China: Normal Yelling in Urumqi
By Gregory McElwain
It’s midnight in Urumqi, and a middle-aged bus driver and his young female assistant are yelling at me in Chinese. At least I think they’re yelling. To my untutored ear conversational Chinese always seems unnecessarily loud, as if speaking softly might besmirch one’s honor; and it’s difficult to differentiate between angry yelling and normal yelling. This, I’m pretty sure, is normal yelling; and I’m guessing that they’re asking me where I want to go now that the bus has reached the fringes of the city center.
I thought I’d made that clear. After the plane from Beijing had landed in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, I’d rushed to the bus and showed the young woman the name, in Chinese, of the hotel where I wanted to stay. She normal-yelled what seemed like “OK,” took my six-yuan fare, motioned for me to embark, and proceeded to ignored me, as the Chinese horde from my flight clambered aboard and piled their luggage wherever they could. I settled back and watched the melee, which didn’t let up until the driver revved the engine and rolled the bus out of the parking lot onto the highway.
The night was warm and clear. A neon rainbow of florid Chinese characters, flowing Arabic lines, and stolid Cyrillic letters sparkled on billboards and buildings flanking the road, glittering evidence of Urumqi’s unique fusion of three cultures: the native Uyghurs, a Turkic people who write their language using the Arabic alphabet; the Chinese colonizers, who control Xinjiang; and the Russians, who governed nearby Kazakhstan before the Soviet Union disintegrated.
During the ride from the airport I’d spread the city map on my lap so I would know when the bus reached central Urumqi, but I’d been so dazzled by the trilingual twinkling that I’d paid no attention to it. Until the yelling of the driver and his young assistant yanked me out of my daze, I hadn’t even noticed that the bus was parked on the side of the road and that I was the only remaining passenger.
Alert now, I pull out my guidebook and show her the name of the hotel. She normal-yells at the driver, which prompts them both to begin normal-yelling at me. She shakes her head, and the driver makes a big X with his arms. This hotel is clearly out of the question.
I thumb through the book, squinting in the dim light, until I find another hotel that appears reasonable. I turn the book around and let the assistant read the name. Once again, she begins normal-yelling at me and at the driver, and he normal-yells along with her and makes another big X with his arms.
I sigh and leaf through the book again. I settle on a third hotel and show its name to the young woman. She bursts into an exceptionally loud yell, verging on an angry-yell, and shakes her head more vigorously than before. The driver joins her in protesting this choice and makes yet another big X with his arms.
I give up. But the young woman has a suggestion, and she he shouts at me something that I can only assume is the name of a hotel. She writes down the rate on a sheet of paper; and while it’s a bit more than I wanted to pay, it is after midnight, and I want to sleep. I nod. She pulls a notepad and cell phone out of a small white purse. She looks up the number on the pad and calls the hotel. She nods while normal-yelling on the phone, clicks the phone shut, and normal-yells at the driver, who normal-yells back and nods his approval, and we are off.
A three-story seated Buddha looms over the lobby of the Shan Cheng Hotel’s atrium. Ugly plastic-and-glass fixtures of 1960s socialist vintage hang down in front of his face. Music from a disco behind the Buddha thumps loudly. The front desk is understaffed and chaotic. A clump of Middle Eastern men chatter in Arabic and angry-yell in English at the befuddled, not-quite-bilingual young clerk. A young Japanese backpacker arrives with his taxi driver and, upon seeing the rates, demands loudly to be taken elsewhere. The driver shakes his head and says, “Only here. Only here.”
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