In the afternoon I arrived in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Urumqi is a big city that's a useful transit point, but the one truly interesting thing about it is that it's the farthest city in the world from the ocean. When I arrived I asked a shopkeeper which bus to take to the hotel I wanted, which resulted in five or six people gathering around to decide which bus was best. In case I hadn't understood which bus route I needed, a Uyghur woman selling fruit who had overhead shouted to get my attention and showed me the "101" she had written on her hand.
The first hotel had no cheap rooms, so I asked a taxi driver to take me to a cheap hotel. This one was even more expensive, but as I was leaving I was shocked to hear a Chinese family asking in fluent English if they could help me. They lived in Canada as it turned out, and asked the small crowd milling about out front about hotels. A man with a car insisted on giving us a ride; he said that when he visited America people were very helpful to him. All the hotels we tried were very expensive or weren't licensed to accept foreigners, so the only good it ended up doing him was to waste his time and put a small dent in his bumper when he backed out from the first parking lot. But I appreciated the effort.
The only reason I went to Urumqi (for the first of many times) was to catch the bus to nearby Tianchi, Heaven's Pool, a beautiful lake amidst mountainous alpine scenery. I had heard it had become a heavily touristed "Chinese amusement park-type place", and I wasn't too thrilled to see about 50 tour buses stationed in the parking lot when we arrived. There were almost no Westerners in sight, but before I even began the climb I happened upon a couple from Paris I had met in Turpan, and because I knew where we could stay overnight I managed to have someone to talk to on the way. Having idiotically brought my entire bag to Tianchi the climb was exhausting as well as a bit crowded, but I wasn't too bothered. The surrounding Heaven's Mountains were scenic, and there were random sheep and goat sightings to amuse us.
Finally we reached the summit, which opens up suddenly and dramatically to a view of the lake with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. But just when we should have been overwhelmed by the view, we were overwhelmed instead by something else - the "Chinese amusement park". Besides the masses of people and loud music in the distance, there were children shouting "picture! picture!" at us in English and, unbelievably, a row of gawdy dresses girls could pay to dress up in that actually blocked your first view of the lake. Capitalism at its most obnoxious, whatever they choose to call it here. I was shocked at just how many people were at the top, until I realized that most of the Chinese tourists take a ski lift to the top, take some pictures, and take the lift back down in time to be back in Urumqi for dinner.
Fortunately, we were staying on the mountain overnight and enjoyed a wonderfully peaceful evening and morning. There are Kazakh herders who come to Tianchi during the summer with their animals, and as a side business rent out yurts (the Mongolian-style tents) to overnighting tourists. Most Western tourists end up at Rashit's, an English speaking Kazakh, and I spent an enjoyable evening talking to not only the French couple but travelers from Austria, Sweden, Thailand, Taiwan, and Japan. Europeans always succeed in looking more sophisticated than Americans - they knew American history to the point that the Swede could name the price we paid for Alaska. To my disappointment, his Chinese girlfriend recognized me from Turpan - "I saw you dancing on the stage!". Once I'd had my fill of the unspoiled night sky, I retired to the yurt. Sleeping in a yurt was great for novelty value, but was not too unlike camping in a tent - with 7 other people.
The morning was lazy and relaxed, as more cattle and horses drifted by than people. I spotted four Chinese tourists with camping gear, probably the only ones outside of our group I knew spent the night. The climb down was neither lazy nor relaxed, as the French couple (you'll notice I'm spectacularly good at remembering names) and I rushed to catch a bus on time. My bag began to feel less like a backpack and more like an adolescent child that was clinging to my back.
