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Xinjiang: Urumqi, Day 1

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It’s been a while since I posted. Again. As mentioned in my last post, my laptop has been totally unusable from a few days after final exams finished, then I was off travelling, and then the last week in China was pretty hectic anyway. Yes, I’m now back in London, but I can still say that I was in Beijing last week! That’s something, right?! I arrived back last Friday evening, and… I already miss China. It feels very surreal (still), and I have this feeling like I’m still supposed to be going back. I can’t be staying here, like, permanently now,  can I…?

Don’t get me wrong, London is an amazing place to live and I love it (don’t talk to me about prices, don’t talk to me about prices, don’t talk to me about prices….) but my year abroad in China has been full of so many amazing (and some less so amazing) experiences and I am 100% glad I did it. No regrets whatsoever. More of that later, maybe. But for now, I’m gonna go back almost a month to the 11th of June – the start of my travels to China’s far West: Xinjiang.

During our travels, I wrote the old-fashioned way, on paper – so here goes typing it up and inserting pictures, of which there are many!

Arrival in Urumqi

After landing at the airport in Urumqi, one of the first things I noticed that I thought was pretty cool was seeing signs in Chinese, Uyghur AND English.

Good English, as usual…

We made it onto a shuttle bus into the city, on which the only seats remaining were one right at the back squashed between luggage and the men to which the luggage belonged, and one seat up at the front next to the driver. Coordinating where we should get off wasn’t made any easier this way, shouting across the minibus, earning us stares from the other passengers. Nevertheless, by the time we got off somewhere on the road our hotel was on, both Beth and I already loved the city. Unfortunately, local buses still confused us, after getting on two that didn’t get us to the right place, we took a taxi…which drove about 2 minutes back up the road, and dropped us off opposite our hotel.

After dropping our stuff, we decided to go to one of the city’s main parks which wasn’t too far from us, Hongshan Park (Red mountain park), named for a red pagoda at the top of a hill inside the park. As soon as we left the hotel and made to cross the road, Beth grabbed my arm and shouted “CAKES!” and started pulling me towards a little shop she’d noticed just a couple of doors away from our hotel. Of all the little bakeries and similar places I’ve seen in China (mostly Beijing) this one was by far the best…it could win on one factor alone: It was clean.

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The fact that the cakes/biscuits were tasty and looked delicious was just a bonus 🙂

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We bought a few each, sat down and ate, at which point I counted all the different baked goods on sale and panicked when I reached 30, realising that would mean eating 10 a day if I wanted to try them all before we left Urumqi. Yeah…they were that good.

This little bakery was where we learnt our first word of Uyghur: Thank you – which is pronounced ‘rahmet’.

As we were entering the park, we saw a guy selling yoghurt…and decided to buy some. We realised that if we wanted to keep eating this way, we might as well forget set mealtimes. Who needs mealtimes anyway, when you have so much to choose from all the time… and so little time to actually choose?

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A cooling yoghurt snack/drink

He filled cups with cold yoghurt out of his mobile fridge, added sugar and nuts on top, and only half-smiled when we said ‘rahmet’. But when we asked if he could tell us how to say ‘tasty’ in Uyghur, he smiled more and replied: I don’t know, I’m not Uyghur, I’m Hui.
Oops.

Hongshan Park is lovely: white picket fences, plenty of shady greenery, a bit of a fairground inside, including but not limited to a ferris wheel, from the top of which we had a (clear, unpolluted!!) view of most of the city. From the top of the hill where the pagoda stood, there was this sign on a railing, beyond which was a rocky drop down to the main road…

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Beyond the railing

The sign on the railing

The sign on the railing

I don’t think anyone who wanted to cherish their life would willingly try to cross that road…from up there.

On another part of the railing, there were countless padlocks crammed onto any free space, engraved (scratched, to be more accurate) with the names of friends or couples… Beth correctly pointed out the romance in what the padlocks symbolised in terms of relationships.

After the park, we tried to find the well known International Bazaar because the hotel reception desk had told us that the Wuyi Night Market (famous for its many different food stalls) had closed down, something we  had not come across in our research. We found another small bakery on the way to the bazaar, got caught in a torrential downpour and incredible winds that pretty much forced us back inside the shops, which were selling headscarves and abayas! That’s not what you think of when someone says China, right?

And what about this scene? (The picture doesn’t do it justice, take my word for it: it was beautiful!)

Beautiful scene

Beautiful twilight scene

The stormy weather meant that we found a little underground market, but didn’t find the actual International Bazaar. I went into a mosque to pray, the first time I’d done that in a long time. Trying to avoid the storm meant that it had become quite late by the time we got back to the hotel. Lots of places started closing what we thought was quite early, but maybe this was because of the weather, rather than the time?

