Tag Archives: Xinjiang

Sandstorms, Yellow Air in Xinjiang

Sandstorms, Yellow Air in Xinjiang   —by Jinny Batterson

When the weather finally began to warm during the year when my husband and I taught English at a small desert reclamation college by the desert in far northwestern China (2006-2007), at first we rejoiced. The days grew longer. Siberian iris began poking up along the edges of campus walkways. After months of bundling up in layers of heavy clothing whenever we ventured outside, we could finally wander our campus with only a light jacket. Spring was just around the corner, and not a moment too soon. Earlier in the year, some of our best students as well as some of the veteran teachers had warned us about spring’s 6-8 week period of “yellow air” in our oasis town in western Xinjiang. We still were not prepared for dust storm season.

March winds in Xinjiang pick up dust from the Taklimakan desert and blow it around, occasionally in strong storms. The year we were there, we heard about a severe dust and wind storm that had derailed 11 train cars negotiating a mountain pass. Over thirty people were hospitalized. There were several fatalities. Dust storms stir up a ubiquitous haze that can last for weeks, until an infrequent rain comes through to settle the dust.

By Beijing time, the sun in late winter and early spring rose about 9 a.m.  It was typically 11 or even noon before sunlight pierced the haze enough to form shadows.  The red disk then shone weakly for a few hours before disappearing into the westward haze bank about 4. We only experienced two dust storms directly, both of them mild—the first came up suddenly in early afternoon while we were in our apartment preparing for afternoon classes.  The school’s alarm system sounded, followed by an announcement that our Foreign Affairs Officer and minder soon translated into English for us via phone:

“Afternoon classes are canceled today. Please stay indoors.”

At the height of the storm, our efforts to take pictures out our apartment windows were fruitless. The camera’s flash went off, but all that showed in the resulting photograph was a foot or so of murky brown air. We couldn’t even see the willow trees in the quadrangle between our building and the apartment blocks maybe a hundred yards across the way.  The storm abated nearly as quickly as it had come up. By sunset, the air, though still somewhat murky, had returned to stillness.

Before the year we spent in Xinjiang, we’d only seen a sandstorm from a distance. On an earlier trip to parts of northern and central China in 2002, we’d just boarded an airline flight heading south out of Beijing when one of that season’s storms rolled in from the northwest. We could see an orange-brown haze spreading toward the capital, but were well aloft and further south before it began to affect the city. On the following evening’s television news, we saw that the storm had briefly cut visibility to a few yards, had left a heavy coating of grit on cars, buildings, and roads, and had caused respiratory problems.

Sandstorms have long been a feature of springtime in northern China. According to some sources, they have gotten worse in recent years, despite large-scale efforts to plant shelter belts of trees and grasses to stabilize the soil and sands of the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts, whose surfaces are stirred up by spring winds.  Another multi-decade effort has been to transfer massive amounts of water from China’s southern provinces toward the more arid north. One phase of this effort, bringing water to Beijing, went online during the winter of 2014-2015. In our small town of Ala’er, Xinjiang, responses to the storms seemed to be a combination of resignation, irrigation, grass and tree planting, and staying indoors.

On an afternoon in early May, the skies darkened once more, but this time they brought thunder and rain. I was amazed at the number of umbrellas that suddenly sprouted in this place of rare downpours.  After a couple of hours, first of drenching showers, then of gentler drizzle, the skies cleared.  That evening, the sunset featured streaks of rainbow colors against a crystal blue background. The season of yellow air was finally over.

Silent Night in China

Silent Night in China  —by Jinny Batterson  

The Thanksgiving I spent in Ala’er, Xinjiang, China as a foreign English teacher at a desert reclamation college was one of my most memorable (please see post from November 24, 2014 for more detail).  Buoyed by the good feelings that holiday celebration generated, I started making plans for Christmas. I checked with the school administration and got permission to rehearse and conduct a student winter holiday chorus as part of a larger program by the school’s English department near the end of the solar calendar year. As December advanced, many shops on campus and in town put up Western-style Christmas decorations. (You’ve probably noticed that most holiday decor these days is manufactured in China.) Because American friends with experience in China had cautioned my husband and me to avoid any appearance of religious proselytizing, I picked out three more or less neutral holiday songs for our chorus numbers:  “White Christmas” (on honor of a light snow which fell in late November and  lingered in shady areas for weeks), the Latin round “Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace),” and as a finale, a rousing version of “Deck the Halls.”  I tried scheduling four weekend chorus rehearsals—I think two actually took place, with a different set of student singers at each.

The English program, coincidentally held on Christmas Eve, found our chorus of about 60 singers, rehearsed or not, standing in uneven rows on three sets of steps at the front of the school auditorium. Most of the students owned or had borrowed red or green clothes to wear. I had a red elf’s cap from a local shop, and wielded a long chopstick as my baton. Our singing was lusty, mainly on key, and well received.  Other acts by some of the Chinese teachers of English got great reviews, especially one by a half dozen young women skimpily clad in black who did a jazzy dance to a hit English-language song in China that year, “God is a Girl.”  As a program finale, “Santa Alex,” one of the school’s best English students, explained a little of the secular part of the legend of Santa Claus. Alex was dressed in an improvised Santa costume, scrounged and adapted from one of the local shops. We’d supplied him with a sack filled with the red envelopes most Chinese children get at Chinese New Year, each containing a few hard candies and a small-denomination Chinese coin. Everyone got a small gift. No one, not even the laziest student, got a lump of coal.

Christmas Day was not a holiday in Ala’er. In fact, most students were extra busy studying for end-of-term exams, which would start soon. However, the older brother of one of our students, who lived in town, invited us out to dinner.  Asajean, whose name roughly translates as “Jesus,” was ethnically Uyghur, member of a largely Moslem group that had lived in this arid area for centuries. He ran a small private English tutoring business, and had often phoned us with questions about English vocabulary or grammar.  We joined him for a “big plate spicy chicken” evening meal at a local restaurant.  Afterwards,  Asajean walked us back to our campus apartment. It was a cold, clear, starlit night, with the stillness that only comes when most people are indoors and motorized traffic is non-existent. As we neared our apartment block, some unexpected music started playing over the campus loudspeakers—“Silent Night,”  complete with four-part harmony and English lyrics. For one brief moment, this juxtaposition of a Chinese-administered university, a Moslem dinner host, and a Western religious Christmas carol seemed the most natural thing in the world. Happy holidays, all!