October 28, 2005
Watching CCTV International yesterday, I happened to catch a piece on China's renewed efforts against Uyghur terrorism. China's representative at the UN, Wang Guangya, gave a speech at the Security Council on Wednesday in which he called for new measures and increased international co-operation in the fight against the East Turkestan Liberation Organization.
There weren't a lot of specifics given as to what China expects, but CCTV mentioned that there are some countries suspected of harboring and supporting Uyghur seperatists. One statistic claimed by China that I found surprising, which you can read in the Xinhua article below, is that there have been 260 terrorist attacks in Xinjiang in the past 10 years, causing over 600 deaths. Anyway, I'll keep an eye out to see if I can't catch a glimpse of any new crackdown.
China urges further attacks against East Turkistan terrorists
Xinhua News Agency
BEIJING, Oct. 27 -- China calls for the international community to carry out the UN Security Council Resolution 1624, adopted in September, and take measures to assault East Turkistan terrorists.
Speaking at the meeting of the UN Security Council, Wang Guangya, China's Permanent Representative to UN, says the terrorist forces are threatening the interests of people in China and the world.
"Terrorism, of any form, at any place, any time, and no matter who is the organizer, will pose a threat to regional and world security and stability, it must be strongly condemned." Wang said.
Statistics show, the three forces, terrorists, separatists and extremists, in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region have caused more than 260 terrorist incidents over the past 10 years, leaving 600 people dead or injured.
Through resolution 1624, the UN Security Council called on all States to cooperate in the fight against terrorism, and strengthen the security of their international borders.
United Nations Security Council Website
WANG GUANGYA (China) expressed satisfaction with the work of the three anti-terrorism Committees. Their focus in the next phase should include strengthening sanction measures and assisting States who had not yet met their reporting requirements to do so. Cooperation between the Committees should continue to increase.
Expressing condolences to the families and victims of recent terrorist acts, such as the bombings in Bali, he said the Security Council should intensify its efforts to eliminate the scourge, which posed a serious threat to peace and security. Terrorist threats to China were posed by the East Turkistan terrorist organization and other East Turkistan groups, and they should be suppressed in countries where they were active, thus meeting obligation under resolution 1624. China pledged to do its part in the global fight against terrorism.
posted October 28, 2005 at 10:13 AM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (34)
October 27, 2005
Congratulations to me. Today, The Opposite End of China received its 10,000th visitor in the month of October. This is the first time that the blog has made it above the 10,000 mark in a single month. Hooray! Many thanks to all of you who visit regularly (and even those of you who just stop by for a peek).
While you're here, how's about making me rich by clicking on one of those Google Ads over on the left?
posted October 27, 2005 at 02:38 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (91)
October 23, 2005
Well, it's been more than a week now that I've been back in Xinjiang, so I'm gonna make some sort of attempt to describe my recent trip to Kazakhstan. I don't know why, but after a big trip it's always difficult to find the energy to write everything down. Here goes, then.
For those of you who haven't been following the daily ups and downs of my life here in Korla, my trip to Almaty was necessitated by troubles with my Chinese visa. I had overstayed my welcome in this fine country by about two weeks, and was informed by the local Public Security Bureau that they'd (kindly) give me ten days to get out of the country to avoid paying a hefty fine. After investigating my options in Hong Kong, Islamabad, Bishkek, and Ulaan Bator, I finally settled for a trip to Almaty in Kazakhstan. I'd heard great things about the city, and it certainly seemed like the safest bet.
So, as soon as I could, I packed up my things and headed to the capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, where I could acquire a visa for Kazakhstan.
As back-country and remote as Urumqi may seem from where you're sitting, arriving there from Korla is like arriving in Manhattan from Scranton, Pennsylvania. The scale of the city in terms of people and buildings dwarfs anything we have in Korla, and the city is home to just enough Westerners that I sometimes find myself gawking. ("Lookie there! Is that a white man? And another one!?!") The fact that Urumqi is overflowing with Snickers chocolate bars is all the testament one should need as to the city's greatness.
