September 14, 2007

Screens Along the Silk Road

In my ongoing quest to visit as many internet cafes in China as possible, I was on the lookout last week during our visit to Urumqi (aka: Wulumuqi), a city of about 3 million along the Silk Road in the northwest corner of China. Urumqi has the feel of a wild, jumping off place, like Anchorage or Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand. From here, you might jump off farther west to Kazakhstan, or southwest to the really wild trading outpost of Kashgar, or north to Mongolia.

There is a great blend of cultures here, with more than 8 million Uighurs, originally a nomad tribe, living with the evident Han Chinese. Signs are mostly a trilingual challenge of Uighur (an Altaic language related to Turkish) written in Arabic script, Russian written in Cyrillic, and of course Chinese characters.

My Lonely Planet guidebook boasted an “enormous” internet café in the basement of a central Urumqi building. I have learned over the past year from juggling guidebooks and even internet travel websites that destinations, recommendations, and directions are at best half-good in China. Places to see and ways to get there change too fast to remain current. Just showing up somewhere with lots of options and few expectations seems to serve us best in China.

I never did locate the internet café I sought, but I did find my way to another, De Yi Wang Ba, right across from our hotel. There, tucked among street vendors, electronics stores, a grocery store, bank, and department store was a nondescript entrance to a small elevator. At floor three, the door opened to a cavernous, sprawling expanse with rows of plush, red theater-like seats facing banks of large, fancy desktop monitors. Lighting was low, and the ambiance was quietly, pleasantly inviting.

The internet café manager, a rather small, young guy wearing jeans and a khaki jacket, wouldn’t let me take photos of the rooms or the splashy Happy Birthday De Yi banner adorning the tropical fish aquarium at the entrance. But he did tell me proudly that there were 465 seats in this café, and there were 620 other internet cafes around Urumqi! His doors were always open, 24/7.

There were probably about 100 mostly young people (this was the neighborhood of Xinjiang Daxue, or “XinDa”, the province university) who were, I daresay, all playing video games or watching movies, and mostly also chatting or instant messaging. They paid 2 – 4 yuan an hour to while away their time, which is the equivalent of 26 – 53 cents.

The scene brought to life the most recent data from the China Internet Network Information Center on internet users in China and what they do online. Many are young people (43% of Chinese ages 18 – 24 years are internet users), and many are entertaining themselves (61% watch online videos; 47% play internet games) at internet cafes (60% of post-high school students use internet cafes).