Friday, May 30, 2008

Bishkek Taxis

In Chengdu, taxis comprised a significant proportion of the traffic, but nothing like in Bishkek. In Bishkek, most cars will act as taxis. Some people just sit there by their cars and that's the signal that they're taxis. Others have taxi signs that they'll put up when they want to be available.

Since anyone who wants to can be a taxi driver, none of the cars are metered. You have to negotiate a price before you leave (which invariably includes complaining about the cost of fuel), and hope you don't rip yourself off too much. I find that when I first come to a new place, I'm most likely to get ripped off, since I don't know what a reasonable price is. In China, my guidebook is helpful with that, but the one I have that covers Central Asia is from 2003, so all the prices are different now.

One interesting thing about taxis in Bishkek is that the cars themselves come from all over. Some of the cars have the steering wheel on the left, but some have it on the right.

What made me want to devote a whole entry to taxis, though, is how things go after you get in. In Bishkek, most of the streets are unmarked. Houses usually have their street address, so when I'm walking around, I'm okay, but in a taxi you don't have time to examine all the houses. What this means is that sometimes you have to argue with the taxi driver about which street you're on. One night I was taking a taxi with the British jugglers and we had to argue about which street our house was at. Our driver wanted to turn two or three streets too early, and we had to repeatedly call him off until we got to the right one. Luckily, the city is organized in a grid, so I usually knew where I was. Otherwise I would've been lost and the taxi driver would have been foggy about which way to go.

Now I'm in Karakol, a small town by a huge lake and great mountains. I haven't figured out the taxi situation here yet, but I think it might even be worse--they change the street names when the names are too politically incorrect (like after the election a few years ago replacing a dictator-like leader), so many people don't know what any streets are called.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Brides and Bureaucracy

America is the best country in the world. This statement goes in tandem with one that Kyrgyzstan, China, and likely Kazakhstan are not. I've beens slowly acclimating myself to China's problems, but since I'm only in Kyrgyzstan for a week or two, I'm getting a fast-track course.

The girl who's helping me learn Russian (who's name is something impossibly close to "Allah") tutored me again last night. After I felt too discouraged from not being able to pronounce the word for "three", I let the conversation drift to whatever she wanted to talk about. She told me that she had been to the hospital today to see her friend who was having a baby. Allah is my age, so I expressed surprise that a friend of hers was already married and having a baby.

Casual as can be, Allah explained that her friend had been kidnapped. This didn't seem to be an explanation of the situation, but after she came up with a few more synonyms, my understanding still hadn't improved. Then I remembered a short passage in my guidebook about an ancient Kyrgyz practice: bride kidnapping.

As this might be unfamiliar to you, I'll explain it. A young man who has his eye on a girl but doesn't have the money (or reciprocated affection) for a proper wedding kidnaps the girl (by horse, I think, in the old days) and she becomes his wife. Divorce is impossible because no one wants someone who isn't "whole", to use Allah's expression.

When I read about bride kidnapping in my guidebook, I figured it belonged to the same part of Kyrgyz history that moats and dragons belong to in Western tradition, but here I was talking to a girl whose friend had been married by the process of what we would call "rape."

The girl, Allah told me, had known the guy for a month before she was kidnapped. At first it was difficult, Allah said in the perfectly heartbreaking way non-native English speakers sometimes manage, but then "she got used to him."

After I sat stunned for a few minutes trying to wrap my mind around this, tons of related questions poured forth. Kidnappings were rare in Bishkek, so Allah wasn't afraid. She thought it was just the way things were done, "horrible", but not about to change. Some girls dreamed about being kidnapped, but usually girls didn't look forward to it.

All of Allah's juicy stories about bride kidnapping had to do with extra twists: one girl who betrayed her friend by helping a man kidnap her friend, and so on. For me, the amazing part was the reality of the stories at all.

Kyrgyzstan also has a really corrupt legal system organized by wealth and connections, and an infuriating process for getting a Kazakh visa (which is why I implicated Kazakhstan in my list even though I haven't been there yet). God bless America.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Being Electrocuted

Another day has passed in Bishkek with me in it. I've found an ATM so I can stop exchanging precious US dollars at a bad rate. And now that my cashflow has improved (I was down to 20 som, the price of a stick of gum) I can be happy about the tourist-y shirt I bought at a mall yesterday.

Today I've been hunting down Internet access. Sometimes they have it, sometimes they don't. You just have to prowl around ready to pounce. Once you've caught your prey, though, the rewards of civilization are fantastic. I'm blogging, checking my email, and being advertised to on Facebook by online dating services in Dutch.

Despite me conquering the Internet right now, last night the shower conquered me. As far as I understand the situation, Kyrgyzstan is suffering from a shortage of power and various cities are doing their part to help. Osh has cut the power citywide every third day. In Bishkek, they've stopped providing hot water (it was centralized under the Soviets, which is how they can limit it). This means that you have to heat your own water here.

The house I'm staying at has two large metal buckets you can fill with water and then heat up with these electrified metal tongs. When the water starts steaming, you take out the tongs and use the water to take a shower.

The only part I didn't understand was how exactly to remove the tongs. The bucket had a lid on it, which I thought I would remove. As soon as I touched it my whole arm was sent buzzing and became numb. This would be trickier than I thought. I used a plastic bowl to move the lid and thought I was safe, but when I touched the bucket again, I was electrocuted again. I soon found the power switch on the tongs, but even after I was pretty sure it was safe to touch, I still was hesitant to touch it. A shocking state of affairs here, I know, but I think I've learned how to do it.

