Friday, June 08, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 17-18 Kashgar to Beijing, 28-29 May 07

27 May 07

After lunch, we took our short break, Steve and I first dropping around back to see the former British Consulate, still on the grounds of the Qini Bagh hotel. It was an antique looking place, but with laundry and Uighur workers hanging all over the balconies. A little underwhelming, frankly.

After that, we wandered down the street looking for the now familiar characters indicating an internet café for a quick chance to update the outside world via emails and the blog.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long, and within about 100m, we found one. We had to bypass the Caravan Café, though, as it was undergoing a management change. I’d looked at their website during the planning phase, as they offered tours and ticket services. I was possibly going to get our return to Beijing tickets through them, but Peregrine had an add on feature that took care of it for us.

So, after a few minutes on the computer, we headed back to the hotel to link up with the group for an afternoon tour of the old part of town, ending up at the Mosque in the center of the city.

The old part of any town is always one of the highlights anywhere I travel. You get the feeling of stepping back in time, and this was no exception. We also had a rare opportunity to stop at a home under construction. A fairly typical home, though obviously a well off family, the workers were in the middle of plastering walls and putting up expensive looking molding. It was a courtyard style, with rooms around the edges, and about a 5m x 5m space in the center. There was also a stairway to a second floor, and roof access as well. While we looked around, our local guide explained what we were seeing.

After a few minutes there, the real fun began…we started running into all the little kids who lived on the block. They would see us coming down their street, and shyly peek from the doorways and side alleys. We persuaded a few to come out, and once we shot a couple of pictures of them and showed them on the displays, they started to be camera hogs, posing and making faces. It was great fun for everyone, and we got a lot of classic pictures.

Finally, we emerged from the labyrinthine alleyways of the old town onto one of the main shopping streets. This area was a bit more like the classic market area, with bakers (nan bread, baked in a pit oven, so fresh it blistered our fingers), juice filtered through big blocks of suspiciously dirty ice (we opted out…), hat mongers, household goods…just about everything one would need. And a lot of great, character filled faces. I took a picture of one guy, and he wrote down his address so I could send him a copy. Unfortunately, it’s all in Uighur, so I hope he checks the blog.

We emerged onto the large square facing the mosque. Just in front, was a touristic photo opportunity with a camel. Just behind the booth where you would pay for the opportunity to have a picture taken with the said camel was a baby camel. There is nothing cuter in this world than a baby camel. Even the baby pugs seen in Xian weren’t this cute. Unfortunately, as cute as they are, baby camels don’t smell very cute.

We spent a half hour or so wandering around the grounds of the mosque after the walk through the old part of town. It's always interesting to me to see the inside of mosques. Even though technically an infidel, I've been fortunate to have been able to visit mosques all over the world, from the US to Egypt and now China. Never saw any in Saudi Arabia...visiting any there would have been totally out of the question, and considering what was going on during my time there, dangerous and stupid.

The mosque grounds were cool and shady, and we had a nice few minutes wandering around. Abdul gave us a brief history of the mosque, and for a short period of time, we talked around the various tenets of our respective faiths (Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism all being represented). Before things got too controversial though, we headed on our way.

Next, we continued our wandering through some of the market streets. We stopped to some woodworking, metalworking, and other crafts. Even got to see some guys dealing dope. Strange that they'd do that right out in the open.

Finally, we headed back to the Qinibagh to get ready for our farewell supper. We got in our best and least sweaty clothes, and headed across the street to a Chinese restaurant where we had a small private room reserved just for us. Coincidentally, in the next room were our French friends. I popped in to say hello/goodbye, and Michel took the opportunity to introduce me to the larger group. After a (very) few words, we drank toasts to enduring Franco-American friendship with each of a red, white, and rose Chinese wine (all quite bad), and sang a few bars of The Star Spangled Banner and La Marseillaise before saying farewell. I returned to the Peregrine group and we shared a nice dinner while reminiscing on some of our favorite moments.

