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March 28, 2005

Turpan Trip

Sorry for not posting recently, but things have been a bit topsy-turvy. My schedule just underwent a major reorganization, and I decided to use a couple of the days-off that were created in the shuffle to travel to the famed desert oasis of Turpan.

For those of you who aren't familiar, Turpan (well, Moon Lake near Turpan) is the second lowest spot on the face of the earth after the Dead Sea. It's also the hottest place in China and the site of some really terrific historical tourist spots.

I left Korla with my friend and fellow teacher, David Shallcross, on Thursday night at 10:00 pm Beijing time. The overnight train that heads between here and Urumqi takes about 8 hours to reach Turpan, which means we arrived well before the sun rose. Unfortunately (from the point of view of a tourist), the train station one takes to get to Turpan is actually in Daheyan, 55 km north of the city. We boarded a minibus at Daheyan at 6:15 am and were driven a few blocks away to the bus station where everyone was told to buy tickets. So, everyone gets off the bus and buys a ticket... only to realise after the money's been forked over that the ticket says the bus doesn't leave until 7:30 am! Needless to say, everyone on the bus was pissed, but all the huffing and puffing in the world wouldn't get us our money back. The bus staff's logic was basically, "Why would you want to go to Turpan right now anyway? It's still dark! What are you going to do in the dark?" Sigh.

So, after an hour of waiting in the dark, we finally got on our way. Oddly enough, we soon found out that there's pretty much no road at all for the first 15 or 20 kilometers between the train station and Turpan. And when I say no road, I don't mean a dirt road...I mean NO road! Occasionally, while weaving back and forth along the rutted tracks of previous vehicles, we would catch sad glimpses of where the road used to be. Then it would mysteriously dissolve into nothingness or head off the edge of some small cliff. About 40 minutes after our bumpy journey began, the road reappeared in the desert like some sort of transportation mirage...and an hour later we arrived at Turpan's central bus depot.

In the summer, Turpan is supposedly swarming with tourists, but as with all of the locations I've thus far visited in China, the warm weather hordes had not yet arrived. We were immediately approached by Uyghur cabbies desperate for an off-season fare, and agreed to hire a man by the name of Parhat, our friend and guide for the day. After a quick breakfast of baozi (steamed buns) stuffed with mutton, cabbage and onion, we headed off on our day of adventure.

Note: pictures of my visit to Turpan will be coming soon!

The first stop on our whirlwind tour was the ancient city of Jiaohe, which was one of the most important and powerful cities in western China for about 2000 years until its destruction by the Mongols in the 13th century. The ruins are located on a 30m-high plateau surrounded by intersecting rivers on both sides. The ruins contain eroded sub-terranean housing, watchtowers, a massive Buddhist temple, and the remains of 101 stupas (including the oldest remaining stupa in China at over 1,400 years old). Everything looked stunning in the early morning sunlight as we wandered alone.

The next stop was the Emin Ta mosque, completed in 1777 to commemorate the military victory by Turpan's Uyghurs over an uprising of local aristocrats. The mosque's massive minaret is considered one of the architectural gems of the silk road...its surface is covered in intricate patterns created by a fanciful arrangement of simple mud bricks.

After a lunch of noodles back in Turpan, we headed east to the the massive ancient city of Gaochang. Having suffered far more destruction than Jiaohe, Gaochang is still impressive. The city was the capital of the Uyghur empire in the 9th century and a great deal of the city's ancient walls still remain. We rode a donkey cart from the entrance to the far end of the city where a large Buddhist temple once stood. The faded remnants of paintings of the Buddha were still visible in some places inside the temple. Rather than return on the donkey cart to our waiting taxi driver, we decided to walk the 2 miles back to entrance. Along the way we noticed that the city is literally covered in broken pottery. However, as we lack any expertise in archaeology, we were unable to decide whether these artifacts were of an ancient or a more recent origin.

After a brief stop at the Astana Graves site (mummies, yay!), our last stop of the day were the caves at Bezeklik. The site of the caves is stunning, nestled on a cliffside over a river in the Flaming Mountains. The caves once held some of the best preserved Buddhist statuary and painting in China, until they were carted off to Britain by Sir Aurel Stein in 1914. Some interesting images of the Buddha still remain, but the best stuff is in museums in the West. The Chinese are still pretty sore about the thievery by the "Western devils", as is evidenced by the captions inside the caves. Most of the descriptions ended something like this: "Stein took most of images in the Winter of 1914. Now there is nothing."

Whew! Well, that was a lot of travelling for one day...and if you're still reading this you're probably tired too. We took the midnight train back to Korla that evening, and I was back in my bed by 9:00 am. I'd highly recommend Turpan to anyone who's thinking of visiting.

