Thursday, December 29, 2011

Birthday Fun

Yesterday was another big happy birthday for my roommate and I. This year we out did ourselves rather than a toned down small group parties like past years we embraced the fun of a full on Uyghur dance party. We found a wedding to crash, went for the crazy hair, over the top makeup and sparkly outfits, invited all our friends and danced until we dropped. It was quite the way to ring in my 32nd birthday.

Also worth mentioning is the fun pile of gifts that people brought; flowers that are individually wrapped, gold studded comb and brush set, miniature Uyghur instruments, scarves, scarves and more scarves and calcium supplements (I guess they think I am getting frail in my old age).

Monday, December 26, 2011


"At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, ... it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."
"Are there no prisons?"

"Plenty of prisons..."
"And the Union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"Both very busy, sir..."
"Those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

At this Christmas time of year we are all familiar with Charles Dickens classic piece of literature A Christmas Carol. The book, where the hard unfeeling Scrooge is taught the joy of the season through the visitation of three spirits. In fact we have all likely watched a version or two of it over the last few weeks (particularly the Muppet version – a long standing favorite of mine).

This year I felt like I have seen it playing out right in front of my eyes. As you walk into my apartment complex, the first sight that greets your eyes, are traditional one story homes. They are slightly old, and run down… but families still all live together in the one or two room structures and have for years. These households are part of the people that make up my neighborhood. They always stop and talk to me on my way in or out, they offer me fresh made bread from the tonur as they stand around baking, they always offer me to come in for a cup of tea and a quick visit, the children kick the ball in my direction and let me join the game.

But not anymore. Now their homes look like this.

Nothing but a pile of rubble. They are being torn down. Likely to put up another high rise. Yes the owners are offered a buyout plan for their properity (not always the best or very fair deal- but at least a new place). It is sad to see people kicked out of their homes over the Christmas season… it feels like a very scrooge-ish move. Of course to them the time of year had no relevance… many of my neighbors had no idea what Christmas was or that it was even a big deal. Oh they have heard about it before, and they have seen the decorations up in more western stores like KFC, but the actual reality of Christmas spirit, of love, joy, peace expressed at this time of the year is unknown. So they didn't understand why I thought it was so 'bahumbug' that they all moved out this week.

I am really going to miss some of these dear people.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Lending A Hand

It is winter. My least favorite time of year. The skies get dark, the temperature drops and the roads and sidewalks get slippery and dangerous. Winter means I tend to stay indoors more often and play host, except for when I absolutely must face the ice. Yesterday I was given a hand in facing the ice… not just one hand actually but three.

On the way to the accountant’s office, I was not looking forward to crossing the slippery street without the help of a crosswalk in the midst of the constant game of frogger. As I got closer I noticed one of the street sweepers had fallen instep beside me. She kept looking at my white skin and foreign face before finally trying to engage me in conversation. We chatted lightly until I pointed to the place where I had to cross. She put down her shovel and broom and grabbed the whistle out of her pocket. She gently took my arm and led me across the street, all the while stopping the traffic at each lane as we went. On the other side of the road, this kind hearted stranger gave me a hug, told me to “go slowly and wear more clothing

After leaving the accountants office I decided to take the bus home. The only bus that went that direction was an old dilapidated one with holes in the floor. The water underfoot on the bus was therefore freezing into a slippery mess. I stumbled from one pole to the next moving towards the back of the bus. One older man saw my obvious fear and offered up his seat. Totally not the way it is supposed to happen. Bus etiquette says young people must give up their seats for seniors. “Big brother” I said, “I am so embarrassed, I can’t take your seat”. But he insisted and for the second time in an hour a complete stranger helped me out. When we disembarked from the bus he too said “goodbye young girl, go slowly and wear more clothes”

Finally I was crossing my last street to make it home to safety. This street has an underground passage. I started down the stairs, but they too were coated in greasy grimy winter slush. I gripped the broken railing tightly. I soon felt a light tap on my shoulder. “Here let me help you, You’ll get your glove dirty holding on to that… and I am a lot sturdier” said the stranger as she took my arm and lead me slowly down the steps. As a way to thank her I told her “be careful on the road and wear more clothing”.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Morning sounds

