Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Memories of Katima-land

Should be in bed right now, but i just want to say we were successful tonight in our bread baking!

Matt's Journal (as part of Bon's journal)
The bread was actually so good it has encouraged me to write my very own journal piece describing it's qualities. It was white, and soft, and ... it's given me writer's block.

Mood: Full stomached annd satisfied.

Friday, May 27, 2005

and the sun came out

Tennis this morning was good, i'm no longer as sore as i was when i began these lessons, i have more strength, i feel healthier and it just feels plain good to hit something multiple times.

A lazy day has precipitated from my morning, i cooked a nice lunch for myself, organized the closet, baked some brownies, read my book and watched a movie. Oh, how i miss going to the movie theatre, to be anonymous in a dark crowd watching moving pictures on a huge screen.

It was cloudy and drizzly all afternoon, but now the sun is out and i am going for a walk and then i think i'll paint. More often than usual, i really miss the cultural stuff of a metropolitan city, like art galleries, opera houses, theatres, cozy cafes with live musicians, restaurants and bistros with good wholesome meals with healthy products and minimal oil content, where i can sit for hours and eat and read English newspapers.

At least when the sun shines wherever you are in this world, the colour of sunlight is always the same and it brings forth that warm feeling of life. It continues to comfort me that no matter what, looking up at the sky, be it morning, noon or night, you can fool yourself into thinking that you are sitting by the waves of the ocean in the Gulf of Guinea, or camping in the middle of the Algonquin forest with friends, or sweating in a mango grove in Central America, or laying on a mud roof in Timbuktu, or relaxing at the cottage of a friend's in Southern Ontario, or like today, typing on wireless internet in a remote Central Asian city.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Victory for Liverpool!

In an astounding match of heart and passion, Liverpool managed to make an unimagineable comeback in the second half of the match, and as things got nail-biting hairy, boiling down to penalty shots, they didn't let their fans down one bit as they kicked their way to a glorious finish!
I have to admit though, never having actually been a fanatic about football, it was one very very exciting game. It's one of those matches people will refer to 30 years from now. And i'll remember it as a time when I was in far-out Urumqi, seated under the duvet cover on the floor at 4 in the morning, with a TV reporter from China's national sports channel pointing his big camera lens in my face. Well done, Liverpool!!!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Follow up on my violin saga: I went to pick up my violin yesterday. Every time i called him to ask if it was ready, he said he was still doing something to it, so perhaps 'tomorrow' would be better. Loud warning bells and flashing neon lights should have gone off in my head, indicating that something terribly and most horrible had happened to my dear violin. I don't know why it didn't (must be the inkling of hopeful optimism i keep in the back storage room). Unfortunately, but not too surprisingly, the worst had come true. What's a bit funny about it all though, i'm not so upset. Maybe it's because i've become more 'Chinatized' as i'm entering my 8th month here.

Ok, so he glued the huge crack alright, but what happened was that the glue leaked all over the side with some dripping into it also, causing this uneven and ugly-looking patch of hardened glue to look like it was growing a second skin. So apparently the next day, he called in a 'violin specialist' to assess the damage. This specialist-guy (i'm a bit skeptical at how 'special' he was, but nevertheless...) gave the repairman some paint to paint over the dried up glue patch.

However, the colour doesn't match the wood itself and now it looks like someone tried to do a very bad make-up job on an already naturally beautiful instrument. I've played it since and at least the sound quality hasn't been too damaged, that being my biggest worry. The repairman was well beyond sorry and he kept apologizing for the bad job he'd done. At one point he was so dramatic about it, he took off his perfectly round spectacles in his hands and with his other free hand, pretended to smack his head back and forth, like some sort of self-punishment, all the while letting out these squeals of pain and agony. It was a bit unexpected and totally hilarious.

We learned a very important word from each other that day. He said to me that this was a 'jiaoxun' for him. I had him look up the word in my pocket Chinese-English dictionary which i always carry with me. Turns out it means 'lesson'. I taught him how to say the word, and told him that everyday we learn little life lessons, so he shouldn't be too worried about it. Ah well, at least every time i play i will think back upon my time in Urumqi.