By the end of Day 1, or even halfway through the day, Beth and I have both already decided that we are coming back to this city. That’s gotta say something about the place.

Beth’s input
“I want to live here forever. I want to get a padlock and go with my hypothetical boyfriend to lock the padlock onto the railings in Hongshan Park and then go back after I’m married to find it. And therefore I have to live in Urumqi when I’m older!”

Good logic there.

Attempting to describe Urumqi, I’d say it’s definitely much greener than expected, we both expected barren deserts or something, it’s definitely much greener than Beijjng, there are way less people, it’s hilly (Xinjiang is a mountainous region) and the air is fresher! There are less people smoking, less dogs (in fact, I can hardly remember seeing any today), no spitting spotted yet, and there are dessert places! Yum! Urumqi is a city with a totally different look to any of the other Chinese cities I’ve visited.

Nuts, raisins, chocolates – clean and tidy!

A painted electricity box, showing a woman holding Xinjiang’s famous ‘nang’ (naan)

It’s a lovely city with a friendly vibe, beautiful weather, a bustling lifestyle and plenty of small cake shops to satisfy those sweet cravings 🙂

Bakery no. 2!

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The start of the Summer holidays

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And so it begins…

The Summer holidays. With which comes the end of my year abroad.

Okay, not quite yet, but the end is in sight!!

My exams (which started on Wednesday) finished on Thursday, bringing me to the end of my academic year abroad. I’m basically finished! Our visas don’t run out until the end of June however, and as mentioned previously, I will be flying to Xinjiang on Tuesday and spend a bit of time travelling in the region. The plan is to spend a few days in the capital city, Urumqi, then take a 2.5hour train to Turpan, a city famous for its grapes, where we’ll stay a couple of days, and finally a 6hour train to Hami, famous for its melons. (‘Hami’ 哈密 is actually the same as the name for honeydew melons – hami gua 哈密瓜). Fruit seems to be a recurring theme, yes. Although we’ve booked hostels, we’ve yet to book our train tickets, because of the system in China, which means that you can only buy your train tickets 10 days before the date. And we didn’t have the time for that before exams.

Xinjiang: Locations of Urumqi, Turpan, and Hami

We’ve also been spending a fair bit of time trying to properly research and plan out our trip. In Urumqi’s vicinity are the Tianshan Mountains, and the Heavenly Lake, which does look rather heavenly in pictures we’ve seen online, but hopefully I’ll be putting up some of my own pictures soon! This is supposedly the ideal place where you can get a break from the stifling heat, with its clean and cool air, refreshing water and…. I can’t concentrate, this just sounds so HEAVENLY compared to the greyish yellowish whitish scene I could see out of my window for the whole day today. And for the last three days. It looks like a sheet has been hung over the outside of the window, for all the visibility out there.
Anyway, back to the Heavenly Lake at the Tianshan Mountains, you can also spend a night out there in a traditional Kazakh yurt. When am I ever going to be able to do that?! I really hope we can make this happen!

Plus! This time next week, I will be able to say (hopefully, fingers crossed, touch wood, etc etc) that I have been at the CENTRE OF ASIA. The very middle of the enormous continent that is Asia. It sounds much better in Chinese: 亚洲之心 (yazhou zhi xin) which translates to “The Heart of Asia”. Wow. I was impressed. And if you’re not impressed, it’s only because you must be jealous! In all fairness, there’s nothing actually there, except for a very..fanciful…marker, which probably tells you that you’re standing in the centre of Asia (now doesn’t that sound cool?!), and there’s probably nothing to do but take a picture, and then…well, leave. But either way, I’m excited for it!!

More in Urumqi includes the Food Night Market (Hell, yeah!!) and the Tianshan Grand Canyon.

According to Lonely Planet’s guide book, Turpan is the Death Valley of China. Now, I’ve been to the real Death Valley, and boy, that was hot! I guess it’s lucky that there’ll be no shortage of juicy grapes in Turpan to keep us cool and hydrated…? >_<
In Turpan, apart from the Grape Valleys, we can ride camels along the Flaming Mountains (this all sounds so surreal!), and see ancient cities of pre-Islamic civilisations.

Hami is going to be even more scenic, we can go to another part of the Tianshan Mountains again, if our visit there from Urumqi was so amazing that we want more, ride horses around what I expect to be another beautiful lake, we can go to the Grand White Rock (what a name…), as well as eat lots of melons and absorb a completely different kind of culture than the standard Han Chinese one that we’ve become accustomed to all year.

I didn’t mean to write so much about this trip that hasn’t happened yet… I expect I’ll be repeating a lot of this when it actually happens, but well, I got carried away….

From Hami, we’ll get a 27 hour sleeper train back to Beijing – I already know this is most likely going to be extremely unpleasant, but whatever – I’m all for ‘experiences’! I’ll be spending my final week in Beijing, packing up this one year of my life here, before returning to the UK, with my mother who will have come out pretty much as soon as I return to Beijing. It’s all gonna happen so fast!!

