Friday, June 30, 2006

Impulse Buys

Subtle is just not the way to go here in Beijing. There is no hiding of boxes off in some hard-to-find pharmacy counter here. Nope, this picture was taken in the check out aisle at the grocery store. Who needs candy?

Beyond the name of some of these companies (Jissbon cracks Cara up every time she reads it) are all the various options which are not normally seen in North America. For instance, what does "plain coral" mean? And what might "dotted intimate" refer to? And if the woman who is participating in the act that requires a condom, does not resemble the woman on the box, does that mean that the condom will be a poor fit?

As we try to complete this particular entry, our conversation went into areas that are even less suitable for public commentary than the photo of this blog. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Fun Times with Heavy Machinery

From Cara's keyboard:
One of the (many) cool things about working on a construction site is all the heavy machinery. While the construction workers are not so keen on allowing me to use any of this equipment (yet) I was able to climb the 12 story crane and I only had to get permission from 7 different people. When I told people on the site that I wanted climb up the crane, there first response was always, “Who’s making you do that?”. Upon learning that I was making me do it, there next comment was “Well, if you’re crazy enough….” Little did they know.

So up I went. It only took about 15 minutes to get up and it was much easier than climbing that many stairs. And once up there - What fun! Unfortunately I was not able to operate the crane or go out on the boom, but there is always next time. Interestingly enough the climbing up part was not so hard. The climbing down was a little woozying though. I discovered the trick was to look out over the other buildings rather than down to the air beneath me.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Do we really need to amend the Constitution over this?

In the latest and perhaps most disgusting display of political grandstanding, the U.S. Senate narrowly avoided amending the U.S. Constitution to empower Congress to ban flag burning as a legitimate form of free speech. Way out here in China, we often miss out on current events back home. So when we heard that the House of Representatives had already passed the amendment (as of June 22) and that it failed in the Senate by only one vote (as of June 27), we were fairly surprised.

Just to keep things straight here, this post is from Michael, who served in the U.S. Army and has since moved on to the U.S. Department of State. Let it not be said that I am short on patriotism, and yet I firmly support the right of every U.S. citizen to burn the U.S. flag as a political statement of protest. I will readily admit that the First Amendment has been stretched to provide protection in some fairly dubious cases, but the purpose of that Amendment is to guarantee that those who disagree with the government can freely express that opposition without censorship. The words with which it opens are unambiguous: "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech."

Let's face it: burning a flag is not a particularly dangerous or violent act. It is, on the contrary, a purely political statement, meant to draw attention rather than explicitly threaten others. Burning a flag has no other impact than communication. It is, therefore, speech, and beyond Congress's authority to legislate.

I wouldn't want to encourage anybody to burn a flag, but it seems to me that the best way to discourage it is to improve the country, not jail folks for defacing a national symbol. I like that it is my responsibility as a representative of the U.S. government to promote democratic ideals here in China, a country that permits its citizens few fundamental political rights. Yet in reading the news this morning I discovered nearly two-thirds of Congress wants undermine the First Amendment in a twisted attempt to convince voters Congress is patriotic. I am embarassed for them. Didn't they learn anything from the insanity promoted by Joe McCarthy? Communism is just a politico-economic philosophy, and yet the uberpatriots of that era assumed that anyone who thinks worker's rights should have primacy is a fundamental threat to American security. I'm not entirely clear how they connected the dots on that one. Clearly they didn't bother studying much about communism.

It would seem that we once again have uberpatriots in our midst, trying to tell Americans that it should be illegal to disagree with Uncle Sam.

For those of you who feel motivated to let your elected representative know how you feel about this proposed legislation, I recommend you go here or here. This is the fourth time since 1989 that our representatives on Capitol Hill have attempted to pass this particular amendment. Odds are good that they will keep trying and will succeed unless constituents discourage them.

