Small disclaimer here...We are actually now back in Hong Kong! Having had no time over the past two months to keep up to date with our blogging, we are doing our catching up now...
Unfortunately, following the riots of early July, there was a large crack-down in Xinjiang which we heard about while in Dunhuang - this means that as well as the massive influx of troops, the Chinese government also closed down all internet access throughout the province as well as international phone calls! And we realised that we needed at least a week's lead time to arrange our Tibet visas for the end of August...Fortunately, we were able to make domestic phone calls in China, so armed with the contacts of one travel agency in Xining, I hurriedly sent off copies of our passports by email while I still could in order to commence the process...however, we were informed that due to my F visa, I needed to provide a letter from my non-existent employer stating the period that I worked for them...In fact, we soon learnt that the content of the letter (it didn't need to be translated) was not nearly as important as it needing to have an official red chop on it, which was impressed upon me in every conversation with our travel agent! That left us with the small problem of how to get a letter from Morgan Stanley without being able to email or call Hong Kong...Fortunately, Dinny in Shanghai (who I could call) and Amanda Cotterman in Hong Kong came to the rescue as they linked up to send a scanned copy of my letter to the travel agent - I didn't even see it until we left Xinjiang and arrived in Xining, but it all went smoothly and our permits were ready on time!
Over to Tara now...
We were really looking forward to Xinjiang as it is one of those places few people visit because it is so far west of China...in fact, they seemed to like us better when we spoke English instead of Chinese...(Chinese is much more prevalent now than Andrew's last last trip to Xinjiang 12 years ago, but the recent riots and crack-down seems to have hardened the cultural divide also). Xinjiang is a world of Uighers, lamb kebabs, baked bread, very friendly people, donkeys with their carts, people dipping their bagels in tea, ie a far cry from the Han Chinese heartland in Beijing! However, despite the benefits of modernisation that the Han Chinese have brought to Xinjiang, this has also contributed to a cultural disintegration that is no doubt one of the underlying sources of tension in this region.
Our trip here from Dunhuang was our first China sleeper bus experience, which was actually pretty comfortable, although I didn't sleep very well from visions of flying through the windshield every time a truck flashed its high beams as it passed by in the middle of the night. Somehow, blinding the oncoming traffic seems to be the standard highway greeting in this part of China...either that or be deafened by an incredibly loud horn applied every 30 seconds!
If it were not for the silk road, Turpan as a destination may never have come to be - it is the hottest place in China (third hottest in the world), one of the lowest places in the world sitting below sea level and the furthest place away from an ocean in the world. With those claims to fame, you might wonder how anyone decided it might be a good place to live...For starters, where does the water come from? Well, the locals came up with an ingenious underground karez tunnel system (to minimise evaporation) running hundreds of kilometres from the mountain ranges to the north to bring snow melt water into the city. Although the rushing canals of water seem to have disappeared from the city of 10+ years ago and it is not nearly as quaint as it once was, a couple of beautiful streets overhung with grape vines have survived and continue to provide welcome shade (and a quick snack...as long as no one is looking!).
After arriving in Turpan, we didn't have time to shower or check-in to a hotel room as we were rushed to join a tour group heading out immediately...in fact, we were shuttled so expeditiously from the bus to a taxi that the bus driver didn't have time to return our passports (he was holding them for the police checkpoints) and were very happily re-united just before heading off on our tour! The first stop on the tour was the (re-created) ancient mud village of Tuyoq, where the locals live/suffer a bizarre Disneyland-like existence under the scrutiny of tourist groups who must buy entrance tickets to walk around the streets!
Note to self: If you are forced to give your passport to someone you don't know, don't forget it when you leave, especially when they drop you off in the middle of the desert heading god knows where on a bus!
The caves here at Tuyoq were not open for "safe" problems...!
Our second stop of the day was the "Flaming Mountain", billed as the hottest place around Turpan where you can see "tongues of flame" licking the sky from the slopes of these red-rock hills. We didn't buy the RMB40 ticket to take photos in front of the thermometer and with the Journey to the West (aka "Monkey Magic") sculptures they had erected in the barricaded area as it was possible to get just as good a view from outside the fence - perhaps the local officials need to visit the sand dunes in Dunhuang to see how to build a proper fence to force tourists to buy an entrance ticket! That large pole in front of the mountain is a thermometer, which we were told was reading over 70 degrees celcius (158 fahrenheit) today! In town, temperatures commonly reach 49 degrees (120 Fahrenheit), and the ground can reach a toasty 80 degrees (176 Fahrenheit)!!. Today was no exception and we were roasting! And because it is so dry, you don't even notice the sweat which evaporates practically the second it peeps out of your pores!