This morning, before my alarm went off, before I had opened my eyes or even fully woke up, I knew it had snowed last night. While I still lay all tight and snuggled in my blankets I could hear the all to familiar “crashing, clanging, and banging” sounds of snow being cleared from the school yard next door. It was barely 6:30 am, but already students were arriving and grabbing their brooms, shovels and pickaxes to attack the white layer that covered their play area. I hate the disturbance it caused to my morning sleeping plans, but at least by the time I head out much of the ground will be clear and safe to walk on.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Animal Bazaar

The more I live in the capital city the more I see very modern Uyghur young people, wearing jeans and going to discos… but one quick trip down south reminds me of the millions of Uyghur people that still live a very traditional lifestyle. Last week we had the chance to visit the animal bazaar, a great place for farmers to sell their livestock.

We could tell our taxi was getting closer to the final destination as the road became more and more packed with donkey carts, motorized trucks with the kids and the big butt sheep sitting side by side, and huge trucks with cows shoved in the back.

The animal bazaar is a great meeting place for the community; men and women, young and old, cows and horses (dead and alive). We got some great pictures of traditional Uyghur countryside life. You can enjoy them from the comfort of home, without trying to step over animal poop or moving out of the way so you don’t have a donkey nibbling at your bum.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It’s the Principle of the Thing

At 3:00 a.m. on what was meant to be an all night sleeper bus, pulled into the station. The driver obnoxiously flicked on the light and yelled for everyone to disembark. My fellow travel companions and I stumbled off the bus in a bit of a daze. The cold air of a December morning did a lot to bring us out of our slumber. Parked all around the gate of the bus station were waiting taxi cabs. As the group counted to make sure we had all our bags and belongings, I went over to one of the drivers and told him where we were headed. We couldn't all fit in one so I suggested my roommate take the first car and head out with some of the girls.

As soon as I saw their cab start to drive down the road in the right direction I began to find a second car that could take us. The driver knew the location, but insisted that I pay him 10 kuai. Now granted 10 kuai is really only equal to less than a $1.50, but I have been to this city many times, and I know for a fact that you can drive anywhere in town for under 5 kuai. It was outrageous… the whole lot of drivers were ganging up of the weary travelers and over charging them. Well not me I wouldn’t put up with it.

I grabbed my bags, yelled over my shoulder for the others to follow and we started walking down the street. Sure it was 3 a.m., sure it was pitch black out, sure the temperature was below freezing, and sure I had no idea how long we would have to walk before another taxi would come along, but there was no way I was letting a gaggle of taxi drivers take advantage of me and steal 75 cents. It is the principle of the thing. I know the right price, he knows the right price, I know he knows the right price and he knows I know, and yet we still ended up walking in the cold.

We got to the corner and looked across the street, there standing at the side of the road was my roommate and those who had driven off in the first car with her. After going less than a block, her driver had also refused to use the meter. He too demanded the same rip off price of double what it should be. And so she had boldly opened her door and declared they were done. We saw them and waved. I knew she was just as upset about the lack of justice as I was. 50 cents is not a lot of money, but it was the fact they weren’t playing by the rules.

We only had to wait about a minute before a couple of empty taxis drove by, with drivers that were so desperate for any fare in the middle of the night that they were more than willing to use the meter .

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I am totally addicted to carpets. I mentioned a few posts ago that I have a friend at the bazaar who sales carpets. He has been giving me a bit of an education on how to decipher the quality of a carpet you’re looking at. He has been teaching me how to tell when they are handmade or done on a machine, whether it is real silk or synthetic. He has even been giving me an idea about what the price should be based on these discrepancies.

All of this foreknowledge made my trip to the carpet factory a few days ago that much sweeter. The factory itself, is a large room filled with huge carpet looms that stretch from floor to ceiling. Depending on the size of the carpet they are working on, each loom has two to seven ladies sitting in front of it working away. Their fingers move so fast you can barely see how they are tying the knots. They have a pattern to work from tucked in behind the loom that they can check for reference when they need it.

I had fun moving from loom to loom and talking to the women and asking them their story. One lady started working at the factory when she was 12, she has now been making carpets for over 40 years. Every day she works tying knot after bright colorful knot eight hours a day, six days a week for a total pay of about $125 US a month. Sitting right next to her is her daughter who also started working at the factory when she was about 12. The daughter was proud to announce to me that she has two children who are both able to go to school.

