Wednesday, September 28, 2005

in transit

Not much time to write a proper entry right now. However, just wanted to say that the wedding was fantastic, everyone seemed to have had a good time, the weather was superb, now everything is all packed and currently being trucked and then shipped to HK, tonight our plane leaves at 7:35pm. I'm ready to leave, grateful for having met incredible people, seen incredible scenery and well, just having had the instinct to follow my gut to come out here and pick up one of the biggest pieces of my life puzzle that is now propelling me to another chapter of this journey.
But just before we go, there is time for one last banmien meal, mmmm!!

Monday, September 26, 2005

in a nutshell, in a very very big nutshell...

It's like any other time, but not quite.

Whenever I leave a journal entry for too long, I have too much to say and never know where to start. But this is a million times worse because since the last time I wrote, Matt and I have taken 15 plane rides (without missing a single connection - a great feat!), visited 3 continents (body clock has been sacrificed and tricked numerous times by criss-crossing time zones – two nights ago we woke up at 4am unable to sleep another wink until 7am), went sailing twice in the gorgeous sea, boating on the Ottawa river and then again on Lake Ontario, drank champagne almost every night, met up with friends and family from my entire life (Matt did well to remember all their names and relations to me), met his friends and family (I think I’ve got the family members down pat, but then again I have a lot less to commit to memory in comparison), ate delicious cheese, bread, soups, deserts, bbq meat, seafood, on and on.

Backing up to the beginning of our trip: as we were driving up onto the on-ramp to get on the highway on our way to the Urumqi airport, we practically rammed into a car going down the ramp in the other direction!

We had to laugh, what else is there to do when little sights like that make up the high points of your day in China? It didn't matter anyways - we were outta there!

Our first stop was Jersey where Matt's father was being given a surprise retirement party. He had absolutely no idea that all this scheming and planning was taking place for the past year (even a separate bank account was opened to ensure the operation went uncovered!)

The theme was 60's Night and having not much selection in Urumqi in terms of 60's gear, Matt and I decided to go as two PLA officers, gold buttons and black cloth shoes, the works! I wasn't anxious to meet my father-in-law for the first time, but to be dressed up like a Communist - and believe you me, with my braided pigtails and sunglasses, I was even surprised at how 'Chinese' i looked - i was a bit, shall we say, excited.

The night went on without a hitch and there was even a live band made up of some of the teachers dressed up as The Beatles. The champagne and wine went down smooth, the food was absolutely delicious, the company fantastic.

Although having met him just a couple of hours before, it was an honour to see how he was so appreciated and revered in the community. After having dedicated himself to the education and well-being of so many students, it was amazing to see the successes he had achieved in his career, so much so that colleagues from the early years made efforts to come and show their support too.

After a few minutes of meeting me for the first time, after the shock of the surprise had sunk in, he turned to me in a serious way, looking intensely through his long curly wig and dark Beatles glasses, and said: "This is my home and i am surrounded by such loving friends."

And then without missing a beat, he asks me: "So where are you staying?" Uh oh, my mind goes into overdrive and i'm thinking, which, i didn't realize at the time, but i actually ended up saying aloud, "with YOU!" (if you don't mind, which i definitely said in my mind). Everyone got a good chuckle out of that.

It was a great ice-breaker for what would be a marvelous weekend.

We sailed, had picnics on the beach, an outdoor bbq overlooking the sunset, attended a live outdoor jazz festival, cycled to the coastline. And those were just the bonus bits apart from meeting and getting to know my new family.

Next stop was across the Atlantic (Matt's first time!) to Ottawa, where we had a mini-party for some old family friends from Ottawa and Cornwall.

My mother is a nonstopable machine when it comes to cooking and hosting guests, and this time wasn't an exception. After some medical appointments and an allergy test for me, hanging out a bit at home, we then headed off to Toronto to be bombarded with relatives and stuffed silly with food and drink.

