adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

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.

Hi Pravit, I just wanted to say thanks for posting that question about why stocks have any value at all if theres no dividend to gain. I had this exact same question but everyone just kept telling me "because other people will buy the stock and it will drive up the price". Obviously this wasn't the answer I wanted! At least someone had the same quesetion as me...


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