Monday, June 22, 2009

Kyrgyzstan at last!

I'm sure you've noticed a steady decrease in posting frequency, and now that I'm out of China I have no excuse for not regularly updating. Of course Kyrgyzstan doesn't have internet kiosks at every turn, but it does have pretty much everything else that Jess and I could possibly hope for; friendly people, fresh food (although it is almost all meat), and endless gorgeous scenery. Since I have to make up for a lot of lost time, this blog will be more of a chronological catch-up on our doings over the past two weeks.

We arrived in Xinjiang after two epic train rides (50 hours total) and found that we were not really in China at all. The Uyghurs in Xinjiang speak an entirely different language (which Jess can speak a bit of), they eat entirely different food, and the landscape is mountainous and arrid. Spending a few days in Xinjiang was the perfect way to transition from China to Central Asia - we had the safety and security of China but with the sights and sounds of Central Asia. In our most adventurous travel move yet, we took a sleeper bus from Kashgar to Osh, Kyrgyzstan which travels over the remote Ishketar mountain pass. And remote it was. Once we finally got through Chinese and Kyrgyz customs, the road turned into a muddy horse-trail through the mountains. But back to the border experience; it provides the perfect illustration of how different the Kyrgyz and Chinese infrastructure differ. As the bus approached the border we were stopped three different times by Chinese border guards, all very professional and effecient, to make various checks. The actual passport control/customs checkpoint was a new building with x-rays for our luggage, a giant infrared thermometer (reportedly to detect if someone is ill or feverish), and even an electronic survey at the end through which we could express our level of satisfaction with the process! Complete with smiley and frowny faces! I've never had a more pleasent border crossing. We then all loaded back onto the bus and crossed the 7 kilometer "no man's land" to the Kyrgyz passport control and customs. The passport control building was a less than sturdy wooden shack with one guy entering in passport information. While we had our passports checked and stamped, a couple gaurds boarded the bus, looked around at our bags, stuck his head in the luggage compartment, and waved us on. The entire Kyrgyz check took no more than 20 minutes. It wasn't only the difference in professionalism and technological infrastructure that was striking, but the fact that China took almost two hours to let us out of their country, but Kyrgyzstan let us in with a casual 20 minute glance over. I don't share this anectodote to disparage Kyrgyzstan for being unprofessional; rather it just illustrates how different the very formal and strict Chinese goverment operates versus how the casual and lax Kyrgyz government works.

We arrived in Osh at the painful hour of 4:00 a.m. - before even the first call to prayer. Only half-awake, we wandered with two Japanese tourists through the bazaar until we came accross a suitable guesthouse, where we promptly crashed for a few hours before exploring the city. Osh is by all accounts an ancient city; 3000 years old and a significant silk-road hub. Our first mission was a simple one - breakfast. We sat down at a restaurant that appeared eerily similiar to a 1950's style diner and we were immediately dumbfounded by the menu. Although we have both studied Turkic languages, actually sitting down with a menu that is full of strange foods with names written in Cyrrilic is still very overwhelming. We ordered without having a clue what would be put in front of us. In the end we didn't do too bad - eggs, spam, bread, tea and mutton soup with potato. Not my idea of the perfect breakfast, but ordering blind from a menu could have ended worse. I thought we might be having a bit of a strange breakfast until we noticed that the two men sitting next to us were having a light breakfast of vodka and vodka. That's right - glasses of straight vodka for breakfast. At 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. I was aware of that the Russian's left a culture of vodka swilling behind them, but I was stunned by full glasses at breakfast. That is one Central Asian cultural practice that I am in no hurry to take up.

Over the next two days we got to know Osh and became more comfortable ordering mystery foods and trying to answer strangers who were convinced that we must speak Russian. Our next move was to the city of Jalalabat and then to the village of Arslanbob - which turned out to be a very good move. (Here is when I reach for my grab-bag of natural beauty cliches) Arslanbob is stunning, gorgeous, and strikingly beautiful - so much so that it seemed unreal at times. It is a small town located in a lush valley at the foot of a giant snow-capped mountain. The valley is full of clear rushing streams, hundreds of donkeys and horses, and Central Asia's largest walnut forest. No one knows why there is a huge walnut forest here, but it is thousands of years old and it is the source of all of Europe and America's walnut trees; Alexander the Great took some nuts with him when he ventured through this part of the world and brought them back to Greece. I can't verify that story, but I like it. We stayed in our tent in a local family's garden for a few dollars a night. The setting was perfect - baby chicks, a dozen bunnies, roses, a clear stream, and a picnic area where we could lay, drink tea, and read. I miss it already. We also hiked to two waterfalls and to a spot with a panoramic view of the valley.

As we were leaving our fairy-tale village, we met a Russian couple who have an itinerary which is similiar to our own, so we will be traveling together (thereby sharing cabs and cutting costs) for the next few days as we try to cut across some major mountains to get to the other side of the country. The best part is that they (obviously) speak Russian and will be able to get us around with ease.