Matt and I have been hooked into watching THE WEST WING, one episode a night. We have just finished a series and so it's time to head down to DVD alley and buy the next series to see what happens next, ooooh the anticipation! It's quite good television, i've never seen an episode before, and the best part is there's no commercials. It's especially self-indulging, but we're careful to watch only one episode per night as to simulate real television, because there is only one English channel here in China, the beloved CCTV 9. 90% of the time they broadcast these really boring and seemingly pointless documentaries, which for some reason get recycled and shown every other week. Topics range from the budding flowers that springtime in Hunan province brings, on China's historical doors and their significance to the ancient rulers of the pre-wheel era, and sometimes (and this is true!) there are nature shows which showcase how domestic cats can self-heal by the sound of their own purring - the scary part is most people in this country who watch this would actually believe it.

I had yet another invigorating and motivating erhu lesson today with Zhang Laoshi. He has been playing since 1969 and the passion he has for it seems to have multiplied over these years, unbelievable! He says he really wants me to practice hard so we can move on to real pieces instead of the finger exercises which we are working on presently. There is no staff music to read like in violin, just numbers and dots and lines. It's all very interesting and so logical, makes me wonder why that method isn't more widely used.

Matt and I have been busy putting on our creative hats and making wedding invitations on the computer. We're almost done, but both of us are quite perfectionists so it's taking a bit more time than we expected. It's funny how we are quite similar in that fashion, a bit of a procrastinator when faced with a task, but once we've got our feet wet, we need to do it thoroughly.

Alright, we need to go to sleep now so we can get at least one sleep cycle in before we have to wake up at 2:30am to watch the most anticipated Liverpool VS AC Milan football (aka: soccer), the final match in the Champions League game to be broadcast live on Xinjiang TV10. I've been briefed by Liverpool's biggest, and perhaps only, fan in Urumqi about the their history, their top players, their loathed rivals, and I will proudly wear their team colour (red) and shout and scream at the TV as they score their way towards victory. That is, of course, unless I collapse with exhaustion and pass out on the sofa first. Actually i can't do that; 'Wang da Man' is coming at 2:30 AM(!) to film us watching the game. Haven't seen him in awhile, but in the middle of the night?

Crazy, what a job!

Monday, May 23, 2005

When you least expect it, angels appear on the bus

I had the most genuine conversation today on Bus #2 coming back from Tennis. I was already happy that i had happened across the chance to take the double-decker bus, scrambling to get up on the top where you can feel the air rush through your hair, observing the passing pedestrians and cars below. I was happy in my own little world when this person sitting diagonally across from me gets up and sits in the vacant seat in front of me. Now this is the weird thing, i couldn't tell if this person was a boy or a girl. Let's assume it was a boy for the sake of this entry. He started talking to me about the bus and the weather, i asked him if he should be in school (it was 1:30pm in the afternoon), he told me he was going to go to the train station to see his mom at work, i asked him how old he was, sixteen he said - wow, he looked about 12 with a short thick mop of black hair on his head, cropped in a boy-style. He was a bit overweight, wore these see-through blue-tinted sunglasses, and a wornout t-shirt that said "Thailand" on it.

At first we were just chatting along watching the scenery go by. When one us said something, the other would respond naturally, and we ping-pong'd the conversation like that for a bit. Then my low-level of Chinese was too obvious to ignore and he asked rather innocently as that would have been the next question on his mind: "Are you a foreigner?" Happily, i told him where i was from, etc. etc., the routine explanation which i repeat more often than you might think each day. Still, it was his mannerism and his genuine interest in just talking to me that i appreciated most of all.

He then started talking about America and Italy. I think i bursted his bubble when i told him that not all Americans have blue eyes, that one should not believe everything he sees in movies or on TV. He asked my name and told me his, Li Shuang Jun. What an unexpected angel that just dropped in and out of my life, when i most needed it too. It sort of restores my faith of being here, something that has been wavering quite a lot lately. I have never in my whole time in China felt this comfortable talking to a stranger, it was amazing. Usually when someone strikes up a conversation and realize you're a foreigner, you had better watch out for their intention of befriending you as a language buddy (some of us call them Language Rapists), they are everywhere, but i must admit us foreigners trying to learn Chinese are just as guilty of it too when we want to meet Chinese or Uygher people to practice our language skills. Shuang Jun probably doesn't know the impact he's had on me today, in just the mere 25 minutes on the bus we spent together. But to me, it makes an impression that i won't be able to forget for a while.