End of rant. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled blog.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A funny thing happened the other day. Michael, while walking aimlessly through the streets of Beijing on a sweltering Sunday morning, came across a WalMart. Curious, he decided to step inside and take a look around.
Imagine how shocked he was to turn the corner and discover, as part of a large promotional display, a big pile of coconut maccaroons! It should be pointed out that Michael really likes macaroons. Truth be told, that chewy, sweet coconut ball is among his favorite junk foods. Without a doubt, however, he did not expect to find such a magical confection in China and certainly did not expect to find fresh-baked macaroons in a Chinese WalMart. It looks like Michael will have to make a pilgrimmage to the local WalMart next year for this critical Passover supply, though the discovery was too late this time around to help. Posted by Picasa

Monday, June 26, 2006

New Fruit

Okay, we are not really sure what this thing is, but we bought one and ate it recently. One of the exciting things about summer time here in China are all the new fruits that are showing up in the store as well as all the familiar fruits that are extremely cheep now. For example, red bell peppers have dropped from 20 kuai/jin (~$2/lb) to 3 kuai/jin (~$0.40/lb)

But back to the fruit at hand, or at least in hand as the case may be.
It sort of tasted like a honeydew and sort of looked like one also, except much smaller of course. We think we let it get a little too ripe as it was kind of tasteless and a little pasty.
Still, it looked interesting so we are glad that we gave it a shot.

It was no mangosteen though. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Vegetable Kofta

This was another experiment from this past weekend - Vegetable Kofta. These are created by
- cutting up and mixing whole bunches of vegetables (anyone know a fast way of cutting onions?)
- adding spices, breadcrumbs (we can't find breadcrumbs so we used matzah meal instead. Its about a breadcrumb to matzah meal 2:1 substitution), and an egg
- rolling the balls and adding a little more garam masala (what a fun word to say)
- baking all the little balls
- and finally enjoying the finger food (although there are very few foods that aren't finger food according to Cara) with a few dressings. We made a yogurt/coriander dressing and a mango chutney. Posted by Picasa

Sort of Samosas

We haven't been cooking much over the last few months, but we are trying to get back into the swing of things. This weekend we made some Indian food. Among other dishes we decided to make some samosas, but rather than make individual bite-size deep-fried servings, we made up the filling and put it in the center of a loaf of bread. Came out quite well though the filling needed some more spiciness. Our filling had potatoes, (a few too many) peas, onions, ginger, garlic, and (a few too few) spices. We have agreed there is a lot of room for experimentation with this dish so you will definitely hear about it again in the future. Posted by Picasa

Friday, June 23, 2006


mmmm.... Mangosteens
This is a wonderfully delicious fruit to which we have just recently been introduced. It is hard to describe just how incredibly delicious this particular treat tastes.
The outside purple rind is very hard and firm - but not too firm. If it is rock hard, then it has gone bad inside (producing something that resembles alien spoors). If it gives just slightly, then it is ready. Inside the rind are soft white pulps that are divided into sections like an orange, but without the pith. These are moist pieces of goodness. We acknowledge that these descriptions don't really tell you much about the taste, but the English language does not seem equipped with the proper language, so you will just have to come visit and try one to fully understand what we are talking about.

They are definitely in the top five best fruits of all time. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

If you're not cheating, you're not trying

China Daily ran a story yesterday about desperate students in China caught cheating on the College English Test conducted at schools across China. The article noted that in one test hall alone, 100 "cheating tools" were discovered. At another location, school officials were arrested for allowing four local students to hire proxies to take their tests for them. In other locations, school officials have been implicated with leaking test answers.

A few weeks ago, Chinese students across the country experienced the gruelling stress of China's college entrance exams. There are far more students than admissions slots, and this test is the only official determiner of who gets to go to the good schools. Unsurprisingly, cheating is rampant on this particular test, despite the fact that anyone caught with an illegal copy of the entrance exam can get up to 7 years in prison - a Chinese prison, we hasten to remind you - as a result of using this particular method.