On July 23rd we had a somewhat traditional Chinese wedding banquet, surrounded by 140 of our fond friends and family from all parts of my life. For some, it was a chance to be reunited again with long-lost friends and colleagues, great big hugs and shrieks of laughter were constantly had and heard throughout the evening.

In all, it was a great event right down to the teary-eyed speeches; my dad gave his all-time favourite song a go: Frank Sinatra's MY WAY. He changed some of the lyrics so that it become ".... they did it their way" - everyone loved it!

Afterwards, we showed some Uyghur dancing on the big TV screen to encourage everyone to dance. The Uyghur scarves and carpets were a great hit also! Even though i was weary about sending them home from Urumqi, it was definitely worth it in the end.

The only unfortunate incident was that the restaurant forgot to pick up the cake from the bakery and by the time they remembered, the bakery was closed. Poor Mom had gone to great lengths to ensure that the cake was just perfect (heart-shaped size, lettering, etc.)

Oh well, a bunch of family members met the next morning for dim sum where after plates of greasy dumplings and sticky rice, we worked our way through the ten-pound mango cheesecake!

That same morning, Matt and I did the traditional tea ceremony for my grandparents. A big part of having the Chinese wedding banquet in Toronto was for my grandparents, who will be unable to come to Xinjiang in September.

They were thrilled to see all of us gathered happily together before the inevitable reality of us going back to China for an indefinite period. And so for the tea ceremony, it was just something we wanted to do to make them feel like they're a part of our special union.

Unfortunately, none of us knew really what to do so in reality it ended up being this ordeal where everyone was shouting instructions but nobody was listening, and where Matt and I were looking at each other unsure of what to do but desperately wanting to do it 'right'.

In the end, we carefully poured hot water out of the thermos into the delicate porcelain tea cups (my two grandmothers don't drink tea so the 'tea serving ceremony' was actually a 'hot water serving ceremony'), and with both hands offered them the cup.

In turn, each grandparent gives us a red envelope with money inside. Unsure of what to do next, they took a tiny sip from their cup, posed for the flashing cameras, got up and brought it back to the kitchen sink where they rinsed the rest out.

It took less than a minute in total, but I'm glad we did it, even though it may not have been perfect or complete to traditional Chinese standards.

With all the family obligations combined with the lack of time and the need for sleep, we didn't get to see much of Toronto. However we did manage to rent a somewhat large barge (think pleasure cruise) to see a bit of Lake Ontario. Not exactly our first choice, but that was all that was available at the time.

Did some shopping at MEC, Chapters, had lunch with Anice, and then off we were again to Jersey! But of course not before bidding farewell to relatives. Grandma, especially, was overcome with emotion and her last wishes to me were: "I'm not getting any younger. Have lots of children as soon as you can."

Across the Atlantic again and as we touched down, Jersey greeted us was a downpour of water which we were told had not let up all day. Still, there is beauty through the fog and mist when you are looking out into fresh Jersey cow pastures and the crashing sea waves.

The following day, Matt took me to 'the secret beach' where you have to make your way through rocky crevasses and a deep dark tunnel in order to get to this secluded beach. Reachable only during low tide (or else the tunnel is full of water and impenetrable), there is gorgeous smooth sand and tall vertical caves that have been carved out by the powerful waves over time.

Stunningly beautiful, it was one of my favourite (mental) snapshots of our trip.

My parents arrived on the island the next day, and as suspected, everyone got along fabulously. There were lots of preparations, peppered with quick trips to the airport to pick up yet another family member from Liverpool, Plymouth, Leeds, London, etc. There was this huge energy buzzing throughout the house, like this enormous crescendo of excitement that was all to be let out on Friday, July 29th.

Alas, it came. And at 12 noon at Jersey's registrar's office, Matt and I were officially married in a short 'n' sweet ceremony. My father walked me down the aisle - well, we actually Uyghur danced it! - and suddenly, there I am standing at the front of the aisle, shaking with excitement and total happiness.

The feeling that overcame me as i was repeating the declarations is something that is and will be utterly etched in my memory forever. Those of you who know me to be a bit of an sentimental sap, I am proud to say that i was consistent by being incapable of keeping my eyes dry. Hey, i wasn't the only one!

