China: A Retrospective Blog of a Wander Around the Most Populated Country in the World
Is Ni Hao Enough?
Thursday, 22nd May, 2014
Stunning flight down the mountains from Queenstown airport and am now sitting at a revamped Christchurch airport gazing to those same snow dusted southern alps, feeling slightly trepidatious. That IS a word, isn't it...anyway, it sounds like I feel. My reservations drift to thoughts of language. I mean, China is one big country and apart from the obligatory ni hao, I understand no Mandarin. Robbie, a friend from Queenstown and veteran of several trips to Shanghai, waves me over, interrupting my ponderings.
"The young ones speak English," she reassures me and I wonder out loud whether that includes those in the rural areas. She raises her eyebrows, tilts her head, and shrugs ever so slightly.. Confidence edges ever so slightly downwards.
Tis funny how, a few years ago, jumping a plane to Colombia, Cuba, Galapagos, in fact any number of exotic locations not quite on the beaten track way back then, didn't generate the slightest sweat! Is it age, experience...knowing that there really are consequences for the foolhardy..or is it just not having been overseas for some time and losing that confidence of the seasoned traveller. I opt for the time lapse and feel better already.
It's been weeks in front of the computer screen trying to put an itinerary together and then tearing it apart again, as Steve, my partner (mutt), does his on again off again version of trip planning. Yes, I will come, no I won't, no I definitely won't...and two weeks before...ummm, actually I do have a bit of time off. Historically, he's a nightmare travel companion or maybe I'm just a bit too independent and not given to the constraints of travelling with a demanding partner. Anyhow, we have an itinerary and I have a fine selection of interesting and photogenic locations to go wild in. Four weeks on my own starting in Kashgar and then another few with my favourite man. By then, I may well be hungering for company and will welcome the old ratbag with open arms. He's well catered for in the travel plan, with shopping stops sprinkled amongst the odd bike ride alongside magnificent karst mountains, meanderings amongst historic old towns and a good selection of markets to practice his bargaining skills in. He likes his markets, he does.
So this is it, the culmination of nights poring over the Lonely Planet, websites, blogs and assorted maps. Horror stories of train stations and hours of tedious waiting, have been dismissed with the discovery of the wonderful people at China DIY Travel. I must admit I've learnt a lot about places I'd never even heard of previously. Citiy names ending in shen. zhou, zhen, no longer scramble my head....well, maybe still a little. I've had weeks to study locations, sights, routes, and accommodation options...and I know from experience that nothing ever turns out quite the way it's planned. And that's a good thing!
Bye Queenstown. See you in a couple of months.
Especially Your Feet
Friday 23rd May, 2014
Tatiaya, accosts me in the customs queue, and in perfect English. I comment on her grammar and she tells me she is surrounded by a multitude of nationalities ever day. "Yes," I tell her, "you have an international accent."
"Still a bit Asian though," she confides. She's returning to her family after having spent several years studying to be a missionary, one of 38,000 or was that 58,000 around the world. She has that fresh-faced, enthusiasm of a young girl committed. And committed she is. The Church of Latter Day Saints snaffled her up whilst she was on a trip to Australia. Now she has completed her training, she will revert to a normal life but one committed to spreading the doctrines of her faith. She has made some headway, she says, ponytail swinging, as she nods with excitement, with her parents. Apparently, they currently read the scriptures sometimes and pray. I feel that this will change once Tatiaya gets back to town!
"Do you have brothers and sisters?" I ask, hoping that mum and dad may achieve some balance in religious doctrine amongst her siblings.
"No," she responds gently, reminding me of the one child policy.
Whoops, I backpedal, "I imagine they must have missed you very much then when you were away."
"Oh yes," she enthuses, "we haven't communicated a lot. We were allowed to Skype on special occasions like Xmas, but we could email on Mondays." She notes my puzzled expression and explains a focus on the teachings is paramount and distractions are kept to the minimum. She suddenly turns to me and asks how many children I have. I'd forgotten this line of questioning so prevalent in asian countries. Are you married, do you have children, how old are you? I smile and let her know I have three, but that they are grown up and that I am a grandmother several times over. She completely floors me. "You don't look old enough to be a grandmother," she reassures me, "especially your feet!" I look at my Nike clad number 10s and assume it's a comment based on how active I possibly appear. She gives me her email, in case I need assistance, and with a cheery wave she's heading to her boarding gate.
