Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 6, Part 2)

From the unflaming mountains, we drove to Turpan’s Grape Valley tourist center. Our schedule hadn’t really said that it was a tourist center – I’d been laboring under the impression that it was a grape production business. Instead the purpose of the place seemed more to farm tourists than grapes. The approach from outside was nice enough, but I guess that should have warned us. The road to the main entrance, all the way from the turning from the highway, was framed with wooden trellises covered with vines. It was all very picturesque, and, in retrospect, artificial. (But then, who’s to say what’s artificial? Later that evening strolling in town we saw—in corroboration of what our guidebook written two years previously had predicted—that there were pedestrian malls in this town that had had similar trellises built over them. When you live in a city where the temperature goes to 49 C, such acts can get pretty close to the apotheosis of good governance.)

We walked in past the usual curious stares and mutters of “Yindestan? Pakistan?” Away to the left was a row of stalls which, instead of the usual souvenirs, for a change flaunted rows and rows and heaps and heaps of raisins in various shapes and colors. We followed Lily beneath more trellised paths to a little hut outside which sat an old man flanked by two women in traditional Uyghur dress. Lily said: “This man is a hundred years old. Do you want a photo?” We said no. We walked past him into the hut—it had been set out for display. It seemed to me just like a two room hut. Thirty seconds later we were back outside. The inner walls of the compound had been painted with stories depicting a local hero; a witty character called Afanti who habitually outsmarted crooked rich men and stupid princes. He reminded me of something, so on impulse, I tried to see if he was called Nasruddin. Turned out to be the case -- the local Mullah 'Nasredin', aka Effendi. The Uyghur ladies repeated their offer of a photo op; again I refused. TPB asked me if I was sure, I said I was. My suspicion was confirmed half an hour later as we drove away from the place -- *she* had wanted a picture since “he looked like such a sweet old man”.

We walked some more around the place, along the pathways under the trellises, looking at the grapes and the signs that said it was forbidden to touch them. Souvenir stalls appeared round every other corner. We passed on, and then out.

Lunch was at the “Muslim restaurant” back at the hotel. This should be interesting, since it was our first full Uyghur meal. Well, the first thing we noticed was that the restaurant was empty – just the two of us at one table, with Lily and the driver sitting by themselves a few tables away, separated from us by a pillar. They finished much before us and Lily came over and excused herself, telling us she’d see us in the lobby at 5 (Beijing time, making it 3 local time). The custom in Turpan is to spend a long afternoon napping. The other thing that became apparent was that the service was unsmiling. The food, however, was decent – including among other things my first exposure to laghman – Uyghur style noodles topped with mutton curry and a subtle clear soup that looked unprepossessing but I couldn't seem to get enough of. There was again too much of everything despite the fact that we’d specifically asked for small portions.

As we left the restaurant and walked along the path leading back to our room in the main wing of the hotel, we heard a woman call out from behind. Turning around, we saw the head waitress, a middle aged matron of not inconsiderable presence, charging down the path towards us. My momentary alarm was soon supplanted by the sight of the bottle of water in her hand – TPB had forgotten it at the table. She returned it to us: the first and only time we saw this lady smile. Rather sweetly, I thought.

I’d planned to spend the afternoon interval updating the log but the night’s train journey finally got to me and I crashed almost as soon as we were back in the room, only waking when TPB informed me that it was 4:45. (Like in Jiayuguan, this hotel room too had separate beds. A pattern?) We met Lily downstairs, and in no time were at Suleiman’s minaret. This is a late Middle Ages structure was almost deserted at that hour. Even the souvenir stalls were unmanned, and, in the spirit of the moment, the turnstile at the entrance refused to accept one of our two tickets. After some negotiation Lily had to leave her official guide ID with the boffin at the gate.