Third stop was for lunch at Grape Valley. Unfortunately it is less like Napa Valley and more like, well, China's interpretation of what they think it should be. We didn't spend the afternoon wandering amongst grapevines and sipping wine, but we did have a big lunch sitting on a converted bed under a cover of grapevines - including the famous Uigher dish of Dapanji ("big plate of chicken"), a spicy dish with vegetables and chicken and a big serve of fresh noodles thrown on the top at the end to mop up the sauce. We also did try some wine at the "Western Wine Bar" in the Grape Valley...unfortunately their very best wine was completely undrinkable and without a spitting bucket we were forced to swallow the tiny first taste (the smell had given us some warning of what was to come!) - easily the worst wine we have ever tasted. Unfortunately, we had had really high hopes for Turpan wine - while the Chinese would seem to be able to copy practically anything, there are still some things that I guess just don't lend themselves to being copied...
Note to self: If it smells really bad, just don't taste it
Our second to last stop was the ancient city ruins of Jiaohe (from 200BC) situated smack bang in the middle of the desert but the guys who settled here weren't completely insane and the elevated site was probably easy to defend while having a nearby river to provide water. Given these were genuinely ruins from a very early Chinese community, this was really interesting and by far the best thing we saw in Turpan - although with the heat now at the hottest part of the day, I was starting to look like a lobster just pulled out of a pressure cooker! Clearly the heat was having an effect on us as we didn't remember until we were way out in the middle of the ruins that we had forgotten to buy more water.
Note to self: buy water BEFORE you go wandering around the desert!
Our last stop was to see the Karez Tunnel Amusement Park...although providing some very basic information on the karez system and being able to look down at one of the karez tunnels flowing into Turpan, it was really a glorified tourist market and winding our way through the site, the 'karez' aspect was very quickly replaced by a ton of tourist stalls and shops selling all the usual trinkets...!
In all, our entry tickets to these 4 sites cost us RMB95 each as we had a special 50% discount for buying several entrance tickets together. If you were to visit all 10 or so of the official tourist sites around Turpan (as many Chinese groups certainly do), it would normally set you back about RMB500 each (or US$70 odd) for some pretty questionable "sights". Outside of these, there is also the Emin Minaret, with a RMB50 entrance fee and whopping RMB300 to climb up the minaret tower - sadly, at this price, it was hard to include this nonetheless important site on our itinerary! Returning to China now, it is increasingly clear how the tourist industry has developed with inflation on tourist prices sky-rocketing while everyday costs have remained almost unchanged in 10 years. Probably not too noticeable to the Chinese tourist (who now make the foreign tourist a miniscule slice of the pie) visiting one place for a weekend or a week, but to backpackers spending several months travelling the country, the cost of entrance tickets is probably only second to transport (yes, not cheap either!) as our largest expense...
We had one night in Turpan, which we used to catch up on some well-needed sleep and recover from the heat! Strangely, we woke up in the morning to a wet and rainy morning...an extremely rare event here (we were told it rains three times per year) and certainly was nice to have a morning coffee with the air cooled off somewhat!!
In our last post, we saw a challenging China train trip experience. Well, this was a challenging China bus trip experience! I refer to it as the "Bus Ride from Hell"...and not what I expected to be doing while ringing in my 29th birthday. It all started on the 6th of August in the late morning, and the plan was to arrive midday on the 7th to enjoy an afternoon and an evening in Kashgar celebrating the start of the last year of my twenties.
Note to self: when travelling by bus in China, don't make any other plans until you get to your destination and have NO expectations!
