The skyline sidled in much larger on the horizon than I remembered. My travelling-home-to-Karamay song, The Lion’s Roar, came on shuffle as we pulled in – fate? – and I noticed that the city really has expanded to (nearly) reach the distant station. I’d always had my doubts but it’s only a matter of a few blocks now. Our hotel was actually one of those new developments, albeit closer to Karamay proper.

We were nabbed at the station and taken for registration – this was the part I’d been dreading; the acid test of how much it had changed. Two years ago, this checkpoint didn’t exist. We were golf-buggied over and asked our nationalities, our purpose, our itinerary. Did we have a guide? All bar one smiled, indicated us to rest our feet. Pored over the itinerary, enjoyed sounding out the pinyin as they figured out where we were going. Jiayuguan! Oh look, look, Xi’an on the 26th! The normality put me at ease.

Mr. Unsmiling came over. You have a Chinese friend? Call them to come over here right away. I noticed shaking hands as I put in Paris’ number – I hadn’t realised – and I hated myself for it. I am not guilty of anything; this used to be my home. Then something happened outside – a man loitering nervously by the window. Japanese, I heard them say, handling his passport with distaste. He wasn’t invited to sit inside with the A/C, unlike us.

Mr. Unsmiling’s demeanour changed the moment Paris picked up. I heard the word ‘good’ several times. Mr. Not-so-unsmiling! Passports returned; you may go, they said. Welcome to Karamay. Gods only know what Paris said – she has my eternal thanks. We scuttled to the bus but I wasn’t relaxed until I recognised Century Park on our left; we walked the rest of the way to the hotel. Kirsten and Evie instantly identified the American feel of the streets (I wouldn’t know). It was just wide boulevards as before, tree lined and manicured. So vast for what’s actually there.

Check in wasn’t fast and I needed to shower, but we weren’t the last to arrive at Tyler’s birthday dinner. Paris was hovering outside and came running over. Inside, they actually gave us a welcoming round of applause! Many new faces, but so many familiar ones too. This is what I came for! Here were the memories, albeit with the other volunteers before. I defy you to find a more welcoming group; Evie and Kirsten were welcomed almost seamlessly into the fold and with me, it was as though I’d never left.

Our first full-on banquet ensued; beers and all manner of dishes. Catching up and introductions. Connie, a lively (lovely) Canadian gran-type had come armed with a plastic pirate sword, which she used to knight Tyler in an hilarious ceremony and had apparently also used to hail a taxi (I’m amazed she wasn’t arrested). Dinner wore on and we were treated to a traditional Uyghur dance – then the cake came in, and finally a bowl of birthday noodle soup made of one single (extremely long) noodle! It apparently signifies having a long life.

After the meal we wandered into Century Park, and they showed us a recent introduction to the skatepark in the form of bumper cars. We had so much fun careering around! Some excellent action shots – especially with Evie’s hair flying out behind her. We explored the lit-up park and proceeded to an old favourite haunt of ours: Essen (the German-owned Western restaurant). We were immediately treated to a relatively new item on the (home-brewed) beer menu: Grapefruit beer. I’m not a fan of the fruit, but the beer version was pretty good!

We discussed sporadic topics until the bar closed past 2am, not limited to the changes Xinjiang has seen. We commented on the increased police presence and were told that apparently there is now a station every three hundred metres and expected emergency response time of sixty seconds! Insane.

The next morning was not particularly early or, in fact, morning-like. We met the expats outside their school to get lunch. Being slightly early (us! early!) we naturally loitered by the gate, and not two minutes later an amicably inquisitive lady in a security hard hat was outside to ask us why we were there. Saved literally by the bell, the teachers started to arrive a moment later (though to be fair, the security guard seemed perfectly happy with our response). We took a shortcut through a warehouse market (which meant security checks x2) to the restaurant for gan-bian ban-mian (refried ban-mian, strongly recommended by Michael; very spicy but as tasty as he claimed) and a Karamay specialty which I had never tried before: yellow noodles. This seemed to come in four variations: hot or cold and dry or soupy, in any combination – we had all four out for the group of nine or ten.

