BootsnAll Travel Network


February 16th, 2013

After a 3-year absence, Chinateacher Blog is up and running again!  This time, my adventures are taking me to Italy!  Stay Tuned!


Life in China

February 3rd, 2010

I have kept this blog for almost 6 years now, as a kind of non-stop “postcard”.  While I mainly focused on the goods things (just like a postcard), admittedly there are tons of small things that happen on a daily basis that have often driven me crazy!  And this year EVERYTHING seems to be driving me crazy which confirms to me that, yes, it’s time for me to move back home to Canada. 

Yet there are still some really great reasons to live in China!  I can ‘pamper’ myself here for so little money, it’s just wonderful!  For example, my weekly body/foot massages cost just $10.  I can stop by any hair salon to get my hair shampooed and blow-dried – the cost is only $2 including an upper body/scalp massage.  Taxis cost anywhere from $1.5 to $2 depending on one’s destination.  It’s going to be hard to give these luxuries up!  And as a teacher in a Chinese university, I don’t know how I’m going to handle working a regular Monday to Friday office job with only 3 weeks’ vacation time each year.  Here in China, I’ve done my calculations and realize that I’ve been getting about 4 months holiday time each year – how fantastic is that?!  Life has been very good indeed. 

But then there are things that really drive me crazy here… lining up for something in China is a joke – people keep butting in, and no one says, or does, anything about it, even in hospitals!  Shopping is a continual adventure (both good/bad).  One look at a foreign customer, and you’re often charged more than a local customer just ahead of you.  But white faces mean big $$$ to the Chinese!  The excessive, and ear-wrenching SPITTING is something I have never gotten used to.  People here cough up gobs of phlegm – I honestly don’t know why they have so much inside their bodies – I almost gag whenever I hear it and of course the most important thing is to keep out of their way – some people’s aim is not so good!  And then there are the road rules that are never obeyed.  Near-misses are a constant because people dart out of alleyways on foot, on bicyles, in cars and rarely look both ways.  It totally shocks me that so many seem oblivious of the dangers all around them.  I often find myself catching my breath as I see an old man pedal directly into oncoming traffic, or an entire family packed onto an e-bike as it roars out of a backlane and crosses 3 lanes of mainroad, causing drivers to jam on their brakes to avoid hitting them.  And then there are the drivers who are simply inching along; turns out – they’re text messaging and it’s interfering with their driving.  Or the driver who double parks on a major street, jumps out and goes shopping – and nobody does anything about it! AAAGH!

 Another area of increasing concern is the fact that so many internet sites are blocked here: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and who knows, maybe in future GOOGLE.  I’m hoping I won’t be around to see that happen!

Just a few days ago, my former colleague and I were invited to a student’s new home for dinner.  When I arrived, while I noted the room was quite chilly, I gave the host my coat anyway.  However, I quickly realized we would not be moving to another, warmer room, so I had to ask for my coat back.  Less than five minutes later, I donned my gloves.  The student explained that she and her new husband really don’t  find Hangzhou cold enough to warrant heating (that particular night the temperature was -1 degrees Celsius!).  I couldn’t wait for my colleague to arrive and gauge his reaction – I know he keeps the heat on in his apartment 24 hrs. a day (at least I turn mine off when I’m not home!)  Sure enough, when he arrived, he kept his coat on the entire time.  Over dinner, he and I were huddled around the dining room table, glancing at each other and rolling our eyes.  We really couldn’t get warm.  We were just trying to figure out how quickly we could leave without offending our hosts!  We were freezing, despite the fact that we are both from Canada (he from Ottawa/me Vancouver)!  Strangely enough, it did seem warmer once we got outside!   

In the meantime, I sit back and fantasize about my future life in Vancouver.  My needs are simple now: an apartment with central heating, a comfortable sofa, and a television with unlimited English programming – that’s my new dream! When I return home, I will certainly be more thankful for the daily comforts we take for granted in the west.


Ready to Say Goodbye

December 26th, 2009

This is my 6th WINTER in China – unbelievable!   I hate winters in China so much that it’s impossible to believe I have lasted so long.  I can still remember my first winter experience in China, back in 2004/2005.  I was living in a small town near Guangzhou at the time. Guangdong Province is located quite far south of here (close to Hong Kong).  Yet the winters there are very cold and damp – similar to what I experience here in Hangzhou every year. 