I've also started learning Russian. My reactions are interesting after studying Chinese: it feels so blunt to have a word that means "no"; it's so self-centered to say "I" every sentence you're talking about yourself.

Some of the sounds give me problems (I quit Spanish because I can't roll my r's, but here they are again), but having an alphabet is so luxurious! The girl teaching me Russian helped me make a little text so I wouldn't feel like an idiot walking outside. Hello, I say. My name is Will. I'm an American. I just came to Kyrgyzstan. This is all I can say. I'm a third of the way through my goal of repeating this to 30 people today. Most have sociably replied with something in Russian, at which point I just nod, smile, and wave goodbye.

I'm gradually feeling more comfortable here, especially now that I don't have to fear for my life every time I want to take a shower.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Will goes to Kyrgyzstan

In the last few days my life has been relatively uninteresting. There's only so much you can say about a sunburn. (Although I will add that after I posted, my face peeled, and the skin that has emerged looks like it might peel too. I'm twice-baked Will.)

So I decided to go to Kyrgyzstan. To make things more exciting, I didn't bother with the normal procedure of actually getting a visa; instead, I relied on the Internet to inform me that I should just fly to Bishkek and get the visa there in the airport. My mom was not excited about this plan, but I went ahead with it anyway. It was one of the scariest times in my life to be waiting in the Passport Control room in Bishkek's airport having spent over $200 to fly there without a word of Russian in my vocabulary and hope that I wouldn't be turned back to China. The good news was that if I did, I would be able to get back in to China (which is what my mom was really nervous about). The bad news was that in the Urumqi airport the Chinese guy made me sign something saying that if I got turned back in Kyrgyzstan, it wasn't his fault.

I made it through without a problem. After being summarily ripped off by a taxi driver taking me into the city, I found a place to stay, negotiated a price (I think), and relaxed on my bed. I was in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, chilling in a house somewhere and free to do whatever I wanted.

Since then, I have been ripped off buying lunch, met a group of British jugglers, passed a 7 club 3 count, been talked into drinking fermented mare's milk (under the auspice of "Kyrgyz Coca-Cola"), been approached by a guy wanting me to give him directions (and when I replied with the name of the street we were on--I had Lonely Planet open and knew--he thought I spoke Russian and walked away to find someone else), accidentally talked to people in Chinese, wasted 20 som on water because they drink the carbonated stuff here, eaten a cheeseburger, and successfully found an Internet cafe. Now that I think about it, the great Firewall of China doesn't hold me back here and I might actually be able to visit my own blog.

The British guys have been helpful. I'd like to go into Kazakhstan because from there I can take a cheap train back to China. This morning I started on the visa process, which the British guys are on the brink of finishing after having spent a week here working on it.

The buildings are ugly; the people are diverse (it might just be my authentic Kyrgyz camel hair bag, but people don't think I'm a foreigner until I give them my practised blank stare); the food is amazing; the cost is more than China. If I understood the keyboard better here, I could type in Russian.

I'm off to have more adventures, my som are going fast the longer I type.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Oozing Orange

After spending seven and a half hours hiking a mountain at high altitude, my face (and my arms up to about my elbows, where I had my sleeves rolled up) was bright red. Alex and I can barely buy food here, let alone moisturizer, so I basically just decided not to touch my face until it stopped hurting.

Yesterday during lunch I realized that I could do a cool trick. I give you the Sunburned Forehead Trick.

Being a forehead chamelion wasn't the most exciting result, though. Yesterday my face started oozing. At first it was just this orangish crust on the outside of my nose, and after I got it off there was some liquid.

Then my condition progressed to other parts of my face. Alex and I stood in front of the mirror late last night and tried to figure out what was going on. His nose is a little sunburned, but he wore a hood for most of the hike, so he wasn't in very bad of shape. My forehead and cheeks, on the other hand, are bubbly and tinted orange. We determined that our skin was oozing because there was some kind of fluid trapped underneath, and if I smiled too hard (or otherwise compressed my skin), orange fluid would leak out and stream down my face like a bad Gatorade commercial.

I admit that sweating orange was a little disconcerting, but there wasn't anything we could do, so we went to bed. I woke up once or twice to scrape some of my face off my face, and in the morning I looked a little more normal. Alex found some moisturizer and since I've put it on I haven't oozed very much, so it's too bad he didn't know he had some before.

If anyone wants to diagnose me, please do so. I'll just be riding a train for the next 24 hours, and if it's anything like the bus on the way here, I'll be recovering to the sound of Uighur music pumped through the speakers at an unreasonably high volume.

Not Being Gored by Grazing Yak

Alex and I were on a sanddune looking down at a herd of grazing yak. We actually didn't notice the yak as much as we noticed that there wasn't any snow. Alex told our tour guide as we set out from the village this morning that before we came back to Kashgar, we wanted to hike a little bit, and since most of the mountains reached a point where there was snow, we really wanted to climb up to the snow. Our tour guide thought that was a fine idea (and if he thought we were crazy Americans, he didn't say anything). Every time we saw a mountain he would estimate how long it would take us to climb and return--two and a half hours; four hours; five hours.

