adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Tian Chi - the heavenly lake

Hey everyone! Apologies for the long delay; I finally took the GRE and got a bunch of grad school admissions stuff taken care of, so I should be less busy now.

You can see the snowy Bogeda peak of the Tian shan mountains all the way down in Urumqi if you look in the right direction - if it's not too cloudy, sometimes you can see it peeking out between two skyscrapers. The next day, we headed up to Tian Chi, a lake high up in the mountains. We hitched on to a tour bus for the ride up.

The ride up wasn't terribly exciting; the tour guide did point out 八楼, a bus stop mentioned in a song by Dao Lang about Urumqi - and contrary to what some Western OMGSAVETEHUYGHURS!!1 types would want you to believe, Uyghurs LOVE listening to Dao Lang, even though he's Han Chinese. How's that for race relations, eh?

As we headed up, the scenery changed from barren deserts to forested mountains. Springs bubbled along past Kazakh yurts. After reaching the parking lot, the tour group headed off to queue up in the amazingly long line for the lifts, reminding us to be back at the bus at 4PM if we wanted a ride back. Rebecca and I climbed up the zigzagging road a ways before realizing it was for cars, and headed back down to find the start of the trail.

The trail up was nice and there weren't too many people about. We hiked up, following a stream, and halfway up there were some Kazkahs with a yurt. I hadn't eaten any breakfast, so we ate some yogurt and dry nan bread. Dry nan bread is pretty typical fare in the higher-altitude regions of Xinjiang; it keeps for ages, but tastes like stale, dry uncooked bagels. At least you get to pretend you're a 19th century sailor when you eat the stuff. I offered the Kazakhs 10 kuai for their generosity, and was surprised when the kid gave me back exact change. Guess they get a lot of tourists up there.

Further up, we passed an impressive waterfall and a smaller, but no less beautiful lake. After a bit more climbing we reached the top, and were greeted by green pastures and a bunch of "take your picture wearing traditional minority dress" places.

Tourists were buzzing all over, but the lake was truly impressive - you could see the snowy peaks towering over the lake in the distance. We walked around a bit, and I took about 5 billion pictures of the same thing. I think my pictures tend to come out way better than they look in the viewfinder; it was very bright, so it seemed like none of my pictures were coming out well.

Музыка волн, музыка ветра...

We had our fill of the lake and went down. Going down was a bit confusing; there were lifts, but the line was long and we didn't have time. Some Uyghur fellows sat in electric buggy carts ferrying tourists back and forth; the communication was difficult, and when I asked him if he was driving to the parking lot, he kept saying "no." Finally, I worked out that he wasn't actually driving all the way down, but he would ferry us to a bus stop where we would get on a separate bus to take us down.

The view down was pretty spectacular; there were a couple people who simply walked all the way down next to the road. I kind of wished we did that to take in the views better.

Next: Our last day in Urumqi and our departure for Kucha

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Saturday, October 20, 2007


An evening in Urumqi

From the bookstore, we took a bus all the way down to the Erdaoqiao market. I mentioned before the streets of Urumqi are confusing - there are two long roads that connect uptown and downtown, and we hopped on a line heading all the way down. The bus was quite new and had announcements in both Chinese and Uyghur. I wasn't too sure where to get off, but seeing all the golden-domed mosques around, I figured we were in the area.

The Erdaoqiao market was indeed touristy, but the general area is fun to walk around - it's hard to describe, but there's a nice big-city atmosphere that's different from other Chinese cities. Lots of Uyghur pop music like Shahrizoda and Zulpikar being blasted from CD shops, vendors selling things all around, lots of Uyghur faces to be seen strolling around this area.

An urban mosque.

Busy street near the market.

Get your Uyghur Disco right here!

Walking further down the main street, you can walk down the stairs into a small underground shopping mall and cross the road. Climbing back up on the other side, you'll hit an area with lots of Uyghur music stores, restaurants, and a couple big mosques. There were plenty of fashionable young Uyghurs walking around dressed much less conservatively than their Turpan counterparts. I've never been to Turkey, but I imagined this is what it would be like. I went into a music shop and bought a CD that looked fun - "Uyghur Disco."

