Thursday, 23 July 1998
Kashgar, Xinjiang, China
The next day we had to catch a bus for Kashgar at 0930 Beijing time. Officially all provinces in China are in the same time zone but the distance between Kashgar and Beijing is so much that if the rules were adhered to the sun would rise at eight and set at midnight. To get around this the locals employ an unofficial local time two hours behind Bejing time. However this often leads to confusion because you are never entirely sure which convention people are using when they quote you a time. Anyway we got on the bus at the right time only to have to wait half an hour. During the wait we were treated to the drama of an American citizen, resident in China, who had purchased a ticket at the Chinese price (roughly a third of what we had paid) being ejected from our bus by the conductor. Rather bizarrely he ended up being placed on an almost identical bus which took exactly the same time to reach Kashgar.
When we finally got going the scenery was amazing. The endless grass plains eventually gave way to a bleak barren landscape of eroded hills and a few snow capped peaks. We soon arrived at Lake Karakul a smallish grey blue affair surrounded by a few yurts. Although it was fairly picturesque it was not quite "the most beautiful place in western China" as the guide book had led us to believe. The small crowd of backpackers desperate to get on the Kashgar bus and away from the swarms of flies served to reinforce this opinion.
Further on we found the Ghez River and followed its canyon, past a place call Kumtagh (sand mountain) where the river almost becomes a lake and is surrounded by huge sand dunes, a place much more worthy of a night's stay than Karakul. The valley narrowed at many points and the surrounding rock varied from high jagged peaks to red cliffs. All along the valley there was an on going battle between man and nature, as both the river and the mountains attempted to eat up the highway via erosion and landslides. Finally the Pamirs gave way to the semi-arid and pancake flat landscape of the Tarim basin and, about seven hours after we had left Tashkurgan, we finally rolled into Kashgar.
We were dropped off at the Chini Bagh hotel, parts of which had in a former life been the British Residency. However it was a little run down and definitely overpriced so we went to find an alternative. After we had located a cheaper and much nicer hotel we had some dinner and got chatting to some young Sichuanese tourists. We finished the evening with a walk through the people's square which was dominated by a huge statue of Chairman Mao. The square was filled with people playing, for no discernable reason, badminton in the fading light. Throughout our months in China we were to find this a fairly common theme, tiny pockets of popularity for various obscure pastimes and fashions. The only explanation we found for this was the lack of communication between areas, without media fashions simply could not become as global as they did in the western world.
Friday, 24 July 1998
Kashgar, Xinjiang, China
Kashgar is a place which is very easy to get used to, trees line the streets keeping it cool and, especially in the area surrounding the former Russian consulate, there are several street cafes where you can hide from the midday sun. It sees a fair amount of tourism and a quantity of English is spoken (so you are not dropped in at the deep end) and it has most of the essential traveller facilities.
We spent Friday and Saturday exploring the shops and bazaars of Kashgar. The local Uyghur people all live in a very ancient part of the town around the Id Kah mosque and it is here that they conduct business selling everything from red painted eggs to musical instruments. We tried unsuccessfully to get hold of some English books but managed to cause plenty of confusion in the attempt. We went to several department stores in order to get various toiletries and through the use of charades made ourselves understood. We tried the food of the local Uyghur people which consists mainly of very thick noodles with meat (langman) and very thick dumplings (jaoizi) and the best of the lot parcels of lamb and onion baked on the oven walls (permuda).
Sunday, 26 July 1998
Kashgar, Xinjiang, China
We woke up early for the Sunday market having heard that you see more interesting stuff between eight and nine. However when we got there it appeared that what you get to see is everyone setting up since the market does not really get underway until ten. It was nice but the problem was we had hyped it up too much and had a shopping list of things to buy - I wanted a shirt, Anna a top and I was considering buying a carpet and shipping it back. The problem was that when we got to the market we could find none of theses things, the shirts were all factory made and very boring, the carpets were too complex in design and were too expensive and in general the majority of wares could be found at any market in the world. Whilst walking around we encountered a pretty strange fellow who introduced himself with "hello I am Elvis, you will find me on page 266 of the Lonely Planet". Since we had the Rough Guide we ignored him but we later found out that he had quite a story to tell.
The only sections which did have a bit of colour to them were the hat and knife selling areas where people actually grabbed you and shoved hats on your head, or tried to shave the hairs off your arms in order to demonstrate the sharpness of their knives. Despite leaving having bought nothing we still had a good time especially at the animal market where you could watch the locals test driving horses, examining sheep's teeth and generally haggling. We also managed to have some very nice permuda for lunch, which was so fresh that when we looked behind the stall we saw the severed heads of the lambs used to make the dumplings.