Friday or Saturday - losing track, 2015
Sitting in Ghuangzhou's Baiyuan airport waiting on my Kashgar flight, I'm miffed I couldn't get a window seat. But anyway, I console myself, it is raining and a low, thick mist is covering the tarmac, allowing only a blurry glimpse of China Southern Airlines. Ghuangzhou is a huge airport and the hub of Southern China Airlines, the guys that have given me the best price and who, I'm lead to believe, run a mainly new fleet these days. It's also the world's sixth largest airline and carries around 90 million passengers annually, so I figure they can't be too dusty. Can they?
The only way to my gate was via a transporter which did the one km trip in a flash. The next couple of kilometres on foot, wiped the smile from my face! Finally, the waiting lounge and I lunge for the last seat, only to find myself installed next to a Chinese fellow having a lot of trouble clearing his throat. A little later on board, the woman next to me proceeded to far surpass even his best efforts, and during breakfast. I wondered if I would be doing the same by the end of the trip.
With a 'my apologise for our delay' and 'sanks for your patience', we're off to Urumqi and then on to Kashi. This is a more modern plane by the looks of it, a 737 I think. No screens though, so am pleased I had the foresight to pick-up City of Lies, an account of Tehran by Ramita Navai, a British Iranian journo.
We follow some very awesome mountains to the left and then hit a major expanse of what appear to be dry paddocks to the horizon. There's a child asleep in the window seat I wanted and I control the urge to sit on her. What a waste!
The plane although relatively new, is somewhat shabby. The coffee soaked pages of the inflight magazine refused to unstick as I searched for our flight specifications. Some passengers exuded an ever so subtle whiff of eau de urine which was soon superseded by the choking aroma of truly smelly feet as passengers whipped off shoes and got comfortable. Luckily, the in-flight entertainment on offer was good and I was soon engrossed in working out how to navigate the selection buttons. Dinner was unpleasant but filled a space and then I woke up with only two hours till touchdown. I love long flights like that!
I read the China News and noted the reports of the terrorist attacks in Urumqi. Concerning, but a little late to change plans. I ask the Asian girl now in the windowseat and who is going to Urumqi for her brother's wedding, if she has any concerns. " Why?" she looks surprised. "I'm Australian!" she explains. And indeed she is. A diamond specialist from Sydney, no less. She admits her Dad is concerned, but she most certainly, is not. She tells me she us going to do some sightseeing whilst in Urumqi and I take the opportunity to question her about Pingyao and Datong, a couple of my upcoming destinations, but she has never heard of them. Seems she knows very little of geographical China. I excuse her, she is Australian after all.
An old Chinese lady sitting between us quizzes Diamond Girl about what I'm up to and why on earth I would be travelling on my own around China without being able to speak the language. I wonder the same! She smiles at me and gives me her bag to pop in the overhead locker. "Che che," she says and falls asleep on my shoulder.
Do Your Homework
Kashi airport is small and forgettable, but I am very glad to arrive. A long 8 hours and one hellishly sore butt!
I do as I've been told by some guidebook and go to the legitimate cabs, resisting the bloke in the long coat hissing to get my attention. 80Y says the cab tout/organiser, and little alarm bells start tinkling, but am not used to the currency and can't recall what the Lonely Planet bible told me was a realistic fare. I sneak a look at my online LP and see it's only 15Y and point this out to the young girl driving. She halts the cab and indicates I pay or take my purple wheelie back-pack and hoof it, not something I was keen on doing on the highway to who knows where and in 40' heat.
Golly whiskers I think, I should have done my homework more thoroughly!
Welcome to Kashgar.
Kashgar Old Town Youth Hostel
NO.233 in Wusitangboyi road, Next to the Fourth Police Station, Kashgar, China
Yup, that's where it is; the Kashgar Old Town Youth Hostel! Definitely a nice place to stay and the Police Station is not at all intrusive. The hostel is an old building on two levels with a courtyard. Various nationalities sit around swapping travellers tales on locally made carpets. Really pleasant office staff, cheery greetings in a variety of languages, a resident tiny kitten with sphinx ear tufts, and an equally small dog which stalks and tussles with the cat, make it feel interesting. The bad taste from the taxi experience evaporates.
