Friday, October 23, 2009

Beijing Time

Beijing Time

October 18, 2009

I awoke this morning to darkness and it was nearly 8am—Am I in Siberia? Hardly, in fact Urumqi is probably on par with Milwaukee as far as latitude goes. In other words, 8am equates to daylight hours. The problem lies in Beijing’s insistence that the entire PRC be in the same time zone, known as Beijing Time. For a country as wide as China, this simply isn’t practical. Confusion arises in places such as Urumqi, which should be two hours behind Beijing. Since it’s not, people must adjust accordingly. Banks are open from 10am-8pm and people don’t eat lunch until three in the afternoon. . . . usually. Some people choose to speak in terms of what the local time should be, so to be safe one must always confirm a time with the question, “Is that Beijing Time?”

Later. . .

I’m on the road again, off to Turpan, this time by bus. We occasionally pass wild camels strolling by the highway, which absolutely thrills me. Suddenly, the driver slams on the breaks, going from 60mph to nil in a blink of an eye. I’m just glad he does us the courtesy of pulling over to the shoulder in the process. He exits the bus and I watch him with interest. Slipping on a pair of gloves, he walks toward the rear. Did something break? Do we have a flat tire? I certainly didn’t feel or hear anything to warrant this conclusion. What does the driver know that I don’t? I watch him as he crotches over a black object, picking it up and tossing it into the hold with the passenger luggage. This mysterious object, I realize, is a huge chunk of coal that must have fallen off the bed of a passing truck. Why let it go to waste? Nevermind the safety of his 60 helpless passengers, this guy wants his freebee.

Let it be noted, that this is not the first time a driver has stopped for road kill. Once, when I hired a driver in rural Shanxi Province, I was similarly startled by the sudden swerving of the car. We stopped, as did the car ahead of us. Turns out, that car had hit a wild pheasant (dinner!). When it comes to road kill, evidently there isn’t a lot of etiquette. My driver, with the reflexes of a cat, was first to the prize, snatching it up and throwing it into the trunk in world record breaking time. And so it happened on the way to Turpan. . . twice. The second time I was unable to get a glimpse of the treasure. I just waited patiently on the bus while the male passengers scurried off the bus, seizing the opportunity to have a quick cigarette break.

Turpan. . .

The military appear to be absent in this small city. There is a distinctive Arab atmosphere here and I feel as if I’ve been transported to the Middle East, as the people and architecture suggest. I like it—in a country this big you can feel like you’ve left the country without actually going anywhere. China is a lot like America in that sense.

Upon arrival in Turpan, I am greeted with numerous offers from drivers who want to take me to the attractions outside the city. While I would like to join a tour or hire a driver, finding a hotel is my first matter of business. Of course the hotel so highly recommended by the guidebook is now a pile of rubble, as is the only bank that exchanges currency and the travel agency I was hoping to arrange a tour with. In China, you must always have a back-up plan, so I headed to mine—Turpan Hotel.

At Turpan Hotel, I score a decent economy room for a mere 50RMB (US$8) and am again harassed by a potential driver, but now that I’m settled into my accommodation I am willing to hear him out. He has already found two Israeli men who want to hire him as their driver, under the condition that they can find another person to share the cost. I agree to join them in their tour, but first we must find these Israelis so we can settle on our plan.

Halik, the driver, says they were planning to visit the Bazaar and invites me on his quest to find them. Having nothing better to do, I agree. We hop in his car and driver over to the market, scanning the sidewalk for tall, white boys. We walk through the Bazaar twice, without a foreigner to be seen. No worries, I make a pit stop for some traditional Uighur food, a few meaty, fatty lamb kebobs. Halik and I take another lap but to no avail, so I’m driven back to the hotel and Halik will continue on his search. He solemnly swears that he will find the two tall Israelis by nightfall. I’m skeptical, but impressed by his persistence. I now also realize how utterly desperate this guy is to be our driver. After the July rioting there have been virtually no tourists visiting Xinjiang. I can’t help but feel a little sorry for Halik and wonder if this is his only means to make a living. I decide that I will hire him to be my driver, Israelis or not.

Eventually everything does work out for all of us. The Israeli guys, Yonathan and Eran, find a third wheel (me), I join their tour, and Halik gets to drive us around for a day. We all agree on a price (300RMB for the car for the day) and the time, 9am (Beijng Time).

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