Archive for April, 2007

Xinjiang Trip Day 16 (4-4-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I took an early morning bus to Jiayuguan. The route from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan is more or less through the Gobi Desert and the landscape remained bleak and dusty the whole way. A lot of Xinjiang also has this type of landscape so it was hardly anything new, but I had to pity the people getting on and off at the small roadside villages we passed. Living in this part of China would be hell.

I arrived at Jiayuguan around midday and found a hotel. I took a walk around town, arranged a taxi for the following day, and dropped into a Manchurian restaurant where I had Manchurian style dumplings and herb infused baijiu. I had been meaning to have beer but a drunk group of Chinese guys leaving the restaurant as I ordered persuaded me to try the baijiu, which was apparently made in Manchuria by relatives of the restaurant boss. It tasted a little more interesting than most baijiu, but was still very rough stuff. Being infused with herbs it was reddish rather than clear so maybe it no longer qualified as baijiu (白酒 – literally ‘white alcohol’). The fact that it was about 50% alcohol by volume and served hot made it especially hard going.

Xinjiang Trip Day 15 (3-4-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

In the morning I wandered out to look for transportation to the Mogao Caves (莫高窟). There didn’t seem to be any buses so I looked around for a taxi and was lucky enough to find a driver who was already taking another tourist out there so we shared the cost. The other guy was a student from Xi’an. He was nice, though never seemed to get over his surprise at touring the Mogao Caves with a foreigner.

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The caves themselves were rewarding and disappointing at the same time. It was amazing to view so many well preserved and ancient Buddhist wall paintings in their original setting. Some of the paintings were from the 4th century AD, and had Indian and even Greek influences. As Buddhism became accepted in China the later paintings became more clearly Chinese in style. The scale of the place was huge, with around 500 separate caves. This was the problem though. Out of 500 caves the tour only included eight. The rest of the caves were kept locked and off limits. Obviously keeping the caves locked is necessary (enough has been stolen from the site already), but it was disappointing to see so little.

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The doubly frustrating thing was that apparently the tours visit approximately twice as many caves during the peak tourist season. I can’t see the logic of this. You would think that when there are fewer tourists the guides would have more time to give a longer tour, and that whoever is in charge of protecting the site would be happier to let the smaller low season tour parties visit more caves than the larger high season tour parties since lower visitor numbers should equate to less damage. They do allow you to pay on a per cave basis to see more, but with hundreds of caves, prices of 150-500RMB per person per cave opened, and no guidance as to which caves are the most worth seeing, it isn’t really feasible.

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Apparently a decade or so ago tourists were allowed to see much more of the site, with the entry ticket giving you access to morning and afternoon tours covering two different sets of caves, and the possibility of persuading or paying the guides to open extra caves time permitting.

Back in Dunhuang I bought a bus ticket for the next morning to Jiayuguan and went looking for lunch. I went into another small Sichuanese restaurant on the main street. The restaurant turned out to have an English menu which was nice, but then I thought again and asked to see the Chinese menu. Sure enough, the prices on the two menus were different, with everything on the English menu being roughly twice the real price. I asked what the story was and the waitress said they would serve me for the Chinese menu prices. I told the other diners that the restaurant had two menus with two prices. A shrug or two: “it’s the foreigners price”. Nobody seemed embarrassed or surprised at the dishonesty.

I walked out and tried the restaurant next door. It was the same story there. In fact every little restaurant on the main street seemed to be doing this. In one place I noticed the English menu was mistake free and asked who had helped them with it. They told me some backpacker had done it for free. So they get free translation services from some foreigner and that individual’s kindness then gets used to rip off countless other foreigners.

In the end I had to wander into a side street to find a restaurant that didn’t make gouging non-Chinese people a standard practice.

In the afternoon I wandered up to the Dunhuang Museum only to find it closed. The woman selling seeds outside seemed to think it closed every year for the winter. I can’t understand why a museum would need to close for winter but never mind.

There wasn’t much else to do in Dunhuang, though I did try some of the famous local donkey meat noodles.