"We are located in the old city and it is about 400 meters from the Id Kah Mosque.The property decorated as Vighur style and with a big yard which full of grapes and flowers. Guests can enjoy the ethnic customs in the corridor and under the grapes........."
So says kasher Old Town Youth Hostel's website. The accommodation is definitely basic, but the linen is clean, the rooms huge and cool and there are hot showers and wifi. Great views of street life are available from the second level windows. Not bad for NZD20. No grapes and flowers to enjoy ethnic customs under, but I guess it wasn't harvest time.
I dump my gear and on that travel high that overcomes lack of sleep or jet lag, grab my camera and head into the street. It's hot....and dusty. Dust settles everywhere and I'm to find this is pretty much the norm. Views down streets generally end in vehicles and people emerging from clouds of the stuff.
Tough, unwelcoming male faces stare at me armed with my camera. I'm dying to raise my lens and snap these wonderful Uighur characters; restauranteurs, tailors, bread makers, vegetable sellers, but their expressions deter me. In front of me, two men in typical Uighur dress, work at their sewing machines and I watch, fascinated by their speed and dexterity. I bite the bullet and point at my camera. An unbelievable transformation takes place. Immediately, I am welcomed. Huge smiles and the family is introduced. This, I find, is the norm. People are wonderful!
I wander and wander....you can't get lost when you wander...you have no destination. I recognise another hostel I had read about and so climb the stairs. Great view from a terrace and as so often happens in hostels, get chatting with a couple who are only to happy to share experiences. Over the next 30 minutes I hear of what I should consider doing whilst in Kashi. Invaluable advice and wonderful to make some new friends. Inevitably you bump into the same faces and when you are travelling in a country where you have no knowledge of the language, it can be heaven to share travel tales in your own language for a while.
Grabbing a water, I wander downstairs into the late afternoon. It's very special that people love having their photo taken and I wish I had a polaroid as not too many have the internet. Even seeing the image in the camera monitor brings squeals of delight....and not just amongst the kids!
My stomach is growling, but I can't decide what to eat! There's a huge choice, but I go for what's in front of me. Samosa, Uighur style. Pastries filled with lamb and onion and flavoured with cumin and pepper....doesn't get much better!
Kashi feels good!
Things you can do with a few days in Kashi:
The next day, sometime in May, 2015
No Pain Train
If embarking on a train trip around China, I can only suggest you take the easy way out and contact DIY China. They will purchase your tickets up to 60 days in advance and email you the details. Take this to the appropriate ticket window. No problem finding this because DIY also supply instructions written in Chinese. Thank you Helen! You saved me from hours of queuing and frustration.
I head to the station to collect my first lot of tickets and am mildly surprised by the armed police everywhere, the obvious lock on the main doors and the distinct lack of passengers.
There is a lot of tension between the Uighurs and Chinese in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, recently accentuated by a number of attacks. The Uighurs are mostly Moslem and relate more to the Central Asian nations culturally, than to the Han Chinese who are being encouraged to settle this largest province of China. The Chinese have imposed restrictions and implemented separatist policies resulting in frustration and strong resentment leading to violence, the most recent of which was an attack on the Urumqi railway station. The police, surveillance cameras and huge army presence was something I was to see a lot of, particularly in the minority areas. It is not a problem that is going to go away and there will be more bloodshed and, I suspect, the gradual suppression of ethnic minorities. Terrorists or freedom fighters? Read up on the issues before arriving and you may see things through different eyes or at least with some understanding of what is in front of you.
A little office was manned at the end of a maze of metal walkway and I duly zigzagged over and without a glitch, presented my documents and collected my tickets. All good!
Back at the hostel I meet an adventurous Taiwanese man biking around China. He had been very sick on a number of occasions and was recuperating..slowly. Jane is wandering along the dusty road in a state of wonderment. "I so much want to take photos", she says in a strong Sth African accent. I adopt the air of one who has been in Kashi for some time. "It's as easy as a smile,'" I say and she scampers off in a state of high excitement. I can't blame her, there are photos everywhere!
I meet Rashiq from Kerala and we decide on an early start to the animal market next morning. Everyone is heading for the Stans!
Well, you can't go everywhere.........