Five years ago, AsianWeek (news magazine in San Francisco) ran an article documenting a cheating scandal in which a Chinese school was proven to be selling copies of U.S. college and graduate school entrance examinations at the school's bookstore. The article noted that this school had been found guilty of this practice twice before (in 1996 and 1997), suggesting that the practice is fairly ingrained. The People's Daily (government-sponsored Chinese newspaper) ran an editorial response, arguing (in poor English, ironically) that it is discriminatory for American testing services to make it harder for Chinese students to cheat on their tests.

As further testament to the culture of cheating here in China, we offer our readers some blogs (Metanoiac, Mask of China, Sinosplice) - written by Americans who came to China to teach English and were shocked by the brazenness of Chinese students in cheating. Oh, I also found an Australian writer for an international e-zine (Hackwriters) who posted on the subject.

Many Chinese are quite willing to talk about the pervasiveness of the cheating culture in China. Some are bothered by the possibility that their physician couldn't pass a legitimate medical exam, or that the engineers who are building the new subway system in Beijing (which has already suffered two collapses during construction) likely took a few shortcuts in college and may still be taking shortcuts on the job. Despite the heavy cost of this behavior, it is a difficult trend to correct. Perhaps the most shocking realization is that, if the stories Chinese people tell are true, many of these people put more effort into cheating than they'd have to expend if they simply decided to study for the test.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Firefly -or- How to swear in Mandarin

You may have heard of this show Firefly. It originally aired in 2002 and is now showing as reruns on the SciFi Channel. Here's a fun thing: when any of the characters make some comment that ought to be noticed by a censor, the writers switch from English to Mandarin Chinese. Joss Whedon, the show's creator, claims that the use of Chinese in the show is to reflect a geopolitical future in which the U.S. and China emerge as the two superpowers on Earth, eventually squeezing out all languages other than English and Chinese. The actors on the show argue that Whedon does it just to guarantee a gag reel (the actors agree that the Chinese phrases they have to memorize are crazy long and hard to pronounce). If you're looking for some translations of these crude colloquialisms from the Far East, you can check out this Firefly fan site, which happens to be blocked by the Great Firewall of China (shocking!), presumably to prevent people in China from learning just what to say the next time they read yet another story about how a local bank manager used bank money to buy a private jet, fly to Las Vegas, and lose about 2 million dollars before being caught by the FBI. Who wouldn't need a good bit of Chinese profanity at a moment like that?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The last of Xinjiang

We are finishing off the last of our Xinjiang dried fruit. The black coal like things at the upper left are Chinese prunes. Very sweet (the white stuff is powdered sugar) and tasty. To their right is a small bowl of dried apricots. The flavor isn't bad, but the texture is about the same as what you might imagine shoe leather to be. Continuing clockwise, below the apricots are dried figs. The paler a dried fig is, the more expensive it is. However, we should point at that, in general, as prices went up in any given product category, flavor seemed to match it. We got what we paid for, by and large. Finally, in the lower left of the photo are some "yellow" raisins. Some are red, some orange, and some green, but most of them are a shade of yellow. Mellow and sweet, they taste a little like apricots. Cara didn't think they tasted enough like raisins, which is why they were left so long for Michael to eat through them all. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bye Bye

Jenny and Anthony, two of the first friends we made out here, are headed back to the States today. We are very sad to see them go.

Monday, June 12, 2006

There Can Be Only One

Having left Waifang in Dunhuang, Yeenyee, Olivia, Cara, and Michael boarded our train for our final ride back to Beijing. Rather than suffer the 5 hour plane ride and the 45 minute taxi cab ride from the Beijing airport, we decided to go with the 44 hour train ride and the 20 minute taxi ride from the train station.

It was a great choice!

We had stocked up on food before getting on the train so when the four of us took over our own personal sleeper room on the train, we were pretty much set for the next two days. We were even able to enjoy a personalized raisin testing.

We watched the scenery change and relaxed and studied on the train. We even managed to catch up on our sleep. It was lovely.

Upon arriving in Beijing we sent Yeenyee back to her apartment in her own cab and the three of us that were left climbed into a cab together and headed east. Olivia had the farthest distance to go so she dropped us off at the subway stop near our apartment and then continued on.

