Asia | China | North West | Altai – Daniel’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame
Lets Go described Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, as a mostly Han industrial city without much character. Most of our time in Urumqi was spent in the bank trying to get credit card advances after repeated failures, but we did manage for a quick walk through the market in the Uygher section of town. Even though not so pretty as Kunming, Urumqi actually was one of the most interesting big cities in China despite the ubiquitous construction sites and half-functional modern facilities.
As if one street separated two countries, the Uygher section was much less organized, but livelier than the Han Chinese section. Vendors shouted with passion, and grabbed our arms as if the pink little girls dresses and mens socks were the most interesting commodity in town. The entire section was an ocean of noises, foreign yet exciting. We skimmed through some carpets and knives, but were uninterested in the items, and joined some locals under a huge umbrella for some freshly churned ice cream.
I still dont know how we ended up going to Altai, the northern most city in Xinjiang near the border of Mongolia and Russia. Perhaps it was lure of an alpine border town not mentioned in any of the English-language guidebooks. But here we were, tickets in hand, and ready to board the overnight bus at the Urumqi station as evening came.
Curious fellow travelers surrounded us. The only good thing about traveling abroad without speaking the language is that questions eventually die when people realize that you have no idea what they are asking. However, I did not have such luxury on this trip. I couldnt even pretend to be dumb. Like every other Chinese we had met so far, they assumed that Daniel was the rich boss and me his hired translator. After traveling for three weeks together, my voice was exhausted and my patience wearing thin from having to answer the same questions about Daniel over and over, such as what he did for a living, whether he was married, what he used for shaving, etc. I could even feel my facial muscles stiffening from putting on a fake smile to charm our way out of being ripped off.
The situation improved slightly this time though. He became everybodys new friend because of his attempt to converse in the few Kazak and Uygher phrases freshly picked up from the Lonely Planet Phrasebook. The blond hair and blue-eyed American look helped, too. The driver assigned us to the best of the remaining sleepers, and within an hour we had three people giving us travel advise and one guy offering us his place to stay in Altai. As Daniel sought lessons from an Uygher teacher sitting behind us, the whole bus came to help. I finally had a few minutes of precious inattention until his vocabulary ran out and questions were fired at me again.