In the meantime, I wish I could say I’ve been truly making the absolute most of these few free days in Beijing, and regale you with exciting stories of final Beijing experiences, but in all honesty, there’s been a fair bit to do! Chilling has been on the list too, I won’t lie (some things can’t be helped), but researching for this trip has been and still is an arduous task. It’s not as ‘out there’ on the internet yet in terms of tourist destinations as a lot of well-known places are. We can’t find out everything before we go, so I’m certain a lot of it will be made up on the go, but that’s all gonna be part of the fun!

Not to mention, the weather here has been absolutely appalling lately. The smog/pollution is the worst I think I’ve seen it all year. A friend of mine has a theory that goes a bit like this… Because the government will want to ensure glorious weather for the national holiday next week (the Dragonboat Festival, which falls between the 10th and the 12th of June this year), they have to temporarily pause whatever weather/pollution controls and measures that are in place, for a few days prior, so that they will be more effective when they bring them out again for the national holiday. This, according to a friend, is why the pollution has been worse over the last few days. I guess we’ll see if there’s any truth to this when I look out of the window on Monday morning…

Tomorrow is our Leaving Ceremony at uni, and if the Opening Ceremony was anything to go by, it’s going to be an extremely boring couple of hours of speeches. Lots of SOASians aren’t going, but I figure I might as well. I’m only gonna have one Leaving Ceremony in China, so, why not? Boring as it might be, I won’t know if I don’t go 🙂 My class is also planning on going out for lunch after, and it’s the last time I’ll see most of them ever again!

Finally, I’d like to share something that I’ve found, which actually stemmed from a real conversation I was having with Beth about all the delicious food there’s gonna be in Xinjiang, including kebabs, nang (the Chinese word for what we call ‘naan’, because it’s not actually a Chinese food, but has come from Central Asia, and is found around China in the Muslim restaurants only), yogurt, and some good old pilau rice. I was saying that we should make a map of China using foods to represent areas, so Xinjiang could start out as a whole big nang, and we’d add in other foods at different cities in it, Beijing could be…well, the obvious choice would be roast duck, but I/we wanted it to be personal, something we’d experienced for ourselves and could relate to. Beth pointed out that this probably already existed (breaking my heart in the process), and sure enough…

Amazing grilled lamb kebabs, you say?! I’m so there.

This isn’t exactly what I had in mind though (but nice enough anyhow), so maybe I’ll still make my own one after all, but it’s a taster 🙂
Hmm, I’ll be tasting some o’ those kebabs pretty soon….
*mouth waters*

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

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Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
شىنجاڭ ئۇيغۇر ئاپتونوم رايونى
新疆维吾尔自治区

In the Northwest of China is a province largely populated by ethnically Muslim minorities, who are culturally more Central Asian than they are Chinese. This region is Xinjiang, 新疆, which translates literally to “new frontier”, and borders no less than eight different countries: Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Check out those borders!

Xinjiang is approximately one sixth of China’s total area

The first inhabitants of Xinjiang were Muslims of Central Asian origin, as well as descendants of traders from Arabia and Persia, because of the Silk Road passing through Xinjiang. These people are the Uyghurs, and have been a majority in Xinjiang for much of China’s history, though there are also Tajik, Kyrgyz and Kazakh groups, among others. Throughout the dynasties, the Han Chinese and the Muslims of Xinjiang, previously referred to as East Turkestan (because at one point they succeeded in forming an independent state, although it didn’t last very long) lived in relative peace. This was until the Qing Dynasty, the final dynasty and most brutal one for the Muslims.

Flag of the First East Turkestan Republic – a short-lived attempt at independence of the lands around Kashgar

Map of the Silk Road entering China through Xinjiang in the West

With the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, the Communists made promises to the people of Xinjiang, that they would help them form an autonomous Muslim state. However, promises such as “self-determination for the different racial and cultural groups” were largely just attempts at pacifying all the various minority groups in China, including Tibetans, Outer Mongolians, as well as the Muslims of Xinjiang.

Under the People’s Republic of China (PRC, 1949~), the government have been resettling many Han Chinese people in Xinjiang. It is worth mentioning here that Xinjiang has vast mineral deposits and more recently discovered oil reserves. The government claims their policies towards Xinjiang are grounded on bringing economic development, and not demographic change. However, with each influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, the native Uyghurs become more resentful, with increasing limits on resources such as water. Moreover, they believe the government is attempting to destroy their long-standing cultural history. I can see where they’re coming from; there are plans to destroy the oldest part of the ancient city of Kasghar, the reason given for this is protection against earthquakes. Somewhat transparent, if you ask me. How has the city survived so long upto now? Their building materials and methods have evolved to protect against earthquakes in a zone prone to them.

