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Skies, sirens and Summer!

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I’m sitting here, pretending to revise for an exam tomorrow, and looking out the window at the sky.

It’s a strange colour.

A disgusting colour in between yellow and grey.

Apparently this is what you get when you cross Mongolian sandstorms with Beijing pollution.

It is a sight extremely off-putting. If I could take a picture that would accurately depict it to you all, I would, but alas. It’s probably for the best anyway, the weather wherever you’re reading this from is definitely better, no competition.

In other news, earlier today we heard a lot of sirens. This might sound like a completely normal (but of course, unfortunate) occurrence to most of you, but it took us a while to register that those indeed were sirens we were hearing. This was unusual. Extremely unusual. I can safely say I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard sirens here. Wait… make that, ‘ on one finger’. I have NEVER seen any flashing lights here, not a police car, not an ambulance, not a fire brigade, let alone hear them often. So it turns out, the sirens apparently only get used for official government business, or something. I wish I knew more to tell you, but I don’t. The reason however is probably linked to the fact that today is the anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square massacre. Contradictory, to this article, my internet is not acting up today….

However, yesterday was the deadline for our SOAS research project, and in true China style, our internet totally died on us on Saturday night! Since we had to renew our internet sometime in December, it’s been doing this occasionally, and each time we just unplug everything and restart the router. (We clearly know a lot about techie stuff…but to be fair, when it happened the first time, we called the internet company guy, he came round and did exactly that, which is where we learnt from..) Sometimes, it takes a few tries before we’re able to resurrect it, but this time, after multiple restarts (and multiple hours) and still no luck, we did what we could sans-Internet, hoping it’d be back Sunday morning. Of course not. Luckily, a few friends live really close by, the closest being across the road from me, so I went and camped out there to steal her internet, finish my project and send it off. Phew. Our internet really knows how to pick the perfect time to strike.
It’s all fixed now, obviously.

In yet other news, I had my last class at uni in Beijing EVER on Monday. It also so happened to be that annual day where you must add one to your age, which obviously called for… PARTY!!! Obviously. Naahhhh….. Bang in the middle of final exams, and essay deadlines, perfect timing! But soon to all be over! As much as I’m looking forward to finishing uni this year, being done with exams, and going back to enjoy the amazing place that London is, I’m starting to really notice the little things I’ll miss about Beijing. The pollution is definitely not one of them.

And oh my God, this time next week, I’ll be in Urumqi, Xinjiang!! Bring on the Summer holiday!


Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

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Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
شىنجاڭ ئۇيغۇر ئاپتونوم رايونى

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! 🙂

To positivity!

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Well, what a difference a day makes… A few days, even – because over the last few days, I’ve definitely reconciled myself with the fact that despite the approaching deadlines being such a bad way to end a year abroad on, and despite the fact that so many of us are just looking forward to going home, myself included, there is no escaping the fact that time is running out, and it’ll never come back. So seeing as going back home is determined for that date, why not really go for it and actually ENJOY what time is still left? Because I’m sure before I know it, I’ll be back in London, full of regrets for having let those last few weeks slip by, and well, in the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.

I started out saying that this blog would include my feelings and thoughts while in China; if it’s the case that my feelings and thoughts happen to be negative and that’s what I want to record, so be it. I’m not going to censor out the bad and only include the good, if that’s not the case. I want it to be a true representation of how I feel/felt during the course of my year abroad. There have been good and bad times in equal measure… definitely more good than bad actually, but the bad tends to stick out, doesn’t it? However, the current of melancholy that’s been running through some of the more recent posts ends now.

Besides, there is still so much more to tell, I still haven’t written about some major tourist spots, such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City (from way back in October, when my parents came!, and which I don’t remember details of clearly now… ), or the more recent trips from the Labour Day holiday, when I went to the Olympic Forest Park (beautiful) and Happy Valley Amusement Park (let’s not try summarise this in a single bracket just yet…)

Anyway, London exists in Beijing too…



There’s no phone inside, but let’s continue pretending you hadn’t noticed…

Photos taken at the ‘Water Cube’, Beijing’s National Aquatics Centre, constructed for the 2008 Olympics.

Optimism is an attitude that will serve me well for the next few weeks!
To positivity! Ganbei! (Cheers, in Chinese 🙂 )

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! 😀


How cheap is food in China?

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If I want more time in the day, does that mean sacrificing my sleep??!
Where does time go when you actually want to use it constructively?
There seems to be so much time available when you’re ‘wasting time’ (not that I do any of that here, of course), but time just totally escapes you when you’re actually aiming to study.

My defence is that Wednesdays are the longest days of the week, in terms of my uni timetable. Classes from 8am to 12 noon, and then again from 3:30 to 5:15pm.  That break in between is extremely annoying. Luckily I only live a 20minute walk away from campus. After getting some lunch with friends, I actually did some work in that time today. But once you start doing the work you should have been doing all year, you realise that there really is a lot of it, and it’s never-ending, and that you need to spend every single moment of your time keeping up, and that this hour you just spent working is only scratching the surface. Wait, why am I even describing that? That’s just standard student life. It’s my own fault I avoided it for so long 🙂

On another note, Nafeesah and I have recently been really trying to figure out and determine (by this, I mean with actual calculations) if cooking at home is more cost-effective than eating out. It may sound obvious, but it’s actually a pretty close call. Today we made….well, I guess I’d call it stir-fried cabbage, in various Chinese-y sauces: soy sauce, garlic chilli bean paste, sesame paste. We’re coming to the conclusion that you probably save a few kuai (20 to 30p) overall per meal, financially speaking, but then we should take time into account too, right?
Spending approximately 2 hours preparing, cooking, eating and then washing up and clearing away vs. 40minutes to walk to the local Halaal place, order and wait for your dish, eat it up (nom nom), and walk back home. (or 10minutes to get there, get a take-away, and walk home again!)
On balance, it comes down to this – minimal monetary savings vs. the opportunity cost of time and better tasting food!