I'll try to get pictures of Turpan into the gallery in the next few days.


posted March 28, 2005 at 12:48 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (28) | TrackBack

March 18, 2005

Uyghur Michael Jackson

Is anybody checking out this video? I'm getting a surprisingly low amount of feedback for content of this quality. What's the deal?


posted March 18, 2005 at 03:39 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (17) | TrackBack

March 14, 2005

Officially Old

Alright, it's official. I'm old. My good friend, Mike McCurdy, unexpectedly married his girlfriend of seven years, Maria, on Thursday of last week. He's the first of my friends to get married, but I'm sure not the last. Sigh.


posted March 14, 2005 at 01:09 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (28) | TrackBack

March 13, 2005

Korla Photos

You can check out the first installment of photos from my life in Korla by clicking here. I've also managed to upload my most rockin' video yet...a clip of one of my Uyghur students, Miulun Jiun (aka Michael Jackson), honoring the King of Pop out on the school playground. Apparently, word hasn't yet reached Xinjiang about Wacko's endless legal troubles. In fact, his reputation remains largely untarnished on this side of the globe.


posted March 13, 2005 at 01:49 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (10) | TrackBack

March 11, 2005

Who Links to Me?

OK, so I stole this idea from McCurdy's blog. Click here to see who links to me.

Update: Maybe this was a bad idea. It seems that WhoLinksToMe.com has not yet found any links to me, although it does display links that Yahoo! and Google have found. Oh well. (If you've read this far, re-read the entry below...I added new information today.)


posted March 11, 2005 at 03:32 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (40) | TrackBack

March 09, 2005

Details: Living Conditions

If you've read this, read it again. I've added new details!

Some of you have been asking for more details of my every-day life here in Korla, so I'll take a shot here at writing about my living conditions, with other topics to follow at a later date:

Living Conditions:
I live in a Soviet-style apartment on the southern outskirts of Korla: the 42nd Railway District, building #8, apartment #602. That's six flights of stairs every time I want to get up to my apartment. It's not really a big deal, as I could use the exercise and I've never had to move much in the way of furniture. The apartment is decent...no bugs, plenty of sunlight.

There are a few problems, however.

(1) There's some sort of factory about a mile upwind of our place depending on the time of day. My roomate, Lincoln, thinks it produces paper from the reeds that grow in nearby Bosten Lake. The smell is so far beyond awful that I can't quite think of words to describe it...but when I smell it, I run to lock the windows before the air gets too rancid to breath. Yeah, it's that bad.

(2) Our bathroom started off in poor condition, and it's gotten worse in recent days. First the seal in the toilet tank started leaking. Then the arm on the inflatable ball that rises to stop the tank from filling broke off. Then the hose that leads from the main water pipe to the toilet detached itself from the wall. Then the toilet started shooting water into the air. Oi vey! We've come up with various counter-measures to make life livable...but the bathroom might explode at any moment.

(3) The kitchen. I don't know how anyone is supposed to cook anything in there. It's about the size of a closet. And with the dust and sand that's been kicked up by the winds lately nothing stays clean for more than a few hours. Without a refrigerator our yogurts have become distended on both end from the increasing heat. Disturbingly, however, our New Zealand-made butter refuses to melt even in the slightest way. What's in that stuff? A fridge will soon become necessary.

I've thought of some more problems since I wrote this entry yesterday:

(4) Living way on the southeastern outskirts of town is a bitch. It's about 5 miles or so the the city center, and despite what many of you would hope, there's no way I'm riding a bike 10 miles every day just to get into town. The #26 bus that goes by my house only costs 1 yuan ($0.12) but the ride takes about 40 minutes...far too long. Of course, a taxi only costs about 15 yuan ($1.90), which might not sound like a lot, but that much renminbi could by me a decent dinner or a huge lunch. You become very cheap very quickly when you're living in China. Anyway, I've become tired of both options so I'm thinking of acquiring some sort of motorized mode of conveyance. More details on that later...

(5) Somehow, despite living in Korla for a month now, my roomate and I have been unable to secure a key to the door at the bottom of the stairs that lets you into the building. Here's a typical scenario: I arrive home at 2:00 am and find the door closed and locked. I buzz my apartment, hoping Lincoln will be home, but get no response. I walk away from the building so I can look up and see if anyone has their lights still on. Finding the building completely dark, I begin buzzing apartments at random. Eventually, a sleepy Chinese voice comes over the intercom, and I say in Chinese: "I'm American. I live on the sixth floor." They get the message and buzz me in. I thank them profusely.

Lincoln and I have been thinking of taking a sledgehammer to that lock if we can't get a key soon.

Anyway, don't read this and think my living situation is bad...I'm actually fairly happy with it. I just like to complain.


posted March 09, 2005 at 01:00 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (25) | TrackBack

March 04, 2005

Chinese Internet Police

There's an interesting article in today's New York Times about China's efforts to censor un-patriotic and undesirable Internet content. Supposedly China's efforts are the most sophisticated in the world, employing not only various sorts of filters but also up to 50,000 Internet police.