It started out nice and easy on a sleeper bus for the overnight stretch across the Taklamakan Desert (probably the most inhospitable place on earth), and we chatted with an Australian guy lying next to me. I had the middle seat with the TV 5 inches from my face, and it was a big box which also limited my ability to bend my legs. Due to the this unfortunate seat on the bus I was forced to watch endless Xinjiang music videos. Very hard to describe, so best for you to watch the video below to understand the torture I went through in this seat. The night came, and we were pulled over many times for the police checks. Sometime around 3 AM I finally started to fall asleep after our last stop to drop people off and pick more people up. Oh but at 4:00am I was awoken to policemen standing over me with extremely thick wool jackets and very large guns strapped over their bodies telling me to get off the bus. With a heavy moan we grabbed our passports and walked over to the checkpoint where we were forced to fill in the registration form due to their illiteracy or lack of knowledge of what a passport is. When I reached the date line at the bottom of the page next to my signature, I quickly realized then and there that it was my birthday. Not quite what I had in mind, but it did make me forget about the guns and the puffy jackets...it wasn't even cold outside. I slept well after that and woke up in the morning to realize I slept so well because our 3 drivers decided after the last checkpoint that they no longer wanted to rotate driving anymore and decided to pull over on the side of the road and sleep for 3 hours. This was delay reason number 2. Delay number 1 was all of the police checkpoints. We were told in Turpan that we would arrive in Kashgar the next day around 11:00 or 12:00pm, so I was getting excited. The desert was even getting a little more interesting as for thousands of miles there were straw barriers made by hand in a checkered pattern along both sides of the road to keep the wind from blowing the sand onto the road. Each piece of straw placed in the sand by hand! We pulled into the bus station around 12:30pm (just as the lady who sold us the tickets told us). We were then told that we had to change buses. Change buses? We were there, right? it had already been over 24 hours on the bus! We found out we were in Hotan, and checked the lonely planet, which sometimes does come in handy) and found out that we were 7 hours away from Kashgar. 7 hours in China on a bus usually means well more than 7 hours. Due to the first 2 delays, we missed our connecting bus and had to wait until 2:30 to catch the next bus to Kashgar...hence delay number 3. Up until now, the last 24 hours of the journey was the easy part. The next bus ride turned into 11 hours of smoking with windows closed, police checks every 20 minutes, people throwing up all around us, people asking to stop in between the 20 minute police checks for diarrhea stops (including Andrew once...poor guy), and more stops so the bus drivers could say hi to their buddies at the kiosks on the side of the road selling red bull. That was delay numbers 4, 5, and 6. we didn't have a sleeper bus any more, and the bus drivers made a make shift seat with a plank of wood in the front jammed into our seat so they could pick up MORE people and squeeze them into the aisle. So 36 hours later with extremely sore backs and knees and possible lung cancer, we arrived in Kashgar around 1am on the morning of the 8th of August exhausted and in no mood to sing.
There is a lot of propaganda in Xinjiang, and the message of this one is: less children, happier life.
I guess our bus ride could have been worse. We could have been on this donkey cart for 36 hours. Not sure how long they were traveling, but with all of our police checkpoints that really delayed us, they actually kept up with us for hours if you can believe it!
Kashgar is a fantastic place. One of my favorite places in China. I could roam the dark alleys of the Old City for days. There is always something interesting happening somewhere in the Old City. And the warm fresh bread everywhere....mmm.
The famous Kashgar Market
These dolls are very frightening...
The Kashgar Livestock Market
I was up for a little adventure today and decided it was time to ride on a donkey pulled cart, so I asked a family on the side of the road if we could hitch a ride back to town with them. The dad really enjoyed showing me that his son didn't have any thumbs, which was a little strange and even though my dress was soaked in sheep slobber by the end of the ride, it was worth it! You don't get to ride on a donkey cart next to 2 sheep purchased at the livestock market with a Uigher family every day!
Tashkurgan and Karakul (Black) Lake
Our side trip to Tashkurgan and Karakul Lake (both still in China), but very close to Afganastan and Pakistan. It wasn't a particularily long trip, but we saw a lot on the way there.
Andrew was feeling particularly brave today and let this man shave his face with a knife in the middle of an animal and veggie market. Very brave...although he did put neosporin (disinfectant ointment) on his face afterwards...haha
They call this mountain sandy mountain. it took our breath away when we came around the corner. The colors are so soft and the swirling of different tones was amazing. And even more amazing was the reflection in the lake.
Lunch: you guessed it...mutton soup
I kept asking for more veggies as the mutton wasn't too appetizing, and our driver thought I was crazy because he said veggies are for poor people!