Anyway, although Xinjiang gained autonomy in 1955 (kinda similar to devolution in the UK), it’s been a region of tension in recent years. While the tension between the natives and the Han people rises, the government continue to make life harder for them through repressing religious expression by, for example, denying them the right to observe Ramadhan (month of fasting for Muslims).
Not surprising then, is it, that the resentment towards the government only increases? These issues have sparked riots across Xinjiang: in Urumqi, the capital city, as well as in Kashgar, a city in the south of the region, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 1940, Xinjiang’s population was comprised of only 6% Han, with 80% of the population being Uyghur. In 2012, the Han made up 50% of Xinjiang’s population. Urumqi specifically is now only 13% Uyghur, with 75% of Urumqi’s current population Han. Unlike much of Xinjiang, the population of Urumqi is predominantly Han Chinese.

As mentioned in a previous post, my travels for June included going to Kashgar. With riots in Kashgar being as recent as April of this year, my travel partner was thoroughly put off going when a teacher apparently very animatedly told her that going to Kashgar was a very bad idea, because, and I quote said teacher, “although I’d say it’s 95% going to be completely fine, just in case there is some altercation, I think it could be big”. Well, yeah. I think that applies anywhere. But that’s besides the point. Although Kashgar would have been an amazing trip, an experience of a lifetime, literally going out into the middle of a desert, living in a still largely medieval city, totally cut off from today’s modern lifestyle, there is just as much to see in the northern part of the province, and the provincial capital: Urumqi. And, well, the bottom line: better safe than sorry, right?

For this reason, we changed our tickets and are now flying to Urumqi…. but not flying back! The plan is to get the train from there to Turpan, and then to Hami. And then from Hami, possibly to Zhangye to see those awesome colourful mountains, depending on time constraints, or straight back to Beijing. That train journey will be about 24hours. It’s going to be hell absolutely awesome. What an experience.

Map of Xinjiang showing the locations of Kashgar, Urumqi, Turpan and Hami

I’ve already mentioned what we’ll miss out on in Kashgar, but to be honest, there’s so many places I still want to see in China, and I would have been happy going anywhere. The trip to Urumqi+ is going to be just as good, if not better, and here are a few reasons why:

  1. As mentioned, while Kashgar’s population is still almost completely Uyghur, Urumqi’s population is now predominantly Han, meaning that we will be able to get around speaking Mandarin
  2. It’s still in Xinjiang! So we still do get to see a totally different side to China, what with the culture of the native Uyghurs and all (I hope the traditional culture does still show through…!), while still having some familiarity in terms of language and Chinese culture (isn’t this ironic… I’m referring to Chinese culture as familiar?? Even more so, considering my own background, given that Xinjiang is a MUSLIM area?! Hehehe..)
  3. While my previous plan was to fly from Beijing into Kashgar, and from Kashgar straight back to Beijing, meaning that I wouldn’t get to see much of the rest of Xinjiang (it’s huge, almost the same in size to Iran), this way means that our travel plans are much more flexible, allowing me to see more of Xinjiang, given the limited time I have.

Before I end this, there’s one interesting thing I read about while researching for this trip (researching aka avoiding writing my project. Writing this post is another avoidance tactic…)
Although the whole of China geographically spans four time zones, with Xinjiang itself spanning two zones, the official line is that Xinjiang is on the same time zone as the rest of China (GMT+8). There used to be five time zones within China, but in 1949 the Communist Party, in an attempt to make the country appear more unified, standardised the time across the country.

The five time zones of China, now all one. Sinkiang was the old romanized spelling for what is now Xinjiang

For reasons of practicality, a lot of residents follow an unofficial Xinjiang time (GMT+6), but some see this as a way of expressing their resistance against the central government, especially because the division tends to follow ethnic lines: Han vs. Uyghur. I don’t blame them, though! The agricultural working lifestyle that is prevalent in the far western provinces of Xinjiang for example (3.5hours behind Beijing), has to be done while the sun is out, regardless of what numerical time it is. And can you imagine how long the days are in Summer, with the sun still being out when it’s ‘midnight’? Or sunrise being at 10AM in Winter!

P.S. – I apologise for there being a lot of maps in this post, but I figured that if I were reading this before I came to China, I’d have no idea about all the places, or be able to visualise any of it. Having said that, I’m not assuming that everyone is as ignorant as I was/am, but I hope it helps someone anyway!

P.P.S – All the information in this post is from reliable sources. Reliable meaning not solely Wikipedia. Just kidding… Reliable meaning that I’m using them for this project of mine that I’ve been complaining about. My project is actually regarding the topic of Islam in China, so all I have to do now is replicate the number of words in this post (~1400) in my essay!

