Friday, March 30, 2012

11 Year Old Driver

The best way to travel through the desert is to wave down any guy with an open back flat bed truck and make a deal. Remember to tuck your legs in so as not to kick passer- byers, but be careful not to get them caught in the wheel. As we were walking through these tiny little side streets a young cart driver raced by us. He was very thrilled to see five white ‘Americans’ walking down his regular route. The cart continued to race forward as the tiny driver spun right around in his seat to openly gawk and stare at us. Despite his not being able to keep his eyes on the road (demonstrating poor driving skills), we all piled on his vehicle for a ride back. Before getting on, one of my travel companions had to grill the kid a little. He asked our driver how old he was and when the answer came back 11, he asked a follow up question to know whether or not the kid’s mom knew he was out driving, or better yet if he even knew how to drive. His answer should have been “I think so”… considering his fascination with us continued to the point he almost ran over a mother carry her baby as they crossed the street. Maybe there is a reason we don’t let kids have their license until they are 16 (and even then still with restriction).

I guess we should just be thankful that neither of these little guys where our driver.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Maybe An Incorrect Address Doesn’t Matter

In a city of 3 to 5 million people there are thousands of taxis (both legal and illegal), meaning there are thousands of taxi drivers going to a million different locations. The sheer volume makes it scary when I hop in a car and the driver knows me and can drive me right to my door without having to be reminded of where I live. All I said was “the number two hospital”(a relatively large landmark a couple of blocks from my house) and the driver looked at me and said “the same place, yeah I remember. I gave you a ride home a few months ago”. And sure enough he did know. It didn’t matter to him if my address was correct or not… he knew right where he was headed.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I Don’t Think We Moved

703…704…705…717…707..huh? Wait a second something isn’t right, “since when did 717 fit in there sequentialy?” I ask myself as I walk down the hallway to my office. The number on the door next to mine has been changed, which seems to be a current and frustrating trend in my world. I asked the women across the hall if she knows anything about the renumbering system. She said that the people in office 706 decided to rent a bigger office space down the hall, but didn’t want to go through all the hassle of re-registering their business to a new address, so the simple switched the number on the door.

Switching numbers…has brought a lot of headache to my life of late. The building I live in has three stairwells. Each stairwell has a number. This is the case for most apartments in this country. For instance in our apartment complex I live in building number 3, doorway/stairwell number 1, apartment 303, at least that is what the contract with the landlord says. I have use this information to register with the police, have the bottled water company deliver drinking water to my door and receive my international mail. Up until a few weeks ago it was a good system. Sure the number above our stairwell had worn off, but since two and three were still clearly labeled, everyone could use their advanced powers of deduction to realize that we must be number 1. A few weeks ago the apartment complex paid to have new numbers printed and hung above each door. Shortly after that the hassle started. The water guys called to say he was at our door but no one seemed to be home. I went to the door, but there was no water guy in sight. My friend got an invitation to a mutual friend’s wedding, but mine never got delivered. Friends started to call from outside to clarify where we lived.

One day as I was heading through the door, I happened to look up and notice a big bold number 3 gracing the top of our door frame. No wonder no one could find our apartment anymore, they had mounted the numbers in the wrong order. I grabbed a photo copy of our landlord’s deed to the property and headed to the apartment complex managers office. I explained the problem as patiently as I could in two languages and all I got for a response was “huh, that’s funny”.

‘Funny’ is hardly the word I would use for it. We are registered with the police at our address, we sometime get mail that is coming from overseas. So if any of you have been sending me care packages full of vanilla coffee or microwave popcorn (hint, hint) and you wonder why I have written a letter of thanks… it might be because you sent it to the wrong… or is it really the right… address. This mix up isn’t funny.

We waited until late one night and then snuck down stairs with flashlights and tools, only to realize they don’t come off as easily as we were hoping. We have talked about an elaborate art project involving super glue and number cut outs, but since we have been the only ones to complain, we are sure the intentional “vandalism” to the new signs could be traced back to us. But we do need it back to normal, before the police decide to fine us for having incorrect paperwork. Real Funny, huh?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hand Washing at the Hotel

Whenever you check out of a hotel in this country you have to give the hotel staff an extra 5 minutes to check over your room and make sure everything is intact before they will actually give you back your deposit and let you leave. The staff counts to make sure all of the mugs are present and accounted for, the sheets and towels are still there and in usable condition and that you didn’t ruin anything.