Next was Black Oil Hill, Karamay’s only paid tourist attraction – just the three of us. Watch the oil bubble up in pools, I told them. Evie and Kirsten were not exactly impressed, surveying the actually-pretty-bland-now-that-I-think-about-it outcrop from its centre. 45¥ down, each, they seemed to think it was a waste of money. I struggled to justify disagreement, especially since I’ve been before (why? Even back then I’m not sure why we went).

Anyway, we took the bus back across all of Karamay to our hotel’s side, and stopped off at the supermarket frequented by Tom and I whenever we’d visit the swimming pools to teach for Stone at his private school. I barely remember that part of the first month in Karamay – so long ago and the job didn’t last long! The complex, at least, hadn’t changed.

We were treated to Xinjiang barbecue in the evening by Mrs. Ge and her friend. Mrs. Ge was another 8th Grade English teacher at my school whom I’d got to know better later on in the year. In typical Chinese-host style, she kept ordering dishes until we were all stuffed to burst and took care of the bill while we were still sweating off the spices from the barbecued naan (lethal but so good). They then drove us out to Nine Dragon Pond to walk off some of the food around the fluorescent pagoda at Karamay River’s source.

Our last full day dawned, also not particularly morning-like. We made it for polo just before they ran out, then headed to Century Park to chill out near the top of the hill. Not for long, however, as Paris arrived at Hanbo (the shopping plaza across the river from the park) shortly after and we went to meet her for donuts, milkshakes and ice creams. Happiness. I also got my Greek and Latin marks through! Third year, here I come!

Back to Karamay – we returned to the hotel via MiniSo (I bumped into a student who recognised me and blushed into the next aisle) and got ready for a meal with my old colleagues from Number Seven Middle School. Mrs. Ge picked us up again and drove us there, via the oil bubble statue which caused so much fuss when it was built (to be fair, it looks just like the Chicago one).

At the restaurant, it was weirdly normal just seeing my old friends from school walking in. Being the awkward person that I am, I was at a bit of a loss as to what I wanted to say. Hi, how were the past two years of your life? Cindy was waiting at the table, we walked in with Mrs. Ge, and both Emma (Grade 7, who knew Tomos better than me) and Josh (my waiban/mentor, with his newphew) arrived after us.

Most pressing at first was establishing what had happened to the main building of Number Seven Middle School. As we had driven past it to meet the expats for lunch, I was horrified to see only a flattened patch of dirt where once my entire work life had existed. Apparently it was getting a major refurbishment until the government ran out of money, so they were using a temporary building (very far away, Cindy leant in to add emphatically) until more money came in. Ah, China.

We had barbecue (second night in a row; I could sense Evie and Kirsten groan inwardly), once more with dishes piled high and us the centre of attention (try this!). My plate was piled dangerously high and I was not keeping up with the flow of food. Most memorable were Fuhai fish (roasted whole, bony, but tasty bar the eyes) and beef tendon jelly (I don’t… I don’t even know). The meal was incredibly relaxed, for me, and passed in a blur of delectable skewers.

Very quickly it was time to say goodbye. We got more beers at Essen (accidentally ordered a litre each, as I don’t quite have the grasp of Chinese measures just yet) before joining the expats at a club – Fenghuang (in English, Phoenix!) – which was an interesting experience. Raised dancefloor which was sparse, despite a decent turnout. It made us feel a bit like entertainers, being stared at from all sides. The night ended at 1.30 sharp with a traditional Kazakh song, and then a Uyghur one, during both of which a dashing young Uyghur gentleman coached me on the steps. Fun fact: it’s not at all taboo in Uyghur dancing for two men to dance together!

Getting back into the hotel room was slightly trickier than expected. The others had left earlier with the room key, and promptly passed out before I got in, alarm set for 11am (two hours after our train was due to depart. Good job, guys). Strangely, the task of going downstairs and explaining the situation in Chinese for another room key was easy for drunk Tom, who seems to be certified competent at Chinese – just a pity about the rest of the time.

I was awake to see the sunrise over the skyline, and we wound our way to the railway station, thankfully well in advance of Kirsten’s alarm but horrendously sleep-deprived. As we pulled away, The Lion’s Roar resumed and I watched the city recede into the desert distance. Until next time, Karamay.

The Karamay No. 7 Middle School reunion – LTR: Josh (my waiban), his nephew, Kirsten, Evie, me, Emma (Grade 7), Mrs. Ge (Grade 8), Cindy (Grade 8, my officemate).

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