We noticed a nice-looking Uyghur restaurant and stepped inside. I don't know what it is, but the Uyghurs have a way with making restaurants cozy - there's just something different in how they're laid out compared to Chinese restaurants. You might say they're more Western in style - built around corridors and wallside booths, rather than large rooms filled with tables and chairs. We had the dapanji, which is a large plate of chicken cooked with potatoes and bellpeppers in a savory-sweet sauce. It's a great hearty dish and the semi-crisp potatoes in the sauce is a special treat. I also tried narun, which I was curious about after seeing it on menus before, but it wasn't very interesting - just beef and noodle soup (think Campbell's, not niuroulamian).

Delicious dapanji, a regional specialty (ask Urumqi-ers where they eat theirs)

Narun may sound like an exotic Central Asian dish, but it's just beef noodle stew. I suppose every culture has to have their obligatory boring dish.

After dinner, we strolled around some more, walking into an Arman supermarket, another Uyghur grocery chain. We were surprised at the bakery with all manner of Uyghur pastries, and bought a couple cookies to take home. We headed back up the street, passing the market area, where there were lots of night vendors set up hawking all sorts of things. A young Uyghur garment seller waved some underpants in the air like a flag, shouting out "five kuai, five kuai!" We grabbed some watermelon, then jumped into a taxi, angering some Uyghur youths who had been waiting for a cab.

Arman and Ihlas are the two major Uyghur supermarket chains.

Arman Cakes, your one-stop shop for Central Asian pastries. Do Uyghur supermarkets actually sell anything besides pastries, candy, dried fruit, and that cough syrup drink?

Our taxi driver was the highlight of the night. He was quite talkative and spoke Chinese better than most Uyghurs I'd met. He asked if I was from Beijing, if Rebecca was French(many Uyghurs think Rebecca is French for some reason). We chatted about Urumqi, about dapanji, and about American cars.
"Do they have Santana in America?", he asked, pointing at the dashboard. For some reason, all
cars in Xinjiang are Santanas.

The Aksaray hotel.

The discussion shifted to our home countries. The driver laughed and said "I could pass for a German!", turning the rearview mirror to show his smiling face. Minus the embroidered square cap, he did resemble a fortysomething Western European. He taught us a few Uyghur phrases - yakhshim siz(how are you) and mening ismim(my name is...). I didn't quite catch his name, but I believe it was something like Mumin Jan. Our taxi driver friend let us off at the hotel with an English "t'ank you very much" and sped off into the night.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Arrival in Urumqi

Wow, that's probably been the longest time I haven't updated my blog! Apologies again - things will get a bit less crazy after I take the GRE next Saturday.

From Turpan, it was a two-hour bus ride over the mountains to Urumqi, during which we got to enjoy some Uyghur VCDs played at extremely loud volume. Arriving at the long-distance bus station, we grabbed a taxi and drove off to the hotel recommended in our Chinese guidebook.

Russian signs in Urumqi.

I was expecting Urumqi to be a grimy industrial town. But cruising in the taxi through the streets, my first impression was that the city felt very new and modern, with lots of tall buildings, but also very sprawled out, kind of like a cross between Beijing and Shanghai. We noticed lots of signs in both Chinese and Russian around, especially places selling manufactured products. The hotel was OK, but a bit too "hostel-y" for me, so we picked up our packs and set out looking for another hotel nearby mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Walking around looking for the hotel, we passed a giant Carrefour and a large public square (Nanhai square). The other hotel turned out to be terribly Western-style and backpacker-y, complete with a bearded Western backpacker guy working at the reception desk, so we left and tried the hotel across the street, which looked quite fancy. You might be curious why I'm so picky about hotels, but the only type of hotel I like to stay in is the standard Chinese hotel that can be had for around 200yuan a night($25) - I can't be bothered to stay in backpacker dives to save 5-10 dollars. When I say "standard Chinese hotel", I'm referring to a room that would be equivalent to a two-three star hotel in the West.

