The flight to Yili was uneventful. The airport was tiny, something like a toy airport. The taxi driver yet again tried to scam me. The airport seemed to be running a taxi sharing system to I ended up in a taxi that already had two Chinese guys in it. I was the first to get off, and the taxi driver tried to charge me roughly three times what was on the meter, making sure he grabbed my bags and followed me into the hotel foyer so he could do all this out of sight of his other passengers. He got nasty when I told him to get lost, appealing to the hotel staff that this was “the foreigner’s price”. I asked the hotel staff what the situation was at the airport regarding pick-up and drop-off fees and they all stared at their feet and said not a word. I ended up paying him the meter plus a couple of kuai – too much considering there were two other people in the car. At least the hotel he took me to was a good deal though, with fantastic modern rooms for only 120 RMB.
In the afternoon I got on a bus to the small town of Chapucha’er to see the Xibo minority people. The Xibo are descendents of Manchu soldiers sent to guard the north-west frontier during the Qing Dynasty. Remoteness meant that they largely retained their customs and language after Manchus throughout the rest of the country assimilated into Chinese society.
Chabucha’er was interesting in a low key way, with the road and shop signs all written in Manchurian script (see the the squiggly, vertical script at the top of the sign below). The stores themselves seemed no different to a typical Chinese town though.
The thing to do in Chabucha’er is visit the Xibo Culture Park, so I took another bus out there. The culture park had an interesting display of information on Xibo culture, but was deserted and empty. There should have been displays of dancing and archery, as well as a restaurant serving Manchurian food (which looked more or less like Dongbei food), but the park employees were all huddling around the heater in the ticket office and the Manchurian restaurant was closed. I stopped by the ticket office on my way out to chat with the staff and some of them changed into costumes to pose for photographs. I asked if there were any Manchurian restaurants I could try back in Chabucha’er, but apparently the only truly unique Manchurian food you can easily find these days is a type of breakfast cake that is not available after the early morning. Despite there not being very much to see it was interesting to listen to the staff speaking Manchurian with one another. I had always assumed Manchurian was more or less a dead language, but it seemed very much alive and was what everybody reverted to when they weren’t speaking with me.
Back in Chabucha’er itself I wandered around looking for a Manchurian restaurant and taking a few photographs of the Manchurian language signs. After giving up on finding a restaurant I jumped on a bus. As I sat waiting for the bus to leave a Uigur man got on, flashed a badge, said he was a police officer, and asked me to come with him. I didn’t entirely believe him. He was with three other guys and I initially thought it must be some weird scheme to mug me or something. However, when I asked the driver he said plain clothes policemen were common in the area so I followed the policeman off the bus and he led me across the road to where his three friends were waiting.
The policemen asked me where I was from and why I had been taking photographs. They didn’t seem convinced that I had been taking photographs of Manchurian signage, but relaxed after I flicked back through the photos in my camera to show them I had just come from the Xibo Culture Park. After a few more questions about where I was staying and where I was traveling next they let me back on the bus.
Back in Yili I found some bottles of factory Kvass in a supermarket and took them back to my room to drink. Kvass is very low alcohol Uigur beer made from grains and honey. It is mainly a summer drink, and apparently during summertime a lot of restaurants sell homemade Kvass. Factory produced Kvass is available all year round though. Even strict Muslims drink Kvass and most people you ask will tell you it has no alcohol. I guess it is related to the other central Asian drinks with similar names, though I think some of these are made from fermented milk. The Kvass had a honey and apples taste. If I hadn’t known what I was I might almost have mistaken it for a sweetish cider.
Wandering around town looking for dinner I came across a line of nicely decorated and clean looking Uigur restaurants overlooking a park. I chose the one with the most customers and went in. I wanted rice pilaf (“shou zhua fan” – æ‰‹æŠ“é¥) but it was sold out, so I had naan covered in lamb and sauce (‘nang bao rou – å›ŠåŒ…è‚‰) instead. The quality was excellent. The meat seemed more succulent and the bread had a nicer texture than in Kashgar. I had some milk tea as well, and this time it came with curds floating in it which was a bit of a surprise. It tasted good though, still sour, but milder and with more of a dairy and tea taste than what I had tried in Kashgar.
The waitress came over and started chatting. First she asked where I was from, and then she asked if all New Zealanders drank their milk tea in the evening. After I asked her some more about the tea it turned out it is more of a breakfast thing, so I guess everyone thought I was a bit of a weirdo to have asked for it with my dinner. The conversation moved on to language and cultural stuff, and from there to Uigur independence. She was strongly in support of Uigur independence. She said that the way things were going, within a decade Uigur culture would no longer exist. Apparently during the last couple of years the language of instruction in primary school had been switched to Mandarin from Uigur. I guess that as Han immigrants become more dominant in Xinjiang the education system there is catering increasingly to their needs, with the needs of the original Uigur and other minority inhabitants ignored. Despite her gloomy predictions though I can’t really believe the Uigur language is in any danger of disappearing. It seemed to me that few Uigurs spoke more than basic Chinese. After a while the waitress got called away. The boss didn’t seem to like the conversation we were having. A group of Uigurs at the next table had certainly been listening quite intently, and after my experience on the bus earlier I could see why a person could feel paranoid about eavesdroppers.
On my way back to the hotel I passed a cheese seller and bought some little dry ewe milk cheeses. Very tasty. The guy told me that they would keep for a year no problems. I carried them with me for snacks on buses etc. over the next few days and found that after about a week in a plastic bag the last couple of cheeses went moldy. The plastic bag may have been the problem since it probably stopped the air from circulating and allowed moisture to build up. They were a pretty dry type of cheese so probably would keep a long time unrefrigerated if you stored them right.