We walked around the base and then went inside, and upstairs. The views and the structure were definitely worth seeing, but probably not to linger over. The mud brick structures set off nicely against the greenery of the oasis all round; more vinyards everywhere. It wasn’t that long though before we were off to the next stop – the Karez irrigation system. Now the Chinese count this right up there with the Great Wall among the achievements of their civilization, but it gets a lot less press than what one might have thought. It is basically an ancient underground irrigation system that funnels snow water from the mountains a hundred miles to the north of Turpan, along underground canals that run beneath the desert. It is a pretty ingenious system, consisting of a network of canals punctuated by wells that are dug not to bring water up but to let people down in order to facilitate maintenance. However, the showpiece Karez display site turned out to be another over-touristy gimmick, much like the Grape Valley we’d visited earlier in the day. After Lily sort-of explained the system to us with the aid of a large 3-D exhibit, we took a walk along a token underground canal populated by statues of miners in angsty mining poses. I really thought it might have been a fascinating exhibit if it had been explained better and/or I had properly understood exactly what the deal was. Either way, I was somewhat underwhelmed and we were out of the place in twenty minutes heading back to the hotel for a brief rest since the night market where we were going to have dinner didn’t open till 8.


We came downstairs at 8:30 to go to the night market. As I walked out of the hotel, a few steps behind Lily and TPB, a young lady in a black very mini skirt asked me, “Massage, sir? No? Foot massage?” So now I knew what the condom in the room was for. Two minutes later on the street I realized I’d left my money belt in the room (a big hurrah here for Victorinox – I wore this belt next to my skin right through for ten days with not a single problem. A great product.), and we’d just complained about the air-conditioning which meant that someone would probably be there soon, so I had to go back up to get it. Two extra trips past this lady, two more questions from her. Wordless, this time. Later that evening I got an excellent shot in when I casually mentioned to TPB that this woman hadn’t looked *that* bad after all. TPB’s eyes widened substantially, and stayed that way until I slipped in the deftly-timed punchline: “She may even be the Number-four Prostitute in Tulufan.”

That round, I won :-D

Returning from the room with my money back safely against my midriff, I caught up with TPB and L sitting by the side of the street. Somehow someone for some reason had given them a bunch of grapes for free. We walked the couple of minutes to the market. It wasn’t a very large market – a dozen odd stalls set up along the outer sides of an open square at the intersection of two large roads, benches and tables laid out on the inside. L led us to the farthest stall on the road that was perpendicular to the one we’d approached on. A lady was making ma la choi – spicy Sichuan vegetables. TPB pointed and chose the vegetables she wanted, all of 7 bucks worth. I went a couple of stalls back to a large Uyghur man who I’d just turned down a couple of minutes back while we were walking there, and got me two skewers of lamb for two bucks each. Within a couple of minutes everything was delivered to the bench where we sat. We dug in, Lily declined every offer, and finally, as we neared the end, she excused herself. It had been a really long day for her.

We finished and went and got ourselves a bottle of sickly-sweet tea which TPB took one sip of and then gave to me, saying “You’ll like this.” Deciding to take a walk, we went back to the intersection and crossed our road, going in the opposite direction to where we were. Everyone we passed stared at us. A little kid stamped in a small roadside puddle and got slapped on the arm by his mother – he stared blankly in shock before bursting into tears. Unlike Jiayuguan, which had a road for cars and a separate side lane for cyclists, Turpan’s shaded side lanes were meant for pedestrians. At least, this one that we were on was. It was very pleasant indeed. After about five minutes we came up on another intersection where to the left the entire street appeared to be a trellised walkway. How could we refuse? We crossed the road and entered the walkway.

The first ten minutes or so on that walkway it seemed as if we’d just missed catching a bonanza promotion for the Arman milk products brand. Everyone we passed was wearing the same light green branded t-shirt, and packing up some stall or the other. One stall even had three basketball hoops (again) pegged at heights going from 4 feet to 8 feet. We strolled past families taking walks – a little man taking some of his first steps grinned ecstatically at us, we smiled back and turned to see his father grinning as broadly -- at us, his offspring, and anything else that happened to be in the vicinity. A pure human moment. Men squatting by the side played at cards and dice. All was friendly and relaxed. Far from the maddening souvenir stalls, this was the real Turpan.

