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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Pinball Man

I seem to have a split personality when traveling. There are times, whether days or weeks, where I am an isolated being, unwilling or unable to talk to anyone unless necessary. When I am this person I walk around for hours and hours on end. When I stop to have drinks, or when I am sitting in a cafe or bar in the evening, my long periods of writing are interrupted by frequent looks around the room, looks in which I search for reasons why I can't be with these other groups of people talking about the day's experiences or the next stop on the road.

My other personality, one which has made an appearance in the last few days finds me resembling a pinball. I bounce from person to person, group to group, small experience to small experience with no clear connection from one point of contact to the next, no reason to be given as to why or how I might end up in a certain situation.

My most recent pinball game started in Jiayuguan when I met Michiko, the Japanese girl. We did our tour there and then we ran into each other again in Dunhuang. In Dunhuang, as I was descending the sand dunes, I ran into Jan and his girlfriend, a German couple. We spent the following afternoon together and made plans to either meet in Urumuqi in the coming days, or for me to stay with Jan and his friends in Kunming sometime in late September or October (this could be a blessing as I will need to apply for a visa of some of some sort while in Kunming, and a Burmese visa at least may take up to 5 or 6 days, from what I hear. Don't know about the others).

From there I caromed off to Turufan (or Turpan). The overnight bus ride was smooth, though uncomfortable. For anyone ever planning to come to China, a word of advice: if you are taking an overnight sleeper bus, and are more than 5'10, do not get a bed on the upper level, unless it is the one right over the bus driver's head. The beds are too short to lay down straight in, and the ceiling too low to sit up. The ideal beds--the one over the driver's head, and the two at the front of the middle row (I think numbers 3,6, and I'm not sure of the other)--are the only ones I saw that would seem to allow a tall individual to stretch his or her legs straight.

Upon arrive in Turufan at 6:50, I witnessed a stunning sunrise and headed to a hotel. There, I encountered a Japanese girl and a South Korean girl, both studying Chinese in Beijing. They were looking to take a tour of Turufan's sights and invited me along as it made it cheaper for all of us. We took in the various ruins around here, and the endless amount of grapes. We drove through the flaming red "Fire Mountains," and past a canyon valley filled with trees and grass and a small rushing river. All the sights here are expensive, and most are not worth the cost of admission, so mostly we drove and took things in, getting out at times to walk through little villages or take pictures of the scenery. Not a bad day, but having spent 30 USD over the course of it, I could have expected a lot more.

So today I decided to rent a bike for a few hours and head into the countryside a bit. Again, endless green rows of grape plants. Passing open doors of houses, one looks in and sees first darkness, and then light broken by trellises. Then hanging grapes, and perhaps clothes hanging, or a wooden ladder leading to the roof of the house (more on that later). People might be seen in the shadows, playing cards or doing some unseen activity with their hands. In the front near the door, perhaps, the bed on which two, three, or maybe four people will sleep at night because Turufan is in the second lowest depression in the world (or some such thing) and thus is something like a boiler pot. [Evidently it's a geographic depression, not financial a one.--ed.] Yesterday our nice guide Ahkmed (spelling?) was going on about how cool it was (at 88 F), and today as I returned from my bike ride, I was told today was not hot (Im thinking 94 F). Further along the bike ride, the snow-peaked mountains behind the Fire Mountans were revealed. The road was lined by tall, narrow trees that diffused the sunlight and the heat and made the ride not just bearable but pleasurable. A bit further along, a small stream ran right by the road. Men were washing their carpets (Persian style carpets) and young girls were washing clothes. Donkeys, motorbikes, three-wheeled motor taxis and cars shared the road.

At a point I decided I would turn onto the next side road. This was a dirt road and brought me to some children playing. I took out my camera to take a picture of them. This brought more children, and then parents. A man my age came out and asked me to take a pic of his daughter. Then I went into his house, which is really more like a compound as it is walled in and there are a few buildings and a wide open dusty yard. I climbed the ladder leading to the roof and there was a small building with three solid walls and one wall which had diamond-shaped holes cut into it from top to bottom and side to side. This was to let light in on the grapes that were hanging to dry. I watched as they set long metal rods to hang from hooks hanging from the ceiling, and then laid thin wooden sticks across the the metal rods. Outside, a man on the ground used a pulley system to lift baskets of grapes to a man dressed in dirty navy blue clothes and a farmer's cap. His short arms were laced with veins, and because of the condition of his teeth, and his deep wrinkles, it was impossible to tell his age. He pulled the baskets from the pulley and I took them to the men still inside the room, who were hanging the grapes over the wooden rods. They gave me some tea to drink and then I left. I paid nothing for this experience, but will remember it much longer than any of the "sights" I saw yesterday.

A while later I again made the decision to turn down the next road. Again it was a dirt road. Again I passed small children playing. They waved as did I. I turned back a while later and again took my camera out to take a picture. The kids came and we played a while. Then they brought me bags of grapes. Yesterday I paid .25 USD for a jin of grapes. Today I got about 2 jins of fresh picked grapes for free. As I rode off I waved to one of the boys' mother, just visible inside the door to their place. She had prepared the grapes for me and she waved back. I could see her smile, but not much else. A few minutes later, a truck full of men unloading fruit called me to stop and come over. One of them handed me a watermelon. They didn't want their pictures taken or to talk and find out where I was from and what I thought of their country. They just wanted to give me a watermelon. As my bike had no basket, I was becoming rather weighted down on the ride, but who could complain about this?

The people I was passing were mostly Uigher men and women, many of whom don't speak Chinese. Others were white bearded Muslim men. The children and the men were often stunning in their appearance, despite their dirty faces and clothes, their bare feet and rolled-up pants legs. The structure of their faces, and the colors of their eyes lend them a unique and striking look, and it leads me to wonder at what further changes I will find in appearances, in types of people encountered as I go further west.

Urumuqi tomorrow. [Enigmatic.--ed.]

Last night I ate at a small vendor stand. The two women working were not Chinese, but Uigher, or some other minority here. The older woman was fat and loud and she cooked an excellent soup. She wore a colorful dress and a headscarf and sweated as the soup boiled and she stirred and added spices and beans and tomatoes. A man next to me decided I needed some spice in my soup and so poured some in. The man next to me decided I needed more tea. We ate side by side in silence, sweating in the heat of the enclosed space. The younger woman smiled, the smile of a woman who works very very hard to get by from day to day. I felt at home there, even as I knew that such a feeling was a load of bullshit, that after I was finished eating I would go back to my 4 USD room with A/C and I would do some work on the photos I had taken that day and drink a cold bottle of beer and sleep.

Time now for me to go see where the pinball machine will shoot me next.

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