The reason these “bone-chilling winters” are so trying for us Westerners is the fact that everyone lives in uninsulated homes.  When the Chinese construct a building, they simply throw up walls of brick and mortar, plaster them over and – voila – your new home is ready!  So, it’s easy to see how someone’s home can be built at a very fast pace indeed, but with no regard for personal comfort.    

Tonight, it’s freezing cold outside.  As I’m writing this email, my apartment heater is on, as is my personal space heater, but it’s still pretty drafty in here.  Before I go to bed tonight, I’ll pre-heat my electric blanket for 30 minutes and then turn off all my heaters when I climb into my personal ‘oven’ – ah, heaven.  Of course, in the middle of the night I’ll have to turn off my electric blanket because I’ll be too warm.  That cheap electric blanket has saved me many a sleepless night over the past few years.  I’m sorry I won’t be able to take it back to Canada with me.

My poor students don’t have the luxury of heat in their dormitories.  For the life of me, I don’t know how they can stand the cold, and it must be difficult for them to focus on their studies.  Everyone tells me they are used to it, but how can a body adjust when temperatures then soar to 40+ degrees come summertime?  It’s bad enough that I have to teach in unheated/unair-conditioned classrooms, but at least I can escape to my comfortable apartment, with its heater and air conditioner!  I will never take such luxuries for granted again, that’s for sure!

Yes, this will definitely be my last year in China.  It’s been a terrific adventure, and one that I truly did not think would span 6 years.  My initial plan was to come to China, teach for 2-3 years while I travel around Asia during the holidays.  How could 6 years pass by so quickly?  Well, now that I teach at a Chinese university, I can easily see why. 

First of all, the school year starts in September and the first of many holidays comes at the beginning of October (7-10 days).  And, just as soon as I get back into the swing of things come mid-October, it’s time to start planning my LONG trip for the Jan/Feb break (usually 5-6 weeks!).  One year I did a trip that involved 2 weeks in Laos, followed by 4 weeks in Vietnam – wow, that was an amazing holiday!  But there’s more: we also get the entire summer off (8-10 weeks).  Life is good, provided that travel through Asia continues to be an economical option.  I remember spending a month in Thailand in 2005 – I couldn’t find ways to spend all my money – Thailand is much cheaper than China!

So, as the months pass by, and my departure date approaches, I am going to take the time to appreciate both the good and bad about living and working in China. 


Labrang Monastery (Xiahe in Gansu Province)

August 26th, 2009


One of my key reasons for visiting Western China was to see Labrang Monastery in Xiahe (Gansu Province).  People say that being here is the closest you can get to feeling like you’re in Tibet, without actually being there!  Labrang Monastery is one of the six major Tibetan monasteries of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The others are Ganden, Sera and Drepung and Tashilhunpo monsteries in Tibet, and Ta’er (Kumbum) Monastery in Qinhai Province.

Outside of Lhasa, Xiahe is considered the leading Tibetan monastery town; many Tibetans come here on pilgrimage.  The town itself looks like a dusty Wild West frontier town, with nomads wandering the streets in their woolen robes (even in July) and one can easily glimpse their daggers underneath.  The town gets so dusty from the winds and sand that each afternoon I would see women sweeping sand from the streets – seems like a losing battle to me. 

Anyway, not too far outside of town is Ganjia Grasslands where one can book horse treks, or simply cycle out there and hope you meet some kind Tibetan nomads who invite you to lunch – Kathleen did!

At Labrang, a 3km Pilgrims’ Way, featuring long rows of prayer wheels (1174 I’m told) and Buddhist shrines, circles the monastery. Walking side-by-side with pilgrims and monks, you truly feel as though you’ve entered a different world.  Many pilgrims walk this route every day; it’s an excellent form of exercise, especially for those who do it as a fast pace.  I often found myself having to step aside, to avoid being run over, as others (many much older than me!) whiz by, giving the prayer wheels a forceful push with their right hand.  My right hand was pretty darn tired from turning so many prayer wheels – I don’t know how they can do it every single day! 