The trip didn't exactly start smoothly. I travelled from Korla to Urumqi on an overnight sleeper bus with my Yorkshirian roomate, Daniel Peacock. Long-haul buses have two drivers, and one often sleeps while the other drives. It's usually a pretty good setup... but it breaks down when one of the drivers can't hold his own. And so it was that one of our drivers seemed to be either drunk, asleep, retarded, crazy, or some combination of the above. It was without a doubt the scariest ride of my life.
We left Korla at about 9pm. Around 2 or 3am, I awoke to find our bus barely moving, creeping up a mountainside at about 5 miles-per-hour. I looked around, and noticing that everyone else was asleep I had a look at the driver. This is when I became concerned. Alternating randomly between high and low speeds, our driver also seemed to be both nodding-off and talking to himself. Occasionally he would stand up at the wheel and smack himself in the head a few times. I tried waking the other driver, but he told me not to worry. Ignoring his advice, I decided that misery loves company and woke-up Daniel.
At about that time, our driver added a new trick to his repertoire. Instead of following the time-tested method of staying on one's own side of the road and travelling in a fairly straight line, our driver decided that lazy swerving would be more exciting. He seemed particularly drawn to the bright lights of the scrap-metal trucks and oil tankers barrelling down towards us. Just to keep us on our toes, he would barely avoid a crash every time (the flashing lights and honking horn of every potential crash-ee probably woke him up). I actually found myself hoping that we would crash into one of the barriers on the side of the road, or simply drive into the sand... it's better than crashing head-on into 15-tons of steel.
Somehow, we arrived in Urumqi just after 7am on Monday morning, and I for one was glad to still be alive. We took a taxi to a small hotel where our friends and fellow teachers, Kerryn and Camilla, had already been staying for a few days. By about 9am we had all piled into another taxi, headed for the Kazakh Consulate on the outskirts of town. Camilla and I had no problems applying for a visa to Kazakhstan ($50 for a 30-day pass) and were told to come back on Wednesday at 1pm.
Part of the reason I had chosen Kazakhstan as the place to renew my visa was because I thought that travelling there would be fairly cheap. Unfortunately, my visa situation required me to leave China by October 8th, during the nation-wide holiday week that follows National Day on October 1st. Border guards also seem to have been given a vacation during this week, and I found out in Urumqi that there were no trains or buses to Almaty until October 10th. The only option left to get out of the country on-time, then, was to fly... and it wasn't cheap: $300 for a one-way ticket or $400 for a round-trip on China Southern Airlines. Sigh. We opted for one-way tickets a) so that we could save a little money and b)so that we could have the experience of crossing by land on the way back.
Since we would be busy dealing with our visas and flight to Almaty on Wednesday, Tuesday was our only free day to do something more than just wander around Urumqi. So along with Daniel and Kerryn (Camilla had already been), I joined a day-tour bus heading up to Tian Chi (The Heavenly Lake), about 2 hours from Urumqi. I didn't really expect to be impressed, having already visited the more spectacular Kanas Lake in northern Xinjiang, and to tell you the truth, I wasn't. The lake is nice and all, but it's fairly ruined by the hordes of Chinese tourists. What made the trip great (besides the always pleasant company of my friends) was the fact that we were joined on our bus by a party of about 60 Uyghurs, aged fourty to sixty. They spent the whole bus ride singing, dancing, and generally yucking it up. They even taught Kerryn and I how to do a little Uyghur dancing while were resting on a hillside next to the lake. Very fine folks, indeed.
Wednesday was spent picking up our visas and getting everyone's travel plans in order. Unfortunately, Daniel couldn't make it to Kazakhstan as he had to return to England for medical reasons. It's too bad, because it would have been fun to have him along. Best of luck to you, buddy. After saying our goodbyes, Daniel and Kerryn headed for the bus back to Korla. Camilla and I headed for the airport. Kazakhstan, ho!
Kazakhstan: Day 1
The flight from Urumqi to Almaty was spectacular. I see the Tian Shan mountains every day when I look out the window here in Korla, but not these mountains. At only a short one-hour and twenty minutes, the flight passed over an impressive amount of jagged, snow-capped peaks. We descended into Almaty just as the sun was setting, casting a golden light over the fields and farmhouses outside of the city.