An average carpet takes 2-3 months to make. I look at that and I think of the handmade carpet in my living room. I bought it 5 years ago before the price of carpets went up so much. It likely would have taken three ladies three months to finish which for their labor cost alone should be a total of about $1,125 US, but I know for a fact I only paid $325 US for it. Doing the math the women sitting at the loom would have been paid less than $36 US a month for all their hard work on the masterpiece that is our living room carpet. As much as I would choke at shelling out the amount of money needed for today’s pricing, I am glad it has gone up if means the third generation of carpet makers can stay in school and get an education.

Here are some of the carpets around our house. The cheap machine made one in the office
The tightly woven handmade wool one in my bedroom
The real silk machine one hanging on the wall in our living room

The big beautiful handmade wool one in our living room.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Pick Up your Stuff and GO

There is a walking underpass at the street between our home and office. Every day on my way to work I descend the stairs uncertain of what awaits me at the bottom. Sometimes this underground walk way is nothing but an empty corridor where the click of my boots seems to vibrate off the walls, at other times is a lively market place, is packed with vendors. There are the women selling table clothes, earrings, and compact mirrors and the men with their DVD, religious books and packs of kleenexes. Some of them have their little songs to try to attract customers, like the guy selling toy birds who calls out “they don’t need food, they don’t need water, they just bring you fun” . I hardly ever buy anything as I pass by ( I guess I have gotten a few pairs of socks and a hair clip), but I love the energy of the crowd, and the challenge of getting through without stepping on anyone’s stuff.

Since none of them actually have vendor permits, every couple of hours the police take a lap under the street and force them to “close up shop” so to speak. This literally involves picking up the four corners of the blanket their merchandise is being displayed on, tossing it over their back like Santa’s sac, while they dash up the stairs and try to blend in with the crowd. If you happen to walk that same stretch just moments after a police flush out, it is an empty cavernous hallway.

So why is this important enough to have a blog post written about it… because I was caught earlier this week in the stampede of ‘stores’ and their owners on the move. It was kind of scary , all the men in blue came down the stairs at one end of the tunnel and all of those hocking their wares made a mad dash towards the other end. My foot got squished in the process of trying to press myself tightly against the wall to get out of the way. My toes will heal, but I will be a little leery about heading down there if the police seem to be walking that way too.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

You're Uyghur too

I have learned that if Uyghur people like you they show it by proving that you are one of them or at least closely related to their people group. My carpet guy is the best at this (I have made friends with several different vendors at the local market, so that when other foreigners are looking for goods I can help prevent them from getting ripped off).

When the man in the carpet shop first learned I was from Canada he went on to tell me in detail about all the Uyghurs living in Canada, including his wife’s cousin’s son. He seems so pleased that we had this common bond. I mean his wife’s cousin’s son living in the same country I'm from… that makes us practically family.

When I took a Hungarian friend to his shop and she bought a carpet, he went on for about 20 minutes about how similar their two cultures were and how Uyghurs are much more European in ethnicity than they are Asian.

The real test came when I brought in one friend from a people group that has long lived in tension with the Uyghur people. My friend made the carpet guy's day, by buying three expensive carpets with little to no fuss. He basically bought the first ones he saw, instead of forcing the seller to rearrange all his stock, stacking carpet after carpet on the floor, moving around the bulky weight so he could look again at the one on the bottom of the pile. I knew my friend had been an ideal customer, but because of the long standing history of their two people I really wondered how the vendor would do his post sale "you are also Uyghur" conversation. He looked intently at my friend. "You look very Uyghur" he said "your facial structure is more like ours. You put on a doppa and I would have assumed you were a good Uyghur man" He then stretched out his hand for a firm handshake. It was good for me to know that even enemies can be friends - if you spend enough on carpets.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Old Classmates

Recently my former classmate from out here posted the following statement on his blog:

I have to admit, though they drank way too much, there was lots to be enjoyed there. Here was a group of classmates approaching sixty years old. They still get together once or twice a month. They laugh, reminisce about old times, and continue to share life together. There is something special in longevity of relationships like that. Though I have thoroughly enjoyed life until now, I've often missed the familiarity that comes from being in one place and having continuity of friendship.