Several years ago I was staying in a three person room, I had noticed shortly after we checked in that they had only given us two glasses in the bathroom, but didn’t bother to mention to any of the staff the missing cup. We checked out and were half way down the street when we noticed a hotel employee frantically chasing us. By the time she caught up tears were dripping off her cheeks. “Please, you must come back to the hotel, a cup is missing”. She sobbed. “It was missing when we checked in, so it is not our fault” I replied . “Please you must come back or else they will take the cost out of my paycheck” her utter panic made me willing to shell out the three dollars for something I hadn’t done.

Fast Forward to this past trip down south. My friends were checking out of our hotel and were told we were going to have to pay the price of a new towel because they had ruined one. The guys knew they had left the room in pretty good condition and so they asked to see this “damaged towel”. The lady checking over the room handed them a slightly muddy towel that they had used to get some of the dirt off their shoes. “This will washout no problem”, the guys said confidently. Next thing they knew the staff member was handing them one of the complementary shampoo bottles and asking them to prove it. The guys were shocked. I don’t care what country you’re in, it is not the guests’ job to wash their own linens at a hotel. “Don’t you have a washing machine?” they asked flabbergasted at the demand that they start scrubbing. “Of course, but that stain might not come out in the washing machine and then we will have to pay for it”. Grumbling a little at the craziness of a hotel not factoring these things into their overhead cost my friend went to work on stain removal and soon had the nod of approval from the staff member that indeed the towel was not permanently damaged, just in need of a good wash.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


While KFC has made inroads into this part of the world (unlike McDonalds), many of my Uyghur friends are fearful to eat there. They are scared the food might not really be hallal. While most of the employees are Muslim and the front door is covered with Uyghur writing, they are still cautious to eat what is served over the counter. On our recent trip south we saw how one ambitious entrepreneurial Uyghur solved that nagging concern. MFC- Muslim Fried Chicken, watch out Colonel Sanders you have competition in Central Asia.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not Very Lady Like

Modesty is a big part of Uyghur culture. Dressing in such a way that is considered appropriate. Down south in our province most women wear long skirts, long sleeves and head scarves. Not much actual skin is visible. While I was studying Uyghur at the University I had one teacher comment to me that my shirt was to ‘open’, meaning I had a large bare neckline that showed off too much skin. But these rules are all for show. If for some reason an older lady needs to rest these same modest women will hike up their skirt, around there waist ( or higher) and squat on the sidewalk, hardly the most lady like of positions. It isn’t as bad as it sounds since most of them have two or three layers of leggings to keep them warm.

It is one of my best kept secrets/ well known facts that I never wear long underwear or have a second layer on. My bare legs under my skirt are a disgrace to any Uyghur friend who gets a glimpse of them. It is not so much that they think it is indecent, but rather they think I must be crazy – everyone is so afraid of the cold here.

One day as we were traveling I knew we were going to be outside for several long hours walking around town, I also did knew totally what the weather was like, so in a very abnormal move for me I actually put on a pair of tights. I was very thankful for this forethought as we were climbing on a truck with a bunch of older ladies. My skirt was getting in my way and I tried to discreetly lift the edge of it so that I could have more room to swing my legs. One of the ladies saw me grab a handful of material and offered to help. The next thing I knew she was hiking my skirt up so it was almost under my armpits. Immodesty aside, my legs were suddenly on display for all to see. All I could do was stand there and laugh at the random situations I find myself in. Where else in the world does a complete stranger feel free to take the liberty of lifting your skirt up for you. Thank goodness I was covered. She didn’t seem to think anything odd or inappropriate about the situation, even in light of the fact that some of my travel companions were male. She just kept asking why I was laughing and why I wasn’t crawling on to the back of the truck.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bazaar Baldy

The following post was written by one of my travel companions.

“Try to look local", I said as we stumbled off the crowded bus. We had arrived at our destination. The weekly village bazaar. From our hotel we took a long-distance taxi, then walked through the little town to an unmarked stop, jumped on a flat-bed motor taxi to the outskirts of town where we switched to a bus and road several kilometers into the countryside. We knew we were getting close to our destination by the lines of horse carts filled with village farmers on their way to the weekly bazaar. This wasn’t a bazaar as you might think...crocheted doll toilet paper covers and hand painted ‘Welcome to the Lake” signs. This was Central-Asian-style village bazaar. Here we found pavilion after pavilion stocked with everything from hats to socks, horse tack to cooking utensils, grilled kabobs to boiled sheep lung and feet, sweet walnut toffee to fried bread. The small lanes were teeming, shoulder to shoulder with people, ladies in full hijab, farmers in knee high boots and white skull caps, people chatting over a kabob or fried bread. The smell of animals, grill smoke, popcorn, and body odor mingled together with the sounds of merchants hawking their wares, animal noises, the thud of meat being cut on wooden cutting boards and beeping horns of motorcycles. Needless to say, our best attempts to ‘blend in’ with the crowd were a miserable failure. My friends and I were the cause of numerous double takes and more than once I saw a small child start at my boots with his eyes and begin the long crane upward, ending in a wide-eyed, open-mouthed look of surprise at the gigantic foreigner standing before him.

