adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Friday, November 23, 2007


The Grand Mosque of Kucha

The Grand Mosque of Kucha.

Compared to Urumqi, Kucha feels quite dusty and run-down, but it isn't without its charms. After returning from the Subash ruins, we had some mediocre Sichuanese food for lunch and took a bus to the old town for a walk. The entire town feels old, really, but the west part of town is the historical city center.

Ah, Kucha.

There were lots of old men riding around on donkeys in the streets of the old town; electric carts drove up and down the street offering people rides for a small fee. On the side of the street were people burning logs to barbecue kebabs.

On the right you can see a big pile of charcoal logs.

We walked around for a while and found the Grand Mosque of Kucha down a side street. The mosque really was impressive, though not in use anymore - we were even allowed to go inside and take pictures. There was a group of Uyghur tourists seeing the mosque too - or perhaps they were Turkish or from some other Central Asian country.

After seeing the mosque, we walked around a bit more in the old town - there's a market near the bridge with people selling meat, melons, dried fruit, and so on. There really isn't a whole lot else to see in Kucha, I suppose - we saw a palace that belonged to one of the Hui kings, but it didn't seem terribly interesting.

Downtown Kucha.

The ubiquitous donkey cart.

Our next stop was Kashgar. Lonely Planet claims there isn't any sleeper bus to Kashgar, and that you have to hope to hitch a ride on a bus coming from Urumqi, or get a seat on a train(no sleepers from here either). However, there is another way. I called the bus station and found out there are sleeper buses from nearby Aksu. The next day, we took the three-hour bus to Aksu, then bought sleeper tickets to Kashgar. Our bus didn't leave for a while, so we went out looking for a place to eat.

Meat market.

Selling hats.

As we walked past three Uyghur restaurants lined up near the bus station, the guys standing outside suddenly burst into a frenzy, exclaiming "Welcome, welcome!", reciting all the dishes their restaurant offered at triple speed, and waving their hands around trying to get us to come inside. It was quite a sight - you had to be there, I guess. They all looked terribly similar, so we randomly picked the middle one, much to the chagrin of the other two greeter guys.

Uyghur bagels.

The waitress didn't speak any Chinese at all. Fortunately, at this point I'd learned a couple Uyghur words, like suoman, which are chopped-up noodles with beef in a spicy tomato-based sauce. If I'm not wrong, this word is derived from the Chinese word 炒面(chaomian), which means fried noodles, although the two dishes are totally different.

This was actually taken in Minfeng, but is the only picture of suoman that I have. Most of the time, suoman noodles are more flat, although they can be chopped up laghman noodles as you see here.

Anyhow, as soon as I said suoman, she visibly relaxed and burst into a long stream of Uyghur, which I didn't understand a bit of. The greeter guy grinned, clapped me on the shoulder, and spoke to me in Uyghur, which I also didn't understand. He switched to Chinese, asking me if I was Hui(Chinese Muslim) or Han, and which school I was learning Uyghur from, visibly pleased at my small attempt to speak the language. After dinner, we boarded the bus to Kashgar...

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Friday, November 16, 2007


Kucha and the Subash Ruins

Note: Apparently, these ruins are sometimes called the "Subashi ruins"(transliteration from the Chinese name 苏巴什, which is a transliteration from the Uyghur name, which may not actually have an ending "i."(e.g. the Chinese "Ta-shi-ku-er-gan" for Tashkurgan) Our cab driver certainly didn't pronounce it with an ending "i", at least).

The Subash ruins.

Onboard the sleeper bus to Kucha, I read Uyghur for the Masses as the sun went down. I hadn't gotten very far by the time it was dark, but I felt confident enough to try out my Uyghur when we stopped at a little town in the middle of the night for a break. "Necche puul?" I asked, holding up a bottle of 维C可乐(Vitamin C Cola). The woman selling drinks responded "'shkoy"(three kuai). Success!

After arriving in Kucha and getting a hotel room, we walked out in search of something to eat. Kucha felt a lot less developed than Urumqi, with sandy streets, old one-floor brick buildings, and old men riding about on donkey carts. We found a street lined with vendors selling fresh fruit, meat, and yogurt, and spotted a bunch of people sitting around eating breakfast. We got the same thing they were having - a simple, tasty noodle soup with beef. After eating, I spotted a girl selling bottles filled with white fluid - could it be yogurt? There were some communication problems and lots of finger gestures, but in the end she poured a whole bottle into a bag and tied it up for me. Turned out to be milk, and I ended up spilling most of it in the attempt to pour the milk from the bag, but it was still good.

Outside of Kucha are two of its main attractions: the Kizil Buddhist caves and the Subash ruins. Rebecca was tired of seeing Buddhist caves, so we headed to the Subash ruins instead, paying a taxi to take us one-way - he only charged us 20 kuai!