After supper, we all went back to pack up and get ready to go. We had an early departure to catch our flight back to Beijing. As it so happened, Gary, KY, Irene, Steve and I would all be traveling back together. Deb was catching a flight through Urumqi to Shanghai where she was going to spend a few more days before going home.

28 May 07

Traveling light is didn't take long to get packed up, and we even had a chance to once again sample the Qinibagh's mediocre breakfast before linking up with Abdul for the trip to the airport.

We all headed there together, and except for me overlooking the fact that I'd put the Tibetan knife purchased in Turpan at the bottom of my pack (requiring me to take 3 extra trips through the X-ray machine) and trying to laugh off my forgetfulness with a humorless security guy, it was relatively smooth. On the other side of security, we all got together to spend a few last minutes before Deb boarded her flight to Urumqi and then Shanghai. We hoped we'd see her at the stop, but just in case, all traded hugs. As it turned out, we didn't run into her again, so it was good that we did.

Finally, our flight arrived, taxied up to the tarmac, and dumped its load of passengers onto the concrete. After a few minutes, we all headed out into the sunny morning to queue up for boarding. Since they had steps at either end, we headed for the aft stairs and waited for about 10 minutes before they decided not to board that side. So, the mass of people moved to the front, and finally, we got on, and said goodbye to Kashgar.

The flight from Kashgar wasn't too long, and flew over the Taklamakan Desert, one of the most inhospitable places on earth. The saying is that "Taklamakan" means, "If you go in, you don't come out." Had we more time, taking the bus back through the desert to Urumqi would have been an interesting trip. Ahh, well...there's something to do later.

We got back to Urumqi, and had to claim our bags and recheck them. I took a couple of minutes to move the knives from the bottom of my bag closer to the top, only to have the security guys not even pay them a second glance as the bags were zapped. Still, if I hadn't done that, it would have been sure to get searched.

We spent about 2 hours in the airport before boarding again for the trip to Beijing. The 4 hour trip was a reminder of just how huge China is...and most of the terrain below us was Gobi Desert, nearly all the way to Beijing.

Finally, we made it to the capital. We waited for about an hour while the bag conveyor was clogged with some idiot's bag. It got to the point that the Chinese travelers were so impatient that guys were climbing down the baggage chute to try to grab their bags. Steve was one of them, and was the only one to get read the riot act for doing so. Eventually, they shunted bags to one of the other carousels, while they unjammed the one we stood at. As it turns out, I think that the idiot mentioned above was me, as when I finally did get my rucksack, the top carrying handle had been cut. It perhaps was what gummed up the works.

Bags in hand, we walked out to the curb. Here, we said goodbye to Gary, who had been kind enough to make sure that we got into a cab going the right way. KY and Irene were with us too, and we all headed back to the Qianmen Hotel we stayed in when we first arrived in China. It seemed like a long time ago, but it was fun to come back to an area that we'd gotten to know pretty well.

After dropping off our bags in the rooms, we all went around the corner into the Hutong behind the hotel for a bite at the hotpot place. They didn't have any good tables, though, just ones in the shadows, so we opted for the place next door, serving the same food, but with a nice, roadside table. We spent the next hour or so boiling our supper and reminiscing on the trip. Finally, appetites from a long day's traveling were satiated, and we went back to the hotel to turn in.

The four of us were in a cab by about 5 AM headed for the airport. There, we said goodbye to KY and Irene, and eventually, it was back to just us two. We split up for some wandering around before meeting back at the gate to board. I spent my last few yuan on some assorted chocolates for Melody, and brought back just enough for souvenirs.

Before long, we were arriving in Narita, negotiating immigration and customs, and boarding the bus for the 2 hour trip back to Zama (nearly the same period of time it took to fly from Beijing). Once there, I found my car, and drove home.

It had been a long trip, an epic journey that took us to what felt like the back of beyond. I took over 4000 pictures during the trip, made some great new friends, saw things I'll probably never see before, and took away a whole lot of memories. But, as I hugged Melody, it felt even better to be home again.