Alex and I were standing on a sandy hill because he had told us that that would be the closest place. We couldn't see any snow from the bottom, but he had given us reasonable estimates at other points and we thought we would trust his judgment. We hiked up the dune for about forty-five minutes before realizing that the only snow was far in front of us. And by far, I mean we would have to climb down the sanddune, walk up the foothills, and then start climbing in earnest at what looked like an impossible slope. Naturally, we decided that we would do it.

The yak worried us only as huge animals with large, sharp horns and an impressive running speed would. We walked around them without incident.

Our tour guide told us that the sanddune route would only take us three hours round trip, so all we had with us was a chocolate bar, Chapstick, and three bottles of water.

It took us an hour to hike up the easy, barren terrain (scattered with rocks) leading up to the mountain itself. Then we transitioned into hiking over rocks. The average rock was the size of my fist, medium ones were the size of my head, and large ones were the size of my body. At first it wasn't steep, but we could see that we weren't very close.

Soon the slope increased drastically, and we really had to watch our step or rocks would start to shift. We took more breaks to compensate for the increased difficulty.

Then we reached the point at which when standing by the yak I had predicted we would be unable to continue. From the sand hill it looked like silt, close up it was small pebbles mixed with bigger rocks.

And the slope of it. I'd say the slope was about the height of my body to the length of my arm--I make that comparison because when I stood up to climb, I used my arms because the mountain was right there. It was a good thing I was using my hands and feet. We felt like we slid one foot for every three that we climbed.

The last hundred feet were brutal. There was a little gully that we thought might be serviceable. Alex took a step down into it, slid, and couldn't climb back up, so we had to rondezvous further up. The snow was so close. Bright, white (although from so close we could see the dirt that was on it, too), and massive! The snow continued up to the peak and was a shining mass of unimitable beauty.

Then after four and a half hours of hiking, we arrived. It was about lunch time, so Alex and I feasted on snow and chocolate (water was too precious; we only had half a bottle left).

The descent down was crazy. We had clambered up, but you couldn't step down without sending a huge pile of pebbles and rocks clattering down the mountain. So we surfed down. Alex squatted and pushed himself, I rode like I was skateboarding (and for those who understand, I slide down a mountain switch). It was incredibly exhilarating and very fast, since we had to balance, make sure we weren't causing a landslide, and keep moving since we couldn't stop. We descended uncomfortably fast. Even taking frequent breaks to check for injuries, we still descended the bulk of the mountain in half the time it had taken us to ascend.

About that time we started to worry about our driver, who would have been naively expecting us back before we had even reached the snow. We were out of water, really tired, and still had the yak to pass--but we took a different route and avoided them.

Finally we returned, seven and a half hours after. Our driver was excited that we weren't dead, we were excited he was still there, and it culminated in a cross-cultural bearhug. He told us that he had talked to the police, and either they were going to or they had (tense is difficult in Chinese) come after us on horseback.

Everything turned out okay, though. I snapped a bad picture of the mountain before we left, because we hadn't brought our cameras, but I think that my bruises, sunburn, and excitement from climbing a random mountain near the border of Tajikistan would outlast even the best picture.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dinner with a Kyrgyz Family

I never thought I would say, "My guess is that this is yak." The idea that I wouldn't be able to instantly ascertain what I was eating, and that my best guess would be something as exotic as yak, certainly never came to mind when I thought about how China might broaden my horizons.
But there I was, in a small building by Lake Karakul (a few hours from Kashgar, which is several hours from Urumqi, which is a province in China that's practically a different country) sitting next to Alex, our driver, and a family of Krygyz eating a fantastic dinner which I couldn't see because the house was only lit by a single lightbulb powered by a battery.

Alex and I signed up to take a two-day trip to Lake Karakul because we thought it sounded fun, but we didn't know how great of a time it would be. By the end of the first day (and just wait until I describe what happened on the second) I was already saying that with the exception of my heater fan, this trip was the best 350 kuai I'd ever spent.

We essentially rented a driver and a car for two days, and luckily, our driver spoke Mandarin, so we could talk to him. We got to the lake by mid-afternoon and it was a beautiful day. The scenery was amazing at the lake, because there was water, and right by it was a mountain covered in snow, and right by that was a series of rocky mountains. Here is one of the pictures I took.

I took it from a camel's back. We toured the lake for an hour by camel and I got that picture. Doesn't it look like it came from a postcard?

As evening came, the view changed a lot and I got this other amazing picture. In the foreground are the yurts that the families stayed in.

We ended up staying in a family's small house because our driver said staying in the yurt that they'd rent us would be too cold. So after dinner (which was capped off by yak milk tea, of which I was pressed to have thirds) they unwrapped some blankets, toned down the stove, and we went to sleep. It seemed like it was the day that was the dream, though.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Trying to Eat Dinner

Alex and I rode a bus for 24 hours yesterday (and the day before) to get to Kashgar, a remote city in Xinjiang. We both think that we're practically in another country. Xinjiang is officially an "autonomous region", but when the people in the second largest city in the region don't speak Mandarin, I think it's a weak grasp on statehood.

We checked into a hotel, put down our stuff, and headed out to find some dinner. We hadn't had much to eat on the bus, so we were pretty hungry. We went into the first place that looked like a restaurant, where we were greeted by a guy. I said "Hello" in Uighur, using a full fifth of my Uighur vocabulary in the effort. He didn't speak Mandarin.

We mimicked a menu; he said they didn't have one. We were out of options for selecting food, but we were hungry, so we sat down and looked at him. After a few seconds, he must have decided that we wanted to eat there regardless. He went into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with a bowl of broth and some kind of meat. We weren't very excited about that, so he came back with some pasta. That seemed safe. He went back to the kitchen and we had ordered.