The taxi dropped us off along the road in the middle of nowhere. Desert stretched out in all directions; in the distance were mountains and a small town. Before us was a cluster of unusual rock formations and a large shack with a sign. A Chinese family living in the shack were the gatekeepers; a fellow wearing military fatigues sold me a ticket.

The Subash ruins are remnants of the ancient Tocharian kingdom of Guici, an important stop along the silk road and the meeting-point of Indian, Central Asian, and Chinese culture. The monk Xuanzang was said to have rested here on his pilgrimage to India.

It was a windy, overcast day, and there were few others at the site besides ourselves. Many of the ruins were indistinguishable from large rocks, but there were a few structures that you could pick out, including a large two-story temple. I suppose it didn't help that tourists like ourselves were climbing all over them, but it was fun. Climbing up to the top of a big rock, we could see a high plateau in the distance across a swath of desert. On top of the plateau you could make out small structures that looked like ruins. A few miles down the road, we could see a little village covered in trees.

As we left, I asked the guy in the shack about the place across the desert. He happily informed me those were the eastern ruins, and that they were much better preserved than these ones (I guess because of their inaccessibility). I love walking to distant places, so off we went.

We walked up the road, passing a group of Uyghur workers who appeared to be quarrying stone. Further on, we entered the desert. The ground was cracked from the heat, but in certain areas was slightly muddy - apparently, this "desert" was actually a dried-up river. The distance was longer than expected, but it was a nice walk.

These ruins were absolutely deserted, and indeed better preserved than the western ruins. There was a very interesting-looking temple in the middle of the ruins you can see a picture of. Up on the plateau, there were nice views all around. I love places like this, so we spent some time here. There was a canyon splitting the plateau in two, and on the other side I could see yet more ruins.

Sitting up on the plateau, looking down, I spotted a youngish guy on a motorcycle driving out to the ruins! He parked in a canyon below us, and quickly scampered up the other side. He looked like a local to me. Hey, if I lived around ancient deserted ruins, I'd probably spend a lot of time around them too.

We climbed down, making our way towards the little town, but as we passed the canyon, my curiosity got the better of me and I climbed up to see the other ruins. I spotted the other guy on top of the plateau, who spotted me too, but we didn't say anything to each other. In the distance, I could see a lone building, strangely separated from the rest of the ruins. There was even a path of sorts leading to it, but Rebecca was waiting at the bottom and it would have taken too much time to get there and back. But at least there is still some mystery there for me.

You can see a temple at the end of this path.

See that little patch of green to the right? It's a town!

It was kind of hard to get down from the plateau. I ended up sliding down on my butt, causing a huge amount of dust and pebbles to slide down with me. Walking to the town took a long time. We were pretty hungry, and hoped to find some food there. When we arrived, we were surprised to find it was no ordinary town. I was expecting the usual shacks and shantyhouses, but the houses here seemed newly built, with pretty, albeit identical mosaiced gates. A large, faded sign depicting Hu Jintao in a square Uyghur cap posing with a bearded old Uyghur man graced the entrance to the town. Even the road was newly paved! Communist-themed posters hung on the walls. There were strangely few people about. In the middle of the paved road running through town was a large tree.

The People's Republic of China is committed to protecting the environment.

Further in, we saw a modern building - the town's Communisty Party headquarters, and across from it, the school. There were hardly any people about and nobody hawking food, so we decided to leave, heading toward the town gates. As we left, a wrinkled old Uyghur man with an impressively large beard who we had passed earlier suddenly called out to us.

Amazed that they spoke Chinese out in this desolate one-road town, I returned the Uyghur greeting yakhshim siz. He asked me a question. It was hard for me to understand his Chinese, and he had a hard time understanding me, but he was speaking Chinese alright! "Ni shi huizu haishi hanzu?" he asked me (are you Hui(Chinese Muslim) or Han?).
As I chatted with the old man, suddenly, the citizens of town started to appear around us, curious at the foreigners who had walked all the way to their little town. I talked with a 50ish man who spoke decent Mandarin, asking him what the name of the town was (I don't remember what it was called). I asked him if there was a place to eat, and he said there was a communal dining hall a couple kilometers up the road. Perhaps this town didn't realize the Cultural Revolution had ended thirty years ago?

I finished chatting with the man, saying goodbye to him - he thanked us for visiting the town! We waited around at the town gate for a while before a car passed by, giving us a ride back to Kucha.

Next: the great mosque of Kucha

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Sunday, November 11, 2007


The Uyghur Mullet

We spent our last day in Urumqi hanging around downtown, just walking around. If you walk down from the Erdaoqiao market, there's an impressive mosque and a lot of Uyghur music stores, groceries, and restaurants. We had lunch around here in another fancy Uyghur place, although I think the waiters were dressed up as a different minority, Kazakhs maybe?

These buns are covered in honey and filled with something like mincemeat. The white drink is ayrun, which is basically watery, salty, sour yogurt.

Nothing like some grape cough syrup to quench your thirst on a hot day.

