Borracho in the Borderlands
A Story that Never Happened in Urumqi, China
Sandwiched between China proper, the Stans, and Mongolia, Xinjiang province is home to some of East Asia’s worst ethnic violence and its best cuisine. For thousands of years the area has been home to Turkic Muslims, Chinese merchants, tribal herdsman, and farmers. Late in the 18th century Chinese imperial armies at the behest of local Muslim rebels conquered the region’s ruling Buddhist khanate — one of the last nomadic empires on the planet. The ruling Dzhugar’s, descendants of Genghis Khan’s invincible horsemen, were promptly exterminated at the orders of the emperor. Since then, imperial administrators have sent wave after wave of Han (ethnic Chinese) settlers and merchants into the region. Angered by generations of immigrants encroaching on the local culture and economy, native Turkic Muslims (Uyghurs) have been periodically rebelling against the Chinese government for over 200 years.
Several years after the United States embarked on its global war on terror China too got an opportunity to join the fight in its own restive western frontier. The late 2000’s saw a marked increase of young Uyghur men joining separatist movements seeking to end Sinification, religious oppression, and Communism in their ancestral homelands — to accomplish this the movement’s fringes saw it fit to start bombing transportation hubs, raiding police stations, and hacking up civilians with long knives. As a response the central government chose to deploy military units within the region’s urban areas, restrict media coverage, and ramp up religious persecution, clamping down on mosques, Ramadan fasting, the right to wear various Muslim garb, etc.
Staying in Xinjiang this conflict is constantly at the forefront of your mind. Squads of soldiers are posted every few blocks along the road usually armed with a combination of assault rifles and riot shields, though occasionally with armored-personnel-carriers or tanks. Additionally, the entrance to nearly every public establishment is flanked by private guards equipped with heavy black quarterstaffs and metal detectors. While these ubiquitous security personnel are consistently polite — if not absent-minded — you never really feel at ease.
Lunar New Year Day
The feast was lumbering into its fifth hour and our dedicated waiter was busy consolidating a couple of lamb dishes to make room for a plate of pepper sautéed shrimp. Given that we were located farther away from an ocean than anywhere else on Earth, I wondered if he realized that each of these little prawns probably had a bigger carbon footprint than he’d make all year. I also wondered if this made him feel inadequate. Anyhow, it was day two of the Spring Festival Bender and my hosts had long ago vanquished my fighting spirit along with a mountain of seafood an dumpling variations.
Unlike my previous experiences with banquets that were subject to restrictions on time and number of courses, the Chen family simply gorged themselves for six or seven hours until the manger threw down a check and 86ed them.
As with the previous day’s festivities, this afternoon’s orgy began with about 12 entrées — to be shared by 14 diners — and continued with an average addition of one dish every 10–15 minutes. What terrified me about Day One wasn’t the quantity of food so much as the casual nature in which it was consumed. The family, none of whom weighed over 140 pounds, were all smiles as they broke the 5000-calorie mark. As I wept into my pillow that night I’d considered the possibility that they’d trained themselves in the weeks leading up to this, repeatedly chugging gallon jugs of water to expand their stomachs like professional hot dog eaters.
However, this morning it occurred to me that they were all bulimics and every “potty-break” was actually a trip to the vomitorium in order to make room for the next round of goodies. Pleased with this explanation I decided to do as the Romans, and by the time our pepper shrimp made an appearance I’d already “relieved myself” three times. The only downside to this little trick was that it left my throat extremely raw — but I suppose that’s what all the green tea was for. Nonetheless, feeling lighter and more lucid I was able engage my hosts in conversation.
“So, which is better, America or China?” one of the uncles barked across the table.
“Um….I like each in its own way.”
“No no no. That’s not what I asked. Which is better?”
“Well, America is cleaner, more orderly. Nature in general seems to be better preserved. But in China……” I feigned a pause of hesitation. “China has more opportunity, and people value the community, so you never feel lonely….and the food is better”
“You didn’t answer my question.” he frowned.
The family had already heard my answers to this exchange several times.
“Here’s the problem with America” the alpha uncle jumped in, “the rich can’t even properly enjoy their own wealth. Over here, if I goto a national park I can pay some locals to put me in a sedan chair and carry me up the mountain on their backs. There’s no way I could do that in America. Nobody would be willing. Over there the rich even have to shop at the same grocery stores as everyone else. Terrible! Right little brother?”
“Have you ever been to America?” I was pretty sure he’d forgotten my name again.
Mr. Chen’s face turned red and his permanent cross-eye somehow straightened out. The man was an upstanding citizen of the People’s Republic and he embodied its most loathsome proclivities. As an ostensibly well meaning father and gracious host, he demanded unquestioning compliance with his own various designs. We all had our roles to play at his banquet. The uncles were to get drunk. The wives were to force-feed the guests. The sons and daughters were to flaunt their new spouses, children, and designer clothing. My role was was to act as an object on which he could display his own hospitality as well as a soundboard at which he could have worldly discussions with himself. Apparently I hadn’t been doing a great job.
