adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Friday, May 30, 2008


The Taklamakan Desert

I haven't updated this blog in a few years. Most of the stories and photos on this blog are about my travels in Xinjiang and other parts of China in 2007.

Out in the Taklamakan desert, our last adventure in Xinjiang.

From Hotan, we rode a little minivan out to Niya, called Minfeng in Chinese. Minfeng is a small town on the edge of the Taklamakan desert; there are two hotels in town, of which we picked the nicer one. In the middle of the town's only intersection down the road from the bus station is a large obelisk covered with Communist sayings in Chinese and Uyghur. It's interesting to note that the Uyghur on the obelisk is written in Romanized script, which was adopted for a time during the 1970s. The current Uyghur writing system is a slightly modified version of the Arabic script they have been using for centuries, the most important modification being the inclusion of short vowels, which are unwritten in most Arabic-derived writing systems.

The obelisk!

But enough about the Uyghur writing system. There's a bit of a market area around the main intersection, and if you walk up the road here, you'll leave the main town and get to the surrounding farms. Donkeys and sheep graze in the green pastures around Minfeng; just behind the pastures you can see the sand dunes of the Taklamakan.

We walked around the pastures and the tree-lined rural roads a bit, enjoying the animals, the colorful gates of local houses, and the painted injunctions to observe the one-child policy. Uyghurs (and other minorities) are exempt from the one-child policy, but receive monetary compensation if they comply. We also spotted a couple China Mobile banners on some rural farmhouses. They're everywhere!

The sign says that single-child or two-daughter (no son) households can receive government assistance after the parents turn 60.

I like this picture for some reason. It captures the feeling of rural Xinjiang well, I think.

That night, after some bad Sichuanese food (I don't know why we kept trying to eat it) we headed out to the intersection, where a night market had sprung up. Despite the heavy wind blowing lids off pots and extinguishing cooking fires a couple times, we still managed to get a nice hot bowl of chuchura (Uyghur dumplings).

The next morning we headed out to the bus station and bargained with a driver to take us to the tomb of Imam Jafar Sadiq, a few miles away from Minfeng, right next to the dunes of the Taklamakan. On the way there, we rode on a stretch of the Cross-Desert Highway (which I'll get to in a bit). Lush green pastures with flocks of sheep were right up on the edge of huge sand dunes; it was a bit strange.

As we neared the mazar (tomb), we had to stop and pay for entrance tickets. The guy wanted 100 yuan for both of us, which was a pretty ridiculous price considering Minfeng isn't exactly the hottest tourist destination in China. I had a counterfeit bill I'd picked up in Hotan that nobody was accepting. I'm not sure when I got it; we'd been eating at a restaurant and I paid with a 100 yuan bill; I wasn't watching very carefully, and the owner gave it back to me claiming it was fake. I've never run into counterfeit bills in ATMs and I doubt hotels would give them out, so perhaps it was a sleight of hand on the restaurant owner's part. I had previously tried to use it to pay for bus tickets, but the experienced bus ticket seller gave it a single rub and identified it as a fake. We had some fun figuring out how to identify counterfeit 100 RMB notes - they feel slightly different, but I can't tell them apart consistently by touch or sight without detailed inspection. The real key is in how they sound. When you wriggle a counterfeit bill, it doesn't make the light, crisp, crinkly noise a real bill should make - it sounds more heavy, more thick.

At any rate, the ticket guy didn't bother giving my bill a rub, and off we went to the mazar. It was a typical Uyghur mosque; I started taking pictures in front, but a guy came out and told me not to take pictures. He then offered us a tour of the mosque, which consisted of him pointing at various buildings and remarking on how old they were, and occasionally allowing us to take pictures at certain points.

The tour wasn't very interesting, but that was OK; our real aim was the huge sand dunes surrounding the mosque. We went back to the driver and told him we'd be taking a walk; he seemed annoyed and asked if the trip across the highway wasn't enough. We set off into the brush surrounding the mosque, avoiding an aggressive dog, and reached the edge of the sand dunes.

The climb up the first dune was pretty tiring, but the view once we got the top was amazing - miles of endless sand dunes. We walked around for a good while up and down the sand dunes. You'd think someone who grew up in New Mexico wouldn't be that amazed by sand dunes, but the desert out here was completely different - it looked like those pictures of the Sahara, with rolling sand dunes stretching out to the horizon.

Flies buzzed around my head; they must have followed me out from the brush, and now were hanging around me for sheer life, as there weren't any plants for them to fly off to; endless desert surrounded us. At some point we started hearing loud, repeated car beeps in the distance - our driver was getting tired of waiting, I suppose.