On the way back to the hotel we tracked down an area of the old town where the musical instrument shops were supposed to be concentrated. The Uyghur people have their own very distinctive style of music and musical instruments. We were very lucky to find a shop where the craftsman were more than happy to perform some music and demonstrate each of the instruments.
Monday, 27 July 1998
Kashgar, Xinjiang, China
Our last day in Kashgar was spent posting a very expensive parcel back to England. We also had a lengthy chat to a Dutch guy Nick who we had been travelling with since Sost. It appeared that he was not sure where he was going - he had originally intended to travel to Tibet and then to Nepal and then persuade his girlfriend, who for some reason was travelling independently in Vietnam to meet him in India. However now, because he had problems using the Internet he was not sure where she was and since he did not have a guide book for China he had no idea where to go in China if he didn't go to Tibet. He voiced the opinion that he could take pretty much the same route as us to go and hook up with his girlfriend in Vietnam so we thought we might run into him again.
That evening we went to the bus station to catch the long distance bus to Urumqi. Recent Government dictates about not charging foreigners double for bus tickets did not seem to apply in Kashgar and when we found we would be charged 400 Yuan for a sleeper bus ticket we decided to opt for the "soft seat" bus.
We turned up at the appointed time and immediately entered into an argument with the bus driver. Apparently seats one and two, which we had booked, were not at the front but suspiciously somewhere in the middle of the bus. Using my best international sign language and saying "yi, er" repeatedly I explained that we were in the correct seats and we were unlikely to give up because they were the only seats on the bus with enough leg room for me. This he ignored so we decided to ignore him and refuse to budge, which turned out to be the best approach as he eventually gave up. However five minutes later we were in yet another argument with a Chinese couple who claimed they had booked seats one and two, which were conveniently now the seats we were in. Curiously they did not want to show us their tickets, so we ignored them as well. We concluded that since they were the only seats with leg room they were very much in demand for such a long bus journey.
After this the limelight moved from us onto sixty odd Uyghurs who claimed that they were also going to be travelling on the bus despite the fact that it was full by now. The drivers did not handle the situation in the best way because they left the bus doors open so while they argued with ten of the prospective travellers ten more would climb on board and it would be five minutes before the bus driver noticed and chucked them off then argued with them during which ten more would climb on board... we eventually set off an hour after the scheduled time.
Tuesday, 28 July 1998
Kashgar, Xinjiang, China
Before I start to wax lyrical about the supposedly 36hr but actually 44hr bus trip from Kashgar to Urumqi let me first point out that this was the longest single journey I have ever done. In fact before this the longest was a 20hr plane journey from London to Bali, so I have really nothing to compare these two days of my life with. However I am sure if you stick sixty people from anywhere in a cramped bus for forty hours things are likely to get a little ugly.
However this was not just any sixty people, since the two drivers were Han Chinese and apart from us everyone else was a Uyghur. Like most minority populations the Han have ruthlessly controlled and for years been attempting to outnumber the Uyghur population in Xingjiang. With riots as recently as 1996 tensions are still quite high and all English speaking Uyghurs that we met freely admitted that they hate the Chinese. Throughout the journey the young lads on the bus did their level best to try to take the piss out of the drivers. Not something I would personally do on a bus hurtling through a very rocky desert but then, hey, I am not a victim of oppression.
There was also a certain lack of common sense amongst the bus's passengers. Simple things like placing a melon under your seat and then being surprised when they rolled the entire length of the bus, fell out of the open bus door and rolled down the road. Things like throwing glass bottles out of the window and then being surprised when five minutes later being surprised when the bus gets a puncture because one of your fellow countrymen had done the same thing on a previous trip. One really annoying trait was that every time we stopped, say for the driver to inspect the wheels or negotiate a military check point, everyone would pile out of the bus and literally disappear into the surrounding bushes. This would mean that the bus drivers would have to spend a quarter of an hour of herding passengers back into the bus before we could go.