It's a beautiful sunny Monday, I've just had a good solid 2 hours of exercise on the tennis court, and went market shopping for fruits and veggies. The season of fruits has begun and it's amazing what you can kind of variety you can purchase here, all at reasonable rates. Hami melons, watermelons, laichi, strawberries, mangoes, nectarines, these small sweet little berries, and of course your regular apples, oranges, bananas.

I'm content today, enjoying the fact that i am sincerely very very lucky to be free from any huge significant responsibility except to take care of myself. I mean, who honestly can claim the same?
Sometimes i feel like i'm idleing (sp?) and stalling while chasing my tail in circles, ok IF i had a tail, but you get the picture. Some things take time to appreciate and i'm slowly acquiring that aspect in my life now.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

cultural differences? yes, no, i dunno

I had my ass slapped by an old Uyghur woman on the bus today. I just boarded the number 101 bus to go down 'south' and have a go at fixing my violin at one of the random music shops. No sooner had i boarded the bus and paid my one kwai fee, i felt someone slap my behind. I turned around rather quickly and found this tiny old wrinkly woman in a beautiful yellow headscarf pointing at the little metal box thingamajig near the window, right behind the driver's seat. This was her way of saying i should sit down there. She probably thought carrying the violin was too heavy for me or something. A nice gesture but it definitely took me by surprise.

The first music shop i tried, i was greeted by some very friendly staff who told me they couldn't fix the crack in my violin, but they lead me to another person who knew how. Imagine that! They were honest and upfront about not knowing how to do it, i was so so so happily shocked!

You don't get much of that here due to the loss of 'face'. Instead, most people would make up some lame excuse like they didn't have the tools right then, or that due to Number X regulation from some not-to-be-seen document, they are not allowed to repair violins on Thursdays. I'm not even kidding. Anyway, the man who is glueing the crack together has a little workshop in a flat tucked away in a corner on the second floor among a bunch of apartment buildings, but where the natural sunlight beams into the room, illuminating all his scattered tools and materials. There were, i swear, at least a couple dozen of saxaphones, guitars, accordians, violins, keyboards, etc. It was a mess, but in a sort of orderly fashion. Anyways, i'll see if the glue was a success tomorrow. It takes about 24 hours to dry, keeping my fingers crossed....

We are encountering some hiccups with the Women's Centre project up in Yili this week. Things are getting ironed out and at the end of the day, we (the project managers, Cath and Merhaba and myself) are more determined to make it happen, to ensure that the women who will benefit from this endeavor will see some sort of result. Don't really want to elaborate now on the situation, however it is a what we call, a 'work in progress'. Ah, but what isn't in life huh?

Yesterday I had to go and exchange the air filters that we purchased a few weeks ago. Ok, let me back up.

We have this air purification machine that filters the bad particles in the air. The filter inside gets filthy black in a few months' use. I went to the store that is literally downstairs from us at home to order two new filters. I brought the manual with me so i could get the same model. They had to order it and it took quite a while. When it finally came, the woman from the store rang me up like every couple of hours to tell me to come over and pick them up. My family was here at the time and i was running around with them, the last thing i had time for was these air filters. By the time my family left and i went to pick them up, the woman told me that she had to ship them back because i was "too late". "WHAT? But i need them!" "Yes, and i called you but you never came so i had to send them back." "Well, can we have them sent back here?" "Uh...(sigh), ok. But when i call you, you must come IMMEDIATELY." "Ok ok," (thinking in my head "what kind of customer service is this?". So they arrived on a Friday morning, the call came on my mobile and i was down there in a jiffy. Great, no problems, I paid for the air filters, and went on my merry way.