Our footprints...

We headed out from the desert and through the brush; by the time we got to the road, our driver had already pulled up, having spotted us coming down the dunes, I suppose. Back in Minfeng, the driver gave a big grin as I handed him the fare, and we had a leisurely lunch of laghman while waiting for the bus back to Urumqi.

My last bowl of laghman. I could sure go for some of that right now.

The sleeper bus arrived from Hotan, completely full but for two bunks in the back which had been reserved for us. We were lucky to have gotten them; being a day late would mean missing our flight out of Urumqi, which I'd booked back in Hotan.

The bus went on the cross-desert highway directly through the Taklamakan from Minfeng, on the southern edge, to Korla, on the northern edge, and then to Urumqi. The highway itself is an amazing feat of engineering - 446 km of the highway cross the shifting sand dunes of the entirely uninhabited Taklamakan desert. Bushes are planted on both sides of the highway to anchor in the sand; despite this, there were still a few parts of the highway covered in sand. There isn't any water in the Taklamakan, so they had to run an irrigation system along the entire highway. Every mile or so there's a blue irrigation pump house; workers are actually hired to live in those houses and maintain the pumps, though I'm told the pay is enough to make up for the isolation.

After driving for five or six hours through empty sand dunes, we reached a PetroChina service station out in the middle of nowhere. There were even a couple of restaurants; given the quality of food in Minfeng, I can't even start to imagine how bad the food out at those places must be. We took a pit stop and a few people went out to take care of business; I ran up into the sand dunes and snapped some shots. The little service station town in the middle of the dunes was an absolutely bizarre sight, but I guess it's a good idea; it would be pretty bad to have a breakdown or run out of fuel out in the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles away from anybody.

We reached Urumqi the next morning without incident; we spent the day at the bookstore, then went looking for a Pakistani restaurant we'd seen before, and read about on the internet. We couldn't find any Pakistani restaurant at the address on the website, although the neighborhood itself was interesting; there were a lot of Russian signs about and even some Russians walking around. Even the Uyghurs who worked in the area could speak Russian, as youngish guys standing outside of businesses kept calling out at Rebecca, "dochka, dochka!"

It was getting late and the Pakistani restaurant was nowhere in sight, so I hailed a taxi and asked him to take us to the bus station. I distinctly remembered seeing a different Pakistani restaurant as you drive north from the bus station, and sure enough, after a bit of a walk, we found Abdullah Pakistan Restaurant. Inside were many bearded white-robed, white-capped men who I assumed to be Pakistanis, since most Uyghurs don't dress like that.

We were a bit disappointed by our order of chicken curry, daal, and naan. The naan just seemed like ordinary Uyghur bread, which isn't bad by any accounts, but it didn't seem particularly Pakistani to me. The chicken curry was basically dapanji in a thinner sauce. The daal was OK, but not memorable. I guess it's a bit much asking for authentic Pakistani food in Urumqi, but we'd been searching for the place for over an hour, so it was a bit anticlimactic.

The next morning we flew out of Urumqi airport back to Beijing; on the way to the airport people were selling crates of grapes on the side of the road as last-chance Xinjiang souvenirs.

And so ends my Xinjiang trip; it's taken me nearly a year to finish recounting it, but I hope you enjoyed it!


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Monday, May 12, 2008


The Southern Silk Road - Yarkand, Karghilik, Hotan

Again, sorry for the huge delay. I've only got a month left in town here, but I'm only planning on one more post after this one, so hopefully it'll work out. Funny I'm writing about things that happened almost a year ago!

Selling dried fruit and nuts in Yarkand

We left Kashgar in the morning on a bus for Yarkand (Chinese name 莎车 shache), our first stop on the southern Silk Road. The scenery on the way to Yarkand was mostly flat, featureless desert and the occasional tree-shrouded oasis town far off in the distance.

I had bought a dozen samsa in Kashgar to eat on the way to Yarkand, since we hadn't had breakfast. Samsa are grilled buns filled with a bit of lamb meat and plenty of fat; they're tasty, but very greasy. A cap-wearing Uyghur man sitting across from us grinned as he watched us trying to eat without spilling grease all over ourselves, and struck up conversation in the best Chinese I'd heard in a while. "Those buns are all grease," he said. He asked where we were from, then said his children were actually living in the US, in Los Angeles! I asked if they still had Chinese citizenship, but he told me they had already become naturalized US citizens. What's more, he said he'd been to the US to visit them! I asked him what he thought of his stay in Los Angeles, and he said something that stayed with me: 中国还是最安全,最稳定的国家 - China is still the most safe and stable country.

