Saturday, September 1, 2012

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Things I learned about China that I didn't know before I came to Central Asia:

1. It's under construction

A common sight in Xinjiang
Demolition of old-town Kashgar, new-town Kashgar behind
Especially in Xinjiang, construction is rampant. Villages that one guidebook (from 2002) said were "good places to see traditional Uighur culture" and another (from 2010) said was "beginning to become another Chinese city" were very much in urban development when I went to see them. The Han locals that I spoke to supported it, for the most part. One woman I met in Ruoqiang said with pride, "yes, there is much construction. This is a developing city!"

 During my time in the province, the most common job of the Han people that I met was "construction engineer." They all told me that Xinjiang was the place to come once they graduated because if the push for development. Mao's encouragement for the eastern Han people to move in and help develop the Uighurs is still very much present here. Most of the travelers whom I met were very opposed to the "destruction" of Uighur culture, as were some Uighur people. However, I also got a sense that the economic and educational benefits that come with China-fication were very much appreciated.

2. The military and police personnel are very friendly, and professional

Despite the sometimes quirky or seemingly oppressive laws that they are required to enforce, most of the individual police officers or military personnel whom I met in China were very friendly. Not only that, but they were always quite professional, too. They took care of their uniform and appearance, they did their jobs dutifully, and I never once was asked to pay any bribe or other "fee".
File photo from an earlier post. A very enthusiastic police officer in Northern Xinjiang. He wanted to capture our multi-national group (Vietnam, Russian, USA)
As soon as I entered Kyrgyzstan, however, the difference was very apparent. The first two Kyrgyz border guards that I met were sitting on a rock on the side of the road, shirts untucked, eating sunflower seeds with their backs to the trucks waiting to cross through their gate. Once approached, they passively flipped through my passport, examined the Chinese visa only (not any of the information that might be pertinent to their jobs), and let us pass.

Within hours of being in Bishkek, I heard two seperate stories of travelers being hassled by police or fake police for bribes or passports. A threat to call the embassy seems to be enough to get them to back off, luckily.

3. They have mummies

Those are two real people who lived 1000s of years ago. Crazy, right?
Ever think mummies were just for Egypt? WRONG! it turns out Xinjiang is almost entirely desert, and when you bury a body in the desert, it just sits there. For a very long time. Almost every town had a museum and each museum had a collection of mummies from the area. This one in particular had a dozen, including 3 infants. Interestingly, most of the mummies are light-skinned, tattooed central asians, not east-asian.

4. EVERY town has a central square.

Not only that, but every central square has a gigantic TV that plays Chinese TV until midnight every night. Nearby, a crowd of middle-aged women will be dancing choreographed, yet tame dances to pop music (think "electric slide" quality dancing, maybe a step up from "macarena")
The TV at night
Statues of Mao were also popular additions to these squares

5. English isn't a strong suit.

OK, maybe I knew this ahead of time, but it's still fun to see some of the signs. Here a a couple of examples:
What do you mean when you say "carrots" and "basket"...? Is that TP?
Yes. A good reminder while I pee in the nasty, nasty, uncleaned urinal hole.

Things I've learned about Central Asia so far:

1. The food from Mongolia to here is basically the same, but becomes more flavorful!

Below is an example of meat in a pocket of bread. In Mongolia, it had various names, but basically consisted only of boiled mutton and bread. In Xinjiang, it was known as cao bao zi and had a little bit of spice added in with the mutton. Here in Kyrgyzstan, it's called samsa and is super flavorful. It's still mutton and mutton fat, but they add in onions and probably a good handful of spices to keep things interesting. I love street food.
Hot pockets ain't got nothin' on this
 Below is another dish. I forget its name in Mongolia and Xinjiang, but it was usually some type of rice with a bit of vegetable mixed in (here it's yellow peppers), topped with a chunk of meat. In Central Asia, it's called Plov and gets quite a bit more varied. The meat is in smaller chunks and is mixed in with the rice, and the vegetables are more varied. I hear there is even plov with pistachios in Uzbekistan...
Plov. it's fun to say, right? Plov plov plov.

2. Even though you're in the high mountains, you should still be careful about drinking the water.

Ever since that last night with the Kazakh family, my GI tract was having issue on-and-off. After three weeks, I decided to take some antibiotics. After a full course of antibiotics and no improvement, I decided to take the opportunity in Kashgar to visit an English-speaking doctor. Conspicuously, my symptoms disappeared as soon as I arrived at the hospital, leading the physicians to think that I was just crazy or a picky eater, and leading me to try to get a stool sample into the cup shown below:
my target practice facilities...
I've given stool samples in the states before (last time I came back from traveling, actually). There, you have a little tupperware bin that you can seal up and pass to the lab techs. In Kashgar, you go in a small cup that seems to have less structural integrity than a Costco sample cup, then you walk across the building, down a flight of stairs, through a crowded waiting room and hand the open cup to a lab tech, who examines it immediately under a microscope to tell you that he can't find anything interesting. On the plus side, the half-day at the hospital only cost me about $2.50.