Upon arrival in Almaty, we found that there wasn't a single inexpensive hotel room left in the entire city. Something about a celebration of Almaty's birthday. But not to worry...our cab driver quickly helped us find a homestay. People with available apartments stand on street corners around the city, waiting for people to pull up and inquire. We were shown a decent little apartment near the center of town, which for T4000 (the Kazakh currency is tenge...about T135=$1.00), or about $30.00 per night, is much more than I'm used to paying in China. I was later told, however, that we had found a fairly good bargain for Almaty.
I should mention now that we arrived in Almaty completely unprepared: unaware of what the city had to offer, where we were going to say, or how much it was going to cost. There's no place in Xinjiang to buy Lonely Planet (or similar) guidebooks, and there's very little practical information about Almaty available online. So when we woke up on our first full day in Kazakhstan, our top priority was to orient ourselves in some way. Since my passport was running low on pages for new visas, I thought we might be able to kill two birds with one stone at the US Consulate in the Samal Towers. They must be used to idiots like myself turning up on a fairly regular basis, because within the span of about 30 minutes they gave me a map and guide to Almaty, as well as an extension of visa pages in my passport. They even gave me the address and phone number of the Chinese consulate. God bless America.
After leaving the US Consulate, Camilla and I headed for the Chinese Consulate in order to secure our return visas. Like everyone in China, however, the staff at the consulate was taking a few days off for some rest and relaxation. A very nice man from the Kazakh Army, assigned to the consulate, told us in English that we should return the next morning.
Me: Oh, well, thanks for your help. What's your name?
Him: Major. (Points to the star on his shoulder.)
Me: Ah, I see. Major what?
Him: Major. Just Major. It's good enough for you.
Me: Oh, right. OK.
Soviet manners aside, he was a very helpful fellow.
As the Chinese consulate is very close to the gondola up to Koktyube (Green Peak), Camilla and I decided to take a ride up to catch the sunset. We were rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view of Almaty and the snow-covered peaks that define the city's southern border. I was almost shocked to see a few couples kissing behind some bushes... you would never see something like that in China.
The following morning, we managed to successfully apply for our Chinese visas. We even had a little more help from the Major. I was waiting to get into the consulate while a guard wrote down my passport information. Camilla was standing behind me in line. Suddenly, our buddy walks up and says to the guard, "They may pass." And just like that, we're in the door.
After lunch, we got lucky again when we stopped into the Ramstor supermarket near the US Consulate. There, in a section of foreign books and magazines, we found the Lonely Planet Central Asia guidebook. Hooray! After buying some day-tour tickets for the weekend at a travel agency, we used the guidebook to get to Almaty's long distance bus station, where we found out that there weren't going to be any buses for a week. Sigh. Outside the station, I was offered vodka by a man who insisted that I speak German. Using what little German I could recall from various war movies, I managed to tell him, "Nicht sprechen zie Deutche." Then, with lots of laughter, we got drunk together. Camilla and I finished the day by wolfing down some delicious shashlik (lamb kebab) and checking our e-mail.
Saturday and Sunday were set aside for excursions to some of the natural wonders within driving distance of Almaty. We learned from a travel agent that on weekends there are fairly inexpensive (about $10/person/day) tours to both Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake (Big Almaty Lake) and Charyn Canyon. We figured we'd be OK, even if the guides could only speak Russian. It was certainly going to be a lot cheaper than paying $60/hour to go in a private car with an English speaking guide. So we bought tickets to go to both attractions: Big Almaty Lake on Saturday, and Charyn Canyon on Sunday.
Big Almaty Lake is about two-and-a-half hours by very bouncy bus from Almaty. The lake is situated on the other side of the mountains that tower over the city. On the way up to the lake, our bus stopped a few times for people to use the bathroom, drink some tea, or to just check out the scenery. It was at one of these stops that I discovered a group of fellow twentysomethings, all of whom could speak perfect English. The reason? They had all been sent to American and British universities to study, courtesy of the Kazakh government. They were all extremely intelligent, and they became our friends for the rest of the day. Two of them, Aliyah and Iskander, became our friends and companions for the rest of our stay in Kazakhstan.