Caps for sale! Caps for sale!

The main thing to see in Yarkand is the Altun mosque complex("阿勒屯" aletun), but it didn't help that our Lonely Planet guidebook misprinted the name as "Altyn" and got the Chinese name completely wrong - they wrote "阿勤电" (aqindian). 勤 does look like 勒, but they even wrote the Pinyin "qin" instead of "le", and who uses 电 in any transliteration? Nobody understood what place we were talking about, and the guidebook directions were extremely vague, so we just got on one of the buses and got off once we hit the old part of town. We had a typical Uyghur lunch - polo or laghman, I think.

A Yarkand mosque - not the one we were looking for, though.

Wandering around the old town was fun, but we still hadn't found the mosque. I waved over a guy driving an electric cart and tried to say the name of the place again, when suddenly the Arabic word for mosque, masjed, popped into my head. There seemed to be enough words imported from Arabic in Uyghur, and they'd been playing Hisham Abbas's Wana Wana song on the bus, so I figured I could give it a shot. A look of recognition came over his face as I said the word, and he nodded and waved us onto the cart.

Donkey carts in Yarkand's old town. I really should have made it a point to ride on one of these at least once. You get used to seeing them.

Rebecca and I always turned heads as we walked around Xinjiang.

The cart driver sped through some interesting market areas that I made a mental note to return to, stopping at a big courtyard with large mosques around. Across the street there was an impressive-looking old building, but when we wandered nearer there was just somebody selling pots inside. The Altun mosque actually has three parts - the mosque itself(which was being used for prayers, so we didn't go in), a mazar, and a tomb for a famous female Uyghur poet.

Part of the Altun mosque complex.

Big building on the other side with nothing inside. What is it supposed to be?

After seeing the mosque, we headed back down the market street - there were all sorts of shops around selling wooden furniture, pots and pans, and Uyghur knives, with craftsmen working hard in the back. I took lots of pictures, and a little girl said "Hey!" and raised her hands up to her eyes as if holding binoculars - I'd noticed another kid in the old town doing the same thing! Must be the sign for "Haha, I caught you taking pictures!"

Despite a good amount of nice-looking Chinese hotels in the shiny new part of town around the Yarkand bus station, the LP guidebook said that there wasn't much accommodation in town, and suggested Karghilik instead. By now I should have learned not to trust the book anymore, but off we went to Karghilik(Chinese 叶城 yecheng, "leaf city", don't ask me how they come up with these names), a few hours away on a bumpy bus. In contrast to Yarkand, the area around the Karghilik bus station was depressing and run-down and there weren't any hotels around other than the obligatory dumpy Jiaotong binguan(Transportation Hotel). Don't get me wrong, I don't mind living in dumpy hotels every now and then, but I was a bit tired of it by now, so we went with a taxi driver's suggestion of a nicer hotel on the outskirts of town.

I remember it being called 乔戈里宾馆(Qiaogelin binguan, K-2 Hotel), but for some reason they had a really bizarre pretentious English name like "Sir George Poshsoundingname Mountaineering Hotel", which was a hoot. We had dinner at a stall selling suoman across from the hotel, where we got to watch the chef make our noodles the slow, loving Xinjiang way.

Karghilik new town.

The next day we headed back to the Karghilik bus station and walked around a bit. I wanted to like the place, given that I'd come all the way out here, but it was pretty dusty and boring, much like the outskirts of Kucha. The LP guide did mention a Friday mosque and old town, but didn't bother mentioning where they were, so between my horrible Uyghur and the locals not speaking Chinese, we were a bit lost. Eventually I waved over a boy on an electric cart and tried saying "masjed" again. It worked!

The boy took a long route around the city, winding through side streets and alleyways. Later, I found out it's quite straightforward to get to the mosque, but I appreciated the scenic route. As we turned a corner, I noticed a huge mosque towering overhead - the Friday mosque! It's a pretty amazing sight and definitely worth the trip. There was also a market in the backstreets around the mosque, and it was fun just to walk around in the old town. We had lunch at an Uyghur place and I forgot my backpack yet again in the restaurant - fortunately, it was still right where I'd left it when I ran back 20 minutes later. I also bought a nice beginner's book about Go in the local Xinhua bookstore as we waited for the bus to Hotan.

The Friday mosque in Karghilik.