Only after the Taklamakan Rally did i try to install the new filters, and lo and behold, they were just a snug too big for the actual casing. Ahhhhhh... i was thinking, "Chinese made filters, i should've known! Ok, i should have checked immediately to see if i was sold the right model. I should have tried to install them the minute i got home. I should have, I should have ... " But when i buy something and tell them which model i require, i expect that i'll be sold that particular model. Not just in China, but anywhere in the world. Not in this case. So back down i go, bringing the new air filters and my actual air purification machine just to prove to them that it didn't fit properly. I was loaded up with boxes and i was determined to get the proper filter this time.

** You may think i'm making a big deal here, but some things that should be relatively easy and hassle-free in life are just time-consuming and frustrating to the max.

Ok, so to give a bit of Chinese-culture background in department stores: Everytime you enter and exit the store, there is a man who stands at attention who will welcome you when you arrive (or tell you thank you for coming and to come back soon upon leaving). At first it is a bit shocking as they literally yell this, the first few times this happened i was taken by surprise and jumped a bit. They don't even look at you, they just yell in your ear as you walk by. A bit strange, but you get used to it.

ANYWAY, when you leave, you must ALWAYS show your receipt to this man standing at the door. He will barely look at it, but then with his ball point pen and with a flair of authority, he will draw a line down the receipt to indicate that it has been checked by him, and then he hands the receipt back to you, and off you go, free to walk out the door with your newly purchased items.

Back to my air filter story. So i had brought back all the new air filters i had bought (but were the wrong size) and the actual machine into the store. After the mess was sorted out (i found out today i will get the right size model, i just have to wait now), i was told i wouldn't be able to leave the store because i didn't have the receipt for my air filter machine. "But this is MY MACHINE, I've had it for months!" "I know, xiao jie, but you don't have the receipt for it so you cannot leave the store." "But why would i carry the receipt of something i bought a long time ago? Anyways, can't you just tell the guy at the door my situation?" "No no no, you cannot leave the store. It is not possible. You don't have the receipt." What was going on? I was being held captive in the department store because of some silly regulation that didn't even apply to me? By this time, there were about 20 sales people surrounding me and my air filter. Everyone knew my situation but everyone agreed that i would not be able to leave unless i had a receipt. One even told me to call 'my husband' to search for it back home and bring it to the store so i could leave. Just the blatant ridiculousness of the whole thing was too much. They obviously knew i hadn't stolen the machine, why on earth would i do that anyway, it's such a big and clumsy thing to hide down my pants. They were just following orders and regulations. This was the classic textbook definition of Chinese salespeople acting as robots, machines themselves, only able to utter and regurgitate what they were told to do. Finally after numerous phone calls to different people in several departments, the floor manager came out, a short stalky woman who walked in a fury. She started barking orders at people and told this one salesguy to accompany me outside and explain to 'the man at the door' my unusual and most unique predicament. He flatout refused, probably not wanting to risk losing 'face' with 'the man at the door'. So this poor young saleslady was summoned instead and off we went to face this feared 'man at the door'. It took a bit of explaining, but eventually i was allowed out of the store. Ah, the freedom.

I'm going to cherish those air filters when they arrive. As long as they're the right ones.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Me, a Biker Girl? Yessirrr!

We bought a 'little' 125 cc motorbike for me to learn on two days ago. We picked it up yesterday. It's nice to ride on a bike and see the scenery go by, faster than walking or cycling. Good or bad, you also get more acute wafts of the different smells, more so than in a car, like mutton roasting and garbage rotting. All we need to do now is get the formalities done (ie. license plate and license, both of which are easily purchased. Some things are a helluva lot easier to do in China!!) and then i need to learn and practice and then it's off off off we go!! Matt will buy his own 'big boy' off-road bike once i am comfortable on my 'little girl' bike. (*side note: i actually don't see my bike as 'little' or 'girly' whatsoever, in fact i think it's just right for my height and short legs, it's some of the guys we've met from the Desert Rally who called it that, but compared to their monster off-road bikes, i can sort of see their reasoning. Still...)

Our plan is to go riding out of the city (see pic of view from our 26th floor in Hao Tai), explore the mountains, and be free from the shackles of the city. Yay for summertime!

