The next stop on our journey through western China (we being Sarah, myself and my parents in case you haven’t been keeping up) was Urumqi. Urumqi is the capital of and largest city in China’s Xinjiang province. And, in my imagination at least, Xinjiang is where the Silk Road really begins (despite the fact that we’d been travelling along its path for over 1000km already.)
Xinjiang is where central China, Han China, has really and truly vanished. It’s the largest province in China. And despite the Chinese government’s recent efforts to encourage migration there, it’s still predominantly peopled by Uighurs, Muslim people who have more in common culturally and linguistically with Turkey than they do with central China. As if to make this even clearer, the city’s name can’t actually be written or said in Chinese, so it’s been transliterated as Wulumuqi, which is even funnier sounding than it’s actual name
We arrived in Urumqi early in the morning with a hotel reservation but little idea of how to get there (or, indeed, where it was in relation to the train station.) It took a bit of doing to find a driver who would agree to anything that sounded like a reasonable fare (some wanted 80RMB or so, which was a bit steep given that a 150km trip through the desert with no guarantee of a return fare for the driver cost 200) or even admit that they knew the address (which was on a fairly major street.) Eventually we found a guy who not only agreed to take us there, but used the meter without being asked. When we got to our destination I tried vigorously to get him to keep the change from a 10 yuan note on an 8 yuan fare, but he absolutely refused. It just goes to show that, though I often regard them as my eternal nemeses, I ought to give (some) taxi drivers a bit more credit.
Mud walled ruins of 1400 year old Jiaohe City near Turpan
Emerging into the bright morning sunlight (and local transport chaos) from Urumqi railway station
Arrived and checked in to our hotel by 08:30, it was immediately time for Sarah and I to get to work. Our primary purpose for being in Urumqi wasn’t actually to visit or see anything, but to obtain our visas for Kyrgyzstan, the country after China on our itinerary. This was easier said than done. We looked up the address and got directions from Google Maps. We caught the bus out there, but found no sign of the place. Given that the location we’d based our directions on was a little hazy we walked up and down the motorway service road, tried asking people about the consulate or the “Central Asia Hotel,” which it was meant to be near, all to no effect. The most helpful response we managed was “no, no hotels anywhere near here.”
We’d all but given up hope, but decided to have one last crack at it by flagging down a taxi and asking the driver to take us there. We drove up and down the street a few times, still to no avail. I kind of sort of thought that I maybe remembered the street number, and kind of sort of had a hazy memory of the hotel name in Chinese, so asked the driver about these. He thought for a moment and said that there was a hotel that went by that name a couple of years ago several km south but on the same street. We decided to give it a shot and lo, he dropped us right in front of the Central Asia Hotel. We thanked him profusely and my opinion of taxi drivers in China took another step upward.
Despite having arrived, we still weren’t hopeful. We’d read that the consulate was open for visa applications from 10AM ’til noon and it was now 11:54 AM. The security guard for the hotel pointed us next door to closed doors of the consulate where we discovered that, lo, we were wrong about the hours too and it actually opened at noon.
Success at last! Sarah in front of the (fairly nondescript) Kyrgyz consulate in Urumqi
Once we’d got all this sorted it was actually quite simple and straightforward. The guy at the consulate spoke fine English and asked us to fill out the applications, write a short letter explaining where we hoped to go and what we planned to do in Kyrgyzstan. We handed them back to him with our passport photocopies and photos. He even got the next customer to take us to the nearby bank and help us pay our application fees.
We finished our mission with a bit of exploration of the MASSIVE home decorating/furnishings sales centre next door. The place contained hundreds of individual showrooms, all of which were signed in Chinese and Russian. We were even mistaken for Russians. Which made sense, given our proximity to Russian speaking Kazakhstan and Russia itself, and the fact that the furnishings on display looked like just the gaudy sorts of things that Russian oligarchs would decorate with. We had a great lunch from the buffet carts in the “food hall” before making our way back to the hotel, very much later than planned but successful in our endeavours at least.