He was referring to the local woman who he calls ‘mom’ and all of her classmates. The entire class still gets together regularly for lunch and renewing their relationships. They are not the only classmates in this country that keep in community 50 years later. I have a Uyghur grandmother in her 70s, who invited me to join her chai (Uyghur women’s party were money is exchanged), ever month she meets with 12 of the women she went to elementary school with. I don’t even think I could name 12 kids from my grade school days, much less see them regularly and still be part of their life.

When we step back and look at social structures in the life of the Uyghur community, the classmate network is very influential. In North America we talk about looking out for our “friends and family” (interesting enough in that order)… my Uyghur friends often talk about “family, neighbours and classmates” – it is assumed that their friendships have grown out of those close relationships.

As my friend mentioned our culture is very mobile, moving from place to place and influencing structures to friendships. This flux allows us clean starts and the opportunity to hear the different opinion of new people. My Uyghur Grandmother has complained about the longevity of relationships, people who have known you all your life “know everything dumb thing you have ever done… and they still gossip about it 3 decades later”. At her chai she says they sit around and retell the same stories that haven't been news in years. The way she sees it doesn't have the same idealistic slant that my classmate perceived the situation to have.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Great Curry Cook-off

Last weekend my friends and I planned a ‘The Great Curry Cook-off and Bollywood Night”. The plan was simple everyone make a pot of curry, dress in Indian apparel and watch “Bride and Prejudice” (Bollywood made accessible for Westerners) . For most of the week building up to the big event it looked like only two of us were actually going to brave making food ( I say brave since I have never before in my life made curry – but I figured how hard can it be, you look at a few recipes online and then improvise).

Upon arrival it seemed that many of the guest figured the dressing up part was just a joke ( I, however, was looking most forward to this aspect. Ever since I was hospitalized days before our Christmas concert in grade four where I was supposed to be the little girl from India. I was always sad I didn’t get to dress up and wear a sari, so I saw this as my chance –finally).

I was ready to defend the weak attempt of cicken curry as they best of the two, but there was a last minute entry that blew us out of the water. One of our friends who is actually from India came and of course his food blew the rest of ours out of the water. But thankfully he was willing to share his cooking tips.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

EFL Gone Wild…

Today, I had the students talk about hobbies. I started by having them brainstorm what activities they enjoyed, and wrote their answers up on the board so everyone could see. Most of them were normal – swimming, biking, dancing, etc. A lot of students said “sleeping,” which apparently is a luxury in the high-pressure student world. One guy in the back even yelled out “kissing,” which I decided to ignore.

After that, the students were supposed to get into groups of 4-6 and talk about their favorite hobbies. I put up some questions on the board to keep the conversations going: Is your hobby difficult? Is it expensive? Why do you like it? Is it a group activity or something you do alone? Would you recommend it to others? etc. I could tell by the buzz in the room that the conversations were going well.

At the end of their small group discussions, I called on students representing different groups to share what they had talked about with everyone else. Again, most of the answers were nothing to write home about. “I like listening to music because it makes me feel relaxed. And I think Lady Gaga is the best!” “I like sleeping because then I don’t have to sleep in class.” But then we got to a small, quiet guy in the back of the class. This is what he said (other than correcting the grammar, I promise I am not making this up!)

“I like kissing. Maybe for some people it is difficult, but for me it is not. I am good at it! It is not an individual hobby; it is something I do with someone else” [to which the class responded – “Who? Who?” and he just smiled] “It is not an expensive hobby, but it is a nice hobby. It gives me energy. I recommend it to others!”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Favorite Phenomenon

Winter is officially here! Today the sky has been dishing forth a generous helping of rain, sleet, and snow. All of which have spent the better part of the day vying for their opportunity to fall on the heads of ill prepared pedestrians. My grade three teacher would have labeled it : A dark, damp, drizzly, dreary, depressing, dismal day. The chilliness in the air, and the ensuing soggy clothing would normally sever to put a damper on my mood – but not today. Today on my way home I was greeted repeatedly by one of my all time favorite sights. It is a phenomenon that really only comes out on wet days.