We stopped into an Ihlas to buy some drinks, and I noticed an Uyghur grape drink I'd seen commercials for last night. Watch the commercial on Youtube. I took a swig, expecting something like Welch's, only to get a mouthful of grape-flavored cough syrup!! I'm not sure if the drink is actually cough syrup, or if they just use the same artificial flavorings. It's weird how we've accepted certain artificial flavors to be "grape" or "banana" although they taste nothing like the real thing.

A neighborhood barbershop.

Out here in Urumqi, folks play western Chess instead of xiangqi, but they crowd around to watch just the same. By the way, the game those men are playing is Xinjiang Square Chess(新疆方棋). It's a variant of the square chess(方棋) games played in Ningxia, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces, and is similar to Nine Men's Morris. You can read more about it here.

If you walk into the residential areas, you'll find a lot of Uyghur barbershops, neighborhood mosques, and people sitting outside playing cards and board games. I have no idea why the haircutting business is so popular in downtown Urumqi, but their signs are quite entertaining, as you can see:

The infamous Uyghur Mullet, top right. Sported by about 95% of 15 to 25-year old Uyghur males.

The local Special Police(特警) station, conveniently located next to a neighborhood mosque. The Special Police are the equivalent of US SWAT teams. We actually saw these guys in action cordoning off an area when we passed through town later on.

Another neighborhood mosque.

A Chinese mosque. Maybe it's for the local Hui?

After enjoying some homemade icecream in a local cafe, we set out in search of the Foreign Languages Bookstore, in the hopes that they would sell an Uyghur textbook other than the useless pink-covered one. By now I'd gotten familiar with the bus system, so we rode all the way to the skyscraper-covered uptown area.

Uptown Urumqi.

It took a bit of walking before we found the place, which turned out to have another Uyghur textbook, "Uyghur for the masses"(大众维语). This one turned out to be fairly decent, having a more structured approach than the pink phrasebook.

The bus for Kucha was leaving soon, and I was unfamiliar with the area, so we tried hailing a taxi. It was one of those days when all the taxis that pass you by happen to be taken. Finally, after about 15 minutes of trying to hail taxis, an Uyghur fellow driving a Santana blasting techno music stopped in front of us. He wasn't driving a taxi, but waved for us to get in anyway. "I was here yesterday trying to hail a taxi too", he told us.

At the bus station, we thanked the guy and handed him 10 kuai for the ride (you generally pay for hitchhiking in China). Waiting for the bus, an Uyghur man in his 40s eyed Rebecca and grinned at me.
"Your girlfriend?"
"Very beautiful! She is French?"
"No"(for some reason, many Uyghurs think Rebecca is French)
"Ah! Your girlfriend very young! 18 years old?" he grinned, thumping me on the shoulder. It certainly wouldn't be the last time I got complimented on my girlfriend in Xinjiang!

Next: Kucha and the Subash ruins

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Thursday, November 08, 2007


I <3 Urumqi

Coming back from Tian Chi, we walked around in uptown Urumqi for a while. This area of Urumqi is quite new, and other than the Uyghur and Russian signs and Mt. Bogeda in the distance, looks just like any other large Chinese city.

We headed downtown to check out the night market, but were a bit early, so we stopped in an internet cafe for a while. Coming out, the previously empty street was covered in crowds and food vendors. The vendors were selling some pretty interesting stuff, like whole lambs, barbecued fish on a stick, and stuffed lamb intestine stew, but the prices were pretty outrageous at every stand - 5 kuai for a bowl of yogurt??!

Feel up to eating an entire roasted animal today?

We walked off in search of a better place to eat, and walked by some pretty charming neighborhoods. Traditional mud-brick architecture they were not, but amidst the housing complexes you could find shiny mosques and smoky neighborhood kebab grills. It's really hard to describe, but Urumqi's Uyghur neighborhoods have an almost European atmosphere for some reason. It must be all the kebab places with people sitting outside in lawn chairs.

Kebabs just don't taste right unless you get bathed in smoke while eating them.

After a bit of walking around, we noticed a nice-looking Uyghur place. Stepping inside, we were treated to our first ever experience of the high-class Uyghur restaurant.

Uyghurs are experts at making cozy restaurants. Eating at one of these places honestly makes you feel like you're in a restaurant in the US or Europe - I don't know exactly what it is, but it's something in the layout and decor. I think Chinese restaurants are typically large ballroom-type places with lots of tables, whereas Western/Uyghur restaurants will try to build the place around booths and aisles.

We had polo(rice pilaf), barbecued meat, a nan bread stuffed with meat (gosh nan) , and of course, yoghurt. Also, I noticed for the first time that Uyghurs eat with chopsticks, even their traditional foods.

Xinjiang STAR!

We headed back to our hotel and enjoyed the Uyghur channel XJTV-5, which was about 80% funny commercials and 20% poorly dubbed American movies - watching The Nutty Professor in Uyghur dubbing is pretty hilarious.

Next: Charming Urumqi neighborhoods and our departure for Kucha.

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