Archive for the ‘Xinjiang (East Turkestan)’ Category

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.

Xinjiang Trip Day 6 (25-3-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

My only plan for the 25th was to see the Sunday bazaar in Kashgar and arrange transport back to Wulumuqi. I got up and headed to the bazaar. I arrived as it was still building up, with streams of Uigurs arriving in every direction, coming either on foot, or by bus, car, or donkey cart. There was scarcely a Chinese person to be seen, and very few tourists. I only saw two other western tourists, and maybe a half dozen touristy looking Chinese.

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Unlike the Wulumuqi bazaar which was contained in three covered complexes, the Kashgar sprawled over a huge area. There was a main central building providing cover for permanent stalls, a couple of older, smaller and crumbling buildings containing more permanent stalls (one of which seemed more tourist oriented with Chinese jade, carpets, etc.), and a mass of temporary stalls in the surrounding open spaces and lanes, set up either under awnings or simply on the ground.

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The market was organized into sections dealing in different goods, including clothes, tools, kitchenware, fabrics, dried foods, carpets, snacks, and so on. Some of the more interesting items were in the temporary stalls around the market. There were stalls selling handmade brushes, second hand shoe dealers, donkey bridles and accessories, knife sharpeners, and so on.

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My stomach was feeling a little better and I did my best to try some of the snacks, including icecream (0.5 RMB), sausages of rice stuffed lamb entrails (1 RMB), baked lamb dumplings (1 RMB each – maybe overcharging), mutton soup with naan, sweet dried fruit soup, and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (1 RMB). The hygiene was questionable. The best the stalls seemed to do was rinse bowls and utensils with a spray bottle containing water between customers. At the lamb dumpling vendor each seat on the bench had a plate in front of it and you simply ate off the plate used by the previous dozen customers. I guess they wiped the plates either at the end of the day or once the grease got too thick. I didn’t have room for rice pilaf (手抓饭 - “hand eaten rice” in Chinese) or naan soaked in lamb stew. I was going to buy some interesting half dried raisins but the price seemed high (10 RMB a small bunch) and the vendor was being a bit of a jerk. I got to taste them in any case and they were nothing special, still closer to a grape than a raisin.

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I thought about buying one of the knives, which were interesting and seemed available for 200 RMB or less, but figured customs might not let them into New Zealand. I did buy a bag of allegedly Uigur spiced tea. It seemed more spices than tea and I’m not sure if it really was Uigur. It seemed more like a very strong Indian Chai, and might be better drunk mixed with tea than drunk alone.

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After finishing up at the market I arranged a ticket back to Wulumuqi for the next day and then took another walk around the Mosque area. This time I stopped in at the Chakhana Teahouse for tea. The place looked very authentic, almost too filthy to consider entering, with a crumbling decorative wood and plaster interior, and tables of capped and bearded old Uighur men sipping tea and chatting. I sat down and an English menu was produced – probably the only menu in the place since it seemed patronized mainly by regulars of several decades who had no need for a menu. The English menu indicated that a fair number of tourists must find their way into the place, but there were none in evidence when I was there. I tried to ask for milk tea, which was not on the menu, and the waiter had enormous trouble understanding me. Tea was no problem (“chai” in Uighur and “cha” in Chinese), but the milk was impossible to explain. I tried using my hands to make horns on my head and squeezing my tits, but it was all to no avail until an old man at the next table got my meaning and told the waiter.

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The milk tea was odd. It was weak Uigur tea diluted with a smooth and yoghurt like “milk”. The main taste was the sourness of the “milk”, with almost no tea taste. I am not quite sure about the whole milk tea situation in Xinjiang. Shanghai restaurants serve reasonably strong black tea, milk, and salt as “Uigur tea”. But in Xinjiang itself true Uighur tea (or at least Xinjiang tea since maybe it is really Kazakh) is weak tea mixed with a slightly sour milk curd product. The Chakhana Teahouse version had roughly the right taste but was smooth rather than curd filled and the “milk” seemed to be some type of odd processed product. Maybe this just isn’t a drink they usually sell and so they prepared it a different way, not producing the curd filled stuff served in more specialized milk tea shops. I figured any tea shop would sell milk tea but maybe they don’t.

There was not much else to do in Kashgar besides check out the old British and Russian consulates. Both are now located inside hotels, but neither was particularly interesting since both were being renovated and therefore closed up.