After a few minutes, some soup came out. The noodles were thin, but the flavor was good. There were little balls of some kind of meat (probably lamb) which I thought looked pretty good, but Alex thought looked really fatty. He had better instincts, because fifteen minutes after that I was hit with a huge urge to run to the bathroom in our hotel and barely made it in time.

Our dinner also included rock-hard bread. The bread here is fantastic, but when the bread clanks (literally) as you put it on the bowl, it's less tasty.

We figured out how much he wanted for the meal, paid, and left. That was our wordless dinner in Kashgar.

Right now Alex and I are leaving for a two-day trek to a lake where we might be able to ride camels. We were too impatient to get into a foreign country, and since our flight was delayed into Xinjiang, we wouldn't have had much time. Instead, we're trying to maximize fun things to do within China.

We've run into a hitch because Alex is having a difficult time getting flights out in time for his flight from Beijing to America, so right now we're sitting in the travel agent's office, with the driver for our car anxious to start driving us into the middle of nowhere, but being held up by ticket prices and availabilities.

Thankfully, though, breakfast went okay this morning and I feel full.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Being Kicked out of a Village

Alex and I are in Xinjiang now. We were really surprised that the flight wasn't delayed, but that's only because they didn't tell us there was a delay. We sat in the plane for four hours before taking off. When we got to Urumqi, we checked into a hotel that a friend recommended.

In the morning we decided to go to Heavenly Lake, but it was more like the day from hell. We're in the far-west part of China, but all of China runs on the same time zone (Beijing time). In Xinjiang, though, the sun doesn't come up until 9, people don't eat lunch until 2 and dinner until 8, so they have local, unofficial Xinjiang time. I woke up three times thinking that we were late, but it was only because I got confused about which time everything was. We quickly checked out of the hotel, found the bus station, and negotiated a reasonable-sounding price. Our tour book said the trip would take two and a half hours, the guy we bought the tickets from said it would take one and a half, but the bus seemed to circle around town looking for more people and we didn't get there until five hours had passed.

Alex and I started to hike up to the lake, and this part of the story was okay. We saw really pretty scenery and had time to decompress from not being able to use our Chinese (all the natives in this province speaking Uighur, which is in a different family of languages from Chinese). They had yurts at the top which we rented for the night.

Then the real adventure started. That morning on the bus we realized that the hotel hadn't given us our passports back. Alex hadn't wanted them to keep them in the first place, but we figured that since Urumqi is famous for pickpocketing, that maybe it was safer to have the hotel keep them. We were already out of town, though. I called the guy who had helped us find the hotel. He said that we didn't have to worry because nobody checked passports at Heavenly Lake.

The day Alex and I went, they checked passports at Heavenly Lake. We pleaded in our most polite Chinese (which the guy may or may not have understood) to let it by, but he was unswayed and evicted us with instructions to go back to Urumqi. All the tour buses had left, so we had to take a taxi that charged us each five times the bus fare.

But then when we got back to Urumqi, the taxi driver couldn't find the hotel that had our passports. Even my friend, who spoke English, Uighur, and Chinese couldn't give him instructions because our taxi driver didn't speak any of those (maybe he was Tajik, my friend speculated). Alex and I were tired and told him to forget it. Getting out and walking didn't help, though, and we wandered the roads looking for the hotel for maybe an hour.

Of course, I was still used to have language skills available, so I went up to a group of people and asked in Chinese if they could tell me where to go. They looked at me for a few seconds and then said roughly, "Ruska?" For all I knew, that meant "left", "right", "straight", "I don't understand", or "I don't know." I figured out later that he thought I might be Russian and wanted to try that out.

I was so frustrated. I told Alex as we wandered some more that this was the most frustrated I'd ever been in China. We picked up this guy who spoke a lot of English, but he didn't know where to go either, and couldn't help us much.

We walked and walked, with our hiking packs on and no way to talk to people and no answers to be had and no passport in our hands and no lake out our yurt window, and much fewer kuai in our pockets. Eventually my friend talked to this guy and we got it all worked out.

It was a good thing I wasn't paying attention when we got our passports back, because the lady just looked at us and asked why we hadn't gotten them this morning. After being kicked out of a village that day, I think that would have set me over the edge.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Being Attacked by Wild Monkeys

It's true. I went to Mt. Emei last weekend with my friend James. We didn't know what we were getting into, except that it was a long, tough hike. We got off the bus without knowing where we were, were shuffled into a van without knowing where we were going, and happened to meet an amazing group of five Chinese. They invited us to have lunch with them, and then when we all enjoyed ourselves, to come with them. I didn't even know their names and they just invited us to come with them.

That was Saturday morning. We were to hike Saturday afternoon, spend the night halfway up the mountain, hike all of Sunday to the top, spend the night so we could see what we heard was a spectacular sunrise, and then get a bus back Monday (and everyone knows what happened on Monday after I got back).

I'm including lots of pictures because I'm traveling now and am unlikely to find reliable wireless. Internet bars are fine for blogging, but they don't have USB drives, so pictures from my travels in the next few weeks might be rare.

I should introduce the people I was with. This is James, my travel buddy, throwing up a waterfall.

This is one of the guys we were with. He was fascinated by the idea of the trick photos James and I were taking and was trying to make it look like he was grabbing a huge tree.

