Oh, Those Wild Kazaks

To call Yerkeibeck and Tursinjan wild is a misnomer, for they may be the most mild-mannered and soft-spoken people I know in Xinjiang.  But the personalities surrounding them make up an eccentric and motley group.

Yesterday after finishing work at ten I was supposed to meet Y for dinner downtown.  At ten-twelve he was “On his way, be there soon” (and, of course, when one person has a car, it is not okay for the other person to use other means of transportation to arrive at the decided meeting place, even if it may be faster or more convenient). I waited, and waited, and really wished I had stayed in the Dico’s where I had bought  cup of coffee, and just when I was taking my phone out of my pocket to call him and say that I’d given up and gone home, he and Tursinjan arrived.

We drove ten minutes to a large hotel/restaurant/disco complex in Xingfu Huayuan (幸福花园) on Dawan Road (大弯北路), one of two main drags in southern Urumqi, and the center of Kazakh/Russian culture.

I was promptly deposited and told to wait and have dinner with a friend of theirs while they went off, “very shortly” to sing two songs.

I thought he meant in another room/banquet hall in the hotel, but it turned out that he had been requested to go and sing at a wedding located elsewhere by some high commissioner of Gansu. My bad for not understanding Kazakh.

Shortly (again) turned into quite a long time, and I ended up having a very extended dinner with his friend (Halimujan), who does shipping and some trade between Kazakhstan and China.  Halimujan looked to be in his mid-forties: thinning hair, slumped stomach.  But it turns out he’s only thirty-three.  His hometown is in Tacheng, right on the border with Kazakhstan, which he visits frequently.  He mentioned that all trade between China and Central Asia used to go through Kazakhstan, but now countries import directly from China, so business isn’t as bountiful as before. But then the music was too loud, and it was impossible to talk for about two hours, during which we waited and nibbled on food.

The space was an odd one.  The hotel lobby is basically divided into a waiting area and a café area, the second an oasis of green plants and cream-colored chairs in a desert of white marble.  Next to the lobby is a door into an actual restaurant/banquet hall, and an entrance into a club.  But what we were sitting in was neither.  It was a smallish space, less than  hundred square meters, a  bare dance floor encircled by red velvet booths.  When we arrived there were a few guys singing traditional songs.  Then they moved on to Russian, Chinese pop, bad renditions of American blues, and then some traditional-techno songs (yet another recurring theme of my life in Urumqi).

There were only three booths of people – us, a group of two girls and a guy behind us, and a table of seven men and women pushing middle age across from us.  At the more upbeat songs the table of seven went wild, carousing across the floor in Traditional-techno moves or shuffling a waltz.  The men were all a bit plump in the front, and then women wrapped in centipede dresses as they wobbled on stilettos.  But they were having a great time.  The music (which was increasingly bad) blared, the disco lights (for, yes, there were disco lights) flashed so bright it hurt to look at them and it was impossible to see our food, and I grew increasingly un-amused, as I might as well have stayed home and finished all that was left undone.  Around one I texted Yerkeibeck to tell him that I was going to take a cab home.  “Ten minutes!” he responded.

Then ten stretched into twenty…thirty…forty.  Halimujan called, and then (he being rather more middle-aged than young), decided I was going to take a cab home and get some sleep rather than wait.  His friend, he said, was not usually like this (it later turns out that the man who was holding his daughter’s wedding was more figural that literal when he requested “two songs” and basically wouldn’t let them leave).

So I hopped in a cab and called to say, sorry, but I had left.  To which he responsded, “But I’m already on the road!  I’ll be there in five minutes!  Under five minutes!”.  I was wary of his powers to estimate time, but decided to give the guy another chance.  While I might not know him very well, based on his interactions with others, he seems quite a genuine person.  And I’m not about to break a friendship (and my only link into an entire world that could be quite useful for graduate study) over forty minutes.  So I got out of the cab, had a late dinner of cold mixed noodles, as I had just nibbled on vegetables at the restaurant and basically hadn’t eaten since three o’clock, and waited twenty minutes over another two cups of tea.

When they pulled up we went back to the same restaurant which, thankfully, had now turned off the terrible music and disco lights in favor of soft Kazakh pop and electric candlelight.  I sat down to a dinner of a thousand apologies and sweet lemon-flavored water (why not regular water?!), and then we were shortly joined by a man who looked like a Russian who would be suitably named Piotr. He was in fact, the owner of the place, a Chinese-Kazakh by the name of Arsil (or something of that sort, as I can’t really read his Russian name card.  We’ll just call him Piotr).

Piotr is a twinkly-eyed man of thirty-one who looks both very alert and young, and like the quintessential Russian father (though I don’t know where I got that image).  He works for China Mobile as an IT Engineer by day (I saw his very solemn company ID) and runs the hotel by night.  We talked about politics – he wanted to know whether I thought the Chinese party system would eventually change to a democratic system, whether there truly was freedom of speech in America, and to what extent laws are enforced in different parts of China. He had definite opinions on all. He obviously hopes that China will change.  For, for him, a Neidi (内地 – East Coast/Big City China)-educated businessman with a secure job in a state company, Xinjiang will always be a part of China.  But perhaps it can be part of a more politically liberal one.  He also talked about his observations from various trips to Kazakhstan – apparently the southern half of the country (Almaty) is solidly Kazakh in culture, but as one drives north the country very visibly shifts to a more Russian one, and by the time one arrives in the northern capitol of Astana the culture and language are almost entirely borrowed from Russia.

Later the manager of the place came by and, after the three men had a great, extended discussion in Kazakh interrupted by toasting (toasting with lemon sugar water is terrible), he explained to me Piotr’s great vision for the hotel: It is to become a center of Kazakh culture, collecting the best of Kazakh culture and sharing it with the rest of Urumqi, the rest of Xinjiang.  The best of Kazakh culture, the best of Kazakh traditions, the best of Kazakh history.  I somehow missed that in the red velvet booths and blaring disco.  Piotr too is apparently responsible for the atrocious design (though the café, meeting rooms, and banquet hall all share a more refined sense of elegance – though not necessarily particularly Kazakh).  His ‘grand vision’ does, however, explain why Piotr knows Yerkeibeck and treats someone half a decade younger with so much mutual respect.

As the men talked, sometimes a word of two would float down, “first”, “restaurant”, “brother”, “drink”. The sounds are becoming familiar.  And, as Uighur and Kazak are as closer than most dialects in Chinse, listening to an hour or two of Kazak is actually improving my Uighur. The waitstaff too were all Kazakh, boys and a lone girl who treat each other, their boss, and their boss’s companions with friendly affection, not unlike an extended family.

The manager had, by this time (or perhaps long before), had a bit too much to drink and he started repeating tall tales and mindless facts that everyone else brushed off.  In short time he was replaced by Yerbek (again, not quite certain on the spelling here), a Kazakh acting student at the Xinjiang Art Academy with wavy black hair and dreamy eyes that placed their glazed attention on something unseen in middle space.  And not long after this I took a cab home and crashed.  But… My cab driver was Uighur, a proud father of a daughter studying humanities at Xinjiang University, and we had half of a coherent conversation in Uighur. (!)

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