It’s quite interesting to watch how the pilgrims navigate their way along the prayer wheels.  Some spin every prayer-wheel once (like I did), but some skip a few, some spin the larger prayer wheels 3 times, some even longer.  I couldn’t figure out whether there is a ‘correct’ way to go about this.  Along the walls of the monastery, occasionally I would see pilgrims touch certain areas of the wall, rest their forehead on them, or even kiss them.  I felt like I was intruding on a very private and emotional moment whenever they did this.

After walking the prayer-wheel circuit around the monastery, people can walk freely inside the monastery walls, but unfortunately the doors to all the prayer halls and buildings remain closed.  Thankfully, there are guided tours into the monastery buildings conducted by the monks themselves.  They are very worthwhile and give you much insight into the monastery setup and history.

We stayed directly across the street at Tara Guesthouse for just 60 RMB (Double Room Shared Bath).  No showers – had to go across the street to the ‘public showers’ – interesting experience to be sure!  Tara has some cute Tibetan-style rooms and was doing some major renovations while we were there.  Next year you can expect more rooms with bathroom/shower facilities and higher prices, for sure!  We found the staff there to be very friendly and a few speak English, plus you can’t beat the location!  Nomad Restaurant is across the street and most of its customers are Tibetan nomads and monks – great for people-watching, both in the restaurant and down on the street.  For western food, we actually found breakfast to be pretty good at Everest Restaurant.  For lunch or dinner we often enjoyed eating at Snowy Mountain Café, run by a young fellow from the U.S.  The food was okay; we went more for the friendly conversation and to peruse English books and magazines onsite!

We were so lucky to have the chance to visit Xiahe.  The town and its monastery have been closed to travelers for the past year or so.  Permission was granted to foreigners just 2 weeks before we arrived!  Unfortunately, if you’re travelling south from Lanzhou, the bus station still won’t allow you to travel to Xiahe.  The good news is that you can purchase a bus ticket to Linxia and after that it’s easy to travel onward to Xiahe.  Travelling north, like we did, presented no problems, other than the usual ID check on the highway – I should be getting used to that by now, I guess.


My trip to Xinjiang and Western Sichuan was full of surprises, hardships and pitfalls.  But through it all, we learned a lot about ourselves and met some pretty amazing people.  My advice to all of you is to go and see Western China before they bulldoze it over into modern, over-populated concrete and glass cities.  It’s truly an amazing place!


Western Sichuan (Zoige/Ruoergai and Langmusi)

August 16th, 2009


I didn’t like Zoige/Ruoergai very much because quite frankly, the rough-looking Tibetan nomads looked pretty scary to me.  Most wear traditional ‘chorpas’ (long-sleeved Tibetan coats) and many cover their faces as if they’re afraid of being recognized.  The official reason for this, I was told, is that face covers are to shield them from heavy winds and cold (yeah, right, in July?!).

In Zoige, we stayed in the smallest hotel room ever, with no windows or air ventilation.  No showers onsite, but at least there’s a common toilet down the hall, filthy, but usable.  No worries for us, as we planned to leave the next morning for Langmusi.  I know it was only one night, but I just couldn’t sleep in that room; I felt claustrophobic there.  Eventually, I did find a way to relax and get some sleep, by keeping the door open to the hallway to get some fresh air – I took a chance on our safety for sure, but it was the only way I could get some much needed sleep!


Kathy and I are in full agreement that LANGMUSI was our favourite destination in Western Sichuan, by far! First of all, it is situated on the border of Gansu and Sichuan Provinces, and is home to two monasteries: Sezhi Monastery in Sichuan Province, and Geerdeng Monastery in Gansu Province. Langmusi is really special in that to the west you have alpine scenery, and to the east: grasslands as far as the eye can see. Its surrounding countryside is dotted with temples, caves and hills, some of which are used for sky burials (you don’t want to know!). The scenery is really outstanding and excellent for long walks and hikes.

Sana Hotel was our home in Langmusi, boasting the cleanest public bathrooms and showers I have ever seen!  There is a young 14-year-old boy there who magically appears after you leave the bathroom and, voila, it’s clean again – amazing!  Showers are restricted to evenings when hot water is available, as it is dependant on solar heating to generate enough heat from the day.  We found this method of power is common in many villages throughout Western Sichuan.  Solar energy is used for electricity, hot water.  Most restaurants have a huge solar panel out front to heat everyone’s tea.