Claire, Matt's younger sister, was our chauffeur for the day. She owns a beautiful baby-blue 'Moggy' which she polished and decorated with fabric to match my dress. It was the perfect day weather-wise also, as it was the only day out of the entire week where there was no rain. Just a few days before, Jersey received so much rain that the meteorologist declared that the island had received the equivalent rainfall in 24 hrs to what it would normally get in a month!

But we were lucky (as we’ve been told so many times for so many different reasons) and following a gorgeous reception at a local hotel, we gathered to wine and dine at the family home in the evening.

Speeches were made, numerous toasts had, and my dad attempted to sing "My Way" again, although without the words this time, and even though he forgot some of the lyrics, mixed them up, and then completely went blank, his efforts were well appreciated by all.

Leaving the next day for a dinner-party with Matt’s friends at the Lightship Restaurant in London, we left an entourage of loving family members at the departure gate, all waving us on towards our married life. Another snapshot memory.

Three more flights in a row and it’s back to life here. Everyone's talking about coming out to Urumqi for the Xinjiang wedding in September so the pressure's on to put on a good show.

Admittedly, it was nice to step off the plane and walk right into your own wedding (we have a lifetime of thanks to give to our parents for organizing such fantastic parties in Toronto and Jersey). All we had to do was smile and enjoy, and that we most certainly did!

Ok, I’ve really gotta stop here, running out of writing steam...

One last memory i will remember from this trip:

The morning after our marriage was official. We spent our wedding night in a tent in the garden, real comfy and totally warm, and as we awoke from the sun's strong rays, stepped out of the tent and strolled into the kitchen, i was greeted with a jolly "Good morning, MRS. THORNINGTON!"

Wow, so it wasn't just a dream. I do have to admit i've already practiced my new signature ;)

This may be the end of our whirlwind tour, but only the beginning of so much more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The beginning of the end

The first of our overseas wedding guests arrive tonight, how very exciting!!

Matt and I managed to squeeze in a short driving/ camping holiday to Bayanbilik, the Mongolian grasslands, which is officially closed to foreigners, but we were lucky and the only form of authority we faced was a friendly cop who asked to see our car insurance.

Flat land that seemed to stretch on forever and then melt into the sky that continued into the horizon, we saw interesting looking yurts (kinda teepee looking) and a different kind of sheep, all with black heads and white bodies and long, thin nimble legs.

The ones on the other side of the mountain range are stubby and stocky with wide hairy bottoms, the sheep that is.

One long stretch of 'road' was 'under construction' and we knew we were due for an undefined time of bumps, potholes and sore butts.

It's like driving over a 300-km magnified cheese grater, some parts of it were so bad that our front bumper had come off completely and was hanging on by the electrical wires.

Luckily we stopped in time to notice it before it came off which could have caused more damage.

With some wire, string and duct tape (possibly one of man's greatest invention), Matt managed to temporarily attach the bumper back onto the frame, it lasted all the way back to Urumqi where we got it welded back on properly... just in time to sell the jeep this week!

We drove 17 hours on the second day, stopping only for fuel.

It's absolutely incredible how the scenery changes so drastically in just a few hours.

From towering snowcapped mountains to deep gorges and valleys and little itty bitty weaving streams, from flat grasslands to swampy marshes, we saw camels, yaks, horses, cows, and of course thousands of sheep.

At around 1 in the morning, we passed the highest pass in the mountains: 4013 metres!

Too bad it was dark and snowing, although you could make out the immense sheet of ice that looked very daunting and intimidating on the mountain slopes - breathtaking.

All in all, a great last car trip in Urumqi - for this time at least.

We promised ourselves we'll be back. Perhaps with the wee ones.

Back to this week's events now. Guests arriving, day trips to Heavenly Lake and Turpan, and of course the wedding this weekend!

Can't wait to see friends and family again, HERE no less!!!

It's one thing to go home and visit and do familiar things and be in familiar environments.