This is all five of the Chinese people we were with with James and me at the top of the mountain.

This is me looking gangster by a strange sign.

And now, to the moment I've been waiting to tell for three days... how I was attacked by wild monkeys.

Mt. Emei is famous for its wild monkeys. Tibetan macaques, actually, which look like this.

They're familiar with humans because they demand a toll of some kind before they let you pass. Usually, they have specific places where they stay and there are people to help you make it through without getting freaked out. After an easy day of climbing Saturday, we checked into a hotel and went to an area where the monkeys prowl. I forgot my walking stick, which I brought mostly to fend off the monkeys, so I was helpless.

Luckily, the monkey areas are guarded by old women with bamboo sticks. They hobble around hitting their sticks on the ground to let the monkeys know that if they don't back off, it'll be them getting hit next.

Entering the area, we bought packets of food for the monkeys. I thought it was a rip-off, like buying food for the ducks when you go to a park, but I bought one packet anyway. I gave James my camera and slowly approached a monkey.

I didn't have my technique down, though, because I held out my food before James was ready to take the picture. The monkey grabbed it, and all I could think about was how he couldn't have it yet because I needed a good picture of me taming the monkey. So I grabbed at the packet.

The monkey thought I wanted to take the packet back permanently and retaliated by grabbing me. Meanwhile, the old ladies standing guard are yelling at me not to provoke the monkeys by touching them, and I would have said I wasn't trying to, except I was so freaked out.

That was when James snapped the picture. I'm not joking in the picture, this is sudden, intense, undisguised fear. Strangely, my eyes look blank, but seriously, I'm alarmed.

The old women beat back the monkey and I resolved to lay low after that.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wrapping up my Earthquake Coverage

I have this cool little counter set up to record how many people visit my website. After my first post that was found by as cool people as a random Daniel's parents and NBC, hits have decreased exponentially. Monday got me a month's-worth of hits in one day, and I expect everyone to drop off soon once they see how unexciting my stories usually are compared to talking about national disasters.

That said, this is the last post I anticipate talking about the earthquake. It's been fun to play a reporter, but this is the fourth post I've been distracted from talking about my awesome time at Mt. Emei. The city is settling down nicely and all of our attention is going to the small cities nearby that have been devastated.

Yesterday I went to the airport because I was supposed to leave with a friend for northwestern China the day after the earthquake, and that obviously didn't happen. First I had a run-around trying to call people. The travel agency said I had to get the airline to change my ticket, the airline said it was the travel agency's responsibility.

I went to the airport and it was a madhouse. A friend of ours, Liz, had been at the airport when the earthquake happened, and went back the next day to try to fly out. The good news was that I didn't see her. The bad news was that for all I knew, she could have slept on the airport floor like several of the people I saw (as evidenced by the flaps of cardboard they scavenged and used as beds).

The airport was open, though, so it looked like flying out was at least feasible. I eventually found the booth I was supposed to stand at and started to check out the scene.

China only lines up if it's an emergency (like buying water or Snickers bars, but not, we noticed, Gatorade). Flying is not an emergency, and therefore the booth I was supposed to receive help from featured a swarm of Chinese people waving their tickets to get the clerk's attention.

I noticed that the people at the front of the booth weren't being helped and that the clerks were focusing on people who had walked around all the booths and sneaked through the back. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I went back, a guy helpfully told the attendant to help the foreigner, and less than half an hour after I entered the airport I had tickets rescheduled to fly out Friday, today.

Another anecdote about lines in the wake of the earthquake. I foolishly went to a strip of camping supply stores nearby to shop for one of those cool travel pillows that let you sleep even without a window seat.

But the stores were all closed. Not closed in the normal way stores are closed, but closed with a guy standing outside keeping a horde of people from going in. I thought this effort could be taken care of by just locking up, but it turns out they weren't closed. They were monitoring how many people were in the store, only letting another person in if someone came out. I picked this up gradually as I watched what was happening. If someone could point to a hat or something specific and say they wanted to buy it, they were let in. But the hundred or so people standing there (and sitting on the rail without the appearance of an order) were held back. I asked why and got the obvious answer: the owners were afraid of everyone storming in and there being chaos.

I can't even imagine what it would have been like if everyone in their panic had access to all the gear they would need to live outside for the next few months. Luckily, I don't need to sleep on a bus enough to navigate that line.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Flow of Information After the Earthquake

I wasn't on Good Morning America. My mom called and told me that they interviewed some girl fresh into Chengdu who had perfect phone reception. I wonder if now that people realize that Chengdu was hit lightly with few or no deaths that us students are less exciting to talk to. Alas, I'm not famous.

In the interview I recorded with Good Morning America, though, one of the things I mentioned was the total lack of authoritative people telling everyone what to do. After the earthquake, everyone stood outside, gaping at the buildings. Anyone who dared went back inside, anyone who didn't chatted outside. I think in America there would be policemen instantly on the scene, reassuring people to back off until it was declared safe by whoever knew about earthquakes and structural integrity of apartments. On Monday, though, no one really had any information.

That kind of looseness of communication has continued. I read a really interesting NYTimes article about how China's news coverage of the earthquake has been surprisingly similar to the way catastrophes are covered in the West. Since the earthquake, though, I haven't heard anyone tell people what's going on, only what has gone on.