** For those of you who are a tad worried for me, i'll be extra safe. Helmet, and lots of protective armour will be worn. I definitely don't want a repeat of what happened in Thailand :)
Took my first tennis lesson yesterday, an intense workout. It's great to be outdoors and active. Will try to do it a few times a week.

I'm trying to find my own groove here, a set routine that i can have so that my week is relatively structured. It's easy to fill my time with lessons and food/coffee-dates with friends around town, but i feel that i can't just live like that from day to day. There are certain days where work on the Project has to be done and setting it up in my week so that time allows for it is crucial or else my procrastinating side will get the better of me.

Have been thinking and researching a lot about options for post-China. Gets the mind going and the reality of it is not too far off from the imagination. The beautiful thought of not knowing where we'll be in a year is freakin exciting. Dog-sledding in Nunavut? Internship in Bolivia? Snowboarding in Chile in the morning and then waterskiing in the afternoon? Crossing the 'Stan' coutnries in our trusty Jeep? Smoking a big fat cigar in Cuba? Motorbike adventure across Canada? They all sound plausible. Hell, so does learning the accordian and knitting sweaters in Pakistan for orphaned goats ... what i mean is that anything and everything just seems possible ... Oh btw, i was introduced to the most amazing restaurant in town last week. Pakistani food, with dahl, soft warm chipatis, lamb curry, creamy smooth yogurt and divine chai. I think the fact that it is not Chinese, Uyghur or Kazakh food, is a good enough reason to rant and rave about it.

That, and it's just yummy.

Friday, May 13, 2005


A bit late, but nevertheless, here are some uploaded photos of:

-Two week visit to Hong Kong from Sept.29-Oct.11/04

-Bonwon's 1st Week in Urumqi on Oct.22/04

-The Streets of Urumqi on Oct.22/04

-Home Sweet Home on Oct.22/04

-Nanshan Mountains on Nov.25/04

-Everyday life, EF Halloween Party, Leta's wedding, Painting, Shopping, Heavenly Lake, Uyghur Wedding on Dec.6/04

-My TB4A class at EF, the "Protest Unit" on Dec.12/04

-EF Adult Xmas Party on Dec.21/04

-Xmas party Susi and I hosted on Dec.24/04

-EF Kids Xmas Party on Dec.26/04

-Our big trip to Thailand during Chinese Spring Festival on Feb.7-15/05

-Engagement Party at the FUBAR on Feb.17/05

-Ring-making on Feb.21/05

-Angel's English Class Feb.24/05

-Matt's Birthday adventures in the mountains on March 25/05

-My birthday get-together at home on April 4/05

-Wong family visit to Xinjiang on April 15-30/05

-The Taklamakan Rally on May1-8/05

on a friday, rainy afternoon

My heart broke yesterday when i found out there is this HUGE crack in my violin from the base up that extends past the bridge, about 5 inches long along the vein of the wood. I was just putting on my newly-bought chin rest when i noticed it. I can't figure out why or how; the violin is always in its case, tucked away beside the piano where nobody walks by. It might be the weather, the way it's suddenly become very hot from very cold, I dunno.

However, on a good note, i had THE MOST motivating erhu lesson yesterday with Zhang laoshi (teacher). He is just intensely passionate about the instrument, so sincere. He challenges me, pushes me but knows i have limits too. I tend to want to hold the bow like a violin, a habit i must overcome quickly. I want to get good at the erhu; my fingers hurt hurt hurt already, good sign.

Have been working more on the 'House of Hope' project with Cath (based in Yili) and Merhaba (based in Switzerland). I'm the Urumqi-arm of the project and so far we've been going through the drafts of contracts, job descriptions, etc. It's very exciting to be a part of something that is yours to shape and mould, an endeavor which will hopefully have lasting impact on the lives of the women in Yili, etc. Having zero experience in starting up a project like this one from scratch, i'm learning a lot. It brings me back to the good ol' uni days where essays and reports were written in the wee hours of the morning, typing up fancy schmancy paragraphs and using as many impressive words as possible to make it sound credible and professional. Writing contracts is something of a similar deal, although precise wording is now to be taken a lot more seriously due to the possible serious consequences that could arise should we have to fall back on our written words. Cath and i know that first-hand, both of us having resigned from EF and breaking our contract early.