“Little Brother, have a glass of baijiu with me.” he insisted.
This was his way of putting me in my place. He’d been offering me hard liquor at every meal over the last week, and after his daughter informed him of my Condition he started following up my polite refusals by doubling down with offers of beer.
“No, I don’t drink.” I replied turning my empty wine glass upside down so as keep away to approaching server he’d summoned to fill me up.
“OK” he grabbed the arm of the server. “Bring my American little brother a beer.”
“You see” he announced to the table. “Americans don’t even drink like us. You know? I’ve been drinking since I was a teenager and it’s never been a problem for me. But Americans — — “
“Fuck, I’m sorry. Excuse me, I have to go throw up some” I announced as I put dawned my parka and headed towards the stairs exiting the restaurant.
As I stepped outside the frigid desert air threw me into an immediate fit of coughing — the whole city smelled like a spoiled lamb carcass thrown onto a tire fire. Welcome to Ürümqi. Bienvendios!
It was later than I thought and I was expected at another dinner with my new friend Yazheed and his girl. Because of the holiday most of the city’s licensed cab drivers had turned in early, so I was stuck thumbing it on the side of the road hacking up lung butter for about 15 minutes.
Naturally the man who picked me up was Uyghur. And for some reason when he dropped me off he refused to take my money. “Free of charge” he said. OK. Sure. Thanks.
Yazheed was sitting in a corner of the lobby asleep in his bulletproof vest. Earlier in the week he told me that he’d been working there for about two months as a security guard. This seemed a comical career choice for several reasons. First of all, he had the build of an American middle schooler and his riot gear hung to his thighs causing his head to sink back through his neck hole like a baby snapping turtle whenever he sat down. Moreover he was a fervent Uyghur nationalist, less than likely to put his life on the line defending hotel property in the event that his compatriots rioted.
“Yazheed, wake up. Where’s Maya? Are we still eating.” I shook him out of his vest.
“Lisha’s pissed at me, maybe we’ll do dinner another night” he moaned as he lit up a re-fry that he pulled from his ammunition pocket.
“What? I thought her name was Maya.”
“It is” he slapped my leg laughing. “Lisha is my wife, and she’s pissed. Fucking holidays. Ha-Ha!”
“Look brother,” I was relieved with the change of plans. “What are you up to tonight? I need to get high. These people, this place, and these damned feasts are killing me. Do you wanna know what they made me eat today?”
“Worse than yesterday? I told you they were sick. They’re all sick.” he drew in close to me. “But you know I cannot drink with you, it is Haraam. But, if you want we can go the bazaar and try to score. They got ecstasy, opium, ice — they got everything. What do you think?”
“It’s late, the bazaar is probably closed.” Though I was intrigued by retro-appeal of Chinese opium I stuck with asking, “Can you get any grass?”
“No man, not in the winter. Sorry brother. Maybe you should try the Naan Guys at the mall. They might have some hash oil.” he explained apologetically as his phone suddenly started singing Hotel California from somewhere in his tactical vest. “It’s probably my girl. Fucking holidays, Ha-Ha!……… If you goto the bazaar pick me up something, anything’s fine.”
I arrived on a late bus to a labyrinth of shopping malls that the locals referred to as the “city center”. Between my stop and the main entrance stood a replica Eiffel Tower rising five or six stories above a large parking circle. There was about a dozen guys assembled under the tower and they seemed to be calling me over. From a distance I could see a 3 foot high cylinder with about a 4 inch bore hiding behind them.
Shit. I had neither the time nor the patience to watch a gang of hajjis mortar city hall — the Naan Shop was closing in 20 minutes.
As they kept yelling it occurred to me that they were speaking Mandarin and they were asking for a lighter. It seemed odd that such a large group of middle aged men in a third world country wouldn’t have one amongst them, but I was in a hurry so I approached and handed it over. Strangely none of them commented on my nationality. One after another they quietly lit their cigarettes.
“Have you heard of Chinese New Year?” one asked.
“I’m not deaf, you bastards have been pounding the city with fireworks for the last 2 days.”
“Yes, but do you know why? It’s not because some ghost story about a child-eating dragon, it’s for the Muslims. So won’t screw with us… we all know how to make bombs you know.”
“You’re pretty sick, you know.” I laughed and turned around to make back towards the mall entrance.
BANG. A kitten sized projectile shot from their cannon and bounced off the lower arch of the Eiffel Tower. It then whizzed towards a parked van, again bouncing away, and finally landed in a snow bank near our group. The shrieking and sparks of propulsion continued for about a second before it detonated. Like any good stadium grade explosive, the bloom expanded in a near-perfect sphere — or semi-sphere in this case. Bursting at zero-altitude in a parking lot, the individual stars mostly set off car alarms at ignited piles of trash.