Despite a lack of reliable information, information has continued. The earthquake happened around 2:30pm Monday, the Chinese all became convinced that at 4:33, or some time equally precise, there would be a major aftershock. Accordingly, the guards to our apartment didn't let us back in from 4:30-5:00. There was no aftershock.

After that, a rumor spread that at 8:00 there would be an aftershock. This expectation was also happily disappointed.

After that, our Chinese friend told us that at 3:00am there would be an aftershock. We were highly skeptical, and asked how anyone could predict something like that. "My dad is a reporter," she said. "But how does he know?" "He's a reporter."

That night, nothing happened until 4am.

There may be more to all this than I know, since I'm not Chinese. Information seems to distribute itself horizontally, though, and to us Westerners we wonder how any information that doesn't have a clear origin can be true.

The latest example happened only a few minutes ago. Our former program director (since our semester ended last week, she doesn't have to take care of us, but does anyway) called me and said very urgently, "You need to go buy water." This seemed like a strange request, since we've had water for the past two days, and gas and electricity to purify it with, but I assented. "I don't know why," she continued, "but I hear that everyone is supposed to buy water, because there might be a need for it soon. I'm not sure why, but I just wanted to let you know."

I assured her that I was grateful not to be out of the frenetic loop, but took her advice very casually. We have water in our apartment, and as long as water comes out of the tap, we can boil it and have water to drink. In fact, we can boil up a pot now and be set for a few days. I dutifully went to the store next door to buy some water, though, and saw that they were sold out. So was every store until the large convenience store at the end of the block. There people looked like they were preparing for a siege, and it wasn't just water that was sold out. Lines were 20 people deep, and when there are lines in stores in China, you know it must be serious. I wonder if these people heard a different directive that instructed them to buy everything they could lay their hands on; I don't know.

But it sure is different trying to respond to an emergency in China. The lemming strategy that I see makes for quite a community united in response, which feels very powerful, even if water is being bought out for little reason.

EDIT: And sometimes there's validity in rumors. We just heard that the water supply is somehow contaminated from the earthquake... I don't know how that could have just happened, but I hope it doesn't stay this way long. I accidentally just washed my hands and hope it doesn't make me die.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Earthquake Aftermath

Wow, there's been a huge response to my entry about the earthquake. I don't have a lot of time (I can only get Internet outside, and it's raining), but I can update everyone on what's going on.

It's about 8 AM here, not many people around. I hear that most of the Chinese tried to sleep outside (and for those who live on the 22nd floor, it's no wonder!), but it's raining heavily now and that must be brutal.

Everyone I referred to in my post is with USAC's program. The Daniel I mentioned is Daniel Scallon; he's safe and taking a shower in my apartment if that's who you're looking for. If not, I hope you find your Daniel.

We ended up having a huge sleepover in my apartment with the ten or so USAC kids (and Brant's mom) who are still in town. There were a few minor scares, but nothing that lasted beyond running out of the apartment.

I was woken up several times to respond to the press. My mom called me to say that NBC wanted to talk to me. As you can imagine, that got me up even if it was 2 AM. I sounded shaky on the phone, since I had never been pumped for information internationally by a major news corporation. They had already found someone to do an interview with by phone.

By the time I talked to Jason I felt comfortable. We scheduled for me to be on Good Morning America Tuesday morning, which airs at 7 AM EST. You should watch it if you can. I'm not sure if things have changed while I slept, though, because when I just checked my email I had one saying that they wanted to talk to all the kids in our program. That would be a little disappointing not to have it all to myself, but I don't want to be selfish.

As far as how the city looks, it looks like normal. Dreary, with a few people walking or driving. I haven't heard of any buildings falling down, but I'm sure there's been structural damage that we can't see.

Take care.

The Earthquake

I was really looking forward to talking about my trip to Mt. Emei, but less than half an hour after James, the guy I was traveling with, and I got back, Chengdu suffered a major earthquake. First things first: I'm safe and no one is hurt.

James and I had just settled down for a late lunch around 2:00 at a little place nearby my apartments when we felt the table shake. I thought James was bumping it with his legs, he thought I was shaking it, but then we realized that neither of us could shake the ground like that. We ran outside along with hundreds of other screaming Chinese as the earthquake grew worse.

My primary concern then was getting somewhere where falling buildings wouldn't hit me. Luckily, the hot pot place across the street just had its windows shaking, and the building we had just exited, with a bottom row of businesses and another six or seven floors of apartments, was shaking menacingly but didn't collapse.

We occasionally had earthquakes in California, but none this severe. I had trouble focusing my eyes as I surfed the pavement standing there. The road didn't crack, but it swayed. The cooks, waitresses, and nearby tenants had evacuated.

After maybe a minute the earthquake stopped. People were still flowing outdoors, and once I confirmed that it didn't look like anyone was dying, I didn't feel bad about my observation that this was the most number of people I'd ever seen at one time just in their underwear.

A slight tremor passed a few minutes after, but there wasn't any more further excitement. I worked up the courage to go back to our apartment, where I saw our mirror dramatically shattered and a bit of plaster on the floor, but nothing serious.

All the USAC kids who were left in town started congregating, and it was like someone had taken a snapshot of life in Chengdu at that moment: Andrew was on the ninth floor and just hid under the table; Brant was with his mom, who had just come to Chengdu to visit; Colin was in the bathroom; Megan was teaching elementary schoolers and everyone panicked; I was eating; Daniel was leaving for the train station (so he looked like he was the foreigner fleeing from the scene); Alex was on the twelfth floor of the student dorms and said he never descended them faster.