Speaking of restaurants, there’s a bit of everything on offer here: Sichuan cuisine, Lanzhou noodles, western food, and of course Tibetan food.  At Ali’s Restaurant we enjoyed a wonderful yak and potato dish – I have to admit that yak tastes pretty damn good!  We found Talo Restaurant to be the best choice for breakfast: fresh yogurt and fresh bread!  It was so good in fact, that after a few disappointments elsewhere, we ate breakfast at Talo every day after that.  Nomad’s Hostel has great potential.  Right now it has a great bar and atmosphere.  If they had kitchen facilities and could offer a food menu, I would probably head there on a daily basis.  Let’s hope that happens real soon!

Langmusi is a one main street town, packed with restaurants.  Delicious fresh bread is available everywhere from stands and street carts.  But our favourite spot is on one of the few side streets.  Amdo Crafts is a coffee shop featuring homemade desserts such as banana cake, carrot cake, cookies and muffins.  The owner created a warm and welcoming environment by playing background music, providing books/magazines to read and she also markets handicrafts made by Qinghai’s local people.  It’s such a wonderful place to escape to that we did, each and every day we were in Langmusi!

One of the highlights of Langmusi is that monks are part of daily life here.  You see monks everywhere: on the monastery grounds, around town, in the mountains, you name it.  One evening, we even got to observe monk debates – check out my photos!  Earlier, while the monks were in the prayer hall chanting, two other monks waved my friend and I over, asking us to help them carry something heavy over to the prayer hall.  I couldn’t figure out why they asked us instead of two strong guys, but hey, we’re always open to new opportunities, right?  And it paid off well for us too!  The monks took us into the building through a side door and we found ourselves in an immense prayer hall.  They said that if we agreed not to take any pictures, we could take our time and look around – it was a really amazing place.  One of the monks then guided us around the complex, explaining many of the Tibetan images and statues, as well as outlining some of the Tibetan monks’ daily routines and obligations.  Understanding little, we both realized we have a lot of research to do when we return home.  Later, while watching the monk debates, we talked about our earlier experience.  Once again, we fully appreciated the fact we were travelling independently, rather than with a tour group.  We were the only ones to get a personal tour of the prayer hall! 


Western Sichuan (Tibetan Villages: Kangding & Danba)

August 10th, 2009

I am going to borrow the following quote from Lonely Planet-China’s Northwest:  
To the north and west of Chengdu is where green tea becomes butter tea, Confucianism yields to Buddhism and gumdrop hills leap into jagged snow-capped peaks.  Much of the area in Western Sichuan kisses the sky at between 4000m and 5000m high. 

Today we began the first of many bus trips to Tibetan towns and villages in Western Sichuan.  For me, this is Tibet without the ‘official’ border and all its hassles.  I learned later, firsthand, that many of the roads we travelled are considered to be some of the highest, roughest, most dangerous yet most beautiful roads.  They’re right.  I can’t believe how many times our buses had to stop for goats, horses, yaks, rockslides, small rivers, and yes areas where much of the roadbed had simply ‘slid away’ during a recent heavy rain (I learned later that one of those roads subsequently became impassable after another heavy rainfall hit a few days later).

I discovered that summers in Western Sichuan are blistering hot by day, with severe sunburns resulting due to the high altitude, and then the temperature drops dramatically at night, requiring sweaters and even heavy coats.  This would explain why in just one day I got a horrific sunburn and came down with a nasty cold!

Security is also pretty strict in this region.  On every single bus trip, we had to stop at road checks.  And, at every single road check, our bus was delayed because of me.  I was the sole foreigner and therefore the police simply had to doublecheck my identification every time.  At one highway checkpoint they even took my passport away, driving 10 minutes to their ‘office’ supposedly to scan it.  Needless to say, I was terrified I might not get it returned to me.  But I did get it back, thankfully, because later when we arrived in the town of Maerkang, I found two police officers waiting for me.  Oh yes, they had been contacted and now we had our own personal escort into town.  They wanted me to stay in a ‘foreigner-approved’ hotel, but we explained that a 4-5 Star hotel simply wasn’t within our budget.  We finally did locate a ‘suitable’ hotel that satisfied all parties and the officers left us, relieved to know that we intended to leave first thing the next morning to continue our travels.  They kept telling me this VIP service was simply for my ‘personal safety’, yet they left us alone for the remainder of the evening, when anything could have happened, right?  So strange!