Xinjiang Trip Day 5 (24-3-2007)

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

Given what was effectively a 5am start I got up and dressed without showering. I had some Uigur baklava I’d picked up in Wulumuqi, but skipped breakfast and headed out to wait for Mr. Tang and the driver. My stomach was feeling bad, not diarrhea but just a pain that felt like it would get worse if I ate anything. The food in Kashgar was distinctly dirtier than anywhere else I had been in China and I guess I was feeling the effects.

The car turned up just late enough for me to wonder if the driver had forgotten about us, I hopped in, and after filling up the tank we headed out into the countryside. After an hour or two the driver stopped off at a mosque for morning prayers. A lot of mosques around Kashgar have educational and propaganda slogans painted on their outside walls. In this case the worshippers were reminded to cherish female babies as much as male ones. We were stopped for 15 minutes or so and I wondered whether this delay was going to be repeated another five (or should it be seven?) times. It turned out that the driver only made one prayer stop though. I guess he was not too devout.

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Soon after it got light, about 3 hours driving from Kashgar, we reached a military checkpoint in the foothills of a mountain range. As we got out of the car and the driver headed towards the sentry post I realized that I was going to be expected to produce my passport, which was back in my hotel room. I hadn’t realized that a passport was going to be required. Although we were going to visit a border down we were not going to be crossing any border. I hadn’t counted on the whole mountain area being a restricted zone.

The sentries had already seen us so it was too late to ask the driver if I should just lie down in the back of the car and hope for the best. Mr. Tang had the pained expression of someone realizing that sharing a car might not have been such a good idea after all. Forgetting my passport was potentially going to mess things up for everybody. It was a massive buggeration!

I nervously followed the others up to the century post. I was hoping we could sweet talk our way through but didn’t have much confidence that the driver would be able to pull that off. Rather than a talkative charmer he was a quiet type who responded slowly but straightforwardly to questions. The guards told us that everyone needed either a passport or a Chinese national ID card to enter the mountain area and we would have to drive back to Kashgar to get mine. Given the distance, driving back would mean canceling the whole trip. We asked about other possibilities for resolving the situation.

Getting no joy from the sentries, we retreated to the car and held a conference. Mr. Tang was a frequent visitor to China as representative of the Fukuoka government and I sounded him out on the possibility of bribing them. He thought it would be worth a try so I wandered up alone and tried my “bribe an official” routine. The officer in charge was apparently in a little barracks a distance beyond the checkpoint and not to be disturbed so there was nothing to do but try and chat with the two young guards manning the checkpoint itself. I asked if they were married, hoping to then ask about their children, comment sympathetically on the expense of raising a family, and then pass them RMB 200 (Mr. Tang advised RMB 50, but I thought the situation looked more desperate than that) while urging them to buy something nice for their kids. Unfortunately neither of them were married. I asked them where they were from and whether they got many chances to visit home. They were not very communicative but eventually admitted to being from Turpan and some place in Gansu respectively. I suggested they buy something for their parents next time they visited home and tried to pass the money over, but they told me firmly that this checkpoint did things strictly according to the rules. I was both impressed and disappointed.

We were in a true bind. The guards wouldn’t let Mr. Tang continue in the car while I remained at the checkpoint to wait for the daily bus heading to Kashgar from the Pakistani border – expected to pass around noon. They said I was not to be left in the area alone, but themselves refused to take responsibility for me because it was apparently against the regulations. I wasn’t allowed to wait on the roadside without the car, and nor was I allowed to wait inside the checkpoint where they could guard me. There was nothing to do but for all of us to wait together, so wait we did.

After two hours, during which about five cars drove up into the mountains and not a single car came down, we were beckoned over to the guard post. Our plight had eventually been relayed to the commanding officer and he had decided to come down and resolve it. The commanding officer was a smiling contrast to the nervous and reticent young guards. He waved us into the office, offered us tea and cigarettes, and sat us down for a lecture. We were told it would be a terrible shame if two people who had traveled such a long way were stopped just short of their destination. Mr. Tang had wisely introduced himself to the guards as an overseas Chinese living in Japan rather than a Japanese, which strictly speaking was true (his passport listed his household as being from Shanghai despite him being born in Japan). The officer observed that an overseas Chinese could almost certainly be trusted to be the guarantor of a foreigner in a delicate border region, and that provided Mr. Tang was willing to be my guarantor and we promised to return the same day and travel no closer to the Pakistani border than Tashkurkan, then there should be no problem in letting us through. The lecture finished with a reminder on the importance of carrying one’s passport when overseas, after which we were asked to register our details, told to check in again on our way back to Kashgar, and allowed to continue on our way.