Uptown Urumqi is just like any other big Chinese city.

Huge Carrefour near our hotel.

The other hotel turned out to be quite modern and decently priced (建设大厦) so we settled on there. We went out to eat lunch and decided on Sichuan food, figuring we wouldn't have a chance to eat any decent Chinese food in less developed areas of Xinjiang. The food was average, but rather expensive for such a run-of-the-mill place - as we would later find out, Chinese food in Xinjiang tends to be bad and high-priced.

Xinjiang provincial museum.

The provincial museum sounded interesting, so we made it our first stop. The building was quite modern and nice - we didn't take any pictures inside, but it had a few nice exhibits including my favorite: the minorities exhibit! It featured life-sized mannequins of each minority in national dress, along with some cultural artifacts representative of each - my favorite had to be the Russian minority exhibit, featuring forks and spoons as their eating utensils and a complete four-poster bed! The main draw of the museum is, of course, the mummies that have had so much media attention because they're white-looking. I remember watching a show about them on Discovery a couple years ago. The Tarim mummies are indeed rather European-looking and are supposedly from the ancient Tocharian kingdoms in the area. I don't really see what the hubbub is about, given there are living people in Xinjiang who are really European-looking, like my yogurt-making friend in Turpan. Plenty of living Uyghurs have blue eyes, light hair, and other "Caucasoid" traits, as well as people in Afghanistan and Pakistan(read about the Kalash) - so what's the big deal?

Trilingual bus sign. The buses in Urumqi are new, modern, and have bilingual stop announcements in Uyghur and Chinese.

From the museum, we headed to the bookstore. Urumqi, unlike most Chinese cities, has very confusing streets, and none of our maps were particularly detailed. We asked around a bit, and noticed that some of the Chinese in Urumqi have a very peculiar accent - it sounds a bit like the way Uyghurs speak Chinese. We'd noticed it before with a taxi driver and someone else we'd asked for directions.

The Urumqi International City of Books.

The Urumqi Xinhua International Book City is indeed quite large and claims to be the biggest in the Northwest, although I think the one in Xi'an is bigger(it could be argued that Xi'an is not NW, though). I asked around for a book on Uyghur only to be pointed to the same pink book they sold in Turpan, with such helpful phrases as "I'm a worker" and "He is Aerkin's father", but none of the phrases I needed, like "How much does this cost" or "I want some kebabs." All the same, I managed to find a book in the Uyghur section with some helpful phrases, although it was really intended for Uyghurs learning Chinese. But thanks to the modified writing system of Uyghur, every vowel sound is indicated, unlike Arabic, so you kind of know how words should be pronounced.

To be continued...(hopefully sooner this time)

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Thursday, October 11, 2007


Jiaohe ruins, Emin minaret, and a night out in Turpan

Apologies to my regular readers(i.e. Rebecca's mom) that I haven't updated lately - been busy with preparing for GRE, grad school apps, etc...

By the end of the day, Rebecca felt well enough to go out and see more of Turpan. We hired a taxi for only one-way and headed off to the Jiaohe ruins, figuring it’s always easier to find public transportation from a given place to the city than the other way around.

The Jiaohe ruins were really spectacular and huge – there was much more left than the ruins at Gaoche. We went around sunset near closing time, so it wasn’t too hot, and we had the place almost all to ourselves. When I was a kid, I loved mazes and buildings with twisty corridors you could get lost in. I still do! I had a grand time walking all around the ruins through its twisting side streets. You could really feel that it used to be a city, although the ruins date to the Tang dynasty and are some 2000 years old.

Up on higher ground, you can look out over the entire city and appreciate its size.

Noticing a temple-like structure in the far distance, we wandered through the streets until we had walked all the way there.

Light shines on an ancient temple.

Further on, we found that the city is actually up on a plateau.

