We're here in Urumqi (pronounced, Oo-Room-Chi) now. A few hours on the road this afternoon after a full morning of touring around Turpan. It's a big city, compared to the smaller places we've been for the past week or so. There's a nice Internet cafe here, with leather seats, cold drinks, and even a dress code. Some of the kids walking around look like they're going to a night club or something. Anyway, to continue...
Evening, 23 May 07
After we boarded the train, we ran through the usual routine of getting the luggage stowed, and settling in. As we did so, a group of French travelers began to board and join us in our car. This was actually the same group of travelers that have been shadowing us since the Bingling Grottoes, when we first ran into them. One of the guys is a Jerry Garcia lookalike, and thus is pretty identifiable anytime we see the group.
I was going to try to get out and take a picture or two while still on the platform, but couldn't due to the press of oncoming passengers. On the way down the passageway, I noticed a lady and her husband struggling with their luggage, and offered, in my high school French, to help. They had it taken care of OK, so I didn't do much, but later on in the evening, when I ran into them again, they were quite grateful.
While we sat around waiting for the train to leave, we enjoyed an ice cold beer and a few snacks. Steve brought out the shrink wrapped chicken foot that he's been carrying since Xiahe, and we debated whether not to eat it. The consensus ended up that, since we were running out of beer (only 2 bottles between the group), and because Deb has a particular attachment to chickens from her youth, we decided not to eat it. Fortunately, we'd get another chance later on...
At one point, while debating it, one of the French guys walked by. I said, "Pardon, monsieur...voulez-vous un pied de poulet?" He unsurprisingly declined, and looked at us like we were crazy. Later, while in the passageway, I saw that the Jerry Garcia lookalike (named Michel), was having difficulty ordering a beer, so I translated from French to English, Gary translated from English to Chinese, and eventually, we got a couple of bottles. That was a good introduction, though, and I had an enjoyable half hour or so of chatting with him and his buddies in their compartment while we watched the sun go down (coucher de soleil). I caught most of it, and they were extremely patient with my attempts. Now, though, as a result, every time we see each other, there's a hearty "Bonjour!" between us. Pretty cool.
The night passed with a few stops, but overall, a good rest. We arrived the next morning at Daheyan (about 1100 m elevation), where the train stops. Turpan is at or slightly below sea level, and while it was easy for the train to get down there, it was difficult to get out. So, now it stops about an hour away.
24 May 07
As usual, after the train ride, we went straight to our hotel, and checked in. After a quick shower and breakfast, we headed out for the day. The first stop was at the ruined city of Gauchang. Once a central and important city on the Silk Road, it was also a place where Taoist monk Xuanzang, the first Chinese to travel the Silk Road (to India for Buddhist teachings), was detained by a despotic king. Xuanzang is the inspiration for KY's taking this trip, so it was moving to be in the same city as he had been, long, long ago.
Steve, Gary and I walked while the others took a donkey cart. The weather here in this section of Xinjiang is quite a bit hotter than other places. Just a couple of days ago, we were wearing sweaters in the morning. No need here. Turpan is the land of "mosts" for China. It's the hottest, driest, lowest, and sweetest place in all of China. The sweetest record is for its grapes. They're not ripe yet, but we had the opportunity at the Grape Valley to try a few of the local raisins, buying more later on at the Emin Minaret. Grape Valley is just what it sounds like...a big valley with lots of grapes. It also had a 103 year old man there who's job was to sit around and take pictures with people. I paid my 5 yuan and got a few shots, hopefully allowing him to retire someday.
We spent a half hour or so at the Astana Tombs, as well, which were not quite as interesting as the tombs in Jiayuguan, but had mummies. The desert climate preserves bodies quite well, and apparently, the hair and fingernails continued to grow for a while after their deaths. I didn't notice though.
We made an obligatory stop at a Jade market, and Irene made a small purchase. Steve and I hung out with some of the employees, and as soon as it looked like we were all going to leave, they turned out the lights, and locked the doors. Done for the day, I guess.