Not a Place for Animal Rights Folk
It's daly and there are no food shops open. We buy Kashi nan bread, but it's hard and not as wonderful as it looks. We are the UN; Rashiq from India, Micheal from Marseilles, an American couple from Los Angeles, a Chinese boy and a charming Japanese fellow. We grab a taxi to the animal market for 30Y and take a motorised cart on the way back. We offer the motorised cart driver 20Y. He enthusiastically accepts and then asks where we want to go!
It's early at the animal market and cool, not yet dusty, and there are no tourists. We watch animals being unloaded from trucks in readiness for the sales. It's not a place for animal rights activists. Cattle are hauled off trucks and often fall. The sheep and goats seem resigned to their fate whereas the bulls look terrified and froth at the mouth.
There are interesting sheep with plump bottoms; apparently all fat. Would make for comfortable sitting no doubt. Some of them are creatively shaved like poodles and vendors can be seen tenderly grooming their buttocks; that's those of the sheep.
Horses are raced up and down a dusty track for prospective buyers; a hugely raw and exciting spectacle, as the animals pound down the track, nostrils flaring and whites of eyes flashing.
Most of the traders were Uighur men.....hardened, tough people with ready smiles and a twinkle in their eye....only a sprinkling of women and children.
It's a remnant, a gathering of traders left over from the days of the Silk Route; when Kashgar was the oasis between the desert and the towering mountains of the Karakoram.
It's stepping back in time and worth a coating of dust.
Over a noodle lunch in a restaurant the Japanese boy tells us about US Japanese being rounded up in the States after Pearl Harbour and put into immigration camps, their possessions removed; money and property included. Rashiq tell us of the mansion with tennis courts, and swimming pools which was home to his and many other families. Now he lives in Hong Kong after a brief stint in Beijing. Everyone has an interesting tale on the road.
We decide to go to Tashkurgan tomorrow.
Of Yaks and Yurts...and the mighty Karakoram
Elvis arrives and we throw our packs into his taxi and head out to the mighty Karakoram highway; the highest and one of the most deadly in the world. The road epitomises what is happening in China today. Huge developments, far beyond what we comprehend as earthworks in New Zealand, are taking place as China forges it's way along three of the highest mountain ranges; the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush. The landscape is gouged and manipulated as the Karakoram is in the process of being upgraded through to Pakistan. This is an area prone to earthquakes and floods. Landslides are common and local unrest will often see the road blocked.
The dust is intense and the going, hellishly slow. We are only going as far as Tashkurgan and this is only a maybe. Elvis is non committal about getting that far and seems nervous. Tashkurgan is situated just before the Khunjerab Pass. As it happens, we get there and spend time exploring ruins of the Stone Fortress (part of Kite Runner was apparently filmed here) left over from historic trading times. We also manage to quickly meet some local people and see through their house.
There is a strong military presence and Elvis does a u turn every time he sees uniforms. We are not sure why as he does not speak English, but we know that foreigners are not encouraged to talk to random Tajik people or Kyrgyz nomads. There are programs underway to "improve" the social and economic development of these minority groups and to rehouse them in concrete villages. There is a lot of local resentment. The streets are noticeably quiet and nothing feels welcoming. We grab water from a tiny shop and without speaking, Elvis guns the car and hurtles back to
We ask to visit a tiny farming village just off the road and Elvis drives in indicating 10-15 minutes only. We visit the family and share warmed yak milk; well, Rashiq did, as I, possibly very impolitely, declined. It tastes rancid; even worse than our subsidised daily battle of milk did at Primary School which was often left sitting in the sun. Suddenly a very flustered Elvis burst in and hustled us to the car. We were not supposed to be there.
Karakul Lake here we come. Gooli welcomes us and we enter her family's yurt. The fire is stoked and we are as warm as toast. The morning brings a stunning snowscape. Rashiq and I scamper around the lake photographing wildly.
The photos tell the story.
We head back leaving frozen hands and feet for the blazing heat of Kashgar again, and meeting up with Miet, a Belgian girl, we head to the famous Pakistan Cafe. Here you have what's on the stove and tonight it's naan, lamb curry, beef and potato curry and dhal. Unbelievably good!
I'm wildly jealous of Rashiq's Canon lens! It's a 17-300 mm Canon and he's using it to it's max. A very talented photographer, he shares some of his portfolios including a project done in the hutongs of Beijing.
Aahhhhhh! Some people have just got that touch of artistry!