adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Saturday, September 22, 2007


Arrival in Turpan

Sorry I haven't updated for a couple days - had a busy week.

A busy morning at the bazaar in Turpan. The people here are selling dry nan bread, as opposed to oily nan bread - more on this distinction later.

After a 31-hour train journey, we got off at Daheyan station at sunrise. Turpan isn't actually connected by rail, so if you buy a ticket for Turpan, it actually lets you off at Daheyan, a little town about two and a half hours away by bus. Our guidebooks had told us there would be regular buses to Turpan having started an hour ago, but there were none in sight other than large private buses sweeping up tour groups. A few taxi guys offered to drive us over to Turpan for 60kuai, but I was set on the 7kuai price the guidebooks had mentioned (it’s a difference of about 6 dollars, but you tend to get thrifty in China). One of the taxi drivers from earlier suddenly claimed that he also drove a minibus and would only charge 7kuai, but I was suspicious by now. After asking around, we determined the actual bus station was a good 15 minute walk from the train station; I have no idea why it was located in such an inconvenient place, but for future reference, walk straight ahead from the train station up the street to the intersection, then turn right and walk a good 10 minutes and it'll be the large building on the left.

This is the Daheyan bus station, if anyone in the future plans on visiting Turpan.

We got there just as another minibus had gotten its last passenger and left, so we waited around on the steps watching the sun rise until the next minibus was ready. Our departure was delayed by a local shopowner throwing a tantrum at some female passengers behind us; it was some stupid dispute involving the female passengers having ordered some food, but then leaving before the food was ready to catch the bus (and not paying). The shopowner got her 2 yuan in the end, and our bus set off for Turpan.

That ride to Turpan is one of the strongest memories I have of Xinjiang. We drove out of town a bit, passed a large refinery, then we were out in the middle of the desert. The desert was unlike any I had seen before – flat, barren, and completely devoid of life. Not even the smallest bush could survive there. It’s a hard scene to describe – growing up in New Mexico, I’m used to the deserts being full of life – bushes, cacti, lizards, rabbits – but this completely flat, barren desert was eerily beautiful. I didn’t take any picture of it, but it looked something like this:

This was actually taken on the ride to Urumqi. It was much sunnier and hot on the ride to Turpan, though.

As the bus sped across the desert, I dozed off, the sun rising ever higher over the desert plain.

Two and a half hours later, we arrived in Turpan. Settling on the Transportation Hotel attached to the bus station, we freshened up and went out to get some breakfast at the market we’d spotted across the street.

The bazaar at Turpan.

Stepping out on the street, it was immediately obvious Xinjiang was not like other places we’d been in China. Xinjiang, bordering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and a few other “stans” is in the far northwestern corner of China, encompassing a huge area of territory. Throughout history it has been controlled by many different groups – Mongols, Uyghurs, and Chinese being the main ones – but the majority of the native population is Uyghur. Uyghurs are a Muslim people who speak a Turkic language closely related to other languages of Central Asia, like Kazakh, Krygyz, and especially Uzbek. As far as physical appearance goes, some Uyghurs look more or less like Chinese, whereas others look like Middle Easterners, and some could even pass for Greek or Italian.

Selling bread and having a chat over tea.

Uyghur men wearing black flat caps and women wearing colorful headscarves bustled about on the street. Stands in front of the market sold all kinds of fruit. As we walked in, a few old ladies sitting at the entrance called out at us, pointing at bowls filled with some kind of milky substance. Could this possibly be the delicious fermented wheat, tianmaizi, I’d eaten up in Xiahe? The ladies, grinning, handed us two bowls with spoons that had been used by countless others eating breakfast that morning. Unfortunately, it was not tianmaizi, nor was it very good, in my opinion. It was milk with some sort of soggy breadish thing inside. We finished up our bowls and went inside the market.

Get your milk-and-soggy-stuff right here! You're bound to get diarrhea sooner or later in Xinjiang; why not get it over with at the beginning of your trip?

Vendors near the entrance sold all manner of Islamic headwear; walking further in, we found stands selling freshly baked nan bread and other treats, like samsa, which are roasted pastries with meat inside (not unlike samosas – the word similarity is not a coincidence). Further down were tons of fruit sellers, and a few guys selling fresh fountain drinks. The drinks had a minty, refreshing flavor.

The aroma of freshly baked nan bread is irresistible.

The woman here is making samsas, roast pastries filled with fatty lamb meat and copious amounts of grease. An excellent start to any day!

Samsas tend to be greasy and can make you really thirsty. Wash it all down with a minty fountain drink!

As we walked in the market, I heard Uyghur being spoken all around me for the first time. It’s hard to describe what it sounds like, but to the untrained ear, at times it sounds almost like French, as they share some similar sounds – more on this later! The people in the market I’d bought things from didn’t seem to speak very much Chinese, but they definitely knew how to say “yikuai” and “liangkuai” (1 kuai and 2 kuai, respectively). I even learned my first word of Uyghur – “goi”, which is really just a loanword from Chinese(“kuai”, as in the unit of money). After buying some nan bread and samsas for breakfast, we were ready to start seeing Turpan.

As far as photos go, I'm kicking myself in the butt for not taking more. At the time I remember feeling awkward about pulling the camera out and snapping people going about their daily lives; I got over the feeling later, but as a result I don't have as many pictures from Turpan.

To be continued…


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