As we watched the cab pull away, we saw her doing a victory dance - she was the survivor!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Dunes, Donkeys, and Drizzle in Dunhuang

Without much fanfare, we boarded our overnight train to Dunhuang. Dunhuang is in Gansu Province, next to Xinjiang, so this also marked our official departure from China's version of the Wild West. Since Dunhuang is known for its dunes, we were surprised at the steady drizzle that fell upon us all day long; fortunately, though the famous caves there are officially closed when it rains (to protect the area from too much erosion), our guide kindly informed us that there weren't enough tourists there on that particular day to threaten the landscape, and we were able to make a good day of things.

Having addressed both the dunes and drizzle of Dunhuang, we now feel obligated to tell you about the donkeys. Specifically, about the donkey meat. Considered a significant part of the local cuisine (but not in the way that lamb is out in Xinjiang), donkey meat was more or less indistinguishable from Chinese beef (draw your own conclusions from that observation), though the gravy that accompanied the meat made it highly palatable.

Back to our story: our primary objective in Dunhuang was to check out the "Ten Thousand Buddhas" caves. Dunhuang is famous for this collection of nearly 500 caves (some of which are too small to even stick your head into, so take that number with a grain or two of salt). The caves are chock full o' buddhas, including a few of epic sculptural proportions. Sadly, photos were forbidden. Just in case you never get a chance to check out these caves yourselves, try this: imagine a fat man. A very fat man. Give him earlobes that stretch down to his shoulders and a scary-size lump on top of his skull (to reflect his enlightenment, of course, as this is from the expansion of his brain; to quote Arnold Schwartzenegger, "it is not a tumor!"). Have this fat man looking out through half-closed eyes - you know, that look con-artists get when they know they have you on the dangle. Finally (and this is the key part), make him tall. Yeah, we know; we already told you he's fat. Well, he also happens to tower over mere mortals. So imagine this positively enormous dude. No, bigger than you're thinking. Really. A tad larger....close.....yep. That big. Pretty amazing, huh? Here's the tricky part: stick this preposterous fat man (who is the size of a ten-story building) in a bathrobe and then squeeze him into a cave that is barely larger than he is. Use that shoehorn you stole from the hotel this morning if you have to, but make sure the entire statue gets into the cave. Got that image in your mind? Outstanding. Paint ten thousand buddhas on the walls and slap on a few magnificent murals that tell the incredible story of buddhism such that the inside of the cave looks a little something like the Sistene Chapel's interior would if Ghandi had decorated it instead of Michaelangelo.

You can now save yourself the trouble and expense of making a journey to Dunhuang. Please deposit a quarter on your way out the door. Given that it took roughly a thousand years to create all those caves and the shockingly vast fresco works in each of them, we just saved you a whopper of a lot of time visiting each one.

It turns out that this site also had a "secret library." Yeah, we know what you're thinking: how can our blog possibly report on a "secret" library? The point is that it was secret until the early part of the twentieth century. Then some art collectors/historians from Europe and the United States came and carted most of it off. You know, another case of the West rescuing archaeological treasures and then forgetting to repatriate it later. Not that the Chinese have a decent record for preserving their history (Cultural Revolution, anyone?), but it is a wee bit demoralizing for Chinese people researching Chinese ancient history to have to book a flight to London to see the key bits sitting in the British Museum.

Having successfully navigated the caves, we returned to Dunhuang proper and did a bit of walking through town. As sometimes happens, this walk presented us with yet another priceless photo op. We walked by a restaurant whose name alone guaranteed it a place on our blog: Fatso Hemp Hot Burn. Not quite sure how people manage to get fat on burning hemp, but the remarkable part about this restaurant is that - at least according to the sign over the door - it is part of a chain of restaurants. Scary. Sadly, we did not take the time to check the menu or to verify that there are really other locations. To be honest, we were more than a little intimidated.

