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.