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Past the military checkpoint the scenery became dramatic. We entered a narrow and rocky river valley flanked by sheer mountains. Debris from rock falls occasionally littered the road and the car traveled slowly. We passed a hot springs area. Eventually the mountains ended and we emerged on a high plateau with an altitude of just over 3000 meters, ringed by ice cloaked mountains. The highest of the mountains were over 7000 meters high. Part way across the plateau the driver suddenly stopped the car and started checking the engine. We had scarcely seen another car and I was worried there was some problem. There seemed to be no problem though and after a few minutes we continued. We passed occasional clusters of Kazakh yurts, but there were almost no people to be seen.

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We passed Lake Karakul without stopping, planning to stop on the way back instead, and climbed up from the plateau and across a ridge. At the top of the ridge a sign announced we were entering the Tajik autonomous county. We descended into another plateau, this one more heavily settled. Every few kilometers we passed groups of people walking along the road. The people were mostly Tajiks but there were a few Uigurs too. The Tajiks tended to wear black and red embroidered costumes. The Tajik women were especially distinct, wearing circular flat topped hats with veils that covered the hair but not the face. The driver sometimes stopped to talk to the Uigurs and, I think, offer to drive them for a fee. He ignored the Tajiks.

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Eventually we reached Tashkurkan and drove through the two street town and on to the Stone Fortress. The dramatic location was more impressive than the fort itself, the clay bricks of which had been badly eroded by the elements. Entry to the fort was supposed to be by ticket, but the tiny number of tourists during the winter meant that nobody was around to collect money. The fort was deserted except for large black birds (probably crows) and a young local couple having a picnic. The high altitude made climbing around the fort tiring. We enjoyed the views for a while and then headed down to the town.

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The town was an interesting mix of Tajiks, Uigurs and a few resident or visiting Pakistanis. My stomach was still feeling bad but I wanted to at least try a Tajik restaurant. Unfortunately the driver was resolutely opposed to the idea, saying the Tajik food was non-Halal and that in any case he couldn’t communicate with Tajiks to order food. Since we needed to buy the driver lunch for the sake of politeness it was a bit awkward to eat separately from him and we ended up eating in a Uigur restaurant. The driver commented that the meal was more expensive than it would have been in Kashgar. Apparently the small number of local Uigurs means Halal meat has to be transported in. The food was OK, the usual noodles and kebabs, but I didn’t eat much.

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We took a walk around town for 20 minutes or so while the driver waited. There were only two streets to explore, mostly containing shops. Apparently Pakistanis cross the border on vice holidays, and there were restaurants and stores selling booze as well as about four brothels as evidence of this. Nothing much seemed to be going on though. Maybe the Pakistanis only come over at certain times. There was also a shuttered up fake McDonalds. Again the town itself wasn’t as interesting as its location, surrounded as it was by high mountains.

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After seeing our fill we began the drive back to Kashgar, stopping at Lake Karakul on the way. The lake itself probably looks nicer in summer. The water was frozen when we passed, the Khazak yurts were deserted, and we only stopped for five minutes or so. The driver picked up a few Uigurs on the way back to Kashgar, including an old man with what looked like gold dentures going into town to buy medicine, and a young Uigur nurse on her way to work. The old man didn’t speak Chinese but the nurse did and asked incredulously if I was really a foreigner.

We arrived back in Kashgar very late, probably 10pm or so in Beijing time. I texted Mina and apologized for the delay but she said she was not up to coming out. Fair enough. She might have had second thoughts about her offer of the previous day. Or maybe she thought I had deliberately delayed contacting her so as to cut down on the time available for dinner and get her straight back to my hotel. Or maybe the whole thing had just been a game.

After resting for a couple of hours I took a long walk around town looking for food that wasn’t going to upset my stomach further. In the end I couldn’t find anything still open that looked appetizing, so just grabbed some fruit and cakes from a roadside vendor and had a snack in my room before going to sleep.

Xinjiang Trip Day 4 (23-3-2007)

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

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My flight was a 9am flight which meant taking a taxi to the airport in the darkness since it doesn’t get light in Wulumuqi until after 8am. I was sitting beside a fidgety Chinese guy who started reading the safety instructions and advertisements in the inflight magazine aloud. I asked him if he would mind not doing that and he obligingly shut up – nice of him I guess.