3. Hospitality is a virtue

Everywhere I've been in Central Asia I've met tons of super friendly and welcoming people. Couchsurfers and others have put me up for a night or several, I've been given meals and free rides. One of the drivers that picked me up actually tried to pay ME 50 yuan (~$8) for food after he dropped me off.
Couchsurfing in Kashgar
Upstanding Kyrgyz gentlemen celebrating a new baby boy. Roma and I had been allowed to spend the night at this truck-stop cafe about 20ft away while they were celebrating...


4. Hitchhiking isn't as hard as people say

I tried it on a whim in China and it worked quite well. Research about Central Asia, however, told me that it would be very difficult and most people would want money. I met one traveler who came from Kyrgyzstan and had been successful, however, so that was enough for me to give it a try.

My experience thus far: not bad at all! It usually takes a few tries before someone will actually pick you up. They still aren't quite used to the idea here in Kyrgyzstan. Most people will just try to direct you to the nearest taxi stand instead. Once you make it clear that you just want to get somewhere in the direction of where you're headed and that you're not going to be paying money, though, some people will happily take you. Trucks tend to be the best option, as they're already getting paid and are probably pretty bored from days of driving anywhere. 

If you're not in a rush, have time to spare and don't mind super awkward attempts at Russian conversation followed by hours of silence and hand guestures, it's great!
Fro truck. He didn't give me a ride.

Truckin' it

Sometimes they break down...

Sometimes they are SUPER heavy and SUPER slow (biking would have been faster on the up and downhills than this truck)

When your tire blows out, just swap it for one of the others! Who needs a spare when you have 18 wheels?

Roma the non-monogomous muscovite mountaineershops for Sega in Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Roma and I waited for about 2hrs in this town before we got a ride.

Relaxing in the frieghtliner. Good ol' Detroit manufacturing, complete with American-sized bed in the back

American truck, Russian Gazprom.
Co-pilot and driver near the Kyrgyz-China border
sometimes it's more hiking and less hitching

5. Politics are a mess. Borders make a big difference, despite ethnic ties.

Central Asia has a fascinating history. So many different peoples have lived in these lands over the millenia that it has become very difficult for anyone to say who was "here first". As a result, when lines are drawn on a map they become a good excuse for nationalism. Stalin drew some lines back in the '30s that are causing loads of issues in this region today (take a look at a map of the 'stans to get an idea).

The Russian and Vietnamese researchers that I crossed from Mongolia into China with were studying the effects of nationality on spiritual beliefs and traditional customs in the Kazakh people in the Altay regions of Russian, China and Mongolia. These people all come from the same ancestors not too long ago, but modern borders have separated them. The researchers' preliminary observations were that the peoples in each country were now more similar to their countrymen in Moscow or Beijing or UB than they were to their ethnic brethren across the border. Nothing published yet, but an interesting idea nonetheless...
Chinese border guard helping Max (Korean) and I get a ride to Kyrgyzstan
The bustling metropolis of Irkeshtam, Kyrgyz border town. Basically a trailer park/truck stop in teh mountains.
Independence day in Bishkek (31 August. 21 years of independence after the collapse of the Soviet union)

6. Learning another language is hard. Russian is really hard. Chinese is even harder. Mongolian/Kazakh/Uighur/Kyrgyz/Tajik/Uzbek/Chinese/Russian all at the same time makes you want to go to Central America with a spanish phrasebook.

I gave up on learning more than a few phrases in Chinese. I'm going to start taking Russian language classes for a short time while I wait for visas here in Bishkek. Wish me luck. So far I feel like I've only been able to experience a certain amount from my travels. Watching someone like Roma, my Russian hitchhiking buddy, be able to have a full conversation with our drivers or other locals, made me realize that by learning a bit more of the language I will have more opportunities to get a feel for what life is really like for the people whose homeland I'm visiting.
Harry's Russian twin, "Garry" Potter. He must go to Durmstrang.

7. It's very mountainous. And beautiful. And sparsely vegetated.


this wasn't even the craziest road

you could see the bottom of this lake through tens of meters of water.

So there are some of my thoughts over the past week or two of Central Asia. I'm in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan now and will probably stay here or in the region for the next two weeks at least as I apply and wait for my Uzbek, Tajik and Kazakh visas to go through. Luckily I have some contacts in the area who can show me around, and the mountains aren't far away, so I'm sure I'll have enough to keep me busy. I'll keep you posted on any adventures...

1 comment:

  1. great update with human and landscape accounts. i am learning how ho hum my own landscape is here. they certainly got the right guy to go for a hitchike.