A local festival (Uighur Qurban – Google it! Each family buys and publicly slaughters a sheep. The streets run red) gave Xinjiang volunteers a chance to all meet up, in Fukang, we decided. Tom and I elected to travel there by train. Getting to Karamay Train Station was ‘fun’. There’s only one bus route, and it’s half an hour from the city. The infrastructure exists, without the buildings – yet. The station itself was impressive, more reminiscent of an airport; then again, Chinese train travel is entirely reminiscent of flying.
Four sociable hours later we rolled into Ürümqi South, armed with directions to the BRT7 (Bus Rapid Transit) from Calum. Unfortunately Calum’s information was second-hand, not to mention completely wrong. Tom was hunger-tired and I was fed up. Two changes later, we’d zigzagged aimlessly until we made it to the right bus station for Fukang. It took just as long to get across Ürümqi as it did to reach Fukang.
It was great to see everyone again, and a nice chance to have a nosey around someone else’s project. Whereas Kuitun feels like Karamay, Fukang feels tiny, but also bustling and busier. Calum and Ben’s apartment is roomy but suffers from hospital-waiting-room syndrome, lacking character like many volunteers’ flats. Ours is colourful by comparison! The Kuitun lot arrived by taxi later on in the evening, after a stressful journey.
The next day Kieran and Joel arrived by sleeper bus. We had a minor passport scare, but Kieran got it back. There was also a minor manhole scare, but Kieran was fine, bless him. Project Trust did warn us that uncovered manholes were statistically more of a risk than mugging, but I hadn’t quite believed it until I saw Kieran standing behind me at knee-height. Finally all together, everyone was invited over for lunchtime curry by a couple of South African teachers from the school called Sharon and Stephen.
We attended the ‘Crnand [sic] Opening’ of a supermarket in the afternoon. I may have talked Calum into buying a full-size Mahjong set (and helped him, uh, round down the reported cost to the others) which we quickly started playing. It didn’t take us long to invent a new version: Bei Mahjong (PT rules). Hours of fun – literally; it’s addictive.
The holiday passed all too quickly, and soon we found ourselves in Ürümqi to see off Becca, Jordanne, Liesbeth and Kieran after a failed attempt to visit the Western restaurant and a fluke discovery of a Burger King. That evening the rest of us enjoyed roast lamb and veg, courtesy of the Fukang volunteers’ oven. They even did gravy.
Their school – Fukang Number 1 Middle School – is half finished. The front gate and sheer scale is hugely impressive, but the fact remains that the flower beds, paths and running track (complete with stands) are soil and rubble. We got to see some lessons (classes of 60; mine are 28) and although Calum and Ben have to follow a textbook, I think they’re doing a brilliant job of making the classes fun, who are under horrific amounts of pressure and only allowed home every other weekend. Calum’s club is good fun with plenty of space for games – we finished with, ‘Spell that British Town!’ which was utterly hilarious. They thought ‘Gloucester’ was difficult until Calum chose a Welsh town…
Calum and I left for Ürümqi quite early to get some shopping done at the Tech Market – Calum wanted a camera lens amongst other things – but he had to head back for his club while I aimed for South Station and a train back to Karamay.