I had nothing to do in Urumqi that evening particularly, but I remembered about a Western-owned bar called Fubar taht had been recommended to me. Beyond having foreign beer, pool and even foozball, to my relief they were playing music I honestly enjoyed (Massive Attack). Being a Monday it was quiet, and I mostly just talked to the Japanese part-owner at the bar. As per usual I made no attempt to talk to the several attractive girls at the bar, but I had an excuse as they were Uyghur and totally beyond my language capabilities. More appropriately, being myself, the highlight of the evening was a game of foozball against a small Chinese boy and the two older woman he was with. They were so bad at it that letting the boy win was a chore, but his face just dropped with disappointment when I took the lead at first. As a foreigner in China there is a recurring scene in which parents try to get their shy child to talk to you, encouraging them to "say hello to the uncle! [kinship terms are used very casually]" with no success. He didn't actually say anything to me until he began to leave, when he asked me to come back and play again the next night. It only occurred to me just now that it would normally be odd to see a small child spending the evening in a bar.
Through circumstance I spent the full day in Urumqi, buying onward tickets and taking care of small business. I dropped by the train ticket office in the morning, and was shocked and appalled by the line that extended outside, until I took a closer look and saw it was facing the other direction. I was relieved that it must be for something else, until I took yet a closer look and saw that it wrapped around and was twice as long as I originally thought, probably more than two hours long. It looked like the line to ice skate in Rockefeller Center. Such is buying train tickets in China. One of the assertive Australians I met in Turpan told me he had to help a young woman who was crying in a busy station because she was so passive she couldn't get to the front and had been there two hours. Anyway, I went back in the afternoon and got what I wanted when there was no line.
There wasn't much excitement that day, though I did briefly watch a gnarled old woman on the street tell an amused young man his fortune, which was entertaining despite the language barrier. Urumqi began to strike me as a rude and unwelcoming place, so I retreated to my suffocatingly hot hotel room for the night, glad I didn't insist on working in a big Chinese city.
I needed to catch a bus at 7am, so I had a good panic at 6:30 when I found out the front desk was totally and utterly shut down in the hotel, and mild obstacle to checking out. Someone soon came, but I'm glad the bus wasn't two hours earlier. I had signed up for a 4 day, 3 night Chinese tour to Kanas Lake in the very north of Xinjiang, which apparently is difficult to get to on your own.
I hate tour groups. There is no better way to kill the fun of traveling than being shuffled from place to place with the same 30 people, taking photos in unison and being assured that nothing surprising or unexpected is going to happen. No under 55 should travel by tour group.
At any rate, there I was with my tour group, assured I had no other choice but to sign up and just go my own way when we arrived at Kanas Lake. Being anti-social is easier when you are the only English speaker. Not that I went unnoticed by any means. I was woken from a brief sleep so that the tour guide could ask where I was from, and there was a round of applause as I was welcomed to China for the thousandth time. The trip to Kanas Lake is so long that there is an overnight stop after riding for 12 hours on the first day and I started and finished a book. I had acquired a book called 'Dance Dance Dance' by Haruki Murakami from another traveler in Urumqi, a translation of a good Japanese novel that I can't believe wasn't written by a disillusioned American writer. When we arrived at the hotel, my roommate was brimming with enthusiasm, and wanted to know my name.
Sometimes you just have to give up and go with it.
After several more hours on the bus we finally reached Kanas Lake. Annoyingly, I had to stay with the group throughout the pre-planned day in order to ever get to the hotel in the evening. The one activity I participated in was a visit to a traditional house of a Mongolian minority, which was fairly interesting but a bit like the global village at Epcot Center. I couldn't understand the guide of course, so the highlight was the weird spectacle of Mongolian throat singing, in which they can produce two tones at the same time. I got out of the evening trip because it was near the border with Kazakhstan, and as a foreinger I was simply not allowed to go. Instead I relaxed by a riverside with a young couple from the tour, and took cover from an unbelievable downpour of rain and hail that was probably greater than Zhangye's past three years of rainfall. At night we were treated to the worst hotel I've ever seen, with filthy cement floors and no running water whatsoever. American tourists would have raised hell, but the Chinese were just midly disappointed and shrugged it off.