The highlight for me was the the Emin Minaret. Constructed in 1777, it is a beautiful example of the Muslim architecture that I have been longing to see on this trip. The minaret is constructed of bricks, and has about 10 different designs as it ascends. Gorgeous. Initially, we tried to go to Uzbekistan, but that idea was nixed due to the security situation there. So, China it was...much easier to get to, and much safer to boot. But, we missed out on Samarkand, Bokhara, and some of the other famous cities of Central Asia. The Emin Minaret is quite similar, though.
Once back at the hotel, we freshened up, and then went out for supper. Gary again ordered way too much food, including a delicious dish of fried beef and bread. This was surprisingly delicious. Who fries bread? Never heard of it before, but it was excellent. We stuffed ourselves so as not to waste any of the good stuff, mainly the mutton. Mmmmmutton. We've had more and more of it as we get farther west.
After supper, Gary went back to the hotel, and the five of us wandered around for a while. The night market was just getting started, and as we walked up, there were two huge buckets of sheep parts boiling on one of the stoves, and emitting a less than delicious smell. Steve and I ended up at the Internet cafe across the street, and I wrote and lost this particular post. Then, back to the hotel.
I gave Melody a call once back there to say goodnight, and while on the phone, the doorbell rang. Steve got up, went to the door and looked through the peephole to find 3 women there. As he cracked the door, I heard one of them say, "Massagee?" "Um...No thanks. Good night" Steve said. Now this is something that I've heard other travelers speak of, but never expected to happen. Quite strange...We're still trying to figure out how they picked our room rather than the two on either side of us, with our other group members. Near as we can figure, they probably were in cahoots with the Silk Road Oasis Hotel (where we were staying), and got our names because we were a couple of guys. Weird, but bloggable.
25 May 07
I woke up this morning at about 6:15, got showered and ready to leave. Left the room for a while to go to the business center, and came back at about 8:30 to find Steve still asleep. Since we were leaving at 9:00, he got moving, and we still made it down to join Irene and KY for breakfast. I saw Michel and his friend Kathi down there, and we chatted briefly. But mostly, it was scarfing down a couple of hard boiled eggs before running up to get our bags and get on the van.
We stopped first at another ruined city, Jiaohe, this one up on top of a plateau, and much better preserved than Gaochang. Jiaohe was a sister city of sorts to Gaochang. The position on top of the willow leaf shaped plateau and between two rivers forms a superb defensive position. One of the most interesting facts about the city is that rather than building structures up with bricks or wood, the structures were constructed by digging down.
We spent a couple of hours there before heading off to visit with a Uighur family. Here we were given funny hats to wear, watermelon and mulberries to eat, and were encouraged to join in on a Uighur dance. Suffice to say, it was less than authentic when we did it. The son and daughter of the family did it much better than we did... Still, it was fun.
After our visit, we left to see the local irrigation systems called Karez. The previous inhabitants used ground water coming down off of the Tien Shen (Heavenly Mountains), and accessed it by digging wells and underground tunnels that channeled the water to the fields. Thus, they are able to grow a range of crops from grapes to melons to wheat and cotton. Pretty incredible. It is truly an oasis. The exhibit was excellent, as it had a number of great displays on how they were constructed, and even had a tunnel dug down to see an actual karez. Apparently, the
Finally, we got on the road for Urumqi. It was a three hour drive or so that took us through a pass in the Flaming Mountains (named so for their red color) and into a valley between China's Dead Sea and the snowcapped Tien Shan mountains. It was a scene straight out of a movie about Central Asia. Which makes sense, since that's where we are. Gorgeous scenery.
We stopped for a late lunch about 40 km from Urumqi at a place serving the local special of chopped up chicken in chilies and garlic. Two huge plates came out, along with others of cabbage and greens. As usual, it was delicious. As we ate, we discovered that they used pretty much the whole chicken, including the feet. Steve, Irene and I all had one. Strange, and not a whole lot of meat there. Mostly just cartilage and gristle. Still, part of the experience.
We finally arrived in town at about 4 PM or so, checked into the hotel, and just relaxed for a while. Steve went out for a wander, and I caught a quick nap. We'll be here until tomorrow, when we head off to see some local sights before flying to Kashgar, the end point of our trip.