Ode to Hangzhou, or: It Ends with a Promise, 或:再见

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A Hangzhou scene

So after two incredible years, it all ends here–with one last, glorious posting to this lousy blog. Here is the grand crescendo, the final finale, the nail in the coffin. It features a music video. Never-before-seen pictures. And drama, with an ending so sublimely bittersweet you’ll laugh and cry at the same time. Hopefully not just from the bad writing.

The End begins: My last moments in Hangzhou… standing out on the street with my bags, all seven of them, and wiping a steady stream of sweat off my face after my short movement from the check-out desk. I look for all the Chinese world like the most ridiculously over-packed foreign tourist to ever stay at such a low-class hotel (good ol’ 7 Days!), and right in the middle of morning “high peak” traffic. In between sweat wipes, I execute my best limp-wristed hand wave. A light ahead turns green, traffic surges forth, a cab stops. “GET IN!” She yells.

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West Again: East Again, with Two Dutiful Uighurs and a Whole Ton of Bread

2013-06-21 2013-06-21 001 001Travel Log, 23 June

And so it ends, my last adventure in China, this two-week road trip across Qinghai and Xinjiang. I’m now on a red-eye flight from Urumqi to Hangzhou, a direct connection that apparently exists because of the number of Uighurs involved in the bustling trade between Zhejiang Provinces’s family-owned factories and merchants from the Middle East. That’s the business of the two men sitting on either side of me, anyway. They’re both headed for Yiwu, the small commodities mega-market town where I once grabbed lunch in a restaurant that was run by an Uzbek, staffed by Afghans, and patronized by Chechens. For the man from Karamay sitting to my left, this is his first trip out of Xinjiang. He’s headed out to Yiwu to meet his brother, who has worked their for years and who, having just bought a car, has asked his brother to drive it back home for him. I am envious of the road trip he is about to have, one that will span pretty much the whole width of the People’s Republic of China, although I know that for him it will be a joyless endurance test of tolls, bad food, and little sleep. He has asked me to stick with him for a bit when we get to Hangzhou, to help get him on his way and for a fair price.   Continue reading

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West Again: Walking Around, Willy-Nilly, in the Heavenly Mountains

2013-06-22 2013-06-22 001 006Travel Log, 21 June

I have a final exam to take back in Hangzhou in three days, and a flight booked from Urumqi that departs 36 hours from now. This trip, my last one before leaving China, is about to end. But before that happens, I’ve attempted to squeeze in one more stop between Kuqa and Urumqi: the beautiful Tianshan grazing lands of Bayinbulake, and a break from the desert heat for one day before going back to the humid sweatbox of Hangzhou.

Things were going well until I got to Baluntai, where I was told I could switch buses for a faster connection up higher into the mountains. As a result of the encounter related below, I am now incarcerated in a hotel room above a gas station, with nothing to do but write a lousy blog post.  Continue reading

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West Again: Postcard from Aksu, Where the Prejudice is only Skin-Deep

2013-06-21 2013-06-21 001 002Travel Log, 20 June.

Today on the local bus:
Middle-aged Han Chinese lady to me: “You Americans truly grow up quite handsome.” (Note: this is a fairly casual compliment in China, freely dispensed.)
Me: “Funny you say that to me, because we look just like Uighurs!” I nodded to the Uighur men sitting next to me.
Lady: (Frowning, shaking head, seeming to recoil at the thought.) “Ugh. UGH! No. You do not look the same.”
Me: “Sure we do.”
Lady: “No. You? Handsome. Uighurs? Not handsome.”
Me: “I mean, there’s no big difference. We’re like the same race.”
Lady: “It’s the nose.”
Me: “The nose?”
Lady: “Yeah. Your nose is just more… bulbous (圆形)! And it not only sticks out really far, but it also goes all the way back up to between your eyes! Uighurs do not have nice noses like that.”
Me: “Hmm. Well, in America, a smaller “Uighur nose” would actually be considered a lot better-looking than mine.”
Lady: “Ugh.”  Continue reading

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West Again: Welcome to the Kyrgyz County of Akqi, Stranger!

2013-06-20 2013-06-20 001 045Travel Log, 20 June.

6PM: I’m in Akqi, near the Kyrgyzstan border, and I couldn’t feel more welcome. I slipped in to this area, also part of the off-limits Kizilsu Kyrgyz Prefecture, by hiring a cab driver in Kashgar who was also up for an adventure, and just as keen to bypass all the police checkpoints we might encounter. We stopped in a couple little towns along the way, chatting with curious shop owners and picking up a couple nice-looking shyrdaks for taking back home. Then, when we arrived in Akqi, I took a walk and then made my way to the PSB, where I fully expected to be booked and shipped out on the next bus to Aksu. Instead I was greeted like a VIP, a status accorded to the first foreigner in anyone’s memory to come through these parts. Apparently the PSB here just never got the memo: foreigners don’t come here because they’re technically not allowed to come here, at least according to the PSB office in Kashgar. I spent a good hour in the PSB office, getting chatted up about what it’s like to be a foreigner, receiving recommendations for a good hike the next morning, and hearing about what development schemes the government has going or planned in these parts (answer: horse breeding, hydropower, and domestic tourism).

It just goes to show: when travelling in China, you never know what you’re in for.   Continue reading

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West Again: On the Edge of the Forbidden Tajik Areas of Akto County, Spies Like Us

IMG_3346Travel Log, 19 June.

10AM: Back on a bus, and feeling good. My catch-and-release experience with the Khotan Public Security Bureau last night had actually been a pretty positive one for everybody involved: a comfortable ride, interesting conversation–and a chance to meet the senior public security officer on watch for Khotan County that night, a friendly middle-aged bureaucrat who was, expectedly, Han–but unexpectedly, a woman, and even more unexpectedly, fluent in Uighur. After seeing my Zhejiang University ID card and hearing my story about this being my last grand trip in China before leaving, she was nice enough to direct her junior officers to take me to a cheap guest house, as I’d requested, rather than to the usual overpriced grand hotel preferred by most PSBs for their foreign “guests.” My PSB escorts even told the guesthouse night receptionist, an affable Uighur man in his twenties who’d had a bit to drink that night, that the rate I was looking to pay was nonnegotiable, and that was that.   Continue reading

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West Again: In Kashitashi, Gaining Knowledge of the Law

2013-06-18 2013-06-18 001 179 (2)Travel Log, 18 June.

I’m in a car with three officers from the Khotan Public Security Bureau, and not on my own initiative. Nabbed in a place that I wasn’t supposed to be, I’m now being brought back, free of charge, to precinct headquarters for registration. It’s been an interesting day.   Continue reading

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West Again: With the Truckers and Traders of China’s Route 66 (National Highway G315)

2013-06-17 2013-06-17 001 009Travel Log, 17 June.

3PM: I am riding in the cab of an overloaded semi truck, headed for Chira. In the back are loosely tied stacks of solar panels, which sway against their straps every time the steering wheel turns. My driver and his co-pilot are two middle-aged Chinese men from Gansu. They’ve never been out to Xinjiang before, and they emphasize this point by frequently exclaiming at how big and empty it is out here. The co-pilot is the more vocal of the two, and when we first met he demanded a lengthy discussion on how much better off Xinjiang would be now if the Tang Dynasty, a thousand years ago, hadn’t collapsed. But he’s asleep now, and the driver and I enjoy the passing miles and unchanging vastness in silence.   Continue reading

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