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Xinjiang Trip Day 14 (2-4-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I woke up to find the bus stopped in the middle of the desert alongside a convoy of container trucks and other vehicles. We were not yet halfway to Dunhuang and the road ahead had been closed by a stand storm. The Koreans started getting restless and after some discussion half the group got off the bus and disappeared into the storm. They were gone for ages. It obviously wasn’t just a toilet break so where had they gone to? After about 40 minutes the Koreans returned with two giant bottles of Chinese baijiu. They had wandered off into a sand storm on a booze run. You can always count on the Koreans!

The Koreans invited me to join them for a drink. One of the central sleeper beds served as a table and we sat around it drinking baijiu and munching on raisins, peanuts, biscuits and other snacks. The Koreans were a group of teachers from the ‘Gandhi School’, an alternative education school in South Korea. They were scouting out the route for a school trip designed to expose the students to the diversity of cultures in East Asia. Since they were just scouting the route they had only spent a few hours in each of Wulumuqi and Turpan, and were only going to spend a couple of hours in Dunhuang before continuing to Golmud and then Tibet. When they returned with the students they would spend longer in each place. The full trip would start out in Vladivostok and finish in Tibet. It sounded interesting.

One of the group was a well known Korean travel writer and peace activist. Her travel books focused on places with political problems, and she had been to Iraq several times to protest during the lead up to the Gulf War and the early months of the war itself. She said she wanted to write a new type of travel book that went beyond simply giving information on sightseeing, accommodation, food and entertainment. She thought there was an interest in travel books that gave directions on how to make contact with foreign cultures and particular local people. The language barrier made it hard to get exactly what she meant, but it seemed an interesting idea.

We chatted a while about other things, including North Korea, the Iraq War, popular attitudes in China, and why successful revolutions always end in dictatorships. The travel writer finished by telling me I should write a book. People always seem to be saying that to me, so maybe I should.

It became difficult to talk after the bus started moving again, around midday, so we went back to our sleeper berths and alternately dozed or watched the desert scenery. Eventually we got to Dunhuang and I said goodbye to the Koreans and went off looking for a hotel. Considering the massive number of hotels in Dunhuang the driver seemed to have a hard time finding a suitable place. I guess he must have been taking a cut himself from the hotels he took me around. The first couple were bad quality and overpriced. The one I finally settled on was OK but a little overpriced given that there appeared to be a glut of accommodation in town and no tourists. I should have told the driver to get lost and dragged my bags round town myself but after a nearly 24 hours bus ride I just wanted to quickly find a place to dump my stuff and have a shower.

I had dinner at a Sichuanese restaurant. The food was average but the waitress was interesting. She was Mongolian from Inner Mongolia and on seeing me started talking to the rest of the staff about foreigners and how wonderful they were. Hearing her talk there seemed to be no area in which foreigners were not superior to Chinese. She praised me for going traveling alone, saying few Chinese would ever do such a thing. She talked about how foreigners knew how to enjoy their lives while Chinese only knew how to save money. She said foreigners exercised more than Chinese and were healthier. She said they danced better. She even told the other staff to say ‘waiguoren’ instead of ‘laowai’ when talking about foreigners, saying it was more respectful. I agree with her about the ‘laowai’ word, but wondered where she had picked this up. Most Chinese are insensitive to how ‘laowai’ sounds. I had a feeling she might have had a western boyfriend at some point.

It was sad to hear some of what she had to say though. Apparently she had applied for a French visa but never saved the money to travel to France and eventually the visa expired. She wistfully talked about how she would travel the world for 2 years if she had US$400k. She obviously had no idea how much US$400k could buy. Of course you easily could spend US$400k traveling the world in two years, but you could just as easily travel for two years far more cheaply.

Xinjiang Trip Day 13 (1-4-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I spent most of the day seeing the sights around Turpan.


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The highlights were the ruins at Jiaohe and Gaochang. I would have missed out on Gaochang if I had taken the sleazeball’s tour, since it was the furthest location from Turpan. Gaochang was extremely ruined and desolate, with little remaining of the old city. The desolation was what gave it its special appeal though. Wandering around it I couldn’t help thinking of “Ozymandius King of Kings” from the poem by Percy Shelly.