The exterior of the home decor sale centre
And one of the seriously over-the-top shops inside. This one sold doors and door frames (of course!)
Picking out dishes for lunch at the food hall. Xinjiang Chinese (as opposed to Uighur) cuisine was some of my favourite in the country. Spicy, but without massive quantities of numbing pepper like in Sichuan. Kind of like the food we enjoyed so much in Hunan province
A pedestrian underpass near the home furnishings centre. Tradespeople collected around the place, bringing their tools and signs outlining their skills along, so you saw plenty of people with concrete core drills, wood saws and jackhammers sitting in the shade outside waiting for clients
We spent the rest of the afternoon resting before finally heading out for a look around our neighbourhood and for dinner in the early evening.
I was delighted by what we found. Being the capital and the best connected transport-wise, Urumqi is the most Sino-fied place in Xinjiang. And from what we’d seen earlier in the day it really looked pretty much like any other medium sized Chinese city. But entirely by chance we’d hit the jackpot and found the (for all we knew) only neighbourhood in the city that had strong Uighur character. Behind our hotel was a large mosque with a lovely green dome and similar coloured tops on its minarets (no Chinese architecture here… This was pure central Asia!) Ten minutes or so walk away was the big Erdaoqiao tourist market, centred on a modern brick minaret (a replica of an ancient one in Uzbekistan, but with the addition of an elevator inside.) The rest of the market contained a modern grocery store (good for buying large, cold bottles of iced tea) and stalls selling clothing (“Made in Turkey” was an oddly big deal) and desert goods such as dates, raisins and nuts.
The replica minaret at the centre of Erdaoqiao
Far better than this, however, was the group of three or so streets nearby that were positively bursting with life and activity. This was a very firmly Uighur neighbourhood. Most of the women wore brightly coloured hijabs, many of the men prayer caps. The goods for sale were fascinating and again different from what you’d see anywhere else in China. This was typified by the food:
Hand scooped ice cream, churned in a big drum right next to the seller, then piled into a sweet, sticky white tower.
Big chunky lamb kebabs. Available elsewhere in the country, but nowhere did they look or smell as delicious as here.
Bread! Real bread! Bread had been getting more readily available as we moved west, but here it met its apotheosis. Of the many styles that came out of the tandoors out in front of the shops, the best were those that were dead ringers for bagels. Thick, heavy buns with a hole in the middle, sesame seeds on top and a delicious bit of rock salt (apparently it’s used to line the ovens) on the bottom.
Yogurt. Again, we’d seen this elsewhere, but here it wasn’t just little packages, but big tubs full of it that were ladeled out into ceramic bowls.
Scorpions. I don’t know if these were actually for sale, but we saw a big crowd gathered around a guy with a big plastic bowl full of scorpions. He’d cover his hands in them and display these to the crowd. I hope for his sake that he’d grown immune to their stings or that they were very good natured scorpions.
A busy street in the Uighur neighbourhood near our hotel
Welded interiors for the tandoor ovens used to cook bread all over the neighbourhood. These were only medium sized examples. We saw others nearly double this diameter!
Sarah and my mom with ice creams. Sweet and smooth, this freshly churned ice cream had a kind of a sticky character to it
For dinner we wandered up and down the streets trying to pick from amongst the dozen or so places cooking lamb kebabs out front on skewers. We picked out some supplements for our planned meat and bread in the form of a plastic bag full of a hearty spicy chicken stew and pumpkin filled dumplings from other restaurants nearby. We finally picked our kebab shop and were greeted warmly with a smile and a handshake from the owner as we walked in to the packed dining room. He smiled when I knew enough to respond to his greeting of “Asalamu Aleykum,” with “Aleykum Salam,” and called to one of his friends “he’s just like a Muslim,” pointing at my beard as he did so.
The Kebabs were delicious, with big chunks of salty, hot dripping meat joined by large chunks of fat on flat, metal skewers. They were served on a bread plate, baked with onion and seasoned with cumin and other herbs and spices. All washed down by multiple cups of weak but good tea with a spicy (was that cinnamon?), slightly citrusy flavour.
