SHIYAN - ROUND TWO
Home again. It really feels like I've finally arrived home after several weeks of visiting relatives and friends in the States. Not that I don't feel at home in the States too; there's just something great about being in one's own apartment after sleeping in so many unfamiliar beds. Brian and I arrived here Thursday evening and were greeted by our friend Zoe at the train station. She was a sight for sore eyes, for sure! Of course, we had dinner at Happy Guys where I was reminded of just how good we have it here in Shiyan. Yesterday I spent most of the day organizing and cleaning my apartment. Somehow in my absence, I acquired some of Cindy's and Derek's and Yve's old stuff that they couldn't take home or around the world, respectively. I also had four boxes waiting my arrival to school (all of which I sent shortly before I left the States so they made really good time - as well they should for all the money I spent to send them!). Yesterday evening Brian and I had dinner at Brad and Min's house. Three Chinese girls came as well (two from our school and one from the medical college). I know the three of them so it was fun catching up, and we all had a lovely time (I'm back in China so I can use those British/Chinglish words again). I haven't seen too many family members, but today Alice is coming over for lunch. We'll hang out together and then go to a singing at Brad's where I hope to meet up with the others who stayed here this summer. School is supposed to start the 3rd of September so many of our friends should be returning from their summer holiday excursions soon.
Brian and I left America on August 7th. We both had previously decided to come back to China early to visit several cities in Xinjiang Province. It's the largest province in China and is in the far western regions of the country. This time would really be the best for us to travel it because of its vastness. The only other time during the year we would have time to visit it would be during our winter break, and it would just be too cold then. We figured two weeks or so would be just the right amount of time so after flying into Xi'an (arriving on the 9th), we spent the night with our American friend Nancy and left the next evening on the train to Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang). In retrospect, this may not have been the wisest move, rushing into a 34 hour train ride on the heights of jet lag, especially considering we couldn't get beds, but we were both interested in making the most of the time we had before school started back. We also thought that once on the train we would be able to upgrade to beds. But after about 18 hours of being told "no! there are no beds available", I gave up that hope and resigned myself to mentally trying to make the most of 34 hours of sitting on hard seats. It was pretty rough which I hate admitting when our friend Orange (who is from Urumqi) has made that trip many times (and just finished it yet again yesterday) in the same scenario without ever complaining. We did make it, however, thanks to ipods and that self-preserving mechanism in my brain that puts it in hibernation when I'm unable to sleep AND unable to entertain myself. Aside from our ankles looking like bowling balls, we emerged victorious and more or less unscathed.
Since Orange's parents live in Urumqi, they were able to buy us train tickets to Kashgar. Again, there were no beds, but at least this train was only supposed to take 24 hours, I think. We arrived in Urumqi around 7:30 in the morning, and our train to Kashgar was meant to leave around noon. In those four hours, we had to meet up with Orange's mom to retrieve our tickets, and since it was a Sunday morning, we had agreed to meet her at the Chinese church, spend a couple hours there for services, and then return to the train station to continue our journey. I might add that the reason we decided to make the back to back train trips instead of breaking them up with a couple days sightseeing in Urumqi was in the hopes that Orange, who is a medical intern student here in Shiyan, could get some time off from her work to go home (which would only "possibly" happen two weeks from when we first arrived in Urumqi), and we could tour her city WITH her.
We met Orange's mom at the church. She doesn't speak any English, and after six weeks of being away from China, jet lag, and the terribly long train ride, our Chinese was worse than rusty; it was just sad. Somehow we made it through. She took great care of us, and the people at the church were nice. We left there about 10:30, train tickets in hand, and after a meal of noodles, we tried to enter the train station. There were a lot of people scurrying about, and a lady with a megaphone kept saying something about our train, but I didn't know what. Finally, Brian figured out that they were saying our train to Kashgar had been cancelled due to bad weather. We called Orange who called her mom who texted us who texted Orange who texted her mom... We finally agreed to go back to the church; services were over now, and Orange's mom was waiting for us. She took us back to the train station where she and Brian waited in line for maybe two hours (I stayed outside where it was raining. Did I mention we were in the desert?? And it was raining!) to get our money back from our tickets. Then she took us to the bus station to buy bus tickets to Kashgar. I admit it hardly makes sense to assume that the buses would run in bad weather if the train would not, but we just wanted to get on our way. Fortunately, in a land that oftentimes doesn't make sense, the buses WERE running. Orange's mom procured us two bus tickets which were only slightly more expensive than our hard seat train tickets, and we had beds! It was all working out perfectly afterall. The timing was great too. Orange's mom treated us to dinner, and then we boarded the bus to leave Urumqi around five in the evening.