KANGDING was our first stop west of Sichuan (9 hrs. by bus).  We stayed at Sally’s Knapsack Hotel and discovered it was ideally located right next to a Tibetan Monastery – how lucky for us!  We planned to simply stay just one night and continue on to Litang, but surprise surprise, the people at the bus station would not sell me a bus ticket.  “Litang is not open to foreigners”, I was told.  Now I probably could have found another way to get there (probably pricier too), but since this was early in our trip, and given how things have gone so far, I elected to give Litang a ‘pass’ and instead continue on to our next destination, Danba.  But we were told no tickets were available for the next morning’s bus.  Usually there is just one bus per day, but we were advised to come back in the morning and maybe, just maybe they will schedule another bus to Danba.  This turned out to be a good advice because we got tickets on a 2:30pm bus to Danba – yahoo!  Unfortunately, we were on the bus trip from hell!  6 hours felt more like 10 hours – we ran into every single problem I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  And although I took my motion-sickness medicine, I still felt like crap when we arrived – not a good way to start our visit to this charming area.


The area around Danba is considered to be one of the jewels of Western Sichuan.  The town itself is nothing special, set in a valley surrounded by mountains.  But it is the numerous Tibetan and Qiang villages perched on the hillsides that are really worth seeing!  What sets this area apart are the striking Qiang Watchtowers, the homes’ architecture style and the exquisite scenery.  It’s absolutely gorgeous!  Many of the watchtowers were originally erected as checkpoints, protecting villages during war; fires lit on the towers’ rooftops would warn surrounding villages of impending attacks.  Nowadays these watchtowers are primarily used for storage.  Both Tibetan and Qiang homes are 3-storeys; the lower floor is for livestock, the middle for living quarters and the top floor is for storing grain and drying crops. 

During our time in Danba we got to visit three villages, Zhonglu, Jiaju and Suopo.  My personal favourite was Zhonglu because it is a little more unspoilt than popular Jiaju.  The scenery at all three villages is quite spectacular and we found everyone very friendly and welcoming to us. In Suopo I met three beautiful young girls who invited me into their home.  They all come from the same family and have been, or are, attending university!  Living off the land has definitely provided the people here with a good life, it seems, although I’m sure they must work very hard for it.  A wide variety of fruit trees seems to grow everywhere, and homeowners grow their own food and raise livestock.  Most people seem to have even found the time and effort to grow their own flowers to further beautify their home environments.  And unlike most Chinese kitchens I have seen, Tibetan and Qiang kitchens are absolutely spotless!  Check out my photos!

In Danba we had a really nice room (with private bathroom) at the Danba Friends of Nature Youth Hotel (Tel: 0836-3522006).  I highly recommend it.  We also met a nice young guy from Chengdu who dragged us along one night to one of Danba’s local dance/singing clubs. Rather than present flowers when someone is singing, apparently it is Tibetan custom to drape a white silk scarf around the singer’s neck.  I think this is a whole lot nicer than thrusting bouquets of flowers into a singer’s arms to the point where she/he has trouble holding onto their mic!  Sadly, our new friend’s trip back to Chengdu took almost 36 hours because the road washed away during a recent rainfall and his bus was forced to take a very long and arduous detour!  Expect the unexpected, they say!


Chengdu (Sichuan Province)

August 10th, 2009

I love Chengdu, having visited several years ago.  So it was my pleasure to show Kathleen around.  Although my favourite downtown hostel, Holly’s Hostel, wasn’t available the first nite, I made sure to arrive early the next day to secure us a room for the remainder of our stay.   I love this place because it is located in the ‘Tibetan’ quarter of Chengdu and close to many interesting sights.

Holly’s restaurant serves excellent western food and as a result, I kicked off each morning with a perfectly toasted bacon/egg sandwich.  Kathy developed a taste for toasted fried egg sandwiches and said she couldn’t wait to make them at home – success!