Bet you didn’t know that China had such a rich Islamic history, eh?
Or maybe you did, in which case, it was just me… (Again with the ignorance)
Personally, I think it’s fascinating, and I hope somebody out there learns at least one thing from this! 🙂

It’s that time of year again…

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…when exposing your stomach and back is back in fashion.
A typical sight around Beijing when it gets a little hot: the men of Beijing (the young, the old, the slim, the not-so-slim..) will hitch their t-shirts up, tuck them under (or over) the top half of their t-shirts, leaving their stomachs and backs open for public viewing.
Guys, does that really even cool you down?
Either way, it’s not really the most pleasant of sights.

It is a sign however, that Summer is here. The wind that blows over you when you step outside is warm, and the sun – hot. The temperature has been within 25°C and 30°C over the past few days, and it’s going to get hotter still.

Last night I went to have dinner at Al-Ameen, a Lebanese restaurant, and realised after that I should have written some reviews throughout the year of restaurants I’ve eaten at! Some of the information online is outdated, and I could genuinely have provided some information on eating out (the Halaal way) in Beijing, but alas, it’s a little late for that now… Hummus and Falafel though, yum!

Not my picture, but close enough 🙂

The highlight of today was dealing with an issue we had with our electricity top-up card. I often miss the way how things just work in the UK, whereas here, if something works, we’re surprised. Pleasantly, at least. It shouldn’t be like that though!

We have a card with which we can go to the bank and top up our electricity meter as and when required. A few days ago when we tried, we were unable to ‘buy electricity’ (as we say in Chinese), and told that there was a problem with the card. Sigh. We called the number given, were put on hold and told that ‘the line is currently busy, please wait in line or hang up now’. If I’m calling, clearly I want to speak to someone, why would I hang up?! Instead, after a few minutes of ‘waiting in line’, we were hung up on. And not just once, not twice, but three times. Thank you. Very. Much.

Trying our luck today at the bank once more, entertaining the idea that the card not working was a temporary, one-off problem, and still being unable to top up, we were given yet another number to ring. This one took us straight through to a woman who told me that we had to go to the office of the State Grid company, in order to replace our card. We have no idea why, but it needed to be done if we wanted to buy ourselves more electricity before our current supply ran out. Off we went to find this address, and from then on, it was a pretty smooth procedure….

The woman told us which counter to go to to get the new card, and tried explaining to us that when we next go to the bank, we don’t need to insert the card into the slot in the machine, as we had had to do previously, but instead we should just top up at the counter. We didn’t understand what she said the first time round, and when we asked her for confirmation, she just gave up! She picked up her phone, and began talking about “some foreigners, who don’t understand her trying to explain how we should use this new card” and “could you please explain to them, because I’ve tried and they don’t understand me”. Excuse me, but we can understand you very well just now, and some people might say it’s a little rude to talk about us like that when we’re sat right in front of you! We’re trying our best, please be a little patient and do the same with us – we didn’t get it fully the first, and ONLY, time you said it, but please give us another chance 😦

The answer to life, the universe and everything? NO!

I know she was only trying to help, but it really wasn’t a huge change, as they made it out to be, and it probably took more time to understand this via the attempted English explanation over the phone than it would have had she just tried once more.

And that was actually, probably my best experience with systems in China.
Doesn’t that say a lot?

The Big Reveal

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I’m going to reveal something which I’ve kept under wraps all year, the reason being that I’m not particularly fond it. A lot of friends have asked me numerous times throughout the year and I’ve refused to tell them each time. We all have things we don’t want people to know, right? Also known as secrets, these little things about yourself that you keep private and don’t want others to know about doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ashamed. Or, does it…?

Now that I’ve absolutely unnecessarily built up this ‘big secret’ to a sufficient degree, such that I’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seats, reading with extreme interest, intrigued to find out what I’m on about, be ready for disappointment 😀

My Chinese Name!

Yes, I do have one of these.
Of course, living in China, attending university here, everyone has a Chinese name. Ours were given to us by our SOAS tutors last year, although a couple of people did come up with their own names. In all honesty, I’m really not a fan of my Chinese name, and I wish I’d had the foresight back then to do something about it, but I suppose months of compliments have changed that opinion, and while it’s certainly not the case that it’s grown on me, I guess I’d say that I’ve grown into it.

Most Chinese names are two or three characters, with the family name (surname) appearing first, and the given name appearing second. The family name will always be one character, and some really common ones are 李 Lǐ, 张 Zhāng, and 王 Wáng.

马 Mǎ, another pretty common family name so happens to be one of the common Muslim names in China. Literally, it would mean horse, but could be said to derive from Mohammed, which cannot be written in its polysyllabic form in Chinese. Interestingly, this happens to be the family name given to me, and I still wonder if this was intentional on my tutor’s part, or if it was just due to the fact that my surname starts with the same letters. (Because this was how they came up with some of the names: transliterations. For example, Anna could become 安娜 Ānnà). At the time though, I didn’t know about this so it didn’t mean anything to me back then.

