Hotan turned out to be a decent city. I spent some time walking around the Sunday Bazaar and then ran off to the oasis-city of Turpan. My little excursion came to an end after Turpan, and I headed back to Xi'an. It's amazing how much easier it is to keep a blog when you travel and you're on your own. I have a million Xi'an posts I've meant to write, but life is busier in Xi'an so they're still waiting to be penned. Remind me to write about: college sports weeks in China, the student-organized basketball team, Xi'an PE Institute, Chinese gyms, and a lot more research-related stuff.
So I'm in Hotan now after a looooong bus trip from Kashgar. The bus took me through the "Uighur heartland" as Lonely Planet dubs it. And I suppose it is. The entire bus trip was full of those culture shock moments that will either make your blood boil or open up your mind depending on who you are. Unfortunately, I'm the former. But I'm working on it. Hopefully this blog post will help serve a cathartic activitity that will turn the frustrations of travel into an eye-opening understanding of difference.
My greivances are petty. The bus was supposed to leave at 930AM but ended up leaving at 1000AM. Nevertheless, I felt happy to have two seats to myself as the bus pulled out of the station. But, then the bus pulled over. Some people by the side of the road had waved the bus over, and they began piling their stuff onto the bus. We began driving again, and then the bus pulled over again. Same thing. I lost my two-seated happiness to a middleaged Chinese man with stained teeth and bad breath. He tried to make friends with me as I heaved my backpack onto my lap. I told him I was a Chinese-born Russsian who lived in Xi'an. I was getting tired of people's questions when they saw me and heard me speak accented but decent Chinese. I sandwiched my head in a the giant headphones I brought and stared out the window.
The bus stopped to pick up Uighurs the entire trip. Even if the bus was full, they'd slow down to tell the people that they were full. What's more, these people were always charged less than the ticket price. I had little doubt that these unplanned stops were not officially sanctioned by the company. But nobody seemed to have a problem with it.
On top of that, China has a multitude of "disinfectant" stops where the bus stops and all the passengers are required to get out and walked acorss a wet straw blanket laid across the road. When I asked my neighbor about it, he said it was to disinfect the bus/us. I'm not really sure what they were disinfecting nor how walking across a straw mat did that, but I'm willing to bet that even if health had something to do with it, a big reason was just to create checkpoints in the somewhat unstable province of Xinjiang where there have been several violent riots in the past 20 years and a seperatist movment. There were at least 7-8 of these checkpoints in the whole trip, and that's a gigantic waste of time to get everyone on and off the bus.
All told, with the hitchhiking and checkpoints, a 9-hour bus ride turned into a 12-hour one. This was not very fun since the roads were absolutely crap, and the bus stunk. Han Chinese often told me that Uighurs had horrible body odor, and I dismissed it as Han chauvinism. However, on this particular bus ride, it was especially smelly. After my Chinese seatmate got off, he was replaced by a Uighur hitchhiker who promptly removed his shoes revealing his sockless feet. The bus already wreaked, but this was barely bareable. Luckily I had one of the few seats with an openable window. Chinese are often warned about odd American habits before dealing with them. One of which is that Americans LOVE to shower, and the Chinese are told not to judge us because of it. A shower a day seems a bit ridiculous and wasteful to Chinese and probably many people in the world, but many Americans can't live without a daily shower (or two) and a constant supply of coffee.
Anyway, I arrived in Hotan feeling bleh. I went to a hotel to finally lie down and relax. They told me that for a basic room it would be 120RMB a night, a little expensive compared to the hostels I was staying at but I was ready to spoil myself after the bus ride. After establishing the cost and the number of nights I would be staying, they began the registration process. Upon seeing me pull out a passport instead of a Chinese ID, the two girls at the counter exchanged glances and picked up the phone. I had heard about foreigners being treated differently at hotels, but my thought was that these inequities had been ironed out and were a thing of the past. However, after putting the reciever down, the girl simply asked for my deposit which seemed large considering the price of the room. I asked about the price again, and she responded that it was 280RMB/night for "wai bing." Now, "wai bing" basically means honored guest from elsewhere, and I told her that I didn't want a "wai bing" room, I wanted a regular room just like the man next to me who was in the process of getting 120RMB room. They said the room was nicer and made up especially for "wai bing" and it just made furious that they refused to say "foreigner" room. So I just began to grill them. I stood at the counter just making it inconvenient for them asking them to explain the rationale behind the price hike. Asking them to give me a cheaper room. Asking and asking and asking. Eventually I left in a huff and found another hotel.
Today, in search of a web bar, I visited one that was a little bit beyond the city center. I presented my passport for registration (all web users in China must be registered now), and I was refused. The attendant said he "couldn't read my passport." Again I argued, offering to do it for him, to translate, I asked his name in a play that I was going to report him, I wrote down the liscense number on the wall, I just stood waiting. The man just kept repeating sheepishly but stubbornly that he "couldn't read it." I was heated. Eventually the attendant got up pretending to attend to some other affair. Unfortunately it didn't occur to me until after I left that I should've sat down at HIS computer and just used it.
Anyway, the past 24 hours have been one of those days in China. It makes it all the more frustrating when you actually know what's going on. A few years ago I would've chalked it all up to language difficulties and misunderstandings. But now I've experienced what so many expats complain about. From one perspective the difficulties are simply examples of how inefficient China still is in many bureaucratic respects. From another, it simply reveals that one gets very frustrated and even angry when things are different from what one is used to. In these moments, one tends to prop up one's rationality, one's righteousness, one's superiority in an argument against what one is experiencing. But it's also important to notice that the people that live in these systems are not openly frustrated or angry. Perhaps, they've given up and accepted it, or perhaps it's just another way of living. Am I one to judge?
Foreigners living in China have a million ways that it could be better, more efficient, more civilized. These ideas come from real experiences, real frustrations, and fullfledged analysis. Yet, there's always space to step back from these ideas and say this is not my country. Should we?
I woke up to a cloudy, cold Kashgar morning. A good time to leave. I hopped a bus heading towards the border city of Tashkurgan. The bus travels along the Karakoram Highway which eventually snakes its way between mountains into Pakistan. The drive is truly stunning. Driving out of Kashgar your entire into a mountain pass walled in by blood-red stone and ghostlike rock formations. As you climb you catch glimpses of the snow-capped peaks and blue skies. It's a great drive.
After about 4 hours, we came to Karakul Lake. I jumped off the bus, was guided to a Krygyz yurt where I would spend two nights with two Kyrgyzs: