Monday, April 03, 2006

An Unusual Instrument

I went out of town this weekend and saw Lanzhou, the provincial capital, for the first time. Gansu is a good-sized province and it's a nine-hour overnight train trip to Lanzhou. With 3 million or so people it is considerably bigger than Zhangye, and has considerably more foreigners. I even passed Westerners on the street, always a head-turning experience. There is a Western grocery store where you can get exotic imports like cereal, cheese, and coffee (at Western prices), but I was more interested in the DVD and CD shopping. I was also thrilled to get a new book in English, a collection of translated Chinese short stories actually. At least one study has given Lanzhou the honors of "most polluted city in the world", and though the shopping is superior to Zhangye it's a crowded and mostly character-less city and I didn't come away wishing I had chosen my job offer in Lanzhou.

The reason I went to Lanzhou was because I was invited by Julian, the Peace Corps volunteer who teaches at the Zhangye Medical College. We met his friends there on Saturday, who were having a birthday party for a girl turning 23. It was basically like being in college again, playing frisbee and drinking with young Americans. Most of them are near the end of the two years and trying to get out early; you don't get to pick where you are sent by the Peace Corps and I don't know how many of them adored China ("I think we've seen enough cultural things... I'm all about the beach next trip"). They spend their weekends partying and the straight-edge, vegetarian image I had in mind for Peace Corps volunteers was thoroughly destroyed Saturday night. There are a lot of Peace Corps teachers in Lanzhou, and about 15 in one room during the party - more than all the foreigners in Zhangye. The party was fun for sure, but I'm still glad to be in a place cut off from Americans, and would hate to spend my time abroad watching seasons of Six Feet Under on DVD and making homemade kegs. I did get to hear more about teaching at International Schools however, since a teacher named Meredith expects to do that in Africa after she's done with the Peace Corps. International Schools are schools abroad for children of diplomats and other ex-pats, such as the children of Su and Chris from OWDC, where all the students speak English and the classes are regular curriculum, but it happens to be in another country. I would need to get a Master's in education, but this is something I have considered doing, and much more of a serious career possibility than what I am doing now.

While shopping and wandering the streets on my own Sunday, I was reminded that I wasn't in sleepy Zhangye anymore. There was a row of street sellers lined up next to each others, and I bought a number of posters with Chinese paintings for my apartment. I was then looking at the selection of the next seller when all of them suddenly grabbed their carpets of goods and started making a break for it, like something out of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. I looked behind me, and several men in suits in an unmarked van were getting and grabbing the street sellers. Still holding my posters, I didn't wait to find out if they were ununiformed police or thugs or what, and casually walked on down the street to get my bus. It hadn't really occurred to me that the goods were likely stolen, and I smiled as I pictured the scene of police in western China trying to figure out what to do with a foreigner they have to arrest.

Back on Thursday night, me and Phillip stopped by the Xinjiang restaurant with the young man who plays the two-stringed instrument (called the dutar, literally "two strings" in Persian) for some kebabs and music. Andrew, Gary, and a friend of theirs from Lanzhou also saw us and stopped by, and we ended up staying several hours, while Andrew talked with our new friend Aqbar and I started to get the hang of playing the dutar. Xinjiang being the Muslim Autonomous Region, it's traditional music is much more Middle-Eastern than Chinese, and the dutar is played mostly on one string while the other is left open to act as a drone. After playing guitar for so long and watching Aqbar (who can be seen in the photo in this post) play it, I can improvise songs in my own way on the dutar and learned a few good melodic runs from Aqbar, though I certainly am not playing it the way he does. I expect to visit Xinjiang during the week-long May holiday and am tempted to buy a dutar if one is affordable enough, though I think taking it back home on a plane might be mildly tricky. Aqbar of course does not speak English, and once again music has become a great in to making local friends despite my fledgling Chinese skills.

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