We decided to split up in an attempt to lessen the stares. My classmate and I headed off to see what we could see. Coming around the corner, we found men selling vegetables and behind them, the weekly open-air barber shop. This barber shop consisted of two rows of men, probably farmers on every day except bazaar day, each standing in front of the chair or stool they’d brought with them. Their tools were the aforementioned chair, a piece of drape cloth, a carafe of water, a tin can with lather, a paint brush to apply the lather and a straight-edged razor. Only one style is offered, that being the classic bald look.

As we stood there watching these men skillfully shave their customers heads, beard, and neck I was surprised to hear my buddy say, “Let’s do it!” Wide-eyed I turned to him and agreed. This must be done! “You go first. I’ll take pictures”, I said. As you can imagine there was no small amount of interest taken at the two foreigners plopping down to get a shave. The process started with a vigorous head rub, followed by a lathering, and finished with a shave with the sharpest straight edge I’ve ever seen (or felt). My labors in local language were useless here as almost no one only spoke Uyghur. I was able to answer a few questions in Uyghur as to where we were from, etc., but mostly we commented with nods and smiles. Finally one man, curious as to why I was taking pictures so intently, asked me in broken version of our one common tongue , “Don’t you have barbers in your country?

Soon it was my turn and I took my spot. I have to admit, my barber had both skill and an extremely sharp knife. It was a relatively comfortable shave. In a matter of minutes, I was beautifully bald and with no cuts. Thanking our man, we handed over our money. Total cost? less than $1. Heading back toward the front of the bazaar, we decided the best way to head back into town was horse cart. So, for quarter per person we jumped on for our slow journey back into town.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Long Life

I remember when I was still studying the Uyghur language at the University, One of the texts in our book was about the unusually long life expectancy of Uyghur people in some communities down south. The textbook went on to boast that their healthy diet of living off the land and eating their home grown walnuts was the secret to their longevity. Some in the community were recorded as being almost 140 years old. This man was only 97 but as healthy as can be and up for a good long walk down the tree lined roads of his home town desert oasis. The whole time he and the taxi driver stood chatting he kept reaching into his pocket and stuffing handfuls of walnuts into his mouth. Just like my school lesson said he attributed his health and well being to the snack that he munched on incessantly.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Road to Nowhere

Have you ever looked at a map and saw a road that just ended? While we were down south last time we saw just such a place on our map. An hour and a half outside side of the city we were visiting, deep in the desert there was a road, that just suddenly seem to stop at this small town. We decided to go exploring and see what was there. We actually found that the bus station had vehicles that made regular daily trips out to Tawakkul.

We chatted some with the other passengers and tried to figure out what we should see or do in their town. I asked one lady “So what is there in Tawakkul?” She looked kind of confused by the question and finally answered “Our home”.

She was right… that really was all there was. The town or village or hamlet was nothing more than two intersecting streets. They had two restaurants, a place to buy clothes and furniture, a school, a mosque and a cell phone store. We had walked the whole length of the place in a few minutes and wondered what we should do next (our adventure for the day was looking rather lame).

We ended up heading out of town (the direction where the once paved road turned into gravel and desert sand). The fine dust kicked up about our feet as we passed small homes. At several places you could hear the sound of a sheep or a cow greeting us as we strode by. Finally we came upon one home where the husband and wife were standing out front their door. In good Uyghur hospitality style they invited us in, even though we were perfect strangers.

Over a simple afternoon snack of oranges, eggs, sunflower seeds, and bread served with tea we learned a little more about their lives. The wife had lived her whole life in this small cross-roads town in the desert. She had never even made the 1 ½ journey to the city we were staying in. She was 34 and had been married since she was 16. Her oldest daughter, now 17 is currently expecting their first grandchild. As one of 10 kids she still sees her family all the time since most of them live in the surrounding farms. The bread she served us was a testament of how she spends her time and what daily life is really like. They had grown the wheat themselves and harvested it from their own farm. They had also used it to make their own flour and dough. The bread was traditional Uyghur nan that they had baked in a tunur night in their courtyard of their home.

Each bit of bread only served to remind me how large the culture gap was between the two of us. Her rough worked hands showed that she had never ripped open a bag of wonder bread and spread on heaps of Pb and J. I was sitting in her home half way around the world from where I grew up, her parents home was just down the narrow street. Even though we are basically the same age, she is a soon to be grandma, and I am single. Despite these contrasts we had a wonderful afternoon chatting and laughing.