Jet lag set in, and I was out. I woke up shortly when we stopped on the side of the road for what I assume was a bathroom break. Brian who had drunk several cups of tea at dinner (I have made it a habit, albeit not a healthy one, to avoid drinking almost anything for long bus rides. It may not be great for my health, but it certainly keeps me from uncomfortable situations since stops are infrequent and unpredictable), was the first to exit the bus, followed quickly by a woman and her child. As soon as Brian hit the fresh air, I thought his clothes were going to be ripped off him by the strong wind. What I saw was him running in front of the bus, going acrosss the street. What I didn't see was him pursuing his shoe that flew off as he exited the bus. The bus driver made the woman and child get back on the bus. Brian went around the side of the bus, and for a few moments I wondered if he blew away. The bus driver began honking his horn and started edging the bus forward. In my moment of nobility, I considered yelling at the bus driver to stop, anchoring myself to the bus with a rope of some kind and heading a one man rescue operation for Brian, but I figured he was okay so I layed back down. Brian jumped back on the bus looking wind blown and irritated, but strangely relieved...
The bus stopped around 10:30 or 11:30 that night. I got off to use the bathroom quickly. It was a little chilly so when I got back on, I covered up and went sound asleep. I woke up around five in the morning. We were stopped again, and we didn't begin going until around 8:30. I asked Brian why we had stopped for at least three hours that I knew of. He said, "Three hours? Try eleven. We haven't moved since you got off last night to use the bathroom!" Apparently, our buses succumbed to the weather threats as well and were forced to stop for half a day until it was safe to continue. The rest of the ride was uneventful. I slept most of the way. Instead of one night on the bus, we spent two which really pans out to our saving one night's hotel bill. We arrived in Kashgar at seven in the morning and immediately found a place to check into to get cleaned up. We hadn't showered since we left Xi'an several days before!
Kashgar is a great city. I enjoyed it a lot. We walked quite a bit that first day. We saw a huge park, walked past a lake and through a bazaar, then mosied down the streets of the Old Town (which is constructed of dirt and wood and looks dilapidated in the most wonderful way). We searched for the old town walls which were slightly disappointing and then headed back to the hotel. I think we did all that in three or four hours so it was still early afternoon when we returned. In this part of Xinjiang (as in most of the parts we saw), the people seem to exist on a diet of bread and meat. Kebabs are a popular food here, and they are delicious. For anyone not good with geography, like me, Xinjiang borders all those -stan countries, and there are a lot of "minorities" in this area. The culture itself is hardly recognizable to anything mainstream Chinese. It's predominantly Muslim in religion and culture. The men wear their hats and the women their head coverings. There are mosques in most, if not all, of the cities we visited. The food is different, the atmosphere is different, the clothes are different. At times, it hardly felt like China at all.
At our hotel, we booked a two day, one night trip to Karakul Lake. This lake is very near the Pakistan border and at the foot of several mountains which make up part of the Pamir Mountain Range, I think. It just so worked out that a German guy and a Japanese guy were planning the same trip, and since it's cheaper to travel in groups of four than in a group of two, the four of us combined forces to bargain hard with the travel agent at our hotel. Bargaining in Xinjiang in unequivocally more fun than bargaining in other parts of China. Perhaps it's the locals' great sense of humor or easy-going nature, but at the end of a bargain, both parties are jovial and friendly. It took a lot of bargaining, but after losing the Japanese guy who decided not to go with us, and changing our minds as to the exact nature of our tour plans, we finally settled on a deal and were to leave early the next morning.