At the end of our day in Dunhuang, we deposited Waifang in her hotel and the four of us who remained began the long train-ride back to Beijing. Whew! How is it that these blog entries keep getting so long?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Last Taste of Urumqi

Having just barely survived the fervor of the night market, the group slept in Saturday morning and then met in the hotel dining lounge for a 2 hour breakfast. We extended our meal for two reasons.
1. The food was pretty tasty with both Western and Eastern styles available (a very special treat - there was even something that tasted like bread pudding!) and
2. We were losing the first member of our party as soon as the meal was over. Yup, Will thought he needed to go back to work on Monday and it would be best if he had a day to rest from his vacation so he could actually function.

Between breakfast and our departure that evening, we decided to hit a few more things in Urumqi. First we checked out the "Museum of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region". In this museum we saw a history of the silk road and the Xinjiang region which included details explaining how China had controlled this area continually since… well since about forever, or at the very least, 2300 years ago. This was supported by the fact that every hundred years or so a new structure for the local Chinese authority would be built in the Xinjiang area. Its hard to adequately capture the slant on this history as the Chinese government strives to definitively prove that they have a right to the Xinjiang land and people. A historical picture that is somewhat contested by the local Uygurs and much of the archeological information. This is not to totally disagree with China’s governing of the region today, but the idea that China has been in solid control of the area and is responsible for of their major advancements in the last 2000 years seems to be a bit of a stretch. Especially if you consider the incredibly well preserved mummies that have been found in the region. There were at least 4 of them at the museum and they are of Indo-European ethnicity, not a Chinese in the bunch. The mummies are so well preserved that you can still see their clothing, hair, and even the designs painted on their faces.

The museum also had a section on some the ethnic minorities of Xinjiang including a few life sized yurts. We were suspicious of them though since none of the mannequins who were set up to use the yurts looked the least bit cold. Clearly it was an idealized representation.

After the museum we decided to have one last taste of one of our favorite Xinjiang dishes, da pan ji (literally: big plate chicken). This is a delicious meal of a whole chicken cut up and cooked in a pressure cooker with spices and potatoes and special Xinjiang goodness. Once the bulk of the meat and potatoes are gone, including the chicken feet (Olivia’s plate) and chicken head (garbage pail under the table), the staff brings out a huge dish of thick wide noodles and dumps them into the remaining gravy. Although the 5 of us who were left were barely able to finish the immense meal we realized we just had to make up for stuffing ourselves by going for some local ice cream. (If you have not yet noticed, ice cream was a big deal on this trip.)

We had read about an amazing ice cream parlor that served pistachio ice cream. Our first day in Urumqi we found the place but discovered that the old ice cream parlor was gone. The new ice cream place served a lovely vanilla flavor with the option of a cherry or mulberry topping. It was quite good. In fact, it was so good we had made a special point of the fact that we simply had to go back there before leaving town. So we did. On the way we stopped and bought some snacks for our overnight train ride (including more raisins) and some small wheels of local cheeses. By small we mean 2 inches in diameter and about 3/4 inches thick. We purchased goat cheeses of various ages, mare cheese, and some regular old cow cheese (we think). They were all pretty strongly flavored and of the remaining group only Cara was interested in eating the stuff.

Although we had barely 30 minutes left before we needed to be back at the hotel to pick up our stuff and head out of town, we did manage to make it to the ice cream parlor and order one last round for the road. As we were sitting there savoring our dessert, the owner came and sat down with us and started a conversation concerning ice cream machinery, flavor options, and the Haagen-Dazs competition. He was a very nice and interesting man but unfortunately we had to rush away before we could help him choose the appropriate ice cream making machine from his catalog. Still, what a great final taste of Urumqi.

After that, we still somehow managed to roll ourselves back to the hotel, pick up all our bags, and catch our overnight train for Dunhuang. We’ll tell you all about the donkey’s there in our next blog.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Night Market Madness

So there we were, back in Urumqi, thinking our adventures were coming to a close. It was our last night all together, as Will was to fly back to Beijing the next day. For those of you who want track our final countdown, this means there will be about four more Xinjiang posts as the bodies will keep dropping out, kind of like "Survivor Xinjiang" or some such folly. But we digress.....