One guy who joined the bus en route particularly caught our attention. There were only two bunks on the bus, one for the second driver and a spare one allotted to whoever was the most needy, an old guy, pregnant woman etc. As soon as he got on the bus this guy tried to claim the spare bunk. The conductor, concluding that he was as fit as a fiddle, offered him a seat on the toolbox next to my feet. He quickly managed to get on my nerves by repeatedly lifting my trouser legs to inspect my walking boots. After I put a stop to this he then went back to his attempts to get a bunk. Every time the bus stopped and the second driver got up for petrol, to check the tires or for a comfort break our friend would sneak into the drivers' bunk and pretend to fall asleep. Although when he got back the second driver would instantly turf him out this did not discourage him. In all we counted six rounds of occupation and eviction, culminating with an attempt to climb into the bunk whilst the second driver was actually still in it and cuddle up beside him. We wished we had known more Chinese to translate some of the torrents of abuse that the drivers hurled at him.
Wednesday, 29 July 1998
Urumqi, Xinjiang, China
By the second day we were thoroughly tired and even the antics of our fellow passengers were not saving us from the boredom. Things were not helped by the road condition. Whether it is due to floods or a drive for improvement at least 10% of the 1500km road from Kashgar was in the process of being rebuilt. However rather than provide an alternative route for traffic the road would be simply ripped up and the traffic left to fend for itself forging its own road through the rough gravel of the Taklamakan desert.
The off roading, although painful on are already sore arses, was at least exciting. The gravel tracks often narrow to a vehicles width and periodically convoys of lorries going one way would run into a convoy going the other way and a stand off would ensue usually involving half an hour's argument before anyone would reverse. The tracks were also the cause of a number of accidents. We saw two recently overturned tankers and at one point a truck directly in front of us had a blow out requiring us to swerve to avoid running into it. Most spectacular however was when a sleeper coach and a truck, unable to see each other in a dust cloud, collided head on smashing both windscreens.
When we finally got to Urumqi forty four hours and five punctures after leaving Kashgar we were completely exhausted. Nevertheless we still had to find our hotel and, observing that Urumqi had little to offer, arrange to leave for Lake Tian Chi (the only real reason to go to Urumqi) the next day. Fortunately the majority of agencies arranging stays in traditional Kazakh yurts by the shores of the lake seemed to be located in the Hongshan hotel where we were staying. All we had to do according to our guide book was find the highly recommended Mr Rachit. We asked a man in the lobby and instantly lucked out, he was Mr Rachit, "please to come with me". We went upstairs to his travel agency, which turned out to be a room in the hotel, and started to make arrangements. However this is when we started to get suspicious, the man seemed to know little about where we were going. Convinced he had duped us we returned to the lobby and asked someone else who conveniently turned out to be Mr Rachit. In the end we concluded that either everyone in the hotel was related or our slavish devotion to the Rough Guide was being exploited. We ended up plumping for the most convincing Mr Rachit, made our arrangements, had some dinner and went to bed.
Thursday, 30 July 1998
Lake Tian Chi, Xinjiang, China
The four hour bus ride to Lake Tian Chi (also known as Heavenly Lake) was uneventful but very scenic. During it we built up a horror of the American family of five who it appeared were going to be our companions for this trip. When we got there it was nearly as the guide book said, a beautiful turquoise lake, pine forests, quite high mountains etc. What was not mentioned was the brand spanking new cable car, the motor boats and the two hotels being constructed at one end of the lake. This however proved not to be a problem, we were staying almost at the other end of the lake, and with a bit of planning we managed to avoid the huge crowds of day trippers.
We had quite a nice lunch with some comic relief provided by the Americans. When we asked them about how much they have travelled the woman answered "I am sorry to say this but we are Christians and it is with God's help and through prayer that we travel". This comic relief however did not lessen our annoyance at their three very precocious children who spent most of the time running around hitting cows with sticks. So after lunch we escaped by walking to the head of the lake and then taking a very steep scramble up and around on a goat path to a secluded cove on the sunny side of the lake. Here we saw no-one except a couple of boat trips and I was even able to manage a quick dip in the icy waters of the lake. After we came back we had dinner, some of the local "rocket-fuel" and piled into the yurt, a circular tent in which you laid in a ring with your feet pointing towards the stove in the middle.
Friday, 31 July 1998
Lake Tian Chi, China
We got up pretty early and headed off to see the waterfall at the fun fair end of the lake. The waterfall was nice and with very few people around we enjoyed it all the more. We then attempted to get to a pagoda on the undeveloped side of the lake but we came unstuck after scrambling up a very steep scree slope and had to turn back. Walking back to the yurt we were surprised to run into Ollie and Chris with whom we had trekked in Pakistan. It appeared that they had given up their plans to go to Burma and had reverted back to an earlier plan to go to Mongolia. They had already visited Turpan and had come back to Urumqi just to visit the lake. It turned out they had a less harrowing sleeper bus ride at the hands of two drivers wanting to break the land speed record who went mental anytime anyone wanted to go for a slash.