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” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

Jiaohe was much better preserved and signposted, but also full of signs telling you keep to the paths – not that there was anyone around to enforce this. The setting was dramatic, with the city sitting on top of a small plateau lying between two canyons. The floorplans of some of the old Tang Dynasty temples in the city were also interesting, being rather different to those of the Ming and Qing Dynasty temples you usually see.

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The Astana tombs were worth a quick look but there was honestly not much to see besides the holes in the ground.

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Unfortunately strong winds were blowing up dust and the Flaming Mountains, the famous location from the novel Journey to the West, were only half visible. I didn’t bother with the Journey to the West Museum at the Flaming Mountains. From the display outside it looked like a cheesy private museum.

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I dropped by a little museum on the Karez irrigation system. There wasn’t much to it other than walking down into a real Karez but it was still interesting. The Karez is the traditional system the Uigurs around Turpan use to transport water from the mountains and down into Turpan and similar ‘oasis’ towns, and comprises a network of underground tunnels with access shafts at regular intervals along their length to allow maintenance. The access shafts are visible scattered throughout the desert as raised mounds of earth. Of course this elaborate water transportation system makes you wonder why Turpan is referred to as an ‘oasis’ town. Oasis to me means some kind of a small lake in a desert area, surrounded by date trees and houses and the like. I didn’t see any obvious oasis in the area. Turpan was greener than the surrounding desert, which wasn’t saying much, but it seemed that all the greenery was dependent on water from elsewhere. The driver mentioned that many of the old Karez are dry these days because drawing upon deep ground water to meet the needs of the growing population has lowered the water table. There is a going to be a water crisis sooner or later. Whatever you think of the politics you have to question the practical wisdom of the government encouraging settlers from the Chinese heartland to take up residence in Xinjiang. While diluting the Uigur and other minority populations is helping integrate these border lands into the Chinese heartland, the associated population growth is placing stress on the region’s scarce water resources. It will be interesting to see how this situation pans out.

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The last stop on the tour was the Amin mosque, supposedly one of the best examples of traditional Uigur architecture in Xinjiang. It would have been better if the exterior hadn’t recently been restored to look brand new. Even the graves in the cemetery had been replastered. The effect was to make you feel you were wandering through a film set rather than looking at the real thing. The mosque had also been surrounded with the usual Chinese tourist site paraphernalia, with statuary, a viewing platform and so on.

After hearing I had lived in Taiwan the driver got onto the inevitable subject of Taiwan independence and expressed the usual nationalistic chauvinism and complete disregard for what Taiwanese people might want.

I caught an overnight bus to Dunhuang in the evening. I had tried to get the hotel to book tickets for me and for some reason they were unable to get me tickets for that evening, saying the tickets were all sold out until the next day. Oddly, asking myself at the station I found tickets available for that night’s bus. Were they trying even by devious means to keep me staying in their hotel another night? It certainly seems possible.

I put the Uigur knives into the back of my belt, hidden under my jacket, so I could put my bags through the x-ray machine without the knives being detected. It felt very desperado to be boarding a bus with knives down my back. Once on the bus I transferred them back into my bag.

The bus was almost empty, with just a couple of Chinese passengers and half a dozen Koreans. I had a snack and did my best to sleep.

Xinjiang Trip Day 12 (31-3-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

After doing a little work I had a late breakfast with Johnathan at Fubar and then caught the bus to Turpan.

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On arrival in Turpan I met yet another prick of a Uigur. He must have hopped on the bus as it was coming into town, and as it approached the station he came over and offered me an introduction to a hotel (calling it ‘my hotel’) and tour services. I did take him up on the hotel offer because I had nothing else in mind and the rooms turned out to be a good deal (albeit only after his initial price was cut more than in half). The man then offered me a 400RMB tour for the next day to several of the sights around Turpan. I had no idea about the distances to these sights, and had not even checked what there was to see in the area, so I told him I’d think about it and let him know later. He said he would call me at 6pm. While we were chatting I asked if the museum would still be open after 5.00pm and he told me it was closed. After sitting in my room a little while I had a feeling the museum must be open and checked again with reception who told it didn’t close until after 7.00pm. So he had been lying.