Brain, Fabian (the German), and I left Kashgar with our driver the next morning around 8:30 Beijing time (6:30 local time) for one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken. Breathtaking mountains surrounded our panoramic view, and the air which had been hot in the afternoons in Kashgar was fresh and brisk outside the city. The ride took three hours, and at 11:30 we abruptly stopped at a yurt situated close to the road. A yurt is a type of almost tepee-like dwelling where, in this particular location, Kyrgyz people live. For a little money, a Kyrgyz family will feed visitors and house them for a night or two. Since we arrived around lunch time, the family we stayed with sat us down for a meal of rock hard bread and yak milk tea. The yak milk is supposed to prevent altitude sickness which I will pretend that it did. It wasn't long after eating that Brian, Fabian and I decided to begin our walk around the lake. We could have taken a horse or a camel, but we voted for a little exercise instead. The weather changed rapidly here. I was wearing four layers of shirts because I had failed to plan for really cold weather when I was packing for Xinjiang, the province boasting to have the hottest spot in China. As we hiked, however, my body temperature rose so that I was able to shed some layers and enjoy the sunshine. The surroundings were absolutely beautiful. This lake surrounded by large brown hills with snow covered mountains in the distance and glaciers visible from where we were standing was one of the most tranquil places I have ever been. When we stopped walking, the absence of noise was so noticeably thick that it was immediately clear what was missing - insects, animals, people. Colors went from the stark dullness of brown stones to the vivid greens of sparse grass and the various shades of blue the lake became in shifting sunlight.
Fabian and I, perhaps without the consent of Brian, decided to turn our peaceful easy walk around the lake into a more vigorous one in hopes of finding a better view by climbing a rather large peak. It was one of those situations where our energy trumped our common sense. I'm not sure how long it took, but we all made it to the top of this mountain and all feel the prouder for it, I think. It took a great exertion of physical energy, but given our inactivity on planes, trains and buses for six straight days, I think our bodies were craving it.
After descending the mountain and resting in the sunshine for awhile (and getting painfully sunburned), we took a short trip around a bend to get a better view of the snow-capped mountain. We had walked about half-way around the lake already when we decided to turn around and head back. Again the weather in this area changes rapidly, and upon the initiation of our return, we could see the dark sky of the west moving in our direction. It wasn't long before the freezing winds mingled with snow and sleet hit us. I don't know how long we walked in these conditions, but it was pretty miserable. And then, as quickly as it came, the bad weather was gone, and the sun returned.
When we arrived at the yurt, the Kyrgyz family asked what time we wanted to eat, and we told them six o'clock which was in two hours. Still having not totally warmed up, we entered the yurt where we were given colorful blankets to wrap up in. Fabian and Brian napped, I think, while I read. As I was reading, one of the daughters of the family came over and sat next to me. She started trying to pronounce the words so I helped her, and soon, her brother joined us. Their native language is Kyrgyz, and they speak about as much Chinese as I do, but we were surprisingly able to communicate rather well. The family we stayed with has five children, four of which spent the next hour teaching us to count in Kyrgyz and to dance. The girl who first approached me was 12 years old. Brian, if he could remember nothing else, remembered the Kyrgyz words for 12, and so this girl came to be called "0neke" (though I don't know how to spell it), which is 12 in Kyrgyz. Then again, everything became "oneke" to Brian: "thank you", "hello", "come inside this yurt and dance for us", everything. Anyhow, Oneke, the girl, not the other words, showed us the differences between some minority dances, and I showed her the macarena (not one of my proudest moments!), and her two year old brother "Eke" had his own special kind of mucous involved dance routine that was literally the most adorable thing I have ever seen. So that's how we spent time before dinner - dancing, learning Kyrgyz and laughing harder than I have in a long time.
Supper consisted of noodles and tea. After dinner we were invited into their other yurt to "get warm" where we were bushwhacked with odds and ends the family was selling to supplement their income. How could we not purchase something when they had taken such good care of us and when their snot-faced, dancing two year old brought so much laughter to us that our stomachs were hurting? So I bought a purse and necklace partially made out of camel hair, and the boys purchased a few items as well, again after several bouts of bargaining and Brian's consistant refrain of "oneke!"