The tour squeezed in one last organized activity in the morning, so I grudgingly paid 40 yuan for what turned out to be just a bus up to a scenic spot. Bus rides in Chinese cities cost 1 yuan, and you can get about 6 hours away by train for 40 yuan.
From a Western view, the Chinese have a strange way of appreciating nature. Rather than just climbing the mountain, which would've been pleasant, we were all taken to the top by bus, where we climbed over paved steps to a pavilion that apparently was decided to be the most scenic spot. Irritated by the huge numbers of people, I went down an unpaved path to the side first, where I was alone in 2 minutes' time because none of the other hundreds of people left the set path to the top. The view was great, and it was quiet. Afterwards I decided to see what was at the top, and climbed to the pavilion. I assume the view was good, but I wouldn't know because it was blocked by shoulder-to-shoulder people posing for pictures and talking loudly. This was true throughout the park - it was immensely crowded everywhere, but if you left the path and stepped into actual nature you were immediately alone. Those in the tour who signed up and paid for every activity, which was the majority, had all of two hours to themselves in a four-day trip to a national park. Apparently the closest Chinese word for "privacy" implies being selfish. Indeed, the young guy next to me on the tour bus with some basic English ability was intently reading my notes for my weblog over my shoulder as I wrote them, so I had to just stop when I came to the part where I wanted to complain about tour groups.
Because I was enjoying the remaining time to myself so much, I didn't want to head back to the tour bus any earlier than I had to. Unfortunately, because it took a while to find the right bus back to the entrance and I completely misjudged the time, I was a full half-hour late the to the tour bus, with everyone waiting for me. I felt like a complete asshole. Everyone must have been irritated with me, but they certainly didn't show it. Instead, they continued their friendly curiosity and after lunch one small group forced ridiculous amounts of food on me, from watermelon and eggs to beef jerky and chocolate. This continued in Bu'erjin, the stopover town, when we went out for kebabs at the night market and I was given yet more watermelon.
Afterwards we killed time at the river, competing in skipping stones as the locals swam or bathed. Or washed their cars - a car suddenly pulled up next to me, stopping so far into the water I had a fear it was a suicide mission. A man casually helped his wife and child out and scrubbed his car down, shrugging and grinning at us when he trouble starting it and backing it up again at the end.
This was the long haul back to Urumqi, and nothing noteworthy happened until the night, when I had some time to kill and went back to Fubar for a drink and some decent music. I immediately noticed the attractive Chinese girl sitting alone at the end of bar, but in my usual foolishness I sat two seats away, and ended up in conversation with Japanese owner again. Very quickly the next seat was taken by a young chain-smoking Chinese man, and as I looked around my chances of getting into conversation with anyone looked dim.
However, smoking man's girlfriend eventually showed up, and they went off somewhere else. So I seized my chance with mysterious dark-haired girl at the end of the bar, with what courage and Chinese I could muster:
"Are you local, or are you trav-"
Longer pause, as she immediately goes back to her magazine and I envision a WWII bi-plane going down in flames in the back of my mind.
However, she then wanted to know what I was doing in China, and her eyes lit up at the mention of Gansu province, her "old home", and something very similar to a conversation happened. I felt no pressure to be clever, since with my limited Chinese it wasn't even an option. She probably realized how little of what she was saying I understood, so I appreciated that she made the effort anyway.
After perhaps a half-hour I could think of nothing else to say, so she went back to her magazine and it suddenly felt very awkward. This called for a Plan B, so after scanning the room I suggested I should teach her how to play foozball. This went better than I could have hoped - no Chinese required, and whether or not she realized I was just letting her win, I've rarely seen such enthusiasm for foozball. Someone called her cell phone and seemed to be making plans, and when I returned from the bathroom she had to leave suddenly, but not before giving me her card with her phone number and telling me "anytime". A minor victory considering I don't live in Urumqi, but getting attractive girls' phone numbers isn't a bad motivation for learning a difficult language.