It’s been two and a half years (plus 5 days) since I left China, and I’m finally starting to miss it.
I was ready to leave – most people are after a while, be it 2 months or 2 decades. Urumqi at the end rather sped up my desire for departure, as it was all the normal stress of China compacted with simmering ethnic tension, daily discrimination (of a sort far uglier – and violent – than in Bishkek), terrible pollution and traffic exacerbated by the city tearing up most main roads in rehauling all its water lines, and being under constant surveillance – not to mention having to walk past armored vehicles and soldiers armed to the teeth just to get to the bus stop.
Urumqi was stressful – as it was also beautiful, an ever-shifting cityscape to explore – dusty bazaars and the spice of steamed pumpkin dumplings, tea rooms and restaurants reminiscent of old caravans with floor cushions and stringed instruments, looking for a restroom and stumbling into an underground warren of shops filled with crystal and china to adorn Uyghur living rooms that even the French would envy, darting out into the biting winter cold to see the TianShan mountains glistening an ephemeral pink and blue above the city, wind sweeping down from the hills to shake the brilliant explosion of autumn leaves, running into a friend on the street and spending half a day in conversation.
And in Urumqi is the paradox of China: China is stressful, always. There are too many people, too little trust by the government of the people, too little trust by the people of the government, too much traffic, too much pollution and worrying about the safety of almost everything you eat. And yet it’s immensely rich and beautiful – always intense, always full of places to explore that you never imagined to exist.
Yesterday was cold, grey and drizzling. Walking through the park I felt like I was back in Chengdu – minus the bustle and quick chatter, and the savory-spicy food found in side street restaurants where the air steamed from soup broth and the laid-back line of hungry customers.
So – little things I’m missing today:
- Discovery. The sense of exploration, of there always being something different beyond that next peak – or just down the next street
- The pink dawn of desert winters, and desert bazaars just two steps away from old Central Asian caravans (sides of Kashgar, Aksu, and every town in Southern Xinjiang)
- The quiet everdrizzle of Sichuan wrapped in mist and green mountains
- Food. I have simmering a blog on 30 (or 50…) things you need to eat in China before you die, but until that’s here, just trust me – the food is delicious and different in every place. Except for rural Shanxi, where the food is plain terrible.
- Crisp and clean mountain air cold from the passes, whether in Tashkurgan or up for the day in Lijiang
- The people – always alive, always interacting. Sometimes way too in-your-face or over-curious about everything, but always, always vivacious.
- Humor. There’s always something to laugh at in China. Usually it’s Chinglish, though almost as often it’s some ridiculous dress or strange appropriation of public space.
where the food is plain terrible.