I headed down to the museum and, as a courtesy to the guy, told reception to tell him I was at the museum and to leave a message for me. A couple of girls working in the ticket office took me on a tour of the museum, and while chatting with them I realized that his 400 RMB was a complete con. His tour only took in the closest sites to the city, while other tours for half the price also visited the more distant sites. Just as I was discussing distances and car hire costs with the two girls I felt a presence behind us and turned round to see that the slimeball had come into the museum and was eavesdropping on our conversation. He started accusing me of being dishonest for coming down to the museum when I had said I would wait for his call at the hotel, but realizing there was nothing to gain from hanging around he quickly left, leaving a bad taste in the air.

The girls showed me round the rest of the museum, including the display of preserved corpses unearthed along the Silk Road. They were remarkably well preserved, and some were wearing clothes that were still completely intact. There was also a display of fabric samples discovered in the area, including pieces of more than 2000 year old cloth that looked practically new. There were also oddities like preserved Chinese dumplings.

Turpan was a dull town to walk around, with very long wide streets and few shops or restaurants. For dinner I ate ‘da pan ji’ (big dish chicken – a sort of spicy chicken stew). I thought this was a Uigur dish, but all the restaurants in Turpan seemed to prepare it in more of a Chinese style, using Sichuan pepper.

Xinjiang Trip Day 11 (30-3-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

In the afternoon I visited the bazaar again to look for Uigur knives after promising a friend to pick one up. I did a very bad job of the knife shopping and got scammed. The selection of quality knives was much smaller than in Kashgar, but there were still no excuses for messing up so badly. Once again I sort of ‘went with the flow’ far too much when dealing with a Uigur guy. I was far too nice to him. I realized I was overpaying but figured he was at least selling a quality product and that I would show him some respect and keep things nice and civil by not bidding too low. He on the other hand showed me absolutely zero respect, and after settling on a price for the knives gouged extra for the sheaths. I nearly walked away at that point. In fact I was just itching to tell him he was being a complete fuckwit. For some reason though I decided the money was only a little extra in the scheme of things and just wanted to get the deal over. As soon as he got the cash in his hands he ran away laughing. Later on, while trying to get some better sheaths (the ones he provided were rubbish) I found the knives were also second grade rather than quality. So I bid high out of respect for him and his knives and basically got shat on in return, as he showed zero respect for his own product or his customers. Still, at least I did get genuine Uigur knives rather than Chinese produced blades with Uigur decoration.

I dropped by Fubar yet again in the evening and had a couple of drinks with a very mellow Mongolian guy.

Xinjiang Trip Day 10 (29-3-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I got up and went to the long distance bus station to find a car to drive the 700 km or so back to Wulumuqi. On hearing I was looking for a car the Uigur taxi driver who took me to the station started acting like a prick and trying to get involved in the deal. It was completely unreasonable since I was not using his help in any way. I had previously been to the long distance bus station to check out the car situation and I knew where they left from. He started getting violent and in the end the Chinese taxi driver whose car I took gave him RMB 50 just to go away. Uigurs have an annoying way of sometimes making simple situations very complicated, as well as manhandling people on the slightest of pretexts.

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I wanted to take a taxi back to Wulumuqi so I could stop off and check out the scenery on the way, particularly Lake Sailimu (赛里木湖). Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. As we left Yining and headed up into the mountains it began snowing quite heavily. By the time we reached Lake Sailimu the snow was heavy enough that there was not much visibility. I took a couple of photographs of the sign saying ‘Lake Sailimu’, but the lake itself was almost invisible. The car got stuck in a snowdrift by the lake and we were stuck for 15 minutes or so getting it out. Strangely once we passed the main scenic area the snow suddenly stopped and the lake was once again clear. I got some better shots from that point.

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After passing the lake and climbing back down the other side of the mountains the scenery changed to desert, and this lasted the rest of the way back to Wulumuqi. The mountain area was nice, but the last part of the drive was tedious.

The driver was a nice guy and bought tea and lunch during the drive. Once back in Wulumuqi he introduced another hotel, perfectly OK and well located but cheaper than either the Peacock or the Huadu. After checking in I quickly dropped by Fubar, had some Lanzhou beef noodles on the way back to my hotel, and went to sleep.

Xinjiang Trip Day 9 (28-3-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I spent the day doing some work in my hotel room and relaxing. In the afternoon I took a walk around town.