I was absolutely stunned by my first glimpse of Sergei, our excellent guide, brewed up some tea for everyone and even cooked a vegetable and sausage soup. An excellent time was had by all.
After the trip, we went out for a shashlik dinner with our newly-found Kazakh friends. Riding home in a "taxi" afterwards, we asked one of them about the safety of Almaty's taxi system. Actually, I should say that we asked about Almaty's lack of a real taxi system... everyone here is a taxi driver, and any car a potential taxi. You simply negotiate the fare before you hop in the car.
Anyway, we asked if there were ever any problems with safety. Our friend turned to us and completely straight-faced responded, "No, no. They're completely safe. (Pause) Except last year. There was this psycho who kidnapped lots of girls, and when they caught him they found seven bodies. (Pause) But aside from that I've never heard of any problems."
Still a bit knackered from our trip to the lake, we awoke before dawn on Sunday to get to our bus for Charyn Canyon. At about a 4-hour bus ride from Almaty, Charyn was also a significantly further journey than we had taken the previous day. But it afforded us a chance to see what Kazakhs/Russians are like on a longer journey... and let me tell you, it ain't pretty. Despite the fact that it was still early in the morning, the vodka was flowing freely. There were a few people that were completely tanked by the time we got to the Canyon.
Now, I've never been to the Grand Canyon, but I'm sure it's about 100x, or 1000x, bigger than Charyn Canyon. Nevertheless, I thought Charyn was quite beautiful. Camilla and I hiked down through the canyon, stopping to eat our lunch before we reached the Charyn River. Deciding that it would be more fun to hike back using our own improvised route, we quickly got lost. By following a small riverbed, however, we were able to move in the general direction of the bus. Eventually, after scrambling up and down more than a few sandy hillsides, we made it back to the bus. Phew!
When we got off the bus back in Almaty, we immediately heard the sounds of a muezzin calling Muslims to worship. (We were in Kazakhstan during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.) We were only two blocks away from Almaty's modern central mosque, so we decided to take a peek. After wandering around the grounds of the mosque at respectful distance, we ate a delicious dinner of doner (I like to think of it as a Kazakh burrito), and went to sleep.
We slept-in late on Monday in order to recover from our extremely active weekend. We had made plans on Saturday - after our trip to the Lake - to meet our friend Aliyah for lunch today. Camilla had also been interested in maybe purchasing some ballet and/or opera tickets, if that was possible. It turned out that Aliyah's office was only about a five-minute walk from our apartment, and that the theater was only a further five-minute walk from there. We bought four tickets to see The Bakhchisaray Fountain that evening and went for delicious Russian-style lunch at Zheli Beli. I had Borsch, and we all shared a huge plate of Russian salads. To top it all off, we had blintzes for dessert.
While meeting the buses for our day trips on Saturday and Sunday (which started at Almaty's Central Stadium), I had noticed posters advertising a game between Kazakhstan and Denmark on Wednesday night. While Camilla did some washing back in the apartment after lunch, I went by the stadium to get some tickets. At about $9.00/ticket, I was happy to be getting a chance to see my first ever professional soccer match, and a World Cup qualifier at that!
That evening, Camilla and I met Aliyah and Iskander on the steps in front of the Abay State Theater. I had never heard of The Bakhchisaray Fountain, but was glad at least not to be going to the opera. Ballet, I can deal with. And I was actually quite surprised... it was quite entertaining, what with lots of sword fights and dancing harem beauties. As the theme of the ballet is Central Asian, the Kazakh dancers were also very convincing in their roles.
After the ballet, Iskander invited everyone back to his home for dinner. From the outside, the row of Stalinist-era two-story apartment buildings in which he lived looked rather dreary, but on the inside it was a different story. Iskander had recently himself designed a remodel of the apartment, which made it look like something you might see in the American southwest... you could call it adobe-chic. Anyway, Iskander's mother made us a delicious casserole with beef, potatoes, onions, and sour cream. She even served us some of her homemade rose wine. Delicious! Afterwards, Iskander drove us back home.