TPB had been threatening all day that given a chance she would “taste every single type of raisin”. Unfortunately for her, the night market had boasted not a single variety – suggesting to me that the locals probably got their raisins somewhere other than those colorful carts we’d seen at the Grape Valley. But raisins were on her mind, and suddenly she cut across my tracks and made a beeline for a pile of melons she’d spotted lying outside a shop away to the left. The seller was a Han Chinese woman sitting nearby. With a lot of smiling and gesturing, TPB communicated to her that she only wanted half a melon. The lady obligingly fetched a knife and halved one, then on request sliced up one half. TPB pulled out her wallet and realized that she hadn’t quite asked what the price was. So she asked. The lady said some number. We didn’t understand. She repeated, then showed one finger. I took out a 1 RMB note. The lady half laughed, half snorted in disgust. A 7-8 year old kid who’d been standing around – her son we gathered – stepped up in front of her. He looked gravely up at me then started to declaim: “ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE SIX SEVEN EIGHT NINE TEN. TEN!” His mother nodded emphatically as he finished, putting her hands proudly on his skinny shoulders. “Ten?” TPB said in dismay. We’d paid half that for a full melon back in Anxi, outside Dunhuang. But she realized that now, having had the melon sliced up, she was in no position to bargain. I prepared to pony up.

It was then that our guardian angel appeared. A voice from beside me piped up: “Hello, I am a new student of English.” Half disbelieving, I turned to see a young woman of about 20, very pretty, Uyghur features, fair, straight nose, dark hair tied back, dressed in a white Western top and black capris, holding a well-thumbed soft cover book. Without missing a beat, she stepped in and proceeded to act as interpreter, telling us that the price was “warry expansiwe” but that the woman was adding on charges for cutting the melon, and berating the woman for her shamelessness for overcharging like this, telling her that she should at least have the decency to give us the other half of the melon as well.

The girl took us back to a rickety metal table that sat across the street from the walkway we’d come on. We invited her to sit and eat with us, then realized we had nothing to put the melon on or scrape the seeds off with. In a flash she was back at the Chinese lady’s shop. I followed her in – it was a small dark grocery shop much like those I remembered from my childhood in Delhi. However, the first two things to catch me eye were a shelf full of local alcohol, and a large bright tube of Crest. Standing there, I asked the girl her name. I heard “Riha”, actually it was “Reyihan”. She asked mine and to my surprise pronounced it perfectly. The lady got us a knife and tray which we went back outside with. Another, slighltly older young lady appeared at our table. Reyihan introduced her as her friend, Aigul. This one spoke no English, though, and therefore did not say very much. But she had intelligent eyes and right through I felt she was pretty much following the conversation that ensued.

We shared out slices of the melon while chatting. Reyihan showed us her English book. She was in college, and studying English with an eye most likely to becoming a guide. She told us that she was a great fan of Hindi movies, which they show, dubbed, in theaters in Turpan. Her favorite? “Sharekh Khan”. We asked which movie of his she liked the best, but the name was mangled in translation and linguistic inadequacies -- we got no further than "flower". However, she was *extremely* impressed when I told her that I have a friend who knows The Man – a few minutes later she got a call on her cellphone, and we heard her chattering excitedly using the words “Sharekh Khan” and “dost”. We nodded excitedly, saying, dost, dost! It was all very happening. We talked about how Uyghur and Hindi have words in common. She blushed and cracked up when she heard that I have a nephew called Reyhan. For some reason that struck her as the funniest thing on earth. Then she told us that we’re “very seriously”. When we said we didn’t quite get her meaning, she amended it to we look “very happy”. I acted out “seriously” for her and both she and Aigul laughed and agreed that wasn’t what she had meant. She also asked if we had a time. That was another one we didn’t get – although later TPB speculated that she might have meant, “Did you have a nice time?”

As the half-melon finished and dusk approached, we got ready to leave. I took a photo of the three of them sitting at that table and TPB said she’d mail them a copy. In the attempt to convey that particular message I took a chance on the word “khat”. Turned out they had it too. Reyihan tore out a half-sheet from the back of her well-used notebook and Aigul wrote down Reyihan’s address in Chinese for us, then R wrote it again below, in Uyghur (Arabic script) this time. We parted ways with them, everyone all smiles and waves, promising to write “khat” and “letter”. Several onlookers watched the entire scene from a discrete distance – I wondered how unusual this whole encounter might have been in those parts, and a small part of me couldn’t help but feel happy at the fact that it was a young woman who’d acted so forward in this little Muslim oasis town.

