Urumqi and Shijiazhang – China

I continued my stay in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, until early Sunday morning. A city of about 2-3 million, it is vast. Due to the weather (-17 degrees centigrade or about 0 fahrenheit) I did not do very much exploring, but I still had a memorable experience in more ways than one …

The town square was across from the hotel I stayed at so I went for a wander RIMG0158WinCE around the square. In keeping with many other frozen cities in China, they had ice sculptures in the square which were lit with beautiful colors at night. The lighting is on the inside of the ice, as well as spot lit from the outside, so it really is something special.

The Uygurs are the original people in the west of China. Of Turkish origin, they are racially and linguistically different to the rest of China who are dominated by the Han race. On arrival in Urumqi you knew you were somewhere unusual for China; the street signs were in Chinese and Arabic. In fact, it was a very international city for I also saw Russian and English shop signs. Not surprising, as Urumqi is on the ancient silk road and so has been a meeting place of races for centuries. Still, it was surprising to see the town square’s monument to the Revolution was in both Chinese and Arabic. The Turks were not great supporters of the revolution and this region essentially ran itself from 1911 to 1949.

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Even though it was bleeding cold, the streets were full of vendors selling everything you could think of, and then some. It was very colorful and reminded me in some ways of India (except thankfully India doesn’t get like this except in the Himalayas!). I was tempted to buy a roasted potato from the fellow in the photo below, but to protect my stomach I decided discretion was the better part of valor so passed.

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It was fascinating to see the different cultures intermixing with each other, although it appeared that the Uygurs were the street traders and the Chinese ran the shops. The trio below were sitting outside a restaurant playing music to entice patrons. The music was similar to South Asia, but also different, reflecting the Central Asian influence I presume. There was a BBQ outside the restaurant as well which was tempting, but I restrained myself since it was lamb, lamb and lamb.

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I popped into an underground bazaar to warm up and virtually all the traders were Chinese. They have the ‘Grand Bazaar’ which is apparently very much like you find in Turkey. I will visit there next time. My hosts took me there in the evening to show me the buildings and the architecture is brilliant. Although recently built, it was heavily influenced by the Muslim heritage of the area. The mosque below reminded me of ones I had visited in India.

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While walking up the stairs to exit from the bazaar something didn’t feel right and I saw someone’s hand in my pocket trying to get out my camera! Fortunately (for me) it was difficult to remove which is why I felt it. There was a curtain between me and the fellow behind me (they use them here to keep the heat in the bazaar) so I quickly turned and grabbing the guys arm rushed through the curtain. He was shocked to see me there, and even more shocked when I grabbed him and threw him down about 8 stairs onto the ground below. Very un-Christian I know, but I don’t respond well to thieves (or taxi drivers who try to cheat me – but more about that later).

I went down the stairs and picked the guy up and put him against the wall. He was in his early 30’s and a Uygur. I called to the store keepers asking them to contact the police but they, and all the people in the bazaar stood there like stunned mullets as this white guy was thumping a Uygur against a wall and calling at them in English. I decided that since the police would not be forthcoming it wasn’t worth my time to take it any further so I pushed him away and exited up the stairs while he beat a hasty retreat into the bazaar. It is unfortunate that this happened since I’ve traveled in Asia for many years without being robbed. However, I consoled myself that it was an Uygur and not a Han Chinese. I don’t want to be totally deluded about China.

I continued to explore the streets of Urumqi and found that the side roads were far more interesting than the main roads. These were lined small traders who tended to cluster together. I found a very colorful section selling dried fruits. Further down were the butchers and then they had the bakers. They had a local version of Naan bread, a South Asian bread that I love, and I bought two small loaves hot from the tandoori which were not only very tasty, but also served to warm me up for a while. Eventually I got tired (and cold again) so I headed back to the hotel for a warm bath before the evening’s banquet.

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At 08:00 the next morning I went to the airport. The streets were deserted as not only was it a Sunday, but since all of China is on Beijing time, it was equivalent to 06:00. Boy was it cold. Interestingly, they have office hours from 10:00 – 19:00 so everything runs a couple of hours later.

My flight was cancelled so I had to get my ticket reissued. It is always fun queuing in China as there is no formal method. You basically push your way to the front and gesticulate to get the persons attention. Some very talented people do it from the second row back. Putting manners aside, I pushed with the best of them so it only took me 30 minutes to get my ticket issued; had I been polite I would still be there.

The flight to Beijing was uneventful and after checking in I went for a workout. I usually stay at the Grand Hyatt hotel as they have a marvelous pool. It is also close to Wangfujing which is the pedestrian only shopping street. It’s fun to go wandering there in the evening which I did. They have a market beside Wangfujing where I get roasted corn on the cob. Very nice, especially on a cold evening. However, on Sunday I joined Ed Dotson and Sam Zimmerman from the Bank for dinner which we enjoyed at a restaurant behind the hotel. It is unusual for us to see each other since we are all moving targets so it was good to catch up a bit. Especially with Sam who has recently joined the Bank.