We got to Hotan late at night and took a taxi to one of the hotels mentioned in the LP guidebook. They told us they didn't have any rooms left. This had never happened to us before, but we figured Hotan is such a big tourist destination that there'd be plenty of other places to stay it. We trotted out and walked over to the next hotel. Also no rooms. Lugging our big backpacks, we headed up the street to the main square, where there is a massive Communist statue in a large public park (I think Mao greeting some children?). There were plenty of hotels all around the park, so we went into the closest one, only to find that they, too, did not have any rooms! We ran around to every side of the park only to hear the same story at the next three hotels. The Hotan drivers were the craziest I'd ever encountered in China, constantly beeping their horns (even more so than in the rest of China) and driving ahead at full speed even if you're trying to cross in front of them - at least in other cities they try to appear like they're slowing down.

Eventually, we were able to find a place to stay a few blocks away from the main square, but they must have seen the desperation on my face, as they charged me quite a bit for an otherwise average hotel room. We bought some snacks at the night market nearby. A fellow tourist asked me "Hey comrade, where'd you get the grilled corn?"(he actually used tongzhi, which I found hilarious).

One of the mosques in downtown Hotan.

Hotan is famous for its weekly market, like Kashgar, but again we'd missed the right day. You can still go down there anyway and walk around as there's a lot of people selling stuff every day of the week. We bought some soft-serve ice cream and walked around the market. Soft-serve ice cream is popular in Xinjiang for some reason. I've heard you shouldn't eat it in 3rd world countries or anywhere where you suspect the hygiene, but we never got sick from it.

Xinjiang soft-serve ice cream is usually mint-flavored, nice and refreshing.

The cities of southern Xinjiang are right on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, and up to this point I still hadn't seen any of those big wavy sand dune deserts like in the pictures, only flat wastelands. The Chinese guidebook did mention a desert near Hotan, so we got a taxi to drive us over there. Along the way, he put on the standard "Western music" tape every Xinjiang taxi driver seems to have, which usually has "Theme song from Titanic" and "Material Girl."

Street near Hotan market

There seemed to be some kind of communication problem however, as he drove us out into the middle of a small village out in the boonies. "This is the place", he said. Apparently there is both a town and a desert named after each other and he'd taken me to the town. We walked around the town a bit, feeling out of place, and after a while spotted a guy with a van taking people to Hotan. It must have been pretty weird for him to encounter foreigners in the middle of this otherwise uninteresting town, but he seemed pretty unfazed, as did the other passengers.

The bustling cell phone market across from our hotel.

Back in Hotan, I was feeling frustrated that we came all the way out here and didn't really get to see anything. Besides the market, there isn't much else to see around Hotan except three trees which are famous for some reason (we didn't bother). We went into an internet cafe and I searched around for "Taklamakan desert" until I found a helpful Thorn Tree posting with a guy giving detailed directions for a trip out to Niya (Minfeng), a little town quite literally on the edge of the Taklamakan. We'd been planning to take the cross-desert bus anyway, but the guy mentioned a place where you could walk right out into endless dunes, which is what I'd been waiting for the entire trip! I booked air tickets from Urumqi to Beijing that night, and the next morning we started off on our adventure to the Taklamakan desert.

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Monday, March 03, 2008


Tashkurgan and the Khunjerab Pass (Pakistani border crossing)

The stone fortress in Tashkurgan.

There were a lot of Tajiks on the bus up to Tashkurgan; the women wore an interesting headdress that looked like this(Wikipedia link; not my pic). Tajik, unlike the Turkic languages of most of the -stan countries, is an Iranian language, related to Farsi and Pashto. The Tajik spoken in China is actually different from that spoken in Tajikistan; it's an Eastern Iranian language (as opposed to Tajik, which is Western Iranian) and also called Sarikoli. At any rate, I don't understand any, but I remember it being very pleasant-sounding. Tashkurgan borders Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and is not far from the Khunjerab pass to Pakistan. As we neared the town, we passed by a road sign welcoming us to "Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County"; according to official statistics, Tajiks make up 84% of the population.

A last glimpse of Muztagh Ata on the way up to Tashkurgan.

Tashkurgan's namesake and claim to fame is the huge Tajik rock fortress (Tashkurgan literally means "rock fortress") dating back to the 13th century. Some PLA guys helpfully pointed the way there - it's just a few minutes walk down the main road, at the edge of town.

The Tashkurgan stone fortress.

Grasslands around Tashkurgan.

