July 28, 2005
With all the fighter jets flying overhead both day and night, it's no secret to anyone who lives here in Korla (Kuerle) that the city is the center of a lot of military activity. On an average day, I might see (and hear) anywhere from ten to thirty jets fly close enough that, on occasion, I can even make out the pilot sitting in the cockpit.
Recently, my interest has been piqued by a discovery I've made on Google Maps. While cities like Sydney and La Paz suffer in low-resolution obscurity, my current hometown of Korla gets the hi-res treatment. Even Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, is just a blur of colorful shapes in Google's vast satellite archives. It got me thinking: Who exactly paid for these satellite images that have since been acquired by Google? Why do some places get special scrutiny? What sort of entity would want hi-resolution images of Korla?
I think I've found the answer in this exciting shot, a close-up look at the southwestern corner of Korla's civilian/military airport. There, lined-up as pretty as a picture, is a squadron of fighter jets, ready for action... the same buggers that wake me up every morning. It makes me wonder what other sort of interesting finds one might make with a little knowledge and a lot of Google Maps browsing. Happy spying...
July 18, 2005
Korla Photos, Again
I've posted yet another gallery of Korla photos for your viewing enjoyment. In direct response to criticism I've received from many of you, I've made a special effort to include tons of photos of my students. Are you happy now? The other sub-gallery focuses on Korla's nightlife. Anyway, I hope you enjoy them... and that you add some friggin' comments in the gallery!
July 15, 2005
Da Bomb Paintings
Two interesting articles in the New York Times today got my wheels spinning... and whenever that happens it's time for a blog entry.
The first article reports on one Chinese general's affinity for using the A-bomb to repel any sort of American military activity re: Taiwan. His basic point makes sense to me, at least in logical terms: that China, being much weaker than America militarily, should commit to using the A-bomb to prevent any American defense of Taiwan. It's General Zhu's update on the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) policy. He goes on to elaborate, "We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities east of Xian. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese."
Thank God I'm not living east of Xian! This also got me thinking about a question posed to me some months back at a dinner party. "Let us say," my Chinese host began, "that you are in a field with a very big gun. Over your head, you see some American planes coming to bomb China. Would you shoot them down?" My response, of course, was, "Hell no. I'd be screaming, 'Help! Help! Help me get outta here!'"
The second article will be of interest to anyone who's ever been to Beijing. Undoubtedly, if you are a tourist somewhere in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, you will be approached multiple times by people wanting to know if you speak English. The conversation will go something like this:
Chinese: Hello. Do you speak English?
You: Yes, I do.
Chinese: Can I practice speaking some English with you?
You: Umm. OK. I guess so.
Chinese: Great. Do you like art?
You: Yes, art's pretty good.
Chinese: I like art very much. I am an art student.
You: Oh, really?
Chinese: Yes, and the students at my university are having an exhibition right now. Would you like to come see some of my art?
You: Uh, well... ummm, OK.
They take you to some sort of art gallery/shop where they show you about a thousand completely un-original paintings in a variety of styles (Old Chinese, Modern Chinese, Western), with the idea being that you'll buy something. Of course, after the first time this happens to you, you figure out the deal and avoid any future encounters with "artists." Anyway, it appears from the article that the art students and their task-masters have wisened-up and are thinking on a bigger scale. An oil-painting by a Chinese copycat could be coming soon to a livingroom or hotel room near you!
July 12, 2005
July 08, 2005
Happy Birthday to me! Anyway, I'm 25 years old today, so I figured I'd update everyone on my plans for the immediate future. After almost deciding to take a different English teaching job in Jilin Province (northeast China...a very cold place), I changed my mind and decided to stay on here in Korla for another six months. So, for those of you awaiting my return to the States, you'll have to wait until at least the end of January, 2006. Whether I'll be returning for good or just for a visit at that time remains to be seen.
Here in Korla, I'll be changing apartments soon as my new duties will include teaching at Hua Shan Middle School, which is in the city center. The students there are supposedly much smarter than those at the Railway Middle School (Hua Shan is a magnet school). Anyway, it's goodbye to the outskirts of town and hello to city living.
Let me also add: Happy 13th Birthday to my sister, Lauren! Happy 25th Birthday to my friend, David Feinberg, and congratulations on his landing a post-doctoral research fellowship at Harvard! And Happy 229th Birthday to you, too, America!
July 06, 2005
Kanas Lake & Hemu
Hey, you! Yeah, you... Mr. Lazy Blogreader. How about adding a comment? Photos from my trip to Kanas Lake and Hemu, by the way, can be found here.
I'm back from yet another fantastic Xinjiang voyage, this time to the province's northernmost Altai region and it's scenic Kanas Lake. For those of you unfamiliar with Xinjiang geography, Altai is situated in a cozy little corner of China between Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. Appropriate to it's exotic location, Altai is inhabited by a mix of nomadic Kazakhs, Mongols, and misplaced Han Chinese.
