporting up herds of people who are too lazy to do the actual work it takes to get to there on their own. And these particular cable cars gave me even another reason to despise them: they had speakers attached to the cable poles, blasting atrocious Chinese pop music along with loud advertisements. On the side of a mountain. I suppose the sound of wind, flowing water and birds was just too much to expect. Such natural noises just might have taken our minds off of the most important thing of all: shopping.

And to think that some people still refer to China as a “communist” country.

We were very late, barely making our bus and facing a very annoyed, tsk-tsking Miss Yi as we slunk back on board. As we jerked out of the expansive parking lot and sped back toward Ürümqi, I nodded off. All of that activity—the hiking and swimming and cable car and endurance, coupled with an early start to the day—had assed me out. But my sweet bus slumber was soon interrupted by the perky Miss Yi, who once again plugged in the karaoke mike and started a new shuck and jive.

Sam looked at me with an expression of unfathomable annoyance. Steve pulled down his hat and tried to shut her out. I fantasized twenty different methods of murder. But nothing we did could stop her run-on spiel. She went on for another thirty minutes. At this point I was worn down, and almost admired her commitment and energy. She just didn’t stop. She was like an animatronic character on a Disneyland ride, and quit the pitch only once we’d reached the outskirts of the city, where we stopped at the crown jewel of all Chinese tourist traps: the dreaded jade factory.

There was more shopping to be done

“Fuck this,” Sam said, grabbing his pack. “Let’s get a taxi.”

We fled the bus and easily found a cab to take us back into the city, which took about twenty more minutes and cost just a little more than one entry fee to the Tian Chi fake mountain temple. We were back in our room before the bus even left the jade factory, with vivid memories of “Heaven Lake” dancing in our rattled, sunburned heads.

 

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