After we’d finished seeing the place, we walked out only to find there were no buses or taxis around, other than a few guys on motor trikes. He only wanted 10 kuai to take us back to town, which seemed like a ridiculously low price given that town was about 10km away, but hey, whatever (the guy spoke Mandarin limited to “10” and “kuai”, so there wasn’t much clarification on the destinaton). After driving for a while, he stopped at a market with many donkey carts around and a few food vendors, and pointed at a public bus. Stepping on the bus, I enquired if they went all the way to Emin Minaret. A bespectacled elder lady wearing a hijab who spoke impeccable Chinese replied that they did and encouraged us to get on.

The drive to Emin Minaret took a while, but we got to get a glimpse of rural life around Turpan around sunset. The bus honked as it passed donkey carts jingling down the road. Driven by wizened old Uyghur men with little whips and filled with colorfully-clothed passengers who sit with their legs dangling over the sides, donkey carts are a common sight on Xinjiang roads. We passed a mazaar, or Muslim burial site; the Muslim men sitting in front of us held up their hands in prayer as we passed. On either side of the road were tall trees and trucks loaded to the top with cartons full of green grapes.

The lady in the burka told us where to get off the bus, and we walked a bit down a path before we reached the minaret. The last group of tourists was leaving, but they let us in anyway, so we had the place entirely to ourselves. It was a peaceful place as the sun set.

Walking back. A typical rural Xinjiang view.

When we were finished seeing the place, we walked out only to find there didn’t seem to be any transportation around. So we simply started walking off down the road back to Turpan under the tall trees. A few donkey carts passed us by. Finally, a souped-up car pumping techno music pulled up and offered us a lift. The young Uyghur fellow driving the car was friendly enough and only charged us 10 kuai to drive us back to town.

We finished off our day with a dinner outdoors. In every Xinjiang city in certain public areas after dark, people set up tables, chairs, grills, and noodle stands. We had some delicious grilled lamb kebabs and nan bread. If you like meat, Xinjiang lamb kebabs are really a special treat – juicy, tender, fatty, and spiced to perfection. I ran into a local Ihlas supermarket to buy a Kawsar cola, one of the many local brands of cola you might come across.

Just looking at this picture makes me hungry.

Ihlas is one of a couple supermarket chains which are quite special to the region – staffed entirely by Uyghurs, they cater to an Uyghur clientele and sell things like Ülker chocolate bars (Turkish products seem quite popular), all kinds of sweets and pastries, and that disgusting cough syrup drink (more about this later). No reason dentist offices seem so popular around Xinjiang! ;)

Master kebab griller at work.

The guy selling watermelon had a way more high-tech cell phone than I did.

After dinner, we had some delicious watermelon for .5kuai a slice - you can always find people selling slices of watermelon and hamigua(similar to canteloupe) around eating places. To top it all off, we paid a visit to the yogurt guy, who even has his own health certificate!

We strolled around a bit more, enjoying the Turpan nightlife and taking the pictures below. The city certainly seemed a lot more lively at night than during the hot afternoon when I'd been walking around.

Hand over the grapes! The poster is typical propaganda used in unsold advertisement space and says something like "Together, we'll write a new page, create a harmonious Turpan!"

Have fun at the public arcade and play the AK-47 shooting range game!(not pictured)

In the next post - we head to Urumqi, the most landlocked metropolis in the world.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007


Turpan, day 2

Freshly baked nan bread.

After I had recovered from heatstroke, Rebecca began feeling quite sick and had a craving for juice. I was pretty hungry, so I went out on the town to do some shopping.

I picked up a nan bread, and noticed that in front of the market there was a stand with a sign advertising fresh homemade yoghurt! I sat down and a blue-eyed Uyghur fellow served me up the most amazing yogurt I’ve ever had.

The best yogurt ever.