But it's something else to have the people from 'back home' visit you in your current environment and showing them what has become familiar to you over the months.

Friday, September 16, 2005

exactly 2 weeks till departure!

It's been one busy week, and it's not even finished yet!

Apart from organizing the wedding, buying flights, booking tours, translating for random strangers from Toronto!, we managed to get out into the mountains again for another weekend (in a row!) of camping.

On the way back, we managed to smash the back-side window into smitherines while trying to pass next to an oncoming truck.

No major harm done and i should add that the guy did a surprisingly fantastic job repairing the window and frame - he even placed an identical sticker on the window, although it's in a bit of an awkward place but oh well.

Lately my mind has been acting like it's on adrenaline, juggling an infinite amount of numbers and letters in my head.

Dates and times of guests' arrivals, their passport numbers, their flight numbers, prices for catering and hotels, plane/train/bus tickets, exchange rates, etc.

We have 32 people from overseas arriving in just under a week and i just hope i haven't messed up considerably. I must admit, as a result, i've been in a bit of daze and have been extra careless in my day to day ongoings.

Just yesterday i left my mobile in the taxi when i was rushing around trying to buy industrial-size tin foil for our caterers and then hurrying to make a lunch date.

No more hot pink cell phone with the cute teddy bear on the wallpaper screen. Boo.

But on the sunny-sideup, I got myself a brand new phone with a camera today! Nifty little thing and i'm having a blast trying out the very many different features.

I just have to be more than super careful now and should probably chain it to my wrist as so not to 'forget' it in a taxi again. Lesson learned.

Having Matt's parents here is wonderful. "That's amazing!" was the weekend's motto as i experienced, yet again, Urumqi and Xinjiang through a newcomer's eyes.

It is definitely a unique place in the world, where the environment is desolate and stark, rich in natural grandeur and purity.

It seems to me that people who stumble across here are amazed at the different colours and textures in scenery and humanity, but the longer you stay here the more it sucks you into its vortex, wriggling its way into your memory bank so you will never forget this unbelievable place.

It's like certain people you meet in your life who leave footprints in your heart, some you've known for ages and some only a few minutes; this jewel in the world does the same and you don't realize it until you are packing up and getting ready to leave.

Hhm... which is exactly what i should do now. It's Matt's last day at work and we're all going out to celebrate, hurry hurry.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

i shoulda been a plumber


When in China, it isn't rare that sometimes you feel that the worst has gotten the better of you. Whatever the annoyance is, all you want to do is kick/punch/pummel something just to exert that pent up physical frustration boiling inside. I am by far someone who believes in violence as a resolution, but i admit I'm having one of those moments today.

We've deduced that the bloody bathtub is leaking because of a broken pipe under the tub, seeping through the tiled-floor and tiled-walls, causing a mini New Orleans right here in our bathroom.

The maintenance people here in our building are useless and it seems to me, are paid to walk around with walkie-talkies, a clipboard or toolbox - sometimes both - and a clip-on cellphone/pager, looking busy and important. Hah, it's all a disguise. They are infact some of the lamest people i've ever met who call themselves handy-mans, be it plumbers, electricians, security guards, whatever.

The guy who was supposed to come back in the afternoon on Monday never showed because he supposedly couldn't find the other guy who was going to help him remove the tub. A complete waste of my afternoon, and seeing as he didn't have a cell phone, he should've called ME.

I did however manage to ask a woman who works for the building to refer me to someone else who could come and look at the tub. She spent 30 minutes looking it up in a book, finally deciding on one. A lady answers and says she can't come today, she's "hen mang" (very busy). I tell her that it is critical that we fix the tub today because my parents-in-law are arriving tomorrow and it would be a lovely gesture if we could provide them with a proper facilicity to shower in, you know, given that they've flown halfway around the world to see us. She relents and says she'll be there in an hour, but will charge a fee to just come and look at it. Ok fine, i thought, a glimmer of hope. An hour passes, and i'm still waiting. I ring the lady and she says she's on her way "wo ma shang lai" (I'm coming now), "ni deng yi huar" (just wait a while). Unable to do anything more, i wait.