Kashgar airport makes things convenient by running a free shuttle bus that drops you wherever you want around the city center. The driver dropped me off at the Hengyuan Hotel. I checked the rooms there and they seemed reasonable and well priced, with free Internet access as an added bonus. However, just to make sure I was getting a good deal I checked out the hotel next door before checking in, only to be cheerfully told that the running water was off due to a broken pipe and not expected to be back on until tomorrow or the day after. The Hengyuan suddenly seemed a no brainer. On reflection though a lot of people in northern China go days without washing (even student dormitories often limit showers to twice weekly), so perhaps a day or two without water didn’t seem a big deal to the staff.

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The Hengyuan Hotel overlooked the central square, which is dominated by a massive Chairman Mao statue, the biggest in China. For some reason it seems that people are not allowed to climb the steps to the dais on which the statue stands. I was chased away by a Uigur custodian when I tried. During the rest of my stay in Kashgar I asked several taxi drivers about this but couldn’t get to the bottom of why it was not allowed. One driver darkly hinted at Han oppression, one said it was to protect the marble against wear, and another said the custodian was just a grumpy old man who gets kicks out of throwing his weight around and the best thing was to ignore him.

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In any case, after being chased off the statue I wandered round the corner to the mosque and the old town. The mosque was located opposite a largish bazaar selling mostly clothes. I couldn’t get into the mosque because prayers were happening so I took a look around the bazaar instead. The bazaar wasn’t especially interesting, so I headed into some of the back streets. The area around the mosque was extremely Uigur and looked pure Central Asia rather than China. The bilingual signage was the only evidence of a Chinese presence. I’m not sure if I saw a single Chinese person, though I guess there must have been a few given that the modern Chinese center of town was only a ten minute walk away. The streets wide enough for cars to access contained restaurants, lamb wholesalers, ice cream shops, hand beaten copperware shops, bakeries and so on. Behind the streets large vehicles could access was a warren of dusty lanes leading into residential areas.

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I wandered down an alley marked ‘Kashgar Old Town’ not knowing what to expect but expecting it to be touristy. Why else would there be a piece of English signage here? I walked down a couple of clay brick lanes containing traditional Uigur houses until footsteps running up behind me told me I should have bought a ticket. A Uigur tourist guide sold me a ticket and as she was going to find change a Japanese tourist arrived, so the pair of us got a tour of the area. Unfortunately none of the numerous mosques in the neighborhood were open for viewing, but the tour itself was good. We went inside a few buildings, saw craftsmen making copperware, and the guide gave a lot of information about local history. There were an amazing number of mosques in what looked like a smallish community, and apparently all of them were regularly used. The neighborhood apparently included something like 20% Uzbeks besides the majority Uigurs, but according to the guide they were assimilated and lived as Uigurs.

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After the tour finished I teamed up with the Japanese guy, Mr. Tang, to visit the tomb of the Fragrant Concubine Xiang Fei (Abakh Hoja). It was an impressive mausoleum, though apparently the bodies buried there were of members of her family rather than of the woman herself, who is buried somewhere in China proper. I then arranged with Mr. Tang to share a taxi to see Lake Karakul and the Stone City, an old fortress near the Tajikstani dominated town of Tashkurgan close to the Pakistani border. We got a price of 600 RMB for the trip, setting off the next day at 7 am Beijing time (5 am Xinjiang time).

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After saying goodbye to Mr. Tang I took a look at the Kashgar mosque. It hadn’t been possible to go into the mosque when I passed earlier in the day because prayers were happening, but prayers were finished by the time I returned. The mosque had a simple design, really just a courtyard with an impressive wooden hall in the back of it, flanked by two covered areas filled with prayer mats. It was more or less empty when I visited, but apparently the services can attract tens of thousands of people. In the courtyard a sign giving some brief history of the mosque contained predictable Chinese propaganda detailing how Beijing’s recent funding of a toilet in the complex demonstrated its commitment to religious freedom.

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There were a couple of privately run museums on Uigur culture near the mosque but I didn’t bother with them. Private museums in China tend to be mainly a way of screwing money out of tour groups, typically charging high entry prices to see a small collection of cheesy models and other mock ups. From a cursory glance these two seemed along those lines, though the lights were off (you had to pay to have them turned on) so it was hard to tell.