Everything up there is completely different from the Xinjiang I'm familiar with. Here in Korla, we have Uyghurs. Up there, only Kazakhs and Mongols. Here, we eat Chinese food and Uyghur kebabs. Up there, they almost solely consume milk-based products: cheese, yogurt, butter, and nai jiu (fermented mare's milk)... blech! Here, it's hotter than hot and everything is covered in sand. Up there, I was freezing my ass off, although it was nice to see everything covered with grass.
The biggest problem when vacationing inside Xinjiang is the time it takes to get from point A to point B. To get from my home here in Korla (Kuerle) up to Kanas Lake (Hanasi Hu) took three buses over the course of 30 hours. I left Korla with my friends Will and Zoe on the 10:30am bus to Urumqi (Wulumuqi), arriving in Xinjiang's capital at about 6:00pm. After mounting a devastating blitz on that city's pizza buffet, we were back on a bus at 8:00pm for the 12-hour overnight trip to Burqin (Buerjin). After a long, bumpy night in a sleeper bus (the last 400km stretch to Burqin is unpaved), we reached the jumping off point for Kanas Lake. Barely surving the assault by taxi drivers that ensued upon our arrival, we managed to squeeze ourselves along with a couple of South Koreans into a minibus. Three hours later, we arrived at Kanas Lake.
At first, it seemed like Kanas might turn out to be a disappointment. We were dropped off by our minibus in what looked like a parking lot, full of both Chinese and foreign tourists. We were again attacked by tourist herders, looking for us to sleep in their yurts or simple log cabins. The whole super-tourism thing really puts me off... having to bargain between this guy and that guy all the while worrying about getting ripped off and having a generally awful time. To add to the negative atmosphere, the weather was cold and cloudy.
Eventually, we settled on a nice looking guy who offered us lodging for ¥15 per person per night ($2.00). He piled us into a small bus and drove us to the location of his cabin/yurt. It was far, far away from the lake (which we had hoped to sleep next to), but as it was cold and rainy and we deemed the lodgings authentic enough for us to sleep in, we forked over the cash. We were going to stay in his yurt, but since it was freezing and the yurt had no heat, we opted for the log cabin. After lunch (which we would later pay dearly for...ouch!), we strolled along the lake and had a look at the tourist village. Despite the promise on the back of the Kanas entry ticket, we found that "Earth's last perfect natural environment" had indeed been spoiled by tourism... particularly by the affinity of Chinese tourists for disco and karaoke. After dinner and some cards back at the yurt, we hit the sack.
The next morning, despite the continuing rain, we made up our minds to hike up to a viewing pavilion at the top of a mountain next to the lake. Our Lonely Planet guidebook called the hike a one-and-a-half hour stroll, but we found things to be slightly different. First of all, from where we were staying we had to hike along the side of a mountain to the beginning of the path. Not knowing where we were going, and things being fairly slippery because of the rain, this alone took at least two hours. When we finally found the path, which is an endless string of wood and stone stairs up the mountain, we began climbing eagerly. It appeared as if the top was no more than an hour or so away.
Of course, anyone who's ever tried to climb a mountain before is familiar with the phenomenon of thinking you're at the top, only to realise that what you thought was the top was just the highest point you could see. This happened over and over again during our four-hour or so ascent to the top of the mountain... and when you're out of shape like I am, that sort of thing really makes you want to give up and head back down. Fortunately, a mentally and physically stronger member of my ascent team, Will, kept pushing me on. When we finally reached the top, we were rewarded with an onslaught of clouds, half-frozen rain, and tourists who had taken the bus to the top. Grrr! But, we waited things out for a while while gorging ourselves on chocolate, and in the end the sun came back and we finally got to view Kanas in all it's glory. Hooray!
After taking the bus back down the mountain, eager to rest our weary legs and get some rest, we were approached by a group of Kazakhs on horseback. Fifteen minutes later, despite our intense desire at that particular moment for some rest and relaxation, we had agreed to pay for a two-day trek by horse to the neighboring valley of Hemu. Not only that, but we agreed to leave the following morning at 7:00am Beijing time, which is only 5:00am Xinjiang time. Why did we need to leave so friggin' early? We would soon find out.
The Journey to Hemu
I awoke at 6:15am the following morning in an attempt to get my stuff together and eat some breakfast before our Kazakh guides arrived. No such luck. They arrived early - with horses - at 6:30am and were ready to hit the road. After swallowing a couple of half-hard boiled eggs and discovering that the soles of my red New Balance sneakers had almost melted off in my attempt to dry them over a fire, I mounted my steed. Giddyup!