To my surprise, the doorbell rings about 40 minutes later. I open the door and in saunters a short woman with a really sweet face, carrying a bag of cement as if it were lights as feathers and a mixer machine. She was your typical country-girl with rough hands and gritty clothes and while talking to me, she would lift the toilet seat up and hork up some saliva into the bowl. Accustomed to witnessing this in the streets i figured it shouldn't be any different at home. I lead her upstairs to the bathroom and showed her the problem. She says the situation is "hen mafan" (a huge bother). She repeats this about ten times while looking at the tub disapprovingly, shaking her head and spitting into the toilet, all the while standing in old bath water that was curling around her ankles. She was worried that she'll damage the side of the tub more, or worse, the precious expensive bath tiles, and how would she be able to pay for it all? Her husband, who she says can take out the tub and fix the pipe, will be back in a week. I told her i need it done TODAY. She dictates about half a dozen excuses and reasonings as to why "jin tian bu keyi" (today was impossible.) I'm not listening very closely at this point. She called a few other people but they were "hen mang" (very busy). I sighed, Wednesdays must be a popular day to get all your plumbing fixed in this city.

In the end, i was left with her saying "mei banfa" (There's nothing that can be done), and so it was my cue to show her the door and tell her that i'll be waiting for her call when her husband returns. Although my fingers were definitely NOT crossed.

Sept.8, 1:30pm

The sound of water flowing down a pipe. Think about it. How simple the concept is and yet we don't take time to stop and appreciate just how that sound of trickling water down a drain makes our life an infinite number of times less stressful.

For 4 days i've been trying to 'fix' this leakage problem. I've called people from the building to come and look at it (the snake was tried but unsuccessful, and the other guy was too chicken-*hit to touch the thing for fear of damaging it). I asked another plumber, who was referred to by a friend, to come but his excuse was he didn't work outside his neighbourhood.

This morning Matt and I went back to the shop in Hualing where I bought the bathtub back in April. This was the last resort, we had to get someone to fix it, we just had to. The shop called the man who had installed the tub but he refused to come back and look at the problem, saying that he did a perfectly fine job and then hung up. Hmph. So another guy was called and he came to assess the damage. He managed to pull the tub from its place and weed out the worn-out plastic tube that was used to drain the water.

Soon later, two other guys from the building's maintenance department showed up. Why do they all come at once or not at all? With the pipe fixed, all that was left to do was cement the sides and water-proof them with a glue-type seal. Two of the guys got into a huge argument about which method was the best to use. I didn't give much thought to the building guys as they hadn't helped me before. The one from Hualing was good and finished the job.

So for the time being, it's fixed, and as long as it holds up until we leave in several weeks, that's all that really matters.

Well, i may have been long-winded in this entry but honestly, this much hassle deserves a bit of explanation. What i can't get over is that "Mei Banfa, Bu keyi, Hen mafan..." all these are common everyday expressions, like just something that rolls off your tongue when there's an issue to be dealt with. You hear it from shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers, even local friends. And yes i admit, even i've caught myself thinking and saying that. The thing is, it's just an excuse to get away from doing what they don't particuarly want to do at the time. In the end, this leakage problem was fixed in just a few hours. Yes it did take a bit more work than just saying there's no solution, it cannot be done, it's too much of a nuisance, or it's just plain impossible, but the thing is there IS a solution, it CAN be done, it truly ISN'T much of a nuisance, and it is by far NOT impossible!

Monday, September 05, 2005

september heatwave ~

There are these machines (think giant zambonies) that have the spinny brushes to sweep the curbs and ditches in the roads. Everyday for the past few days i've seen one pass me by. Every time it is blasting a Christmas carol or Happy Birthday. Why?

I've also seen the same kind of machines that squirt water onto the curbs. I'm totally baffled as to why a city would need to water concrete. To me, it just looks like a complete waste of water.