I always figured they were watching what I was up to, and the following sentence from the article confirmed something of which I was already suspicious: "Newer technologies allow the authorities to search e-mail messages in real time, trawling through the body of a message for sensitive material and instantaneously blocking delivery or pinpointing the offender." No wonder my Hotmail account is so friggin' slow over here!

Anyway, watch what you send me, because someone is always watching. Not that I mind...I love the Chinese government. Communism is great. Hu Jintao is awesome! (That should score me some points with my Red Chinese masters.) You can read the full text of the article below.

Chinese Censors and Web Users Match Wits

Published: March 4, 2005

HANGHAI, March 3 - For many China watchers, the holding of a National People's Congress beginning this weekend is an ideal occasion for gleaning the inner workings of this country's closed political system. For specialists in China's Internet controls, though, the gathering of legislators and top political leaders offers a chance to measure the state of the art of Web censorship.

The authorities set the tone earlier this week, summoning the managers of the country's main Internet providers, major portals and Internet cafe chains and warning them against allowing "subversive content" to appear online.

"Some messages on the Internet are sent by those with ulterior motives," Qin Rui, the deputy director of the Public Information and Internet Security Supervision Bureau, was quoted as saying in The Shanghai Daily.

Stern instructions like those are in keeping with a trend aimed at assigning greater responsibility to Internet providers to assist the government and its army of as many as 50,000 Internet police, who enforce limits on what can be seen and said.

"If you say something the Web administrator doesn't like, they'll simply block your account," said Bill Xia, a United States-based expert in Chinese Internet censorship, "and if you keep at it, you'll gradually face more and more difficulties and may land in real trouble."

According to Amnesty International, arrests for the dissemination of information or beliefs via the Internet have been increasing rapidly in China, snaring students, political dissidents and practitioners of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, but also many writers, lawyers, teachers and ordinary workers.

Already the most sophisticated in the world, China's Internet controls are stout even in the absence of crucial political events. In the last year or so, experts say the country has gone from so-called dumb Internet controls, which involve techniques like the outright blocking of foreign sites containing delicate or critical information and the monitoring of specific e-mail addresses to far more sophisticated measures.

Newer technologies allow the authorities to search e-mail messages in real time, trawling through the body of a message for sensitive material and instantaneously blocking delivery or pinpointing the offender. Other technologies sometimes redirect Internet searches from companies like Google to copycat sites operated by the government, serving up sanitized search results.

China's latest show of growing prowess in this area came in January after a major political event, the death of the former leader Zhao Zhiyang, who had been held under house arrest since appearing to side with students in 1989 during the Tiananmen demonstrations.

When the official New China News Agency put out a laconic bulletin about his death, placing it relatively low in its hierarchy of daily news stories, most of the rest of China's press quickly and safely followed suit. On their Web sites, one newspaper after another ran the news agency's sterile bulletin rather than take risks with commentary of their own.

What happened on campuses was far more interesting, though. University bulletin boards lit up with heavy traffic just after Mr. Zhao's death was announced. But for all of the hits on the news item related to his death, virtually no comments were posted, creating a false impression of lack of interest.

"Zhao's death was the first big test since the SARS epidemic," said Xiao Qiang, an expert on China's Internet controls at the University of California at Berkeley.

But if the government is investing heavily in new Internet control technologies, many experts said the sophistication of Chinese users was also increasing rapidly, as are their overall numbers, leading to a cat-and-mouse game in which, many say, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the censors to prevail.

At 94 million users, China has the world's second-largest population of Internet users, after the United States, and usage here, most of it broadband, is growing at double-digit rates every year.

"What they are doing is a little bit like sticking fingers into the dike," said Stephen Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon who formerly developed technologies for allowing ordinary Chinese to avoid government censorship. "Beijing is investing heavily in keeping the lid on, and they've been pretty successful at controlling what appears. But there is always going to be uncontrolled activity around the edges."

As with the policing efforts, the evasion techniques range from the sly and simple - aliases and deliberate misspellings to trick key-word monitors and thinly veiled sarcastic praise of abhorrent acts by the government on Web forums that seem to confound the censors - to so-called proxy servers, encryption and burying of sensitive comments in image files, which for now elude real-time searches.

For those reasons and others, some Chinese experts have publicly advocated that the government gradually get out of the business of Internet censorship.

"All of the big mistakes made in China since 1949 have had to do with a lack of information," said Guo Liang, an Internet expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "Lower levels of government have come to understand this, and I believe that since the SARS epidemic, upper levels may be beginning to understand this, too."

The most eagerly watched key word in China today is probably Falun Gong. "I don't know the number, but I would guess every Chinese has received a Falun Gong e-mail," Mr. Guo said. "There is no way to stop it. You can shut down the Web site, but you cannot kill the users. They just go somewhere else online, sometimes keeping the same nickname."


posted March 04, 2005 at 12:58 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (19) | TrackBack