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On my walk I noticed a roadside stall selling some of the first Kvass of the spring and had a glass. It was similar to the factory product but yeastier and less carbonated. Nice stuff.

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Xinjiang Trip Day 8 (27-3-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

The flight to Yili was uneventful. The airport was tiny, something like a toy airport. The taxi driver yet again tried to scam me. The airport seemed to be running a taxi sharing system to I ended up in a taxi that already had two Chinese guys in it. I was the first to get off, and the taxi driver tried to charge me roughly three times what was on the meter, making sure he grabbed my bags and followed me into the hotel foyer so he could do all this out of sight of his other passengers. He got nasty when I told him to get lost, appealing to the hotel staff that this was “the foreigner’s price”. I asked the hotel staff what the situation was at the airport regarding pick-up and drop-off fees and they all stared at their feet and said not a word. I ended up paying him the meter plus a couple of kuai – too much considering there were two other people in the car. At least the hotel he took me to was a good deal though, with fantastic modern rooms for only 120 RMB.

In the afternoon I got on a bus to the small town of Chapucha’er to see the Xibo minority people. The Xibo are descendents of Manchu soldiers sent to guard the north-west frontier during the Qing Dynasty. Remoteness meant that they largely retained their customs and language after Manchus throughout the rest of the country assimilated into Chinese society.

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Chabucha’er was interesting in a low key way, with the road and shop signs all written in Manchurian script (see the the squiggly, vertical script at the top of the sign below). The stores themselves seemed no different to a typical Chinese town though.

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The thing to do in Chabucha’er is visit the Xibo Culture Park, so I took another bus out there. The culture park had an interesting display of information on Xibo culture, but was deserted and empty. There should have been displays of dancing and archery, as well as a restaurant serving Manchurian food (which looked more or less like Dongbei food), but the park employees were all huddling around the heater in the ticket office and the Manchurian restaurant was closed. I stopped by the ticket office on my way out to chat with the staff and some of them changed into costumes to pose for photographs. I asked if there were any Manchurian restaurants I could try back in Chabucha’er, but apparently the only truly unique Manchurian food you can easily find these days is a type of breakfast cake that is not available after the early morning. Despite there not being very much to see it was interesting to listen to the staff speaking Manchurian with one another. I had always assumed Manchurian was more or less a dead language, but it seemed very much alive and was what everybody reverted to when they weren’t speaking with me.

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Back in Chabucha’er itself I wandered around looking for a Manchurian restaurant and taking a few photographs of the Manchurian language signs. After giving up on finding a restaurant I jumped on a bus. As I sat waiting for the bus to leave a Uigur man got on, flashed a badge, said he was a police officer, and asked me to come with him. I didn’t entirely believe him. He was with three other guys and I initially thought it must be some weird scheme to mug me or something. However, when I asked the driver he said plain clothes policemen were common in the area so I followed the policeman off the bus and he led me across the road to where his three friends were waiting.

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The policemen asked me where I was from and why I had been taking photographs. They didn’t seem convinced that I had been taking photographs of Manchurian signage, but relaxed after I flicked back through the photos in my camera to show them I had just come from the Xibo Culture Park. After a few more questions about where I was staying and where I was traveling next they let me back on the bus.

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Back in Yili I found some bottles of factory Kvass in a supermarket and took them back to my room to drink. Kvass is very low alcohol Uigur beer made from grains and honey. It is mainly a summer drink, and apparently during summertime a lot of restaurants sell homemade Kvass. Factory produced Kvass is available all year round though. Even strict Muslims drink Kvass and most people you ask will tell you it has no alcohol. I guess it is related to the other central Asian drinks with similar names, though I think some of these are made from fermented milk. The Kvass had a honey and apples taste. If I hadn’t known what I was I might almost have mistaken it for a sweetish cider.

Wandering around town looking for dinner I came across a line of nicely decorated and clean looking Uigur restaurants overlooking a park. I chose the one with the most customers and went in. I wanted rice pilaf (“shou zhua fan” – 手抓饭) but it was sold out, so I had naan covered in lamb and sauce (‘nang bao rou囊包肉) instead. The quality was excellent. The meat seemed more succulent and the bread had a nicer texture than in Kashgar. I had some milk tea as well, and this time it came with curds floating in it which was a bit of a surprise. It tasted good though, still sour, but milder and with more of a dairy and tea taste than what I had tried in Kashgar.