The next day we were supposed to be picked up by our driver. When the time for him to arrive came and passed, we called the tour agent. Apparently, our driver's car had broken down; we would have to wait three more hours. It was a long wait. We were ready to go. Fabian had plans to leave Kashgar that evening so he needed to get back. It had turned much colder and was snowing. Finally, two and a half hours after we should have left, the father of our family stuck his head in the yurt where we were staying and said, "Kyrgyz bus!" We followed him out to a pickup truck loaded down with three people in the front, six people in the bed, and just enough space for the three of us to cram in the back of the cab with all our backpacks for an uncomfortable ride back. But that's not all. We were following another pickup truck, complete with a man and a goat in its bed, which was in desperate need of a tune up or a complete overhaul or to be used as scrap metal - not sure which - that kept breaking down. Eight times on the way back to Kashgar, our truck pulled over to help the other truck get started again. After one such stop, our driver went to the bed of our truck and pulled a blue tarp over the six people riding back there. They were completely covered by the tarp which I thought was odd, but considering how cold it had been, I thought they were using it as a windbreaker. When the driver re-entered the truck, he put his seatbelt on, made the old woman riding up front put hers on, and then continued down the road for 20 minutes. Then he again stopped, got out of the truck, uncovered the folks in the bed and then jumped back in and drove off, just as the old lady was unbuckling her seatbelt. Apparently, we were smuggling these people through a well-patrolled area!
After dropping off the Kyrgyz people at what appeared to be a family reunion, we returned to Kashgar several hours late where we demanded (and were given) a discount for this truly interesting experience.
The next day, which was Friday, Brian and I left Kashgar for Yarkand. I was expecting a small, podunk town, but it was nice sized. We walked around the old town. It's clear that fewer foreigners stop in this city than in some of the others because we got a lot of attention. The town had a nice feel to it though.
Saturday we took the bus to Hotan. It was about five hours away. The bus ride was all right, again thanks to ipods and good books. We were also blessed with our close proximity to a friendly family. Xinjiang is China-renowned for its fruit, and up to this point, Brian and I hadn't really tried any of it. But on the bus, the man sitting next to me gave Brian and me each a peach. Of course, we had to peel it. Both this man and Brian were peeling their's with no problem, but mine was a laborious effort. When I finally finished, I bit into the juiciest, ripest peach I have ever had. It was delicious, and when I nodded to the man that it was good, he looked at me like a parent looks at an child who has just made a juvenile faux pas, and told me to throw it out the window. Apparently, it was rotten, although I maintain that it was delicious. He then gave me another peach which I peeled in a fraction of the time it took me to peel the first one, and it was also good, though less sweet. Later the same family forced Brian and me to eat boiled eggs. And THAT is why I love Xinjiang people. They treat you like family, and they are hilarious. They seem to really enjoy life.
Our arrival in Hotan was good. We finally found a hotel, no thanks to our map. The main things we had planned for Hotan were to see the Sunday market which was supposed to be spectacular and to book plane tickets from Urumqi to Xi'an. There was nothing within us that could make us possibly be okay with enduring the 34 hour train ride back so we splurged and decided to fly instead.
On Sunday we did, in fact, go to the market, and it was, in fact, spectacular. It was huge. You could buy anything from basic necessities to luxurient carpets to hand-crafted knives to food to animals. At some point, we took a wrong turn and walked a lond distance through a quiet neighborhood. That was quite enjoyable. We made it back to the market, however, because we wanted to see the animals. We never could find the animal market which was slightly disappointing. From the market, we got a taxi to a travel agency. Unfortunately, the taxi driver didn't understand Brian's Chinese and Brian didn't understand his, and he headed towards the airport instead. Brian realized this fact (thank you Lonely Planet for your map, however unhelpful at times!), and asked the driver if we were going to the airport. The driver said, "Do you want to?" and Brian said, "No!" He showed the driver the map and where we wanted to go, and the driver pointed that we were going the right way, but when we saw airport signs, we knew that we weren't on the right track. At this point, both of us started saying that we didn't want to go to the airport. The driver continued, however, until we began yelling, "We don't want to go to the airport!!!" So he looked at the map again and turned around. A ways down the road, he pulled over and asked directions. The guy on the street easily told him where to go and that we had passed by the turn yet again. We finally made it to where we wanted to go, and the driver, who had failed to turn on the meter when we began, tried charging us 50 kuai! I was so angry. We fought with him for awhile, enlisted the aid of a young Chinese passerby who actually spoke really good English but was unable to get this driver to concede, and ended up giving him 25 kuai and walking away. He was not happy and neither were we, especially when the travel agency quoted us a plane ticket price 200 kuai more than what was quoted us in Kashgar! We left without the tickets. On our way to the hotel, we saw a China Southern airline office, stopped and bought tickets (for the inflated price) to leave Urumqi on the 28th which would give us two days with Orange in her hometown. We then returned to the hotel to rest.