Tashkurgan: Although we were very close to Kyrgystan, this was actually still in China. But most of the people who live here are Kyrgyz people. We spent some time at an old fort aptly named the "stone fort"...there were little pebble rocks everywhere and we are not sure where they came from. we also glanced at the Old mud villages...very dirty and dusty indeed.
This is the only place probably in China that picks up poop with a shovel to keep the grass clean, and I bet you can guess who runs it...a Singaporean!
On our way to Karakul lake, we asked our driver if we could stop and take a photo of the mountain next to us, and he said very casually in Chinese, "ok, how about we stop up ahead where the camels are." It couldn't have been more perfect!
Karakul Lake: Looking back on the entire trip in China, this is still one of my favorite and most memorable places in China. The air is clean, the people are incredibly friendly, and the scenery is jaw dropping. Karakul means "black lake", and during the course of our 2 hour horseback ride around the lake, the color of the lake went from black, to the color of the sky and mountains as it was so calm the reflection was like a mirror, to a light blue, to a bright blue, to a greenish aqua, to a brilliant turquoise color. All the while we were surrounded by snowy mountains and it was hot and sunny.
This might be one of the better toilet views in China
To make it clear for you, the sign says, "The protection drinks upper stream to please and doesn't swim in pollute upper stream." Don't swim in the water would have been sufficient I think.
Our guides didn't have enough horses for them to ride on, so when I wanted to run my guide jumped on the horse behind me and we took off in a run. It was very fun, and the experience was great because we spent most of the 2 hours talking in Chinese about his family's life in this place (he was one of the few people in Xinjiang that spoke fairly good Chinese). He told me about how they go into Kashgar to sell their sheep, how much they get for them, how much they get for the wool, living in the yurt in the summer by the lake and in the village in the winter where they have good schools, etc. All very interesting.
The motorbike may be faster, but we are definitely cooler!!
However, any time a car or a motorbike drove by us on the road, my horse went ballistic, so we had to take a detour, and due to that, we stopped at my guide's family's yurt where we were later invited to have lunch there, and I thankfully got this shot...
We had lunch in the family's yurt, which was one of the more "local" experiences we have had on our trip. The wife made suoman, a chopped noodle dish in front of us. She fetched water from the lake next to the yurt, squatted the entire time bent over the large cutting board on the ground and made the noodles from scratch with flour and water, chopped all of the veggies, the husband collected dried dung for the heating the stove and she boiled the water and cooked the noodles in a pressure cooker (which nearly exploded and drenched our shoes in starchy water). At the same time she was trying to comfort her fussy baby boy.
Back in Kashgar:
We had a great side trip, but we love Kashgar so much that it was nice being back. we relaxed at our Old City Youth Hostel (first pic below), ate lots of fresh bread straight out of the kiln, hung out at a famous old tea house where I clearly didn't belong as it was a boys thing to have bagels dipped in tea at the tea house on the balcony overlooking the main street in the Old City, and again wandered the little alleys of the Old City.
The youngest girl in this photo was loving me, and the older girl was not interested at all which made for a very cute picture. I noticed a trend in China (and Mongolia), particularly in Xinjiang where the young girls up until around age 9 or 10 all have short hair.
Urumqi is where the big riots were in July this year, so we were a little bit skeptical. It turned out to be fine. No one was protesting, people were friendly, and we had a very pleasant two days there (although like Kashgar, the army was everywhere including all of the markets (where apparently the riots happened). It is a big modern city, mostly Han Chinese live there and they are pushing the Uighers out which is very sad, but we still liked the city itself very much. the night market was particularly interesting. They served lots of kebabs so we made sure to get our fill of them before we left Xinjiang. we found out a few weeks after we left that while we were there people were getting stabbed with needles. Good thing it is a big city!
This is very ironic. The government is promoting harmony...the minorities and the Han Chinese. They have these posters all over the city and I love the happy photo of the army people holding hands with the minority groups. Meanwhile they are trying to intimidate the locals and trying to show who is in charge because the city is covered with army and army trucks driving around just waiting for a Uigher to make one wrong move. The army is trained to kill and we even heard a story about a boy who threw a rock at them as they drove by and was shot to death. Even beyond the occassional violence, reconciliation will not be easy here - of course there are two sides to the story and both Uighers and Han feel that they are the only victims in this conflict.
Note to self: If you want people in China to read what you have to say, don't post anything sensitive or "banned"
Hopefully our blog isn't blacklisted in China...