On our last night in Urumqi, we decided it was time to head out and find a decent "street" dinner. China in general is a great place to find fast food cooked on street corners throughout most cities. Xinjiang, as we have noted before, had no shortage of street vendors offering grilled lamb, lamb's-head stew, lamb's intestine, leg o' lamb (you get the picture - just think of the shrimp lecture delivered by Bubba in Forrest Gump). Off we set, then, in search of food.

We asked the doorman of our hotel where a good night market was located. He indicated that it was right there on the very street on which we were standing. The very bare, unexciting, empty street. We thought we misunderstood him, asked again, and received the same answer. Coming to the conclusion that he must think we would be satisfied with the 2 overpriced lamb-on-a-stick vendors across the way, we set off down the road to just see what we could find.

The time was 5:26

We started walking down the street, commenting as we went on the possibilities of finding a decent night market and some street vendors and our disappointment in not being able to more effectively communicate with the doorman. About a block from our hotel we passed an alley leading slightly uphill. Our group started to cross the alley.

The time was 5:28

About half of our group had strolled across the alley and started thinking about checking out some of the visable restaurants. We noticed that the restaurants were starting to set up outside tables and we were excited about the prospect of being able to eat and enjoy people watching at the same time.
We heard a load noise start from the alley we had just crossed.

The time was 5:28 and 30 seconds

And the market appeared!
From the alley that half of us had just crossed, the massed charge of over 50 street vendor carts rushed forth and, in an almost choreographed dance, swerved left or right as they exited from the alley and dashed for their places along the road upon which we were walking. Metal buckets of red hot coals swung outward as the carts were hurtled in front of us and we could feel their heat as they passed less than a foot away. Our group was separated on either side of the flood as it came so fast that not all of our group had even manage to cross the 10 feet width of the alley. We were laughing and pointing and in complete awe of the madness.

5:35 and from the front of our hotel to over 4 blocks away the road was now lined on both sides with food vendors. The coals were already hot, meat was already prepared, and dishes were being served to the crowd that seemed to have materialized just as mysteriously as the vendors themselves. And not just any old dishes, but foods that we had never seen before were being offered to every passerby.

Here is a pictures of the Wu-Yi night market courtesy of Imagethief. We even saw whole lambs cooked and sitting atop carts, some with bows around their necks. Sadly, we did not have our camera with us that evening.

In the spirit of adventure, everyone was suppose to set off and try to find a food they had not eaten before that they wished to try. Though we were tempted, we decided against trying the grubs and locusts we saw. Instead we feasted on lamb heart, aorta, lung, shank (with hooves attached) as well as the standard kebobs. We also tried octopus and an oddly spiced fish and other things that we can no longer remember. We rounded out the meal with fruit and some yogurt/nut/sugar drinks. We then went off to explore the rest of the market and get some desserts. We found some ice cream (though not as good as the handmade creations at the livestock market) and cotton candy! The really cool thing about the cotton candy was that the machine making it was hooked into a bicycle wheel so that the vendor could peddle the bike to generate the energy. You can see a picture of it here.

Having eventually satiated ourselves we headed back the road to our hotel, stopping at some of the copious raisin sellers to pick up just a few more kilos to take home with us. Here is yet another photo that someone else took that gives you a wonderful sense of the incredible raisin options.

The moral of this story?
Trust the doorman

Monday, June 05, 2006

China on World Environment Day

Today, as it happens, is World Environment Day. For that reason, we've decided to (yet again) interrupt the long version of our travels through Xinjiang to bring you a few comments about China from an environmental perspective. China began filling up the next stage of the Three Gorges Dam yesterday; other than being the grandest of grand boondoggles, the Three Gorges Dam is supposed to provide a control for annual flooding of the Yangzi River (all four thousand twisty miles of it). To build this epic structure, the Chinese government planned the relocation of nearly two million residents and planned to submerge an immense expanse of the Chinese landscape. The ecological impact is difficult enough to comprehend; to put the raw number into context, imagine if one American out of every 150 had to relocate their homes to accommodate a new government project. The protests would bring a democratic government to its knees.