I did get somewhere with regards to the list from yesterday though. I bought tickets to Xinjiang, for after my exams are over in June! I’m feeling that was a little impulsive now, in the sense that I have no idea where I’ll be going or what I’ll be doing there, but that’s something I can think more about as the time gets closer, I suppose. Booking the tickets was the more important, initial step, and I just hope that trip proves to be an exciting final adventure in China!

Something I just read online about Kashgar, the city I’ll be landing in:

The city of Kashgar lies in the Taklamakan Desert, and “Taklamakan”  is said to translate as “go in and you won’t come out,” or the “desert of death.”

Uhhh great, that’s reassuring.
They also don’t speak Mandarin there…

Conflicting emotions, don’t you just hate them?

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At the moment, I’m going through some big-time conflict regarding my attitude towards China and my feelings about the very short time left here. With recent events, I’m finding it a little more difficult to be as excited and positive as I was about these last weeks.
I know I had wanted to make the most of it, and I know that I should. I know that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and though I’m sure I’ll come back to China in the future, I’ll never get a chance quite like this. Logically, I know all of that. But I still can’t get past this feeling of…restlessness that’s crept over me so suddenly. I’m looking forward to going home, to be back in familiar surroundings, to be around my family. Restless, because I know it’s coming – In two months from today, I will be back in London – but because I’m also aware that I still have to get through the next few weeks. This is the crux of the conflict: I want to be home, but I also am aware that I should spend the remaining time in a way such that I do not regret it in the future, possibly even as soon as I land back in London :p (And I know that as soon as I am home, I will want to be back in China. Sigh, why are you so troublesome, emotions?)
Despite logically knowing all this, it’s always easier said than done. The point of all this was to say that I think blogging is a good outlet, and I’m going to try and post every day, in the hope that using this blog as somewhere I can record what I’m doing might help me to keep focussed on what I need to do. The sooner I get out of this rut, the better, considering the limited time left!

The List
Currently, the list of what I need to do largely consists of completing this 6000-7000 word research project – deadline 3rd June; planning what I’m doing/where I’m going after our term finishes on 7th June, and university exams, which, we think, are going to be sometime during the week of 3rd – 7th June. Oh, also to do anything and everything I can – I’m only a student in China for one more month, after all! Ah, that reminds me… maybe do the work we get given from university too.

Plan of action
Be a perfect student and work a little on the project every day (hah!)
Don’t worry about researching travel destinations. Book a ticket somewhere and take it from there. (Sounds like a plan, no?)
Say ‘yes’ immediately to anything and everything friends suggest, within boundaries of eating and sleeping. (…Apart from the Great Wall Rave this Saturday. Getting myself drunk is not something I wish to do)
Spend all your spare time studying for university… (Spare time is the time left over AFTER procrastination, right?)

Update coming soon!

P.S. I’m kinda actually looking forward to comparing this post with a post written in my actual last few days in China. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly this change comes about, I’ll be sure to let you all know when this fresh burst of positive energy makes itself known to me!

Labour away on my Labour Day Holiday

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Recently, maybe it’s because I’m becoming increasingly aware of how fast time is going and how quickly that means my time in China is coming to an end, I keep being hit with the realisation that I’m in China! It sounds stupid when I say it like that, but obviously I don’t mean it in the sense that I’ve been unaware of this fact for the past 8months, but it’s simply the case that too often I forget what an amazing opportunity I’m living (excuse the cheese).

This has been happening to me a lot more often recently, it could be the change in weather, which seems to be having a positive effect on everyone’s mood.
The fluff I mentioned that was floating around everywhere is apparently just pollen. I’ve just never seen so much of it like this before. I tried to get some pictures on campus today, but I can only actually see the pollen when I zoom in on the pictures, despite them actually being really quite big. (If anyone has the time and effort to click on the pictures and zoom in, you’ll be able to see pixelated fluff)

Only faintly visible in this picture, though you can see it a little on the ground.


Gust of wind: seconds later all the pollen was swept over and around my feet.


Feels like walking in the clouds…

Tough luck, hayfever sufferers!!

Also, I now get to look forward to a five-day weekend. Labour Day, or as I like to think of it simply as the May Bank Holiday, means we get Monday, Tuesday AND Wednesday off uni. I’d wanted to go somewhere, take the opportunity to travel, but long story short, I’m going to be staying in Beijing, and hopefully trying to get a good part of my project written. I don’t think I’ve mentioned my project before, probably because it didn’t seem so pressing when there was still a couple of months left until the deadline, but now that we have just over a month to get it done, and SOAS have been sending us reminders of how we should be ‘well into our research projects by now’, it’s probably a good time to start… Especially given that it’s supposedly a project we are to complete on our year abroad, and not just in the final month. :p