As most people can imagine, Brian and I were both tired of traveling at this point. Here was where everything stood: It was Sunday afternoon. Orange would not arrive in Urumqi until the following Saturday (if she could come at all; nearly everyday she was getting mixed signals from her teachers about coming - one teacher said yes, one said no). She did buy her ticket, however, and was supposed to arrive Urumqi in one week. So Brian and I decided we would kill time in and around Urumqi until she arrived, and then she could show us her town. I can honestly say I was not in good humor in Hotan on this Sunday afternoon. After the squabble with the taxi driver and later a squabble with a fruit lady and the idea of basically a week of more travel and more money spending, I was frustrated. Back at the hotel, I was reading which was taking away the tension I had been feeling. After I finished my book, Brian looked at me and said, "Are you ready for this?" An hour earlier, Orange had texted Brian that, although she had bought her train ticket, one teacher was still saying she could not leave. When Brian told me this, I looked at him, he looked at me, and in those quiet seconds, we both exchanged the fact that we just want to go home. So...we went back to the travel agency and through the translating services of Zoe back here in Shiyan, changed our plane tickets from the 28th to the 22nd. Orange was disappointed but we appeased her with promises of returning to Urumqi with her in the near future.
What a weight was lifted from me! Making the decision to come back early was the best one, for sure, but that still didn't do away with the fact that we had a long journey home. On Monday Brian and I boarded another sleeper bus for Urumqi that would traverse the Taklamakan Desert by way of the cross desert highway (by the way, the routes we had been taking up to this point were the remnants of the old China Silk Road - a fascinating history). It took 22 hours, and we were back in Urumqi. We met a Dutch guy named Ruben after getting off at the bus station, and the three of us took a taxi to a youth hostel. We booked a bed and then Brian and I decided to walk around town. It was early in the morning when we arrived, and our plane wouldn't leave until the next morning. As we were walking, Orange texted us wanting to know where we were because her mom was expecting us and didn't know where to find us. After much confusion and texting, we met Orange's mom at a bus stop near her home for lunch. She brought us to their apartment first, gave us lots of fruit to eat, and then we left there for lunch. After picking up Orange's father, we stopped at a nice Uighur restaurant and had lots of rice and kebabs and bread with meat in it and yogurt. We were stuffed, but oh, the day wasn't over. Next, Orange's mom took us to a really nice bazaar where we didn't buy a thing but enjoyed perusing the shops. After a couple hours, we returned to Orange's home, where for the next couple hours, as in good Chinese fashion, we were forced to graze on melons and grapes and cashews and sunflower seeds until we nearly popped. And at the point of explosion, a table was set up, and we were served Orange's mom's delicious fried noodles - a heaping bowl, I might add. We were stuffed and stuffed again.
Orange's mom not only rode the bus with us to our hostel, but walked us to our room, made sure everything seemed to check out, and then left of with a huge bag of a variety of peaches we don't have in Shiyan and well wishes. She is a really sweet woman.
So Wednesday we took the plane to Xi'an - only 3 hours as opposed to 34 by train. We arrived at Nancy's in the afternoon and spent the evening watching movies. Thursday we dragged our luggage - one big, heavy rolling bag, one hiker's backpack, one computer bag and another carry-on bag - to the train station, up stairs, down stairs, down the platform from car 2 to car 15, up the train stairs, into our cubby where we had to cram the big bags under seats or under tables just because they were too heavy to lift. Then I passed out (luckliy we procured beds) in a sweaty, exhausted mass! The train ride took 8 hours which was nothing after all we had traveled. The thought of home consistently kept me going. We arrived in Shiyan at 4:45, dragged our luggage for the last time to a taxi where Zoe (like I said earlier, a sight for sore eyes!) helped us the rest of the way. And THAT details our adventures in Xinjiang - a land of extremes: extreme heat and extreme cold, extreme altitudes, extreme people, extreme conditions on all fronts. And I'm both extremely glad to have toured it AND extremely glad to be done, for now, of touring it.