At any rate, some critics claim that China's history with dams is less than inspiring, though the real question is whether the Three Gorges Dam will significantly improve China's water management needs. In the "not-such-an-auspicious-sign" department (one always carefully checked by Chinese politicos, though apparently ignored this time), the Three Gorges Dam is the dream project of Li Peng. You may remember Li Peng from famous Chinese rally cries, such as the elegant "Li Peng is a Melonhead." Li Peng, former Premier of China, took the lead in the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. To his credit, he tried to talk the students into peacefully quitting the protest, but the students were already well into their hunger-strike by that point and according to some reports weren't the most coherent in explaining their demands (one of which demanded that Li Peng step down). Li Peng, not to put too fine a point on things, was the Charlie Brown of the Revolution.

The ecological up-side to the Three Gorges Dam, according to the government, is that it will deliver enough clean energy to replace approximately 50 million tons of coal burned in the area every year. As you can see from the photo at the top of this blog (taken at 5pm today), air pollutants - such as coal - are still a serious concern for an industrious behemoth like China. Beijing announced that 20,000 drivers registered in Beijing promised to not drive their cars today in honor of World Environment Day. According to one of Michael's teachers, this was something of a euphemism, as he received a notice in the mail informing him that he was not permitted to drive his car today. Either way, it would seem that the gesture was a token one.

Perhaps Li Peng isn't the only Melonhead in China, though we shall await the verdict of the Chinese people on that determination.

Tune in tomorrow, as we return to our regularly scheduled Blogcast, where we will introduce you to the most stunning display of street-market logistics any of us have ever witnessed. Our friends over at Imagethief currently hold the copyright on both audio and video recorded on that particular evening in Urumqi, but we will do what we can to bring some of this media to your eyes here at the Shamrock Jews Adventure Story.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Emin Minaret

While it looks like a fantastic place from which one might give the call to prayer expected in Muslim communities, as near as we could tell Emin Minaret (see photo on left) and the adjacent mosque (see photo below right) were not in active religious use. A neighboring vineyard appeared to have the in-use mosque, which looked to be significantly larger than the mosque we visited. Considering that the mosque adjoining Emin Minaret has an official capacity of 1000 people, the scale of the two mosques together was impressive.

The nutshell history of Emin Minaret is that the local big-wig of Turpan in 1776 managed to supress a local rebellion of aristocrats; in 1777 and 1778, locals constructed this massive minaret (72 steps in a spiral staircase lead to a chamber at the top) to commemorate the success.

A key indicator that the Emin Minaret and mosque are no longer in use was the complete absence of Uighurs at the site. All the people we saw working on the mosque grounds were Han Chinese, and therefore unlikely to be Muslims. Given how few Han Chinese lived in the area, it seemed odd that the neighborhood mosque would be run by Han.

Friday, June 02, 2006

A Parting Gift from Turpan

As we have noted before, the Uighurs we met in Xinjiang were, without exception, warm and generous. Shortly before departing Turpan to return to Urumqi (where we planned to ditch Will at the airport and hop on a train headed for Dunhuang), we took a final stroll through the peaceful neighborhoods in the area. Our objective was the Su Gong Ta Mosque (watch for our blog entry on it tomorrow!) and we figured the best way to get there was to get lost in the warren of dirt roads and vineyards that criss-cross the outskirts of Turpan.

Along the way, we found ourselves walking along a dirt path parallel to a local stream. When we finally got to a natural crossing point, we decided to head more directly toward the mosque. We were unprepared for the result of our decision. Had we kept walking along the stream we never would have met the old woman in the photo above. We happened to cross the stream precisely when this matronly local had stepped out of her humble home to retrieve the day's bread from a clay oven. Naturally, since there were strangers in the area, she immediately offered us an entire loaf, straight from her oven. It was a little hot to the touch, but there are few gustatory experiences that can compete with fresh-from-the-oven bread.

Did we mention that Uighurs are friendly? We did? Perhaps we should remind you a few more times....