Monday morning Sam and I headed to the West Beijing train station to catch the train to Shijiazhang, the capital of Henan province. Train travel is vitally important in China when it comes to moving people around the country and with Chinese New Year approaching, the trains are almost all sold out, in spite of them running extra trains. Consequently, the station was extremely busy, but it gets much worse. I once traveled just after the autumn festival and I have never seen so many people in one place, and that includes sporting events.

We met Zong Yan and another colleague from the Bank and the four of us traveled together. Sam is a public transport specialist with about 30 years experience and it was very interesting chatting with him. He filled in quite a few gaps in my knowledge about public transport. We are fortunate to be able to have someone with his expertise at the Bank.

We were in the ‘soft seat’ car, which is quite luxurious. The train traveled very fast, 134 km/h, and was very comfortable. I’ve always been impressed by China’s railways and my railway colleagues tell me that they are one of the best. There were a few other foreigners in the car and I noted that a Chinese fellow sitting next to one was reading a report with a chapter title ‘BMS’. That acronym stands for many things, but to me it means ‘Bridge Management Systems’. Since I was going to review the progress on the Shijiazhang Road and Bridge Management System I told Yan that they must be going to the same place. She went over and sure enough they were on their way to meet the Bank mission.

The foreigner was named Darwin—and not, he told me, because his parents were firm believers in evolution. Every one of their children’s names started with a ‘D’ and as number 8 the parents seemed to be running out of original ideas. He is the head of the company supplying the software for the project and was a really nice fellow. That’s him below along with myself, Ms. Chen our counterpart, our interpreter and Darwin’s colleague outside the office.

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I have this theory that most expatriates one meets overseas can be classified by one of more words starting with the letter ‘M’: Misfit, Mercenary and/or, Missionary. Let me explain … Many of them are misfits because they couldn’t get a job back home. However, with local language skills and experience (at least on paper) they get jobs here which are often far more than they deserve. Mercenaries are here for the money. Often, the work is tax free and comes with a generous per diem. Missionaries are those who are interested in the technical challenges and opportunities that come from working in a place like this. I was pleased to say that Darwin was the ‘Missionary’ type. He is committed to do a good quality job which meets the client’s needs. Refreshing to say the least.

We had two days of meetings and resolved a number of issues, but compared to other projects I’ve been involved with there were relatively few. Darwin and his team have the right attitude and the client was very pleased with them so I am optimistic that this will be a successful project. Indeed, the meetings went so well that I managed to leave early for Beijing which meant instead of getting back at 21:30 I would be there at 17:00.

I caught a taxi from the train station to the hotel and the fellow took what could best be called the long route. Claiming that it was impossible to turn left he drove about 3 km west past the hotel and then took the expressway north, before traveling 3 km east again to the hotel. I was fit to be tied as he could have made several right turns and gone around the block, or taken a different route after the train station. The fact that the expressway was a parking lot in rush hour also didn’t contribute to things. Fortunately (for me) I know Beijing so when we got the hotel I asked the bellman to have him explain why he took me so far out of my way. He didn’t have an excuse and on further questioning jumped in his car and drove off. Pity as I would have paid him about half of what was on the meter, but I guess it serves him right. Hopefully he won’t do that again to a foreigner.

After checking in I wandered over and finally found a vegetarian restaurant I’ve been looking for. It was my fourth attempt, each time I was given wrong directions (even had it marked on a map wrong). It was a Buddhist restaurant so they have what can best be called ‘mock meat’. The have processed tofu and soya so that it has the taste and texture of meat. I had steaks in tomato sauce and, except for the fact that they weren’t hard to chew, they were very nice. To top the evening off I treated myself to a hot stone massage (it was very cold out there!). Good food and a massage are a great way to end the day.

Wednesday morning I was away from the hotel at 07:00 again, this time to Beijing airport where I caught a flight to Shenyang in Liaoning province. It was VERY cold there. It hit -27 centigrade (about -18 fahrenheit). The Sheraton hotel where I stayed was the nicest hotel I’ve been in for a while. So contrary to popular belief, all 5 Star hotels are not alike. I had some time before my afternoon meetings so I grabbed a swim and then met with a Dutch consultant John to go over the maintenance issues on the project. He was a very nice and knowledgeable fellow so it was a pleasant surprise to find that there were no misfits on this project! In the evening I had a catch up with Shomik from my office in D.C. who is managing this component of the project. He filled in some of the bigger picture for me.

Thursday I met with the clients and they agreed to do an anti-HIV/AIDS education component on the project. I will need to arrange some grant funding to finance it. We are getting excellent support from our clients for these activities and before too long we will have quite a few campaigns on in our different provinces. In the afternoon we had an important seminar where we discussed with the clients maintenance issues and the way forward. I was asked to present something on performance based maintenance contracting, and there was a lot of interest in it so we will do something on it for the project.

To end the week I wrapped up my work for Shomik and then at 14:00 Friday caught a flight to Harbin in the north-east of China. They have a winter festival here and I resolved that if I was ever in China at this time I would try to attend. Since Shenyang was only 50 minutes flight from Harbin, and my weekend was relatively free, I had no excuse so up I came. But more about that next week…

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