This doesn’t mean, however, that anyone surnamed Mǎ must be of Muslim background, nor that all Muslims have surnames distinguishable from the dominant Han Chinese. As I’m learning (with research for my project, yay!), certain groups of Muslims in China, namely the Hui group, are almost completely assimilated with the Han Chinese, and in many cases, it is impossible to distinguish them, on grounds of language, dress, culture and customs.

Onto my given name, then. I’m a flower. A chrysanthemum, to be precise. My given name is 菊 Jú, another reason which points to the fact that my Chinese name is purely based on a transliteration of my surname, but admittedly, Ibtehaal would be kinda difficult to transcribe with Chinese characters.

马菊 — Mǎ Jú

Now bearing in mind, with a two character name, you’re called by both characters, whereas with a three character name, it’s okay for you to just be called by your given name. I’m glad this means people don’t go around shouting “Ju” to get my attention. (Say it aloud to understand what I mean)

I would have liked a name with three characters though, because I think it rolls off the tongue better, and I feel like mine is just too short for me. Moreover, it doesn’t have a particularly special meaning… I mean, being a chrysanthemum is all very well and good, and the horse isn’t really meant to mean anything in terms of a person’s name, after all – you don’t choose your surname. It’s just there to give you some identity, but the meaning isn’t actually important. Or maybe it would be if both characters in my name had a connection…. Sigh.

Luckily, I’m absolutely in love with my ‘English’ name. (Oh, the irony…)
Thank you, parents! 😀

ابتهال

Adventures on the bus

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The original plan
Pick a random bus, ride it all the way to the end, and then get off. Find yourself in some new, unexplored and fascinating part of Beijing. Wander around, and get to know this exciting new place, before finding another bus and repeating the process. At some point, think about finding your way home.

What actually happened
As planned, we did find ourselves in a new and unexplored part of Beijing. Fascinating, however, was something it was not. We proceeded to wander… soon got bored of the motorway, found another bus stop, and tried again.

Yes, it was totally unplanned – but that was the idea! Spontaneous, impulsive…and possibly a little stupid. And alright, so we didn’t find the most exciting places, I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I’m glad we did it anyway!!

I was telling a friend back home about what we planned to do, who replied: “Ahh you’ve taken so long to do that. Most people do that within the first few weeks!” Strange. In my first few weeks in Beijing, taking a random bus and essentially, getting lost, was not at the top of my agenda. (In hindsight though, knowing the city a bit better, as we do now, makes this better anyway!)

We had a vague idea of what area of Beijing we wanted to head to, which was the southwest, since we’re in the northwest corner of the city (yep, just like home :)) and we’ve been to places in all the other vague directions. So yesterday (Sunday), at the bus stop outside campus, we stood and analysed the bus routes of those heading south, and picked one that went through Niujie (Ox Street) which is the Muslim area, and ended somewhere even further down. The bus came, we got on, and indeed, headed south. In a totally straight line. On a completely straight road. For quite a long time. We got overly excited when the bus made a right turn! And then turned north… and then west again, before continuing south. By this point, we were passing through Niujie. It was much smaller than we remembered, though to be fair, we had been walking the last time we’d come here. However, I hadn’t realised how strong the Uighur influence was here, until I saw a little China Mobile shop, with Uighur script on their shop front!
We finally got chucked off the bus at our unplanned destination, and the first thing we saw outside the stop was a Wu Mart (supermarket). We thought we might as well head in, because… well, supermarkets are adventures in themselves. Something amusing I found inside:

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Am I missing something here? What is the connection between forks and batteries?

We walked a bit further, and then admitted that we weren’t particularly impressed by the place we had ended up in. There were a few shops, and buildings, but mostly just road. And nothing that really caught our attention… apart from another bus stop. And this very pink blossom tree:

If this picture spoke a thousand words...

Just what we came to see..

Again, we inspected the bus routes at the next bus stop we came across, and chose a bus that went west and then north from where we currently were, and ended up further northwest from where we’re based. We decided we’d get off before the end though (cos that hadn’t really worked well for us the first time), at Haidian Park, firstly because we didn’t really want to go all the way out to the end, and secondly because not only would a park be nice compensation, Haidian is the district of Beijing in which we live.