The worst story was Liz. She was at the airport ready to leave China, and had just handed over her passport to check in her luggage. Then the earthquake hit, she grabbed her bags and ran, the airport closed, and her passport was somewhere in the airport. She came back here to our apartments and doesn't know when to go back to the airport or what time her flight is supposed to leave. For that matter, Alex and I don't know what to think about our flight to Xinjiang tomorrow morning.

I gathered information from other foreigners with brief Internet access. The earthquake registered 7.8 about 90 km from Chengdu and was felt as far as Beijing. Apparently American media is picking up the story, so it must be serious. The Chinese president is coming to Chengdu to look appropriately concerned.

We hear that we shouldn't sleep inside tonight because they're expecting an aftershock. I certainly wasn't expecting this much excitement when I came to China!

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Semester is Over!

I took my final final yesterday. It went horribly. Well, it started horribly and ended decently, but when you open the test and the first question asks for a character you learned a long time ago and haven't used since, you feel dumb not knowing the answer.

I'm still going to be in China until nearly the end of August, so I'm in a different frame of mind as everyone else. I'm ready to go climb a mountain, explore China, and study more in Beijing; they're ready to fly out of the country.

We had our end of the semester banquet last night. None of us likes the banquets because when they serve us fancy food we don't really like it. The best thing they offered us last night was some little cake type of thing made with durrian (not sure how to spell that, though). It's a really smelly fruit, but the cake was good.

I have to go finish up packing, I just wanted to announce that I have finished three years worth of Chinese.

Here's a picture from last night of me and my awesome Chinese teacher:

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Chinese Newspapers

Since coming to China, I've been well shielded from Chinese newspapers by my illiteracy. Today, though, I went to a western restaurant and they gave me the official paper to read in English while I waited for my food.

The good news is that the articles were written (or translated) by native English speakers. The bad news is pretty much everything else. I had heard of propaganda, but I never really knew what it looked like. Reading the front page, though, taught me as much as I want to learn. All the headlines that had to do with China were positive ("Grain Supply is Sufficient to Keep Costs Down"), and even the headlines that would normally be negative had a positive slant to them ("Gang Trials Evidence of Major Crackdown on Corruption"). Anything related to a different country was negative.

I saw that there was an article about official Chinese policy on visas. This is something that I, as someone studying abroad, am very interested in. I've heard recently that with the Olympics coming to China, they've stopped issuing multiple-entry visas and have made it really difficult to get even a single-entry visa unless you can find a school or job to back you up. The article was about a press conference that denied this (since that would make China look bad), then proceeded to redefine the situation with more positive words.

Since I'm an English major studying Chinese, I'd like to practice this new form of writing, gleaning all the technique I could from that article. If China Daily doesn't work out, I can always try working for the Onion.

USAC Students "Following Global Practices"

Will Penman

In a statement issued today, the rumor that beginning tomorrow May 9th University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) students studying in Chengdu will leave was denied. "USAC students are simply seeking the best paths for themselves as this summer approaches," one representative said. Citizens are reminded that this approach is "just for a period of time."

"What will not change is USAC's continued support for students learning Chinese, their instruction of available students, and the safety of said students."

This rumor has been spreading due to information from the participants' mothers. "I'm definitely going to keep studying Chinese," Sol Lee said as he happened to pack a suitcase. "And I think Chengdu is a good place to study."

The statement noted that students are modeling their habits after previous USAC groups. It isn't that students will leave Chengdu; in fact, more students will arrive in the summer. "I hope the kid living in my bedroom this summer hates the bed as much as I have," said Will Penman, the unbiased author of this article, showing much enthusiasm to have common experiences with more students.

Students point out that they have been in Chengdu for several months, much longer than some other programs.

There have been reports that students will spontaneously leave beginning May 9th for various academic reasons. "Summer school", "job", "a break from Chinese" have all been cited.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Getting Visas

My spring semester ends this Friday. Next Tuesday Alex and I leave for northwest China, to a province that borders eight countries. I really hope that we can go visit one of them. Our most likely options are Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, or Pakistan. I went on a wild goose hunt to figure out what an American needs to do to get into one of those.

It turns out that next door to the American consulate is the office for the Pakistani consulate, so with a little trepidation (since I didn't actually know how to say "Pakistan" in Chinese) I went to go talk to him. Surprisingly, when I greeted him in Chinese he gave me a blank stare and then said in English that he didn't speak Chinese. That set the tenor of our talk. He said obviously I would need a special passport, and began giving me instructions that included more than a $100 fee and a month wait. Pakistan was out.

I next went to find out information about Kazakhstan. There are travel agencies by the American consulate, but they all acted like it was obviously that an American could go wherever he wanted. One guy was ready to book me a plane flight to Kazakhstan, but since I had gotten the same line about Pakistan, I wanted to figure out what was what.

I decided to go ask people at the American consulate. That was an interesting experience. The building is guarded 24 hours a day by Chinese guys trying to look intimidating (but no one carries guns in China). You're not allowed to walk on the sidewalk, and there's always a line of Chinese people trying to have something to do with America. Turns out I just had to walk up and show my passport and they let me in.

I went through some security procedures, walked to a different building, and went to the window for Americans. The girl had passable English, but a really annoying habit of nodding her head as she talked so that it seemed patronizing. I gave her my spiel about wanting information on how to get in to Kazakhstan, then disappeared behind the counter. When she came back, she told me, in as matter-of-fact a voice as everyone else I had talked to, that of course they wouldn't know about America's relationship with Kazakhstan, but she had pulled up the phone number for the Kazakh consulate in Beijing and I could call them.