The fortress was pretty impressive and well-preserved, with a great view of the grasslands and the Pamir mountains. As we were climbing about, a Russian-looking kid in a military jacket ran up and asked us to show our tickets. The ticket seller hadn't bothered giving us actual tickets, but they were a weird price (13 kuai each if I'm not wrong) and apparently knowing the exact price was enough to satisfy him. Some Koreans from the bus came up and greeted us, but didn't seem terribly interested in sharing the cost of a driver up to the Khunjerab pass to Pakistan.

Tashkurgan's a small town, but it has its own Ihlas and Arman (Uyghur grocery chains) and a nice view of the Pamirs. It was too late to go up to the Khunjerab pass that day, so we strolled around town a bit and visited the little market. I finally managed to buy myself a working tape player after testing almost every one of the seller's stock and finding they were already broken (seems like an awful investment!) Later on, we had dinner at a run-of-the-mill Sichuanese place. Like most Chinese restaurants in out-of-the-way Xinjiang towns, it was pretty awful and overpriced. But sometimes you just get tired of eating kebabs, laghman, and nan every day, you know?

The next day was our big day for Pakistan. We went to the town center, at the intersection of its two roads, and found a driver who would take us up to the Khunjerab pass. He expressed doubt that we'd be allowed to go up there, mentioning that other foreigners had been turned away in the past, but we'd give it a shot. The driver was a tall, friendly man, originally from Xi'an. He had a little son who jumped about in the back of the van, singing along to "你真的伤害我" and rolling down the window sometimes to throw out his empty bags of chips.

Our first stop was the local PLA base just at the edge of town - we had to obtain a permit to travel to the border region. The guy in the guard booth looked skeptical when our driver asked about the possibility of taking us up, asking what we were doing in China. We replied that we were students, and suddenly, I remembered our student IDs from Xi'an Jiaotong! For some reason, the student IDs seemed to change everything, and after a couple of radio calls and consulting with superiors, he decided to issue us the permit.

On the road up to the Khunjerab pass.

The drive up was really scenic - out in the wide open grasslands, up into the mountains. There was nobody around except for a few local Tajik shepherds and rock cottages on the side of the road. Every now and then we passed some locals riding donkey carts right on the highway. As we headed further up into the mountains and up through the clouds, I was surprised to see there were still small rock houses up there. Halfway up into the mountains, we ran into another PLA checkpoint, where the guard checked our border travel permit, saluted, and waved us through.

When we reached the Khunjerab pass, at an altitude of over 15,000 feet, it was snowing and pretty cold despite it being early August. We ran over to the border and snapped a few shots. A lone Chinese guard stood watch, checking some cars who wanted to pass through to Pakistan. The guard was a friendly guy and didn't mind when we walked over to the Pakistani side, even agreeing to take pictures with us! I have to say, crossing the Pakistani border wasn't nearly as harrowing as the time I crossed the border to North Korea. I asked the guard where the Pakistanis were - I had been hoping to get a pic with a Pakistani guard, too - but he told me they only come out when it's more sunny and warm. We were freezing and there wasn't much to see other than fog and a few signs, so we ran back to the van and headed back to town. I didn't get to see any Pakistanis, but at least I can say I've been.

A sign reminds you to drive on the left in Pakistan.

Welcome to Khunjerab national park! Elevation 11000 to 16000 feet!

One of these cars actually gunned it across the border before the guard checked their papers. He radioed them in, I don't know what happened to them.

We didn't have much else to do before the bus back to Kashgar came, so we had lunch at an open-air restaurant, which set the record for the longest time in Xinjiang to prepare a single plate of suoman - around 45 minutes! Things are pretty laid-back up here, I guess.

The bus back to Kashgar arrived, but couldn't leave since there was nobody at the station to sell tickets. We waited around for almost an hour despite the urging of an old Tajik man who spoke pretty good Chinese - "这不是毛泽东时代!"(this aren't Mao Zedong times) he quipped, to the amusement of everyone on the bus. He was an interesting character, having attended BeiDa during the cultural revolution on a minority scholarship. Finally, the bus station guys showed up, selling the tickets in that slow, laid-back Tashkurgan style, stamping everything about twenty times with official seals - if I hadn't known better, it really did seem like we were back in 毛泽东 times!

Heading back down to Kashgar. I tried colorizing this photo in Photoshop like some people do; I'm not sure if I like it. It looks kind of weird.

The trip back down through the mountains was pretty uneventful, although I was surprised to see that the road was flooded at some points, and in places had completely broken off! We were pretty tired of the Chini Bagh hotel, so we walked around Kashgar's new town and found a new hotel that was nicer and cheaper to boot. The next day, we'd be headed off down the southern Silk Road, to Yarkand and Karghilik...

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