Besides our early departure time, things seemed a bit strange right from the get-go. Not having ridden a horse for any significant period of time before, I was a bit disconcerted by our breakneck pace through Kanas village. It wasn't a minute or two into the trip that I started wondering why I had agreed to subject my body to such torture. Not only that, but we seemed to be taking an oddly evasive and circuitous route out of town, with our guides constantly looking over their shoulders. To make things even better, for some reason our Kazakh buddies moved us quickly down a small hill, at the bottom of which my horse stumbled and fell to the ground. Somehow, being the equestrian that I am, I managed to jump clear of the horse before it landed on me, merely losing a shoe and muddying one knee. I was a bit shaken, but as whoever was after us was in hot pursuit, there was no time for tears. I was ordered to remount my horse and forge on!
An hour later, all of that unpleasantness was forgotten. We had escaped from the Kazakh Horse Police unscathed (I figure we must have been taking an unauthorized tour), the sun had come out, and our slow ascent of a mountain to the east of Kanas Lake was taking us through beautiful green pastures. Seeya later Kanas tourist village! Hello Kazakh nomad-land!
The two day journey to Hemu Village was really fantastic, and I'd recommend it to anyone who's going to visit Kanas Lake. It not only saved our trip from being a letdown, but it transformed it into something special and magical. From what I understand, Kazakhs in Altai mostly live around the city of Burqin for the winter months, returning to the mountains around Kanas sometime in May. Although we were in the area well after May, we surrounded by constant evidence that the nomadic lifestyle is not a thing of the past: heavily burdened camel trains carrying logs and yurts through the mountains, herds of thousands of sheep and goats being let out to pasture, and Kazakh families with all of their posessions in tow heading in every direction.
We stopped after our first four hours of riding to eat some lunch at a small Kazakh compound, which contained a log cabin and couple of yurts. It was here that I saw something of a rarity in Xinjiang (or China for that matter): cheese. Small blocks of what looked like goat's cheese (but turned out to be cow's cheese) were drying on rack under the intense high-altitude sun. I tasted a bit from the freshest section on the cheese rack, and found it pleasant if not entirely what I was expecting. It had a similar consistency to goat's cheese, but without a whole lot of flavor. Later, while were eating lunch, I got to try the "final" version of the cheese, which looked like it might have been drying for weeks. The flavor was a bit more intense, but so was the texture, as the cheese had become rock hard. Along with small fried breads called ballsac, butter, butter tea, some raisins, and some cooked cabbage, this was our lunch. Of course, as men we were asked to wash it all down at the end with some more nai jiu. Errr... yumm.
After taking a little rest after lunch, we were back on the trail. I was thoroughly impressed by the scenery again and again. I drove through Montana once, back in 2000, and I remember remarking to myself that the "Big Sky Country" moniker was indeed apt. But, all things considered, I'd have to say that Altai was "Bigger Sky Country". I'm talking about really big skies here, people. And the pastures... don't get me started on the pastures! They went on for mile after green mile. Add in a few snow-capped mountains, a good dose of puffy white clouds, and a wide swath of super-blue sky and we're talking Windows XP background-quality scenery. It was a welcome change from the dead, brown, sandiness of the rest of Xinjiang.
That evening, we arrived at the tent-like home of a Kazakh family, our hosts for the night. I'm getting tired of writing this entry, so I'll speed things up here. More milk products were consumed, cards were played, and I was generally impressed by the strength and hard-work exhibited by every member of the family. Logs were split, meals were cooked, and a young child repeatedly urinated on the floor. A good time was had by all, except for the fact that I shivered all night and generally slept terribly. My summer-weight sleeping bag just wasn't heavy enough for the sub-freezing mountain temperatures. Who woulda thunk that while it's about 100°Fahrenheit (40°Celsius) down in Korla it could be freezing up here? Oh well... I survived.
The next morning, we said our goodbyes to our hosts and set out for Hemu Village - and at a notably increased pace. We're not sure if our guides couldn't wait to get their hands on our money or what, but they were relentless. The first day of riding was pretty much a slow walk, but the second day more often than not proceeded at a swift trot, if not a canter. By that time, my ass was really killing me... it's just not used to being bounced up-and-down in a Kazakh-size saddle for hours on end. Not only that, but my lower back was in pretty bad shape, too... all that side-to-side action is to blame, I think.
After only a couple of hours, we arrived at a spot where we could see Hemu Valley, appearing to be not-so-far-off in the distance. But, like my experience climbing the mountain two days before, things were not quite as close as they seemed. After at least four more hours going up and down a steep mountainside path above the roaring Kanas River, we finally arrived in the Eden known as Hemu. My body was bruised but my ego was stoked by my having completed what I feel was a very, very manly voyage.
Hemu was breathtaking and all, but what I was really interested in doing was resting (preferably not on my derriere). Unfortunately, my commitments back in Korla determined that I couldn't stay in Hemu for more than one night. The next morning, happy to have completed yet another amazing Xinjiang adventure, I piled into a 4x4 Jeep along with Will and Zoe for the trip back to Burqin, Urumqi, and ultimately Korla. THE END.
posted July 06, 2005 at 04:52 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (26)