First of all, the yogurt you get in Chinese supermarkets across the country is far superior to any yogurt I’ve ever tried in the US. I don’t know how to explain it – it’s just better. It probably has to do with which bacteria they use to culture it – I’ve heard that the bacteria used to make Yakult was actually taken by Japanese in WWII occupying what is now Inner Mongolia (where all Chinese yogurt is made).

But compared to inner-China yogurt, the yogurt I had in Xinjiang was heavenly. I still miss it. The guy at the stand had served me iced yogurt, a form of durap, which is yogurt but with chilled water, shaved ice, extra sugar, and sometimes syrup. It is amazingly good. So good that I bought a bottle to take back to the hotel room. I had yogurt many other times in Xinjiang, but none as good as that stand in Turpan.

Unassuming, but delicious. Note: Do not confuse with milky soggy diarrhea-inducing porridge sold by old ladies in front of market.

As I slurped down my yogurt, the yogurt guy sat down across from me and chatted a bit. He cheerfully asked me if I was a Northeasterner, which I thought was humorous, but hey, I’m as Han Chinese as they come. I have to say, it was a pretty good feeling being the most standard speaker of Mandarin Chinese around, given that people sometimes think I’m Korean back in China proper.

Xinhua bookstore. Most signs in Xinjiang are bilingual Uyghur/Chinese.

Rebecca was still feeling ill, so we decided to stay another day in Turpan for her to recover. I went for a walk on the town, checking out the Xinhua bookstore I’d seen earlier.

To my surprise, the entire first floor of the bookstore was filled with Uyghur books! Since most of the locals didn’t seem to speak much Chinese, I browsed around for a book about learning Uyghur, but was unable to find any. The shop clerk pointed me to the only book they had in stock – a pink covered book entitled “300 Uyghur Sentences.” I bought the book along with the tapes and was on my way.

Uyghur books in Xinhua Shudian.

I checked out the market some more. The yogurt stand had opened, and I sat down for another bowl of yogurt for breakfast. The Uyghur guy manning the stand, who was brown-haired, blue-eyed, and looked like he could come from Omaha, beamed and handed me a bowl of delicious chilled yogurt.

After breakfast, I looked at flat caps in the market (none fit my big head), bought a small tape player, and ventured into an Uyghur CD shop, picking up a CD of Shahrizoda’s greatest hits. Shahrizoda are an Uyghur pop group whose songs are playing constantly around Xinjiang, especially this one (youtube link).

Cooking polo!

I ducked into a hole-in-the-wall for lunch, noticing a big batch of polo cooking outside. Uyghur food is largely noodle and bread-based, but they do have some traditional rice dishes like polo. Polo is a pilaf made with liberal amounts of butter and some vegetables (carrots and melons I think). They cook one big batch in a huge wok outside, and once it’s gone, it’s gone – so polo is usually eaten for lunch. If you pay a few extra kuai, they throw a big hunk of fatty lamb meat on top of your plate. Delicious and bad for your health, like most Uyghur food.

The picture turned out blurry, but I like it all the same.

I walked around the city some more in the afternoon, but it was terribly hot, and the streets seemed to get deserted during the hottest hours of the day – I guess people took naps or stayed inside. I didn’t see much, though I did walk down a long walkway lined with grapes (pictured), and pass a few empty public squares. The city really doesn’t have all that much to see, I suppose.

I’m usually not aware of my ethnicity in China, but here in Xinjiang it felt a little apparent again, as I was the most obviously Han Chinese, Beijing-accented person around. I suppose it’s how white people in the US feel when they walk around minority neighborhoods. I felt a little bad speaking in Mandarin to Uyghurs, many of whom have trouble speaking Chinese, but hey, at least I bought the 300 Uyghur phrases book! (more on the book later)

Grape walkway

Speaking of Han-Uyghur relations, having spent three weeks in Xinjiang, as a "Han" Chinese, I honestly did not see any of the hostility claimed by the Lonely Planet guidebook or various Western activist websites. Everyone was nice to me, at least.

Later that day, Rebecca had recovered and we were off to see the Jiaohe ruins and the Emin minaret. But that'll have to wait until next post...

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