I wish I could post photos, but my camera will not load onto my computer, but I will try to get photos up eventually. Of course, my time abroad is coming to a close very soon. It is hard not to spend all my time thinking about all the people I want to see and all the little things I miss about being home, but luckily we are in Kyrgyzstan and it has a way of taking all of one's attention, focus, and energy, leaving no time for home-sickness. But one month from now I'll be in North America - five weeks and I'll be in Missouri!

(I apologize for any and all grammatical and spelling errors, I have no time to proofread - consider it stream-of-consciousness style)

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Coolest Guide EVER

China has put a block on blogs. This entry comes to you via an email to northern Ontario, Canada. Truly an international edition. M & D

If you are reading this then I managed to penetrate the Great Firewall again. My irregular access to has created a backlog of topics that I want to write about; viewing the preserved body of Mao, hiking and camping on the Great Wall, the wonders of real Chinese cooking, expat life in Beijing, and our adventure getting a Kyrgyz visa. All of these topics are interesting (to me at least), but what I really want to share is how happy I am to be traveling with an expert in Chinese language, history, culture, and food. Jessica has been studying the many facets of Chinese civilization for over 12 years, including three years of living, working, and studying in China, which means I am incredibly lucky to have her as a personal tour guide through this immense and complex country.

As I wrote in my previous post, it can be difficult to travel in China due to the seemingly insurmountable language barrier. Jess is not only fluent in Mandarin, but she is also aware of cultural and social contexts of communication. This knowledge is just as important as linguistic skill in order to have successful conversation with people in China. Rather than feel intimidated by her level of immersion in a culture that is completely alien to me, I feel immersed myself because Jess has done an excellent job of sharing her skills and knowledge. She makes sure to include me in all daily interactions, such as negotiations with taxi drivers and jokes from waiters in restaurants, by translating to and for me. Her experience as an educator shines through when we are traveling – she is able to teach about profound cultural beliefs and practices from the most mundane conversations and activities. I could be here for a year on my own and not learn as much as I have in the past three weeks with Jess as a translator and guide.

A perfect example of how traveling with Jessica has opened a window into the Chinese way of thinking happened on the train from Beijing to Qinghai. There wasn't another foreigner, or anyone who spoke English, nearby (probably since we saved a few bucks by getting a cheap “hard seat” section) so we immediately were at the center of attention for many people. Then Jess spoke Chinese to our neighbor. Half of the train crowded around in awe to hear the white woman who can speak Chinese. The old man she spoke to was very interested in the US and what life is like there, how much bread costs, and why people pay so much to go to Harvard. The conversation eventually added a few more participants and before we knew it, we were discussing human rights, gun control, and economic inequity. It was so interesting to learn about what ordinary Chinese think of the US and of their own nation's position in the world. I had a number of similar conversations in Yangshuo with English students, but they are invariably wealthy, young, and progressive, so it was much more interesting to be able to communicate, albeit indirectly, with a regular Chinese person.

Hopefully I'll get time to write more in depth about the other topics I mentioned in the near future, but until then, here is the abbreviated highlight reel of the past week;

− On my last day in Beijing I went to Tiananmen Square and joined the procession past Mao Ze Dong's preserved corpse. A very weird experience; paying respects to a dead communist leader who killed millions in his revolution against capitalism in a thoroughly modern and increasingly wealthy city.
− Jess and I spent two days hiking on a completely wild and undeveloped section of the Great Wall just a few hours outside of Beijing. We camped the first night in a signal tour built in the 1300's and spent the second night in a village family home where we ate the best fresh trout I've ever tasted. Yes, that includes in Montana.
− I have learned to fully appreciate Chinese cuisine after many feasts in Beijing with all of Jess' friends who really know how and what to eat. Although the fancier meals were delicious and memorable, it is really the cheap street food which made the biggest impression. For fifty cents you can get a Jian Bing spicy, savory, egg-y pancake with cilantro and green onion. Don't knock it 'till you tried it.
− In Beijing we stayed with Jess' wonderfully accommodating friend Lucy who is a Chinese/English translator from England. We also spent lots of time with other people who Jess knows from her time in China. It was a really interesting window into what life is like for foreigners who decide to make Beijing their home.
− Kyrgyzstan, here we come. We spent more time than I would like to admit searching for the Kyrgyz embassy, which apparently has followed the Kyrgyz nomadic tradition by moving bi-annually. Long story short: we have our one month tourist visas and we will be traveling over the Irkeshtam Pass across the Tien Shen mountains from Xinjiang to Kyrgyzstan on June 15!!!!!

I am having technical difficulties posting pictures, but I should be able to get the up from Kyrgyzstan if not sooner. The next two weeks we are staying in a Tibetan village in the Qinghai province with a host family to relax, hike, and enjoy the slow pace of Chinese rural life. Then, off to the Western frontier of China to experience the Muslim/Turkic side of the country before we enter Kyrgyzstan. It is hard to believe that I will be back in Missouri in less than two months! I am anxious to get home, but it is important to live in the present . . .