Now, Sichuan food in Chengdu is the exact opposite of Xinjiang food, ie SPICY!!! I don’t normally like spicy food but I have to say that I developed a taste for Sichuan Noodles – yes, they’re damn spicy, but man they taste good, even while they’re burning up your mouth!  I also enjoyed Mango Ice: Tons of chopped up mangoes served atop crushed ice – fantastically good!

We did all the requisite ‘touristy’ things in Chengdu, visited the Pandas where we can into Matthew (from our visit to Kashgar), enjoyed tea at Renmin Park’s famous outdoor teahouse, went to see Sichuan Opera which featured ‘shadow puppets’, facemask-changing, and opera of course!  Another highlight of the show was the way in which our waitresses served tea – from 3 feet away with long-spouted teapots, in the dark!  Amazing!

As with most hostels, we met lots of great people:  We made good friends with Anda from Ireland, some girls from Spain, a young guy from Guangzhou… and best of all we met a young professor from Vancouver!  Turns out that he was staying at Holly’s for an extended period to do some research on Tibetan literature.  This man is passionate about his work, which I thoroughly admire.  He gave us tons of advice about the Tibetan villages we planned to see and even cautioned us about what to do if we experienced any ‘high altitude’ problems due to the fact that many places were located 3,000-4,500 metres above sea level.  Pills help, he said; he even gave us a supply of our own.  I am deeply thankful, although I only used them once (when I was having trouble breathing one day).

I showed Kath some of my favourite places in Chengdu: The “Bookworm”, a fantastic place which labels itself a Library, Bookshop, Bar, Restaurant and Local Community Centre.  They also have locations in Beijing and Suzhou and, hopefully soon: Hangzhou!  She was impressed!  Dinner at Peter’s Tex-Mex introduced my good friend to some Texan and Mexican foods: a Burger and Burritos!  I think she was more impressed with the Burrito than the burger, frankly, but I thoroughly enjoyed them both!  The highlight of the meal came when we learned that desserts are 1/2 price after 8pm; we had just finished our entrees by 8pm – how lucky were we?!?!  A huge hunk of dark chocolate cake certainly made my day!  I haven’t had cake like that in over 5 years – fantastic!

We had a wonderful visit to Wenshou Temple and its environs, and then came across the most wonderful sidewalk teahouse, purely by accident.  Tea cost just 10 RMB, but with that tea came the most comfortable wicker chairs, large enough to fall asleep in, and looking around us we could see that many of the local people did just that.  What a relaxing way to spend our final afternoon in Chengdu!


Kashgar – Part II (Xinjiang Province)

August 10th, 2009

Back in Kashgar again, we took the opportunity the next day to visit Abakh Hoja Tomb (along with Juin and Kathleen). At first glance it seems to resemble a miniature Taj Mahal. It is also called the “Fragrant Concubine’s Tomb”. Located on the outskirts of Kashgar, it was wonderful to wander around its extensive grounds in such a peaceful setting. But then again, given its remote location, it was impossible to find a taxi back into town when we were done. Lucky for us, we were able to catch a ride on one of the local buses at the very beginning of its route! Kathleen used this opportunity to approach every local person on board, asking to take their photo. She looked so eager that no one had the heart to say “no” to her. Needless to say, she’s going to come out of this trip with some pretty amazing pictures!

Our bus passed by Kashgar’s famous Market, so we decided to hop off and check it out. Although it wasn’t Sunday, apparently Kashgar’s “Sunday Market” is open 7 days a week, becoming much larger on Sundays. The market wasn’t too busy this day which worked to our advantage: the locals were happy to take time and chat with us; some could speak a little English or some Chinese (or variation of it). I would have to say that Kashgar’s market is similar to most Chinese markets, but it includes extensive quantities of beautiful carpets!

When we started this trip, I was hoping to find that authentic Xinjiang food was much better than that found in my city of Hangzhou. Some restaurants in Kashgar have already proven that, serving up dishes that were simply “so so”. I’m talking lots of mutton, bread, and potatoes – bland, bland, bland. Thankfully, we finally found a great outdoor diner right across the street from our hotel serving up juicy kebabs, tasty noodles with vegetables, and naan flatbread, all for just 13 RMB! (Around $2). Yummy!

On Sunday, many of us planned to visit the ‘big’ Sunday Market, but were disappointed to hear that it, as well as the Animal Market, had been closed down by police, fearing a repeat of violence similar to the riots that took place in Urumqi one week earlier.   (I found out later that they didn’t actually ‘close’ them; they simply asked people from the local villages not to come into town). 