Tuesday was a bit of a wasted day. Aliyah took us to visit Almaty's Green Market at lunch time, but we didn't find much of interest. We attempted to visit Almaty's Central State Musuem, but when we got there we found out that it's closed on Tuesdays. We did manage, however, to buy all sorts of delicious Western food products to bring back with us to Xinjiang. Although the Ramstor supermarket/mall has a reputation for being a bit expensive, it's well-stocked with everything a homesick American might want. I'm talking cheese, Doritos, Ruffles, bread, salami, Chef Boyardee, Twix, gummybears, Corn Flakes, and anything else a man might need. I was in heaven. I even noticed a large number of Shop Rite-brand products on the shelves... who woulda thunk that they'd have a presence in Kazakhstan?
Camilla and I also bought some cheap vodka to test out... Svalyanka, if I remember correctly. We were hoping that we could bring some back to Xinjiang in order to avoid having to drink baijiu (white spirits) on certain occasions. Unfortunately, having consumed the bottle between ourselves a couple of hours later, we were in pretty rough shape. Camilla says that I told her to "Leave me alone!" while I was resting my head on the toilet, but I don't remember that at all.
As Wednesday was our last full day in Almaty, there were lots of loose ends to tie up. It didn't help that we slept late and woke up with a pair of massive hangovers. Our first order of business was picking up our visas at the Chinese consulate. When we arrived at 1pm, however, they had just closed for lunch. We were told to come back at 3pm, so we went up to Koktyube (Green Peak) again for some lunch and to bide our time. Unfortunately, when we came back at 3pm we had to wait for 2 hours for the consulate to open. Apparently, the guards work there, but have no idea about the working hours. Grrrr.
So, it was 5:30pm when we finally had our visas in-hand. The soccer match was scheduled to start at 9:30pm that evening, and we still had to buy souvenirs, bus tickets, and meet Aliyah. We headed over to Aliyah's to say a quick goodbye. Fortunately, she was able to call the bus station and ascertain that there was no point in going to buy tickets that day. Actually, the folks at the station were uncertain that there was even going to be a bus, as it hadn't yet arrived in Almaty from Urumqi. So, with that task off the list, we were able to go with Aliyah and her friend, Tasha, to buy some Kazakh souvenirs. Afterwards, Iskander joined us for dinner at Mama Mia, a real Italian restaurant. Carbonara never tasted so good! I even had creme brulee for dessert.
The soccer match between Kazakhstan and Denmark was a good way to cap-off our trip. I bought a Kazakh soccer scarf, and there were lots of yellow cards and even a small fight. At least Kazakhstan managed to score a goal, although Denmark ended up winning 2-1. What I couldn't figure out is where the two huge Danish flags came from? How many Danes can there be in Almaty?
Back to China
Since we hadn't been able to ascertain the previous evening whether or not there'd be a bus to Urumqi, we arrived at Almaty's long-distance bus station at 6:30am to find out for ourselves. Lo and behold, there was no bus... it hadn't arrived yet from Urumqi. Shit! We knew that we could take a taxi to the border at Khorgos, but were unsure of what price to pay. Luckily, after only a few minutes, we heard a Korean man asking about our same bus. We approached him (he could speak English) and asked what he was going to do. As we were fairly low on options, we decided to take a taxi to the border together, and managed to find one for T8000. Five minutes later, we were on the road, heading east.
The ride to the border was fairly uneventful, taking about five hours. When we arrived at the first checkpoint, I got out of the cab and immediately snapped a photo. Woops! Big mistake. The soldier in charge wouldn't let me pass before I showed him that I had deleted the photograph. The funny thing is, just two minutes later, I was practically ordered by another soldier to take a picture... of him! Soldiers are a funny group, eh?
We arrived at the border just as lunchtime began, so we had to wait two hours even to begin being processed. The series of four or five different customs and immigration station took three hours to get through, but would've taken longer if we hadn't been obviously foreign (we were allowed to cut one particularly aggravating line). The toughest part of the crossing, actually, was the final step: Chinese customs. We were taken into a side office with some sort of commanding officer who proceeded to grill us on our intentions in Xinjiang. Our Korean buddy even got caught up, as the Chinese border guards thought he was travelling with us (well, he was, but not with us). Finally, after the officer called our Chinese boss, Mr. Tao, he let us pass.
