After twelve hours on our first flight and a dash through the Beijing airport to make our four hour connecting flight to Urumqi, it was such relief to see a sweet smile holding a placard with our names! The streets were crowded and neon-streaked, and our guide’s English was a gift as we are realized that that there are few folks that speak it.
We arrived at our hotel near midnight, running on about an hour of sleep. Our guide delivered an update on our Mercy: “She is very attached to certain person and afraid of strangers.”Does this sound familiar…much like the update we received five years ago while waiting in our hotel to meet MyLinh? Nicotine scented starched sheets and my anxious heart made it difficult to sleep last night… There is an empty cradle beside our bed that will be filled tomorrow, and there is a day today to be met without fear.
Our room is nineteen stories above street level and through my open window comes the cacophony of car horns, thumping techno music, and shouts from street vendors. We did paperwork with our guide this morning, made a trek to the grocery store to stock up on bottled water and diapers and treats to bring the children at Mercy’s orphanage. We spent the rest of the day exploring the streets of Urumqi, amazed at the flavor of this place. Ringed by mountains and desert, Urumqi is the most landlocked city in the world.
We have much yet to see and learn about Mercy’s birth place, but as we prepared for travel, one of the most insightful sources was a book called Where Underpants Come From, journalist Joe Bennet’s adventures into the economy, culture and history of China.
Urumqi is the capital of the province of Xinjiang, an area that was home mainly to the nomadic people known as Uighurs until its strategic geography (note that Xinjiang borders Kazakhstan and Afghanistan, among others) and vast oil and minerals were realized by Mao, who annexed the province in 1949. Bennet wrote, “Effectively Xinjiang is the Tibet that the West doesn’t bother to protest about.” Racial tension continues between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese, and the influence of both cultures is glaring in its disparity. A massive mosque looms over a street where young Han women in tight, sequined jeans and bright high heels window shop and giggle. Uighur women with covered heads and long skirts weave through myriad vendors selling cellphone accessories and CDs.
Although we have been surprised by some of what we seen, we have also had glimpses of the China I expected. We watched old men hunched over card games in the city park and saw street vendors grilling squid-on-a-stick and bicycle carts laden with ornately carved pineapple and curious nuts and fruits.
And being a pedestrian in China? Bennet captures it well. “Pedestrians are weak. To survive they must be constantly alert to danger. For instance, when a pedestrian light turns green it does not mean that you are free to cross the road. It means only that there has been a slight improvement in the odds. If there is any gap in the pedestrians on a crossing, a car will drive hard at it in a bid to widen it. It’s a game of chicken. To hesitate is to lose.”
Outside, the day clamors into evening, and we are praying for sleep as we ready to meet our Mercy.