I went for a very late lunch in a restaurant overlooking the mosque. Here the table menus had no Chinese, and nor did any of the staff seem to speak any Chinese. I was surprised because it looked to be the most upmarket restaurant in the area. Eventually somebody found a bilingual Chinese/Uigur menu and a waiter who spoke a little Chinese came over. I wanted him to explain a couple of the more interesting looking dishes but his Chinese wasn’t enough. In the end I ordered by pointing and ended up with more kebabs, lamb dumplings and yogurt. The lamb dishes were average but the yogurt was excellent. It might have been made from sheep’s milk.

There was nothing much else to do but go back to my hotel. On the way back I bought some bottled tea and an interesting looking almond wine in a Chinese grocery. The guy in the shop decided to use sign language to communicate with me so I did the same with him, making sure my signs were sufficiently bizarre to make communication completely impossible. As we went through that pantomime the other staff in the shop discussed what country I came from, and finished up evenly split on whether I was American or Pakistani – a hung vote I would never have predicted.

Back in my room I tried the almond wine which turned out to be disgusting. I always get tempted to buy unusual Chinese wines and they are always awful. I messed around on the Internet for a few hours then popped out for a bowl of Lanzhou style beef noodles, not my favorite dish and very average as usual.

Back in my room I got a knock on the door from a hotel massage girl. These kind of late night visits happen a lot in China. This time was a little different though. The girl was Uigur, spoke excellent Chinese, and had her head wrapped in a scarf that lent the visit a distinctly cloak and dagger atmosphere. It was all too surreal and before I knew it I was inviting her in. She accepted a glass of almond wine, removed her veil and sat down. Clearly the veil was for appearances only, as I suppose veils are when you think about it.

Despite living in China for years and often visiting Uigur restaurants I’d never spoken more than a couple of sentences to a female Uigur. The Uigurs working in the big Chinese cities are mostly male, and the few women working in Uigur restaurants in China proper are usually either dancers or waitresses, and therefore often uneducated with minimal Chinese abilities. The conservative and chauvinist nature of Uigur culture also tends to mean the women are not encouraged to chat with strangers. So this unexpected visit was more or less my first chance to speak with a Uigur girl.

After we sat down, her on a chair and me on the bed, and she introduced herself as Mina. She seemed in no hurry to actually give me a massage, and so we chatted and drank the awful almond wine.

She was a university drop out from Wulumuqi Normal University (or maybe the Education Department of Wulumuqi Univeristy), making her probably the most educated Uigur I had ever talked to. For some reason she was expelled by the university. She wouldn’t tell me the exact reason that this happened, but it seemed she had been caught cohabiting with her boyfriend or something similar. She said she had grown up in the area around the mosque in Kashgar. She was quite anti-Chinese on some levels, but simultaneously very negative about her own people. While she didn’t think the Chinese should be in Xinjiang she saw Uigurs as backwards and unsuccessful compared to Chinese and therefore destined to live under Chinese control. She complained about traditional Islam being restrictive. I asked her why she wore the headscarf if the religion bothered her, and as I expected she told me it was just for use in the hotel so she wouldn’t be recognized by people she knew who might happen to wander in. Hotel massage girls in China are usually prostitutes as much as masseuses so it made sense. Her parents didn’t know about her job because they were working in China proper. They thought she cleaned rooms. When I asked about the risks of doing that type of work in a small town like Kashgar she told me that the customers were more than 90% Chinese with a few Uigurs visiting from other cities and the odd Pakistani, and so there was almost no risk of her meeting anyone she knew. She asked me a lot of questions about New Zealand and Shanghai. I asked her questions about Uigur culture and other places in Xinjiang.

Eventually the massage center called to ask where she was. It was about then that she told me she was really a prostitute and didn’t know how to do any massage, and moreover that after chatting with me she saw me more as a friend than a customer and didn’t want to sleep with me for money. Bizarrely she said that the next night was her night off, gave me her telephone number, and told me that if I changed hotels tomorrow we could go out for dinner and after dinner maybe she would come over and sleep with me – no charge. More cloak and dagger stuff.

She kept picking up a magazine or her veil to cover her face when she laughed or the conversation moved to a delicate topic. It was very exotic, and the possibility of proceedings continuing the next night added a Sheherazade touch. She hung up on the massage center’s calls a couple of times and we talked some more. Eventually she said she was going to be in trouble and I would be charged for an extra massage if she didn’t head back. I paid her for a straight massage, she disappeared, and I slept.