The taxi ride from the border to the city of Yining is a nightmare chapter of this story that I don't have the energy to explain right now, except for saying that the driver tried to rip us off. We managed in the end, however, to get the best of him. The following morning, we left Yining for the 25-hour sleeper bus ride back to Korla, arriving back home the following afternoon. (And, the cheese survived!)
It was one hell of a trip.
posted October 23, 2005 at 04:34 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (54)
October 21, 2005
David is a Poof.
And when I say that, I don't mean according to the English definition of the word, but Mr. Han's. (A poof, according to him, is someone who was born in England but later moved to Australia.) I must reveal in all seriousness, however, that my boss, David Symington, receives a weekly Chinese head massage in an effort to prevent any increase in the baldness creeping up past his forehead.
The reason I must reveal this embarassing detail of an otherwise fine man's life is pure revenge. I learned this week that while I was away in Kazakhstan, David told all of my students that I was sick in the hospital as a result of extensive overeating. So, take that! Now we're even. ;-P
posted October 21, 2005 at 01:03 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (69)
October 19, 2005
I know I'm being slow in writing up a description of my journey to Almaty. Hold your horses... it's coming. (A million pardons! I beg your forgiveness.) But I figure that some of you would be placated if I were, to say, unveil the photos from my trip a little earlier than usual. So... tada! Your wish is my command. You can see all the photos from my Kazakh trip (via Urumqi) by taking a peek into my latest gallery. I hope you enjoy. I know I did... Kazakhstan is awesome!
posted October 19, 2005 at 01:51 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (25)
October 07, 2005
Hello from Kazakhstan!
Well, I'm here in Almaty, and let me be the first to say that this city is friggin' awesome! If I'd ever been to eastern Europe I might say that Almaty is like Prague or Budapest, but I've never been... so, I'll just say that it's awesome here. Am I really only an hour's flight away from Urumqi? Everything that's missing from China in terms of food (cheese, butter, Doritos, good bread, chocolate, black olives, hamburgers, good beer) is stocked in great abudance in Kazakhstan. Almaty is some sort of anti-China. And did I mention that the women are stunning? I've never seen a higher concentration of beautiful women anywhere. My senses are on overload.
Let me also mention that I'm typing this while drunk... a result of the fact that I was forced to drink vodka with some guy at Almaty's long distance bus station while we (Camilla Church and myself) were trying to get bus tickets back to Urumqi. So, please excuse any rambling. I must tell you that something great has happened (well, may have happened)... it looks like we'll both be getting 6 month, multiple-entry F visas to return to China. Popular wisdom has it that these mythical visas are only available in Hong Kong, but we were told at the Chinese consulate here in Almaty that we could pick em' up next Thursday. Yippeee!
Anyway, tomorrow we're off on a group bus tour (in Russian) to some mountain lake outside of Almaty, and then on Sunday we'll visit the canyon at Charyn. This city, although tons more expensive than China, is really, really, really terrific, and I recommend it to anyone who might be considering a visit. I'll be sure to post photos of my trip as soon as possible upon my return to China.
Dosvedonya! Hosh! Good-bye! Spa-see-bo! Rachmet! Thank you!
P.S. Rachel Solomon is busting my chops all the way from Los Angeles to hurry up and include a link to her fund-raising page. She's going to run a marathon and save the world from AIDS, so will you please give her some money?
posted October 07, 2005 at 10:24 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (63)
October 02, 2005
Latest Korla Photos
I'm off tonight for Urumqi, and with any luck I'll be on a bus to Almaty in Kazakhstan by Wednesday.
In the meantime, I've decided to reward all of you avid blog readers with another fantastic gallery of Korla photos! Hooray for me. I can assure you that these are some of the finest photos yet, so I hope you enjoy. Happy browsing... as always, please leave a comment or comments. I'll be sure to update everyone about Kazakhstan ASAP!
posted October 02, 2005 at 03:31 PM unofficial Xinjiang time | Comments (22)