Slightly dazed, I could see that this had drawn the interest of several soldiers standing near the mall doors who were now charging through the cloud of nitrogen and ammonia. Their point-man shoulder checked me with his riot shield and dug his boot into my sternum. Evidently the other culprits had scattered.
“What the fuck are you doing?” a second soldier appeared. He was in an ugly mood.
“I wasn’t…. they ran….it was just a lighter.”
“You know, you people aren’t supposed to grow beards here.”
“What the hell?….. What?… Sir, I’m American. From California.” I made an attempt to gather my composure while still squirming under his dirty rubber heel.
“Like the song with the vampires?” he smiled and helped me up.
It turns out that Uyghur Muslims were banned from growing full beards after a string of knife attacks in 2013.
The Naan Guys did their hustling out of a corner stall in a dilapidated food court. The whole scene reminded me of a defunct mid-western mall in the mid-2000's — with the shops boarded up and troops of wandering rats acting as Nature’s vanguard in its slow battle of urban reclamation, and you could always find a pack of stoners running a lone Sbarro’s Pizza stand in the ruins.
I approached the loitering brothers. A radio was blasting the machine gun ravings of an angry Middle Eastern voice that practically announced my arrival: “GOOOOOAAAALLL!” he screamed as I peered over a fallen tower of bread and knocked on the service bell. But my presence was unnoticed. Their cigarettes burned down without harassment as the brothers silently gazed at the ceiling, continuing to listen to the crackling soccer game.
In want of appropriate slang for hash I simply interrupted them with a request to buy drugs.
God knows what else they were selling at this hour in the evening, or who they were waiting for — outside of the security guards grazing in the main lobby, the building was void of any other signs of life — but the eldest brother smirked and informed me that “there is no bread left for you tonight, friend”.
His words left me stunned. Having endured such ugliness over the last few days I had no strength to bus back to my barren hotel room and fall asleep to the rumblings of a broken radiator. This trip was supposed to be my journey West. Flying to the other-side of the planet I’d hoped to escape all the petty bullshit festering back in the job and family I’d left behind. Instead my desert oasis turned out to be a warren of decadence and hatred. As an addict and insomniac I knew that a sober night would only result in hour after hour of wallowing in my own regrets of having failed to make the Good Life.
I stood in front of the bread counter debating between downing a bottle of cough syrup and snorting a line of melatonin. Just before I turned away, the same brother leaned back and fixated his eyes on the boot-print on my chest. He slowly rose from his stool looked me in the eyes. His upper-lip curled inward and he squinted as if searching for the right way to express his apologies. Suddenly he stuffed his hands into the front pockets of his dark gray Levis and fished out a small black vial. From the tar-caked threading underneath the cap I could guess that this was his half-smoked personal stash.
“Free of charge, brother.” he nodded and swiveled back to his game.
I posted up in the only coffee shop still open in the city center. It was well lit, clean, and empty. The walls were hidden by shelves full of travel books and knock-off impressionist oil paintings — surprisingly there was a TV resting in a corner playing a subtitled broadcast of the BBC World News. I shed my parka and wool fleece over half of a four person table on the second floor. I figured the drink would be a minute so I cracked open my present. Lacking any better way to ingest the goop, I stirred a Marlboro around in the vial until a sizable sticky ball formed on the tip. The hash gave off a black cloud of skunky tar as I inhaled as much as I could before it melted back down into a normal cigarette.
The high came on fast — the Release, the Droop, the Fog. Cool droplets of sweat began to collect on my forehead and the black goo-smoke blotted out all the unpleasantry waiting for me outside. Finally, solitude. I sat there alone with my shit-eating grin for a little while until I remembered my order.
Stumbling back upstairs with a half-spilled mug of coffee I found a twenty-some-odd woman sitting at my empty table twirling the vial around the fingers of her free hand. Just earlier the place was empty. Was I so focused on smoking hash that I didn’t notice her? Was I hallucinating? She looked like a Shanghai actress from the 1920’s in hipster garb. Her crimson streaked brunette hair cascaded out of a woven alpaca cap and matched a thick layer of wine-tinted lipstick. She smiled and asked me if this was the smoking section. I nodded, Everywhere Is, and passed her over a Marb. Then just as I’d done minutes before she uncapped the vial, gathered a ball of goo and held it over a low flame. She waited to exhale and sunk into her chair.
The television blared in the corner competing with generic Starbucks jazz to hold our attention. It reported that back home my countrymen were electing reality-television-Mussolini to run the free world — likely into the depths of hell. The English newsman brooded on the political climate of his nation’s closest ally as if he were fretting over an ex-girlfriend about to marry a meth-addicted unemployed factory worker. Sorry, brother. She’s gotta learn for herself…just hope it’s before he climaxes a three day bender and guts her with a kitchen knife after taking her for a giant scorpion.
I could hear the cries from a pack of feral dogs out there in the cold. But we were warm. We howled at the TV and each other as our ashtray filled up. The staff was either too hesitant or scared to kick us out — and maybe they didn’t care.