I left a little miffed at how the American consulate didn't know about American visas, but decided I might as well call the Kazakh office in Beijing. The lady answered in English, so I started talking, and before I finished my sentence she had hung up on me. I called again a few times today with the same result.

If anyone can tell me offhand what America and Kazakhstan think of each other, I'd appreciate it. I bet Alex and I are just going to have to wait until we get to the province that's near those countries to have any solid information, though.

On a positive note, my language partner got her visa to go to college in the States this fall. I thought this was interesting: apparently, Chinese people need to make an appointment about visas, and to do that they have to call ahead, and they have to call with a special calling card that you can only buy at one bank in town, and that card costs more than $5 for 8 minutes. Hao mafan, my language partner said. I agree, visas are way too much trouble.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Watching Ironman

I know, pretty boring since going to see Ironman is probably the thing to do in the States right now. Does it help that I don't know when it came out and that when we bought our tickets, I didn't know how to say which movie I wanted to see? The title is three characters long, and I only knew the last one...

Maybe I should post another picture of my shorts (I'm wearing the black pair today and people tell me they like it better than the khaki one). That seemed to elicit all kinds of comments. I'm so happy you commented, Mich! And TC, Grandad told me you were going to Dickenson; I hope you love college. I haven't met anyone named Tony, though, but if I do, I'm sure I'll remember him for his normal name. I just saw a picture of a Chinese girl named "Win" with her brother "Earth." Mom, I'm glad you didn't try for slang in public. Katie, I think the lol undid some of the compliment... :)

As I said, I went to see Ironman tonight. I happened to be in the happening apartment when Sol, Sofia, and Jess were planning, and since I didn't have anything else to do tonight, I went along too. The movie, if you haven't seen it, was pretty sweet. We managed to go to a showing that was in English with Chinese subtitles, so we understood all of it. (This was in contrast to me watching the movie about Jane Austen a few months ago, which was boring and in Chinese, with no subtitles.) I think I'm starved for real English here, so listening to a whole movie of witty dialogue was fantastic.

When the movie was over, the credits started to roll, the Ironman theme song came on, and we went to get out of our seats—and I remembered I was in China. For a flittering moment, I thought I was in America, but then I was back halfway around the world, faster than Ironman can fly.

It was the first time I actually forgot I was in China. It made me a little sad to be here. In general I'm pretty happy (especially with my trip to Xinjiang coming up next week). I was really craving pretzels today, and all I could find were saltine knockoffs, but that's how things go. My brain's never been fooled.

Well, that's all the sentiments I can stand to write now. Actually, it brings me to the topic I was planning on writing about before I began writing: I hung out with a different Chinese family yesterday.

This family lives in our apartment complex. The dad takes a walk every evening, so he sometimes sees me stealing Internet access and wants to talk. He lived in America for a while, but always says that it was a while ago, so his English is rusty. He continually suggested that we work out a tutoring situation for his daughter, and since my education has taken a break while China celebrated the first of May, I eventually acquiesced.

I came to his house to see two kids, which wasn't surprising since they often have a friend. We taught each other for a while, then they invited me to lunch. The one who I knew was a daughter kept calling the other one Little Sister, but again, that's not that unusual because after the One Child Policy, everybody wants to still feel like they have siblings.

And then I said in English to the one girl that the other one wasn't really her sister, was she? The girl said no. That was pretty convincing proof, so I turn to the younger one and ask her where she lived. She said she didn't understand. I soon found out that she actually was the younger sister (which, in retrospect, explained why I thought they had the same last name), that the mom just loved children enough that they sucked it up and paid the fine to have a second one. And I was the jerk who said it couldn't be. They laughed it off, and I was glad that we had just talked about taboo topics in our respective cultures. Americans don't talk about money or politics, Chinese talk about everything. Everything? I asked. Everything but feelings, they said.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Tailor-made Shorts

When my parents were in town, we went to a huge market where you could buy almost anything you can imagine. My mom was looking for material so she could have a qipao made for my sister, so we walked down aisles and aisles of little stalls selling hundreds of kinds of fabric. I began to realize that given how cheap fabric is, and how cheap labor is, that having clothes made would be really fun.

I wanted to have some shorts made because summer is almost here (it seems like just a few weeks ago I was complaining about a scarf not being enough, and now I wish I had an air conditioner in my room).

My goal was to have shorts that would make people in America say, "Cool shorts. Where'd you buy them?" And I'd say, "I didn't, I had them tailored." Finally I found the perfect shop and bought one pattern that had black Chinese characters written in cursive on a beige background, and other with white, old pictographic characters on black material.

I took them to the tailor, brought along the one pair of shorts that I had as a model, and that was that. I don't even know where you would find a tailor in America.

I went to pick up my shorts yesterday with a certain degree of trepidation. It's not expensive, but I still didn't want them to look horrible. I'm really glad that the shorts I showed her were ones that were really expensive (imagine, the only pair of really nice shorts I've ever bought, and I end up making two copies of it and adjusting it slightly to perfectly fit my build). The shorts look so sweet.

Check out the black on beige:

Here's the final tally:

Material for shorts: 18 kuai

Employing a tailor: 35 kuai

Having custom-made shorts that you think look really awesome: way more than $8-worth