It's raining outside right now!!!! A real rare occurrence in Urumqi. I walked home just now from the restaurant where i lunched (about 45 minutes on foot), got soaked to the skin but feel completely rejuvenated and alive! My 12 year old student, Jollery, is sick and in the hospital today so we don't have a lesson. That's ok, what i'll do is just curl up on our Uyghur cushions and mats downstairs and read.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

What a Ride!!

Where to start, where to start??

It was one intense and bloody hot week.

I still have sand in my ears and belly button.

It was full of daily challenges, on the physical and emotional level.

It was unpredictable and full of interesting 'changes' that made up a large part of the (lack of) daily organization.

We met a lot of nice and friendly people from all over the country who were doing the course for the love of cars and motorbikes and rally racing.

We ate too many cucumbers, nan (Uyghur bread) and vacuum-sealed beef to keep count. All of that was washed down with warm bottled water (we had at one point 72 bottles in our car), with little sand particles for good measure.

I don't know when I have ever been surrounded by such a high level of testosterone for an extended period of time.

Having said that, being the only female competitor didn't really make much difference, except for the mere fact that whenever i had to dispose of any bodily fluids, it had to be done with a little more effort and caution.

There were a lot of TV crews and newspaper/ radio reporters following us the entire week.

Being the only foreigners, there were a lot of lenses and mics in our faces, Matt's especially.

He takes it all in stride and with the uncanny ability to speak Mandarin, it makes things a lot easier.

As for me, it took me a while to get used to all the coverage, i'm not sure i did in the end.

I still like my privacy and although i can't blame them for doing their job, it got to me too many times than i really wanted it to.

We saw some very stark and bleak scenes, beautiful in a raw kind of way. A lot different faces, Uyghur and so on, so unlike the north of Xinjiang.

Each night we had to make sure that the Jeep was ready to race the next day, and so we spent most evenings in the local garage shop, whereupon we met some of the most interesting people on our trip.

I learnt a lot about car maintenance and patience.
The night we were in Qiemo, a dusty little town, we spent about 5 hours fixing our radiator and suspension.

This place was run by a Chinese man who had travelled abroad (mainly in Europe), and was telling us the key to China's success was to empower the people and make them realize the long-term effects of their present actions.

Blah blah, we knew this but it was interesting to hear this man from a small little desert town express this so passionately.

He was trying to convey this message to his employees, but was finding it tough and tiring to lead them out of their 'lazy state'.

He even had lists of things his employees were allowed and not allowed to say to the customers, all things that Matt and I have heard from the mouths of sales people in China who at the end of the day, only try to look busy at their job, if that.

An interesting evening to say the least, and in the end we got some brand-spankin suspension and a newly-fixed radiator fixed by a tough-looking Uyghur woman who had her own little room full of tools and defected radiators.

I can't say i wasn't surprised, it's great to see a woman be respected for her skills!

Some of my highlights of the week:

-stripping down to my underwear and swimming in this little oasis in the middle of one of our desert stages. Gorgeously cool water and exactly what i needed to feed my swimming craving, not to mention cool off for a bit.

-playing with a little baby lamb who had strayed away from her mother and was picked up by a few local fellas in a truck, don't know what is going to happen to her as she is very young and requires milk still. A bitter fact of nature.

-seeing the different people in each town greeting us alongside the road, waving, hooting, shouting, and even saluting. I felt like i should have been handing out candy or something.

-campfire at night, millions of stars, hot soup for dinner.

-becoming more familiar with the GPS and LOVING IT! Don't say it, i know, i'm such a geek.

-Uyghur dancing and feasting with one of Matt's auditors whom we literally bumped into in Hetian. What a nice guy he is. We met his brother and sister-in-law, wife and 7 month baby also, the cutest darling ever.

But most of all, I will remember the long distances stretched out in front of us, the unknown that was to come, the excitement that was around every corner, the tough people who lived in such a harsh environment and the simple beauty of the fact that Matt and I did it together, crossed the 2nd largest desert in the world in our Chinese-made Beijing Jeep, as a team.

What a ride it was. We've already talked about doing it on motorbike next time!