We had lunch with them and caught up on a few stories. It seemed that like us they had also run into Elvis in Kashgar, however where as we had pretty much dismissed him they had got into a long conversation with him. It turned out that as a nineteen year-old he had suffered from "sexual problems" and had visited a 400yr old man who lives by the Mosque and who had given him a special potion. Apparently this had the desired effect and had made him irresistible to women, so much so that he had to beat them off with a stick. Apparently it was a pretty fascinating story so long as you did not think too much about why the most attractive man in Kashgar spends so much time talking to tourists in cafes...
We said goodbye to them for what was to be the last time and then got on the bus back to Urumqi. The trip back was made much more enjoyable by a little Kazakh girl who, unaccustomed to travelling in a bus, managed to vomit onto the most annoying of the American children.
Saturday, 1 August 1998
Turpan, Xinjiang, China
We spent most of the morning relaxing in Urumqi and at midday embarked on the four hour bus ride to Turpan. Once there we quickly found a hotel and headed out for the Emin Minaret to catch the sunset. This was quite a good move as the desert sunset was dramatically red, lighting up the clouds like fire. This was enhanced by the red brick structure of the Minaret. We sat in a sort of tower room in the mosque - a large rectangular room open to the elements via arches on all sides but sheltered from the sun by a roof.
Walking back was very enjoyable, the houses on the outskirts were very old and built in compounds around a central courtyard. Each compound was surrounded by vineyards and topped by a brick built lattice structured grape drying room.
Sunday, 2 August 1998
Turpan, Xinjiang, China
We hired bikes and headed off very early to Jiaohe, the ruins of an ancient city supposedly out in the desert but more like in the suburbs of Turpan. We got there around seven and had the site to ourselves which added to its air of abandonment. It was excellent, well preserved and huge with very clear streets and some very dramatic public buildings, pagodas, temples etc.It is positioned on a very steep plateau at the fork of two rivers one of which cuts a very green gorge to the left of the site. We explored for an hour an it was only after this that we ran into a problem.
The problem was that the day before we had followed someone's tip and got into the Emin Minaret for free by walking through the vineyards. We had turned up at Jiaohe so early in the morning that there were no guards ad we got in for free so we thought that we certainly would get out for free. Unfortunately we had left our bikes very close to the entrance and they were waiting for us when we came out. At first we tried to argue with them, but as far as I was concerned we were just trying it on however the Chinese did not seem to be getting into the spirit of things and started getting very physical, grabbing at Anna, so I had no choice but to shout at them to leave her alone. Anna then offered them half the money which went down like a lead balloon. However all this time I had been ignoring the fact that one of the Chinese was slowly building up steam and at the point where our money was thrown on the floor he finally snapped. Like some bad Kung-fu movie he looked straight at me and said what sounded like "fruck you", then attacked me.
When you have a psycho who has a six inch height advantage laying into you with his hands and feet you do not stop for thought. I did even less than this and basically flailed my arms around trying to block his blows and screeching at Anna to pay the money. However after the event I did have time to think about it and still could not decide whether he was totally incompetent or was pulling his punches in an effort to scare me. Basically my expertise in martial arts is limited to one evening in a sports club and watching "The Karate Kid" three times. But even doing a poor impression of Ralph Macchio painting the fence I blocked his worst blows and did not have a single bruise. On the other hand I clearly remember catching a kick to my throat which I seem to remember is a pretty dangerous area. Anyway I survived the incident and as they say "history is written by the victor" so the record will show that I defended myself with great skill - although its probably a case of "history is written by the one who can grasp a pen and who has both frontal lobes intact and does not have a discount card for electric shock therapy".....
On the cycle back home we decided that we would not pursue the matter further. It was becoming patently obvious that China, despite a civilised veneer, still has some very uncivilized undercurrents and an our word against his court case would not get very far. More pertinently we would have to remain for weeks in Turpan and we had a pretty tight schedule so the best thing was to turn the other cheek.
On the bus to the train station we witnessed another ugly incident. a man attempting to forcefully drag a woman out of our bus. At first we thought he was the diver but it rapidly became clear that he was her husband. The worst thing about the incident was that no-one did anything to interfere, it was the sort of thing that someone would stop after two minutes but it lasted more than ten before the man gave up and decided to get on the bus as well. We began to think ill of the Chinese but fortunately we got chatting to an off-duty travel agent who had very good English so softened our opinion that we were amongst a nation of psychos and wife beaters.