So instead, I spent most of the day at John’s Café, updating my travel notes, and chatting with a few new friends. Kathy went for a bike ride, so I finally headed out into the streets to see what shops might be open. The Id Kah Mosque was still closed (it had been closed since Monday after the Urumqi riots, fearing it would be a target here in Kashgar). Even though I was able to see it clearly from across the street, I was not permitted to take even one photo! I actually never did get a chance to do any shopping (some shops were thankfully open), because a huge sand storm blew in, forcing me back to John’s Café at my hotel!

The police presence in Kashgar seemed to be getting heavier, by the day. This morning I saw a huge convoy of soldiers streaming through town. I also learned that there were some disturbances on Friday night which resulted in several deaths.  I thought: Oh my god, it’s happening again!

What helped me to ultimately make the decision to leave the Province of Xinjiang altogether, was the news that on Sunday, drivers bringing back their tourists from Karakuli Lake were prevented from entering Kashgar city (and they LIVE there!). While tourists were permitted to enter the city, the drivers were not! Our next two destinations were supposed to be Kuqa and Turpan; I had heard a rumour that some of the fighters from Urumqi had fled to these towns. The riots in Urumqi were between Hui and Han Chinese. My friend is Han Chinese. She and I have been lucky twice; I wasn’t going to chance it a third time!

We will be sad to leave Kashgar. Instead, we’re off to Chengdu in Sichuan Province to sample their wonderful teahouses, enjoy some Sichuan Opera, see the Pandas and travel to some fantastic Tibetan Villages to experience their culture! My budget is in the ‘toilet’ now because of all these unplanned flights, but our safety comes first! And we’re going to have a great holiday adventure, no matter what!


KARAKULI LAKE (Near Kashgar)

August 4th, 2009

The next day was our big overnight adventure to KARAKULI LAKE, a highland lake at 3600 metres, sitting below the majestic Pamir mountains between Kashgar and the border town of Tashkurgan (the border town between China and Pakistan). This place was definitely one of the major highlights during our 30-day trip.   

The drive up to Karakuli Lake was absolutely amazing.  Poor Ali, our driver.  We made him stop the car too many times so we could jump out to take photos.  Ali is a Xinjiang Uigher who picked up his Chinese through conversations with his Chinese friends, rather than through books.  We loved the way he spoke Chinese and Kathleen became quite adept at imitating his accent.  Three of us made the trip: Kathleen and I, and Juin, a young Chinese guy from Shanghai we met at John’s Café, of course! 

Around the lake itself, small pockets of Khirghiz people living in yurts provide tourists with an interesting night’s stay in Karakuli Lake.  Facilities are extremely ‘basic’, which means no heat at night (and due to the high altitude, it’s damn cold, even in July!), and no bathrooms, preferring instead a ‘natural’ environment. 

The scenery here is absolutely stunning!  There is no pollution, so colours are much more vivid: the sky a bright blue, blazing against the snow-covered Pamir mountains overlooking the lake.  And it’s so quiet there; the sound of the quiet practically ‘roars’ in your ears! Because we had planned an overnight stay at the lake, we were able to spend the entire afternoon and evening relaxing, soaking in the incredible scenery and observing how the local people spend their time.  It’s a very simple life, centered around preparing food and cooking/cleaning it, washing clothes and carpets, and caring for the animals.  The women never seem to take a moment away from their work, busy from the moment they wake up, to the moment they go to bed.  Everyone’s skin is dry and chapped; one can easily see that the environment is very harsh.  I truly couldn’t believe how cold the night was, considering it was July, the middle of summer!  Thankfully, we were given many heavy blankets in our Yurt Tent to keep the cold out. 

Kathleen had a blast.  For the very first time she got to ride a horse, and then the next morning – a camel.  It was a fantastic experience for her!  We got to try Milk Tea that was so damn salty I thought I would gag!  But it does help fight high altitude symptoms.  Instead of eating Yak for dinner, we actually had a vegetarian meal of vegetables and rice, and bread – really very good too!  The high altitude didn’t seem to bother Kathleen a bit, but I did have a little trouble breathing whenever I exerted myself.  I had to practice relaxing my breathing in order to have some control.