Matt's parents arrive in two days exactly, how very exciting to be able to show them around Urumqi, to be their host in our city. They were such good hosts to me in Jersey, i can only hope to be as accommodating.

Last week i got together with Dave to make cheesecake, one with an Oreo crust too! His second cousin was visiting from the States and came bearing cream cheese - a very very hard find in this city. As a final farewell to him and Tiffany, we gorged on yummy, sweet, calorie-infused cheesecake. They are hitching their way with a local Uyghur friend, to Tibet. How envious i was to hear of their plans; visions of vast plains with snow-capped mountains in the background and yak meat and colourful prayer flags danced in my head. I wish them well and wish them safe.

This past weekend, Matt and I went away to do some camping and hiking about two hours south of Urumqi, a bit past MiaoErGou. It never ceases to amaze me how our jeep is one of the most sturdiest vehicles i've ever been in. So adaptable to every road condition, a simple car that bounces around. Sometimes it does feel like we're on a giant pogo stick. We made a quickee stop to the monument where claims to be the centre of the Asian continent. Not convinced it is definitely the centre of Asia (thers's a 'centre' in Russia too apparently), but nonetheless, we stood at the gate and could see the statue. We refused to pay the 4 RMB fee in order to get in. We drove through deep valleys, winding mountain sides, forested tracks, dry river beds, until we literally could not drive anymore, to go any further would require a chainsaw to chop down trees. We then hiked up a steep mountain, aiming to go above the tree line where we hoped to find a small level clearing to set up our tent.

The climb was, no exaggeration, a 45 degree angle climb, straight up, for about 3 hours. An excellent workout for the flabby thighs indeed! We gathered some firewood and pitched our first "home" we ever bought together: a sturdy 2-man MEC tent. Shortly afterwards it began to rain so for the rest of the night we stayed inside, eating instant curry and rice and nan and hummus. Following a peaceful sleep wrapped like mummies in our sleeping bags, fleeces, gloves and hats, we woke up to a stunning view of the mountains and valleys that seemed to stretch on forever. It was truly the perfect spot. We had breakfast, made a fire with the wood we gathered which was already dry by morning, read and bathed in the sunshine. The hike back down was faster but for me and my stubby legs, more strain on the muscles. It was a great getaway, to be among the quiet and peace of the forest and to feel small and yet very powerful on top of that mountain.

Back home now. Lots of little things to do in preparation for the wedding (Sept.24-25) and move to HK (Sept.30) and honeymoon (Oct.3-29). The piano will be returned next Monday, the car has been sold, we've booked our plane tickets, the wedding site has been reserved, the catering taken care of.

To do: book hotel rooms in Guangzhou and Sydney (2 night stopovers we'll be making), buy travel insurance, figure out how to get RMB out of China, buy a few more domestic flights for family coming, book and pay deposit for their tour, go through 'stuff' and throw/give away what i don't need.

Our bathtub is becoming a big nuisance also. It doesn't drain fast enough and water spurts out from the floor drain which then floods the floor, causing it to be an extremely likely place to slip and break something. One guy came to look at it yesterday and said in order to properly fix it, the entire bathtub will have to be removed. He said he would be back in the afternoon with a guy who could help take it out, being as he was only a plumber. They never showed up, not surprisingly. Frustrating as we have only 3 weeks left in this place. We've temporarily 'fixed' it by sealing the floor drain with blue-tack, thereby preventing water from coming up and out. Ai-ya, it's the Chinese quick fix-it method, where you just do what is necessary to stop the immediate problem, not really considering the fact that it will probably end up doing more damage in the end, costing more, and causing more headache.

Ah, well. Life is humming by, as it should, and i'm enjoying the ride.


Thursday, September 01, 2005


I can't sleep, so much running in my mind. Don't you hate that, when there are these thoughts that go on in repeat mode and won't pause for a moment to perhaps allow you to slip in between the stages of consciousness and dreamland? I need to filter and get some rest, tomorrow i'm going out of the city for some much needed fresh air. Good for the lungs and particularly good for the soul.