I know I have blogged about this before, but I just can’t help myself. As I left my office building I had to avert my eyes, choke back a laugh, and try to hide my silly stupid grin as I passed a well dressed older Uyghur man. He was in his suit and appeared to be heading to some sort of important meeting. Most of him looked rather distinguished and dignified, until you got to the top of his head that is. There preached for the entire world to see was a plastic shopping bag, the name of a local store printed in bright red letters leading the way. He was a man without an umbrella , caught outside on a bad day, trying to do the best he could with what he had.

But he wasn’t the only one. As the first few drops of snowy sludge plummeted downward, all the men seemed to instantly transform into bag heads. They were protecting their dearly loved doppas ( a Uyghur man’s traditional hat - staple part of their wardrobe). I was so thankful this summer while we were traveling my friend was brave enough to snap a picture of this man rainy-day ready. I hope it makes you smile too.

Friday, November 11, 2011


In Canada November 11 is Remembrance Day, a time set aside to look back at the end of World war 1 and other battles were brave Canadian men and women have given their lives for our freedom. School children pin bright red plastic poppies on to their coats, similar to those that grow between the cross’ in the soldiers grave yard.

But here this same date has a totally different meaning. Locals look at the repetition of the digit 1 and have named November 11 Single day. It’s a time to go out with your girl friends and celebrate the fact that you are not in a relationship. People send each other text messages back and forth like this one ( but only to their friends who are not yet married):

Today is 2011.11.11. Here singles day falls on every November 11th. And as the name indicates this relatively for people who are still living the single life. Maybe we are only country in the world that has set aside a special day for singles to celebrate their lives. So Happy singles day to my dear friend.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

In the Air There's a Feeling of Korban

Blogging seems to take on ebb and flow as the years pass. Time is marked by the celebration of each major holiday and after a while what once felt like a new and unique experience fades into an everyday aspect of life. This week is Korban hyate. The holiday that all the foreigners love to hate because of all the blood that lays splattered on the ground, or because of all the lamb fat that they eat. In past years I have posted way too many pictures of this gross affair that I won’t burden you for another year.

Yesterday I left the house in hopes of joining in the joy and community environment of my neighbours celebrating outside. For the first year ever the weather was fairly nice and no snow was falling to cover up the blood. Instead the wind was whipping around forcing the still unfallen leaves to detach from the trees and swirl around in an excited flurry of activity. The children, dressed in their new fancy holiday clothing, ran around outside from one sheep to another taunting them with sticks. Older women in their aprons traded each other sheep organs and intestine with their bare hands and a cheerful “thank you” as they now had more of the pieces they needed to cook their feast. Men gathered up the sheep skins and loaded them on the carts to be donated to the Mosque as part of their alms of generosity.

As much as all of that is part of the annual Korban hayte adventure, my day was different than expected. Sadly I witnessed the shedding of more than just sheep’s blood. As I walked down one street I saw a huge camel being tied up by several strong young men. These neighbours had worked together to get a lager animal to sacrifice. The camel protested loudly as the man wrestled him to the ground and prepared him for his fate. I got the attention of one of the women standing next to me “I thought his holiday was in memory of when Abraham sacrificed a ram in the place of his son?” “It is,” she said with a smile. “Then is it okay to offer up another type of animal in remembrance?” I asked since this was the first time I had seen anything like this. As it often happens to me in this culture, I start by appropriately talking to a woman or two in the corner, but soon the men over hear the foreigner using Uyghur to having a deep conversation and push their way into the center. The women have been taught their place and silently move aside letting the “white bearded” or wise men of the community discuss theology with me.

In a different apartment complex I visited, the wind picked up with such ferocity that a brick was sent airborne from a 6th floor window ledge. It fell smashing the back window of a nearby vehicle causing glass to shatter and spry into the air. The echoing sound of the car alarm covered the sound of terror and it was few seconds before we all realized an elderly women had also been hit (whether by the brick or the glass I am not sure), but she was out cold laying on the ground, her blood trickled and mixed in with that of the sheep. The neighbour men came to their senses and dropped their butcher knives to the ground. Several of them gently lifted the women onto their shoulders and moved as swiftly as her weight would allow to the hospital that was only a block away. I still don’t know how she is. I hope to go back and visit one of her neighbours tomorrow. I will post an update as soon as I know something, but until then, if you are a praying person please remember this women and her family… what an awful event to happen right in the midst of the year’s biggest celebration.