Tag Archives: Xinjiang

A Birthday Yurt in Xinjiang

A Birthday Yurt in Xinjiang    —by Jinny Batterson

As my 60th birthday approached, I spent some time talking with the Foreign Affairs Officer, Mr. Ma, at our desert reclamation school in western Xinjiang.  He wanted to host a birthday party for me. Having parties seemed to be one of the activities that FAO Ma liked best to arrange. After a rather harsh winter, a party seemed like a good idea to me, too.  Our celebration would occur on the weekend closest to my actual birthday in early April.  Mr. Ma said for me and my husband Jim to be ready at our apartment to be picked up by a school car at about 10 on Sunday morning.  A vehicle appeared on time, but it was a school van, rather than a passenger car. Crammed into it were nearly a dozen of our colleagues, along with the 12-year-old son of one of our fellow teachers, a precocious youngster who sometimes came to English Corner to practice his English.  We were going together to have a birthday feast at a “tourist yurt” along the Tarim River at the western edge of town.

I’d never been in a yurt before.  These wood and fabric structures traditionally have been used by pastoral nomads in Mongolia and across the northern reaches of China.  In Xinjiang, yurts are usually associated with the Kazakh minority who pasture sheep and goats in the highlands and mountains.  Yurts require minimal raw materials, and can be readily assembled and disassembled. Their portability fits well with a nomadic lifestyle of following the best pasturage to different elevations in different seasons. As tourism has gained a footing in Xinjiang, some enterprising locals have created more permanent “yurts” in its cities and towns, catering to foreigners in search of a little (but not too much) local culture.

Our birthday celebration yurt was rather large, perhaps twenty feet across, with a raised platform and table in the back half of the structure, away from the carpet-covered entrance door.  Yurts are circular, with gently pitched roofs that meet in a point at the center. This yurt’s exterior was covered with a rough fabric. It looked a bit like canvas to me, a drab tan color, perhaps stained from that year’s dust storms. The interior “walls” of the yurt, by contrast, were vibrant—fabrics in geometric and floral designs of every hue draped everything but the entryway, clashing and competing for attention. The floor was covered nearly everywhere with several layers of oriental carpets in different sizes and patterns.

Once we were all seated, servers brought in dishes that had been prepared in a separate shelter nearby.  We had cold sliced peeled vegetables, big plate spicy chicken, both boiled and roasted lamb, river fish,  barbecued chicken, and a variety of nuts and breads.  After we’d polished off most of the main course, one of the other teachers suggested a walk down by the river.  The group of us staggered away from the table, having downed enough food and swilled enough pineapple beer to feed and water a group twice our size.  The section of river where the yurt resort had been built was leveed. We walked for perhaps a quarter of a mile along the rocky top of the levee.  After enjoying a fairly pleasant afternoon’s milky sunshine, we returned to the yurt.

We chatted for a while. I expected that the van would soon return to take us back to school. Instead, one of the servers appeared at the doorway with a large, liberally iced circular birthday cake.  He lit a candle in its center, whereupon a miniature merry-go-round began twirling and playing the “Happy Birthday” song.

“Make a wish,” some of the other teachers cried.

I closed my eyes, wished to remember this special occasion, these special people, then blew as mightily as my overstuffed digestive tract would allow.  The candle went out briefly, then reignited—I hadn’t realized that trick candles were part of Chinese tradition.  The decoration  played the birthday song again, too, over and over and over.  Eventually the 12-year-old, who had sampled a bit of the pineapple beer but seemed less the worse for wear than most of us, picked up the entire decoration from the center of the cake, found a relatively uncarpeted part of our platform, and stomped out both the candle and the song.  The rest of my seventh decade, I thought, would have to be something of a letdown after this sort of start.


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!

One Country–Uniform and Indivisible?

One Country, Uniform and Indivisible?      —by Jinny Batterson

The People’s Republic of China celebrates its national day on October 1.  This holiday commemorates the official launch of this new-old country’s most recent government. On this day in 1949, Chinese guerrilla fighter turned government leader Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed from Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace that, after over a century of turmoil, China had finally “stood up.”  During the 65 years since then, the P.R.C. has consolidated its rule over much of China’s extensive territory, gaining international recognition as China’s official government. But problems remain. I’ve had more chances than many to experience some of the diversity and potential for divisiveness in China during travels and teaching in her hinterlands.

China’s population is about 92% “Han,” the dominant ethnic group. However, the 92% Han figure tends to mask the diversity even within Han-dominated regions—the P.R.C. officially recognizes over 50 non-Han ethnicities. China’s most heavily populated regions tend to be east and south, from Shandong Province down through Shanghai toward Hong Kong. Here, Han citizens far outnumber other groups. In contrast, large expanses of territory in China’s north, west, and southwest are more sparsely peopled, with substantial numbers of non-Han inhabitants. In some areas, such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and parts of Yunnan and Guangxi, other groups have historically outnumbered the Han. Intense resettlement and tourism efforts have increased the proportion of Han residents and visitors in these regions, but it is still possible, walking down a street in Kashgar or Lhasa, to feel one is no longer in China.

Any country with a continuous written history as long as the current expanse of China will have had periods when the unity of the country was tested.  Depending on the accounts you read and the length of your historical time line, you may have some doubt that China’s periods of “unity” are of longer duration than its periods of disunity. China is not, and never has been, a monolith, Western myths of uniform “yellow hoards” notwithstanding.  How to deal with the diversity that exists in many of its most strategically sensitive, resource-rich regions is a problem that has vexed successive Chinese governments for millennia.

My lengthiest exposure to the diversity of China came during the school year 2006-2007, when I was a foreign English teacher in Ala’er, Xinjiang.  I’ve been told that the town’s name means “jewel of the desert.” This small oasis town depended heavily for its existence on the glacier-fed Tarim River that came down from the mountains surrounding the Taklamakan Desert (the largest in Asia). The river supplied drinking and irrigation water to parts of that vast bowl-shaped depression before drying up near the desert’s eastern edge. I taught at a smallish “desert reclamation university” which had been founded during the 1950’s with the twin goals of securing China’s borderlands and taming the desert. Its ambition was to reclaim as much land as practical for productive agriculture or forest buffers against fierce windstorms and encroaching sands.

When I was in Ala’er, the non-student population of the town was predominantly Uyghur, a mostly Moslem pastoral group believed to be related to Turks, with a history of several centuries of nomadic subsistence in the area. The university was more heavily Han, though as many as 40% of its students came from non-Han groups. I was lucky that little of the sporadic violence that periodically mars relations between Han and non-Han inhabitants of the region occurred during my stay.  There were even some attempts at cross-cultural understanding—the end-of-Ramadan holiday of Eid al-Fitr was officially observed by Moslem students the year I was there, and several Han faculty members joined in the feasts and dancing.

The country of my birth, the United States of America, is poised to become a “majority minority country” within the next generation, with no single ethnic group predominating. As we struggle with our own diversity, may we have some compassion and understanding for the “minorities” (and the majority) within China.