Well, it turned out that security precautions do exist, even up here in the mountains.  Late in the afternoon, an officer came to our camp, asking us to please come to the PSB Office, a mile away.  There, we were required to show identification and to register.  Strangely enough, they kept Kathleen and Juin’s permission papers that they had obtained to travel to Karakuli Lake, saying we could pick them up the next morning.  (Yes, the Chinese have to obtain formal permission papers before travelling to Karakuli Lake, but foreigners are okay with their passports, again – go figure)!  Luckily we had no trouble picking up their papers the next morning.  Our drive back to Kashgar was quite relaxing with the exception of several roadblocks before entering the city.  Soldiers and police scrutinized everyone’s ID cards, even the drivers – more to come about that!

 In closing, Karakuli Lake is one of the most beautiful, unspoilt places I have ever seen.  Check out my photos and you’ll agree. 


Kashgar – Part I (Xinjiang Province)

August 4th, 2009

Our plane from Urumqi to Kashgar was filled to barely 1/3 capacity, so Kathleen grabbed the opportunity to wander around, taking photos of the spectacular scenery through the windows along both sides of the airplane. We had clear visibility throughout most of the flight which was absolutely fantastic!

After arriving in Kashgar, as the only passengers on the airport bus, our driver elected to drop us off directly in front of our home for the next few days, the Seman Hotel.  After our experience in Urumqi, we felt like we had arrived in Paradise!  The Seman Hotel, formerly a Soviet Consulate, features such exquisitely detailed architecture, it absolutely blew me away!  Soft beds, and a hot shower (24 hrs hot water) added to our bliss!  Best of all was John’s Café, where we plowed through many meals and met some fantastic travel mates from all around the world! 

Our very first day in the café, we met Jane, a British woman, travelling alone through Western China, with no knowledge of Chinese, truly a brave woman!  Then we met Stephanie (California), and Mathew (Ireland).  After some great conversation, the group of us decided to head out and explore Kashgar’s “Old City”, a fantastic experience!  We wandered through the old streets seeing firsthand the local Uigher people making bagels, naan flatbreads, selling melons, repairing shoes, shaving heads, etc. 

On their handicraft street we spent time in a music shop where we learned that Jane has some musical talent.  The shopkeeper introduced her to a local Uigher string instrument and then demonstrated a variety of instruments for us by playing some songs on each one.  Turns out that he makes all the musical instruments in that shop, plus he can play them all – amazing!  Copper cookware is another specialty but we were surprised to see that even very young boys around 9-10 years of age are involved in creating the intricate copper designs. 

Kashgar’s knife shops turned out to be a big surprise to me.  I mean, I have no interest in knives, or so I thought!  But who would have imagined there could be so many different styles and designs of beautiful knives!  I really don’t need one, but eventually decided to purchase one for my male colleague, one that he can actually use in preparing foods – he loves to cook!  He has kindly let me store all my things in his apartment this summer so it’s the least I can do.  NOTE:  I got through two airports with this knife in my checked baggage, but at Lanzhou Airport, they confiscated my knife.  People: please understand that if you purchase a knife in Kashgar, you will run the chance of not being able to bring it back home!  I was terribly upset to lose that knife, believe me!

During the afternoon, many children kept running up to us, begging us to photograph them so they can see the results in our cameras’ display windows.  I kept looking around, expecting to be pulled aside and told we had to cough up some money for such pictures, but no one seemed to notice, or even care.  Bonus for us!  Mathew decided that his ultimate souvenir would be a shave at one of the local barbershops, a steal for just 2 RMB!  He came out, minus his beard, a large white space on his face surrounded by his sunburned neck and forehead – quite a sight! 

Kashgar’s city streets are quite dry and dusty, so soon parched, Mathew suggested we follow him to his hostel which was located nearby, for some liquid refreshment.  Entering the hostel, we found ourselves in a courtyard centered around a huge pool table!  The temperature was dramatically cooler in the hostel, much more comfortable indeed.  After a game, a few beers and some naan flatbread, we felt ready to head home to our soft beds at the Seman Hotel.  A truly great first day in Kashgar!  Urumqi is already feeling like a distant memory – we feel so safe here!  Stay tuned!