Because this is China and our plans don’t work out (I’m not complaining, this is kinda how I’d imagined this day to go in the first place!), we got off at the stop named Haidian Park… and didn’t see any park. We walked all the way around the block, and realised that we actually knew where we were! If we walked further out, we’d end up near the Summer Palace. This actually pleased me: knowing where we were after having got off the bus at a random stop. It made me feel like I was actually getting to know my way around this huge city! We knew this because we’d come to the Summer Palace a few weeks ago – courtesy of a bus that had very recently put a new stop outside Nafeesah’s accommodation. Clearly, that bus was to be our ticket home. We enjoyed a nice walk to the nearest stop we knew, and actually, I was happy. Walking around seemingly aimlessly and then realising that you actually knew where you were going – not a bad feeling! If I can replicate this in other areas of the city, then I really will feel like I’m able to say to people that I lived in Beijing for a year, and yes, I do actually know my way around! (Because, really, I should know my way around a city I’ve been living in for a year, right? Let’s conveniently ignore the fact that I don’t know my way around London at all, regardless of the fact that I’ve lived there for 19years).

On the bus home, the aircon fan above us:

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“Only offering to open”

Well, that was the end of that ‘adventure’. As I said, not quite what I expected, but then, what should I have expected? We decided that we should plan this spontaneous and impulsive activity better next time (yes, there will be a next time!). I also decided that I want to go visit some other universities, especially the more famous ones like Peking University, and Qinghua University.  It might sound strange and boring, but it’s quite common practice here, and some university campuses are actually really nice! My ulterior motive, though, is to check out the competition in terms of Muslim canteens 😉

Halfway home…

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I say halfway home, because coming back to Beijing felt kinda like coming home. And seeing as I’m flying back to England on Tuesday (tomorrow!), Beijing ‘home’ counts as the halfway home right now. I just hope the snowy weather there doesn’t disrupt my flight! Or the weather here, for that matter! It snowed over Saturday night and also during the morning in Beijing, and when it snows here, (which I was told numerous times is not a regular occurrence at all, maybe only once or twice a year, but it’s snowed at least 5 times so far already…) the ground stays extremely icy for days on end. There’re still ice mounds around on roadsides etc probably from the first time it snowed, which was possibly back in November! Simply because the temperature hasn’t given it a chance to melt.

Anyway, so I arrived back in Beijing on Saturday morning, and boy – I have never been happier to hear that Chinese English voice that does the announcements on the Beijing Subway! 🙂 (On a tangent, I heard a “please mind the gap between the train and the platform” recently on one of the lines, but the Beijing Subway is no London Tube.)

The train journey from Xi’an back to Beijing was largely uneventful, compared to the journey there when a verbal fight had escalated to the point of physical contact, right in front (and almost on) us. Instead, as I was alone on the return journey, it was more likely that the Chinese sitting around me would attempt conversation, and indeed, within the first 2o minutes of the 14 hour journey ahead of me, this happened. Foreigners are an intriguing species, remember. Although they were speaking Mandarin Chinese, accent differences just made it near impossible for me to understand anything… It’s even difficult to understand Beijingers, especially the older generation; in my experience, the easiest to understand are university students, or conversations between parents and their very young children, all of whom sound like they’re speaking clearer.

At this particular time, I really wasn’t up for the possibility of having to try to understand and speak Chinese for all of 14 hours, so I (pretended to) read my Kindle for a while, tried to sleep, and was then asked by them if I wanted to join them in their game of 扑克牌 pu ke pai (a transliteration of ‘poker’). I declined and found out that what they called ‘poker’ isn’t actually what I know as poker, and instead, all it means is ‘to play cards’. Anyway, after watching for a while, and not understanding how whatever game they were playing worked, I ended up teaching them the rules of the card game I know only by the (Indian?) name ‘Sathyo’. I’d imagined explaining it successfully in Chinese would be really difficult, but they all picked it up so quickly, and I ended up feeling like was the new one to the game!

Back to our last few days in Xi’an, on Wednesday we’d gone to Lishan (Li Mountain), and on the bus ride from where we were staying to the railway station where we would get the bus to take us there, we were pleasantly surprised to see a group of Australian tourists, (tourist-sightings were very few, as it’s not tourist season) who asked us if we were going to the Terracotta Army and if we could point them in the right direction. Luckily for them, we’d already been earlier in the week, and the bus towards Lishan was the same as the one to the Terracotta Warriors anyway.

We got the cable car up partway, and then climbed the rest of the way to the peak, which was just lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of steps. Actually, after the cable car, when we started our way up, we were offered the option of horse riding up to the top by a group of men standing around smoking, but none of us wanted to risk it… riding a horse up a mountain in China, I mean.

Queuing instructions for the cable car. (Not that there was anyone there at all)

Queuing instructions for the cable car. (Not that there was anyone there at all)

One section of the steps up to the top of Lishan

One section of the steps up to the top of Lishan

As usual, there was a lot of smog and fog (aka pollution) but not bad enough to reduce visibility from the top completely. After taking in whatever we could of the view and the wind up there, we headed back down again, seeing some interesting bins on the way… Some were labelled ‘recycling’ and others were apparently specifically non-recycling. I was so convinced. Really.