The waitress came over and started chatting. First she asked where I was from, and then she asked if all New Zealanders drank their milk tea in the evening. After I asked her some more about the tea it turned out it is more of a breakfast thing, so I guess everyone thought I was a bit of a weirdo to have asked for it with my dinner. The conversation moved on to language and cultural stuff, and from there to Uigur independence. She was strongly in support of Uigur independence. She said that the way things were going, within a decade Uigur culture would no longer exist. Apparently during the last couple of years the language of instruction in primary school had been switched to Mandarin from Uigur. I guess that as Han immigrants become more dominant in Xinjiang the education system there is catering increasingly to their needs, with the needs of the original Uigur and other minority inhabitants ignored. Despite her gloomy predictions though I can’t really believe the Uigur language is in any danger of disappearing. It seemed to me that few Uigurs spoke more than basic Chinese. After a while the waitress got called away. The boss didn’t seem to like the conversation we were having. A group of Uigurs at the next table had certainly been listening quite intently, and after my experience on the bus earlier I could see why a person could feel paranoid about eavesdroppers.

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On my way back to the hotel I passed a cheese seller and bought some little dry ewe milk cheeses. Very tasty. The guy told me that they would keep for a year no problems. I carried them with me for snacks on buses etc. over the next few days and found that after about a week in a plastic bag the last couple of cheeses went moldy. The plastic bag may have been the problem since it probably stopped the air from circulating and allowed moisture to build up. They were a pretty dry type of cheese so probably would keep a long time unrefrigerated if you stored them right.

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Xinjiang Trip Day 7 (26-3-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I took a morning flight back to Wulumuqi. I was running late for the flight and just as I was putting my passport on the counter to check in a well dressed Uigur guy threw his passport and ticket down on top of mine. I had my bags in my other hand so was slow to react and the girl behind the counter began checking him in instead of me. I ripped into the prick verbally but got no response besides a shrug.

On the plane a Uigur leather trader saw me reading a Chinese novel and leaned over to tell me that he disapproved of the Chinese writing system and there was no reason for foreigners in Xinjiang to be using it. He suggested I learn Uigur. The Chinese passengers looked around but nobody said anything.

Disembarking from the plane the Uigur queue jumper was just ahead of me with his overweight Chinese wife. I clipped his neck with my computer case as I walked past him, shrugged, and walked on. Waiting to pick up baggage I ran into Mr. Tang again. He had also been on the flight. Hopefully he didn’t see me clipping the guy’s neck.

The Chinese taxi driver taking me in from the airport tried to scam me, just as the driver who had taken me out to the airport the previous time had tried to do. They both tried to get me to pay a non-existent airport pick-up/drop-off fee. The one taking me into town also stopped to pick up some woman on the way into town, then suggested I move my luggage off the back seat so he would have space for more passengers, then tried to charge me the whole fare (plus the pick-up fee). The level of dishonesty and general piss-artistry in China is amazing.

The Peacock hotel had a bit of an issue with hot water so this time I tried the Huadu. The rooms were battered but OK.

I bought a ticket to Yili, did a little work at the Greek Posthouse, and then had dinner with Johathan, a Norwegian on holiday from one of the Central Asian republics, and a Russian girl. We ate in an Uzbek restaurant, sharing a range of dishes ordered in Russian by the Norwegian guy.

There were two soups. I think one was vegetarian and one was lamb. Both were excellent. The bread was probably the highlight of the meal, softer than the hard Uigur bread, and eaten dipped in yogurt. There was also a deliciously rich stew of lamb, potatoes, onions, and a little mustard and herbs; large chunks of braised lamb; hamburger with fried potatoes; and a salad of pickled carrot strips. Some beer would have been nice but unfortunately there was nothing to drink besides bowls of tea. The bill for four people came to just 70 or so RMB, amazing value for the quality and quantity of food.

I headed straight home after dinner since it was another early morning flight to Yili the next day.