On the way back to the hotel, TPB and I were on a high. We took a detour through a large public garden that lay on the other side of the walkway from where we had been sitting. A system of paths studded with benches ran amongst high hedges and trees encircling little spots of green lawn. The whole area had just been hosed down and was delightfully cool and fragrant. Back amongst concrete, nearer our hotel we passed a “traditional Uyghur music performance” venue that was leaking out effervescent sounds of drums and music; looking in from outside we saw a bunch of people dressed in traditional threads standing around on a stage, loudly encouraging an old white guy who was jumping up and down amongst them. About three people were sitting in the audience and watching. We walked on, past the lady in her black miniskirt who was now sitting in the middle of a group of her more normally dressed friends, of both genders as it were. It was almost 11 at night—almost completely dark now. Back in the room we made preparations for the next morning’s 7:30 am departure to Urumqi and Tian Chi - the Heaven Lake of lore.


Blogger km said...

fascinating stuff. And LMAO at the Borat reference. Was TPB amused?

8/23/2007 12:18 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

heh, thanks :-)
i think she was amused, but she couldn't very well show it, could she?!

8/23/2007 3:47 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Am wondering where on the route east to west do noodles give way to bread........

8/23/2007 11:13 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

umm, they don't. they coexist happily all along, it's just that the bread changes form as you go eastward.

noodles give way to rice as you go south, but you knew that. and rice is a delicacy in the desert areas - for obvious reasons.

8/23/2007 11:43 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Fascinating read. All of it.
I was re-reading some of the earlier posts last night in bed and then fell asleep with this unusually graphic dream of travelling through China by train without a ticket and dreading the approach of a ticket-collecter (Jet Li) who kept coming nearer.
What do you suppose it all means?

8/24/2007 2:52 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

i'm not sure what it means, but i will take some encouragement from the contrast of your story with my recent experience of reading iris chang's "the rape of nanking" in bed and then having to wake up in order to interrupt a nightmare. so thanks :-)

8/24/2007 6:20 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

I don't know what Reihan means in Turkic languages (and it's a popular Turkic name), but in Farsi it means basil. So the Hindi and Bengali equivalent of Reihan is Tulsi :).

I see that Persian design elements have already started to make their appearance - faux blue tiles, trellises. But then you have the signs in the Chinese script - that's such an odd and yet fascinating juxtaposition of cultures.

8/24/2007 11:03 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

In Turkish reyhan (also known as fesleğen) is basil too.
It's probably one of those persian root words that the nationalists tried in vein to get rid of.

Gah, I find all the central asian influence so fascinating - whether its Persia or Turkey or India...a lot of our common culture stems from there.

8/24/2007 11:16 PM  
Blogger Renovatio said...

I find that absolutely insane, but I'm going to hold off commenting properly until the next one, I feel that I ought to read over the whole thing from the start first... I'd missed a few and then skipped a lot due to a lack of time at that particular instant...

8/25/2007 4:01 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

tm, szerelem:
well from what i remember of the fancy card that my cousin sent round when the kid was born (she's an NID type designer) the kid's first name was arabic and the second name was hebrew, and they both meant friendship or peace or unity or some such thing. so i doubt any spices entered the equation.

i do agree that the influences and the juxtaposition were absolutely fascinating. may i point you to the photograph of the street scene with one lady sitting on the sidewalk and another riding by. the number of contrasts in that picture is astonishing (and while i will always regret not having been able to keep the entire front wheel in the picture, i do think it's not a bad attempt for having been shot out of a moving car).

i have no idea what you're saying is insane, man, but i'd tend to agree with you anyway. take your time with the reading - the posts aren't going anywhere.

8/25/2007 6:29 AM  
Blogger Renovatio said...

I meant the overall trip. I wanted to read it all right now, but I didn't. Gah.

8/26/2007 2:24 AM  
Blogger gaddeswarup said...

Query. Is there a pdf file of all these together? Thanks.

8/26/2007 5:08 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

heh, no worries :-D

not yet, i'm afraid. i'm still typing this all up.

8/26/2007 9:26 PM  

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