In the evening, we found a little restaurant down in the Hui area, called Aliren, which was almost the cleanest place I have seen in China, and the food was good too! Bonus!

On Thursday morning we visited the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum, with the idea that we should learn something about the history of Xi’an, considering it was one of China’s great ancient capitals. The Museum itself was one of the boringer types, and we saw a lot of things dug out of tombs etc, which didn’t tell us a great deal about the city’s history itself. It was fun still, I found this row of statues particularly amusing… (Though I’m not sure what they were actually supposed to be)

Compare the meerkat .com!

Compare the meerkat .com!

We then headed back to the Hui area, as although we’d passed by and through it a couple of times, we wanted to take our time wandering through and check it out properly. The Aliren restaurant had made such a good impression on us, that we stopped there again for lunch.

Gate to the Muslim district, the characters read 'hui fang' which translates roughly to Hui Street

Gate to the Muslim district, the characters read ‘hui fang’ which translates roughly to Hui Street

Again, we attracted calls of “Hello scarves, take look” as we walked past the many stalls. And a typical conversation between ourselves and the stall owners went like this:

“Excuse me, how much is this?”

“60 yuan”

The three of us would look at each other, knowing of course, that the quoted price was much too expensive. As we begin to walk away, the stall owner calls after you…

“Oh you say how much then! I’ll give it to you for 50, yeah?”

“Ok ok friend, let’s say 40? Alright, 30 then!”

“Ohhh just for you! Come back, how about 20?”

This is all well and good, if you were actually interested in buying it…but sometimes, we just wanted to find out prices – we soon found out that unless you definitely want to buy something, don’t ask the price. Even just stopping to LOOK is dangerous, and you’ll find it difficult to walk away peacefully. How do they expect us to buy something if we’re not even supposed to look at what they have on offer!?

In one stall I walked into, I exclaimed my surprise to the others when I heard some music sounding awfully similar to Bollywood… And as I turned to find the source of the music, there was Shahrukh Khan dancing around on the little laptop screen, in front of the two female shop-owners, who looked up at me after hearing my surprise, and said excitedly in Chinese: “Yes! You recognised it!? It’s Indian! Are you from India?”. Well, by this point and judging from their reactions, I thought I might as well say yes. 🙂

It's Shahrukh Khan! On a street on a little screen in a little side street in Xi'an!

It’s Shahrukh Khan! On a street on a little screen in a little side street in Xi’an!

In the evening, we went back to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, (where we ate pizza – at Papa John’s no less, oops) to watch the musical fountain show…which was a slight let-down, but nice anyway.

Musical fountain show outside the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which is in the background

Musical fountain show outside the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which is in the background

After packing up our stuff and checking out on Friday, we went to the Great Mosque of Xi’an. It is now a tourist attraction and although we saw some Hui people praying inside the hall, it’s not an active mosque anymore. I was sad to hear the woman at the front desk who looked at Nafeesah and I and said “Are you Muslim? Then you don’t need a ticket.” She then pointed at Beth and said “SHE needs to buy a ticket.” Well, no judging done there at all. 😦

The mosque itself was different to any kind of mosque I’ve seen before, probably because all the ones I’ve seen have some features of Middle Eastern/Arab architecture, whereas this one was completely Chinese in design, except for some Arabic decorative writing here and there; but all in all, not greatly interesting, in my opinion. We got stared at a LOT, and spotted people trying to secretly take our pictures/videos, although some were not so discreet, and would aim their phone cameras directly at us as they walked across in front of us. Not the first time we’ve experienced this, anyhow.

Does London have a list of Top Ten Scenic Sports? No, only in China.

Does London have a list of Top Ten Scenic Sports? No, only in China.

Some pictures of things I mentioned in my last post but was unable to upload pictures of:

I do believe the Chinese reads 'cow tongue'. Now you all know what's in your milk.

I do believe the Chinese reads ‘cow tongue’. Now you all know what’s in your milk.

Pit 1 (the best of the three) of the Terracotta Warriors

Pit 1 (the best of the three) of the Terracotta Warriors

DSCF1763

Nice to make your acquaintance, Tea.

Nice to make your acquaintance, Tea.

His characters were beautiful!

His characters were beautiful!

"You shall not pass!" (Gandalf)Maybe Tolkien is much much older than we think.

“You shall not pass!” (Gandalf)
Maybe Tolkien is much much older than we think.

Predictions of things that might shock me on my return to London:

1. Extortionate prices.

2. The lack of Chinese faces, or I guess, the sudden increase in ‘foreign’ faces!

3. Fresh air! (Compared to Beijing’s pollution levels, I believe I’m more than qualified in saying London’s air is ‘fresh’)

Did I mention I can’t wait to be home? -_-