Our restaurant in Urumqi during a quiet moment in the old Uighur neighbourhood
My dad enjoying a shashlik (Uighur for kebab) off it’s bread plate
We walked home through the bustle and the smoke that wafted from the charcoal kebab grills, fanned into the street by chefs hard at work to get their kebabs cooked just right. HERE if felt like we were in central Asia.
The next morning we took a bus out of Urumqi on our way to Turpan, a two or three hour drive out, and more importantly, DOWN into the desert. This trip took us across a small, rugged mountain range, then followed a river never that would never reach the sea as we went from 1800m up in Urumqi to over 100m below sea level in the Turpan depression where that city is located.
Getting there was very simple, but we’d anticipated some difficulties on arriving. Sarah and I had left our passports in Urumqi at the Kyrgyz consulate. In China you always need to show your passport when checking into a hotel and in fact you’re supposed to carry it with you at all times. On a few occasions in the past we’d skirted this regulation without even trying to when some of us had checked into a hotel and were joined by the others later. This didn’t prove so easy in Turpan. This was largely because of the tour guide type guy who steered us into a hotel near the bus station when we arrived. My parents stayed with him and attempted to put our plan into action while Sarah and I waited outside. From the beginning the guy didn’t endear himself to us when he quoted one price for the hotel when we arrived and a second, higher one minutes later as we started to check in.
He made it worse by nagging us to sign up for a tour with him the next day before we’d even had a chance to put our bags down, and still worse when he pointed out to the hotel staff that they ought to get our passport details as well. Our plan revealed we headed inside and tried to convince them that the photocopies of our passports we’d brought with us would suffice. But no luck. Our “friend” told us that we’d have similar reactions everywhere else in the city and that we’d have to go back to Urumqi that evening. But that there was still plenty of time to take a tour out in the desert with him.
We finally dislodged ourselves from him saying that no, we didn’t want a tour and that we’d take the last bus of the day back.
After that we re-evaluated our plan. We walked a bit, then Sarah and I sat down in the shade of a lovely pedestrian street, completely covered with grape vines above, while my mom and dad went to try and find a hotel.
Our resting place under the grapevine bower. Turpan is famous for its grapes, about 90% of which are used to make raisins
They returned, saying that they’d succeeded in this, finding a place that was packed full of foreigners. But they’d run into a slight snag when our “friend” from earlier had pulled into the parking lot just as they left. We were now worried that, annoyed at his tours being turned down, he would have told the hotel staff to make sure to check our passports, or warned the PSB (Public Security Bureau) that their might be undocumented foreigners there that night. This may all sound a bit paranoid, but one must remember that we were in China, a place where the state likes to keep a constant watch on everything, and where people (almost all Chinese citizens, very rarely foreigners, true) can disappear into prison for years for relatively small transgressions.
We decided to play it relatively safe and present ourselves at the hotel desk when we arrived. Sarah and I showed them our passport photocopies and they seemed content with them. So that was that.
The Turpan hotel where we spent our night in Turpan. It was a fine illustration of the oddity of hotel pricing in China. The first hotel we looked at was clean, bright and modern. But this one, even though it was a little run down, had a fancy gift shop, restaurant and radios beside the bed, and so was classified as a three star hotel and cost almost twice as much
With a place to sleep (if still slightly nervous) we went out for a look at the town. Even at 16:00 it was still fiercely hot, so we made our first stop the Turpan museum. From the outside it was lovely, with cream coloured stone reliefs covering all of the cylindrical exterior. The inside was even better. As in Dunhuang, the desert environment meant that things had been very well preserved in the Turpan area. Though in the case of this museum’s collection they went well beyond paper and fabric. There were thousand year old pieces of food: figs, dumplings, raisins and grain.
And there were people. Perhaps a dozen corpses, mummified by the desert conditions, represented the whole range of people who had settled the area, from early bronze age tribesmen all the way up to Han Chinese officials of the Qing dynasty (a mere 200 years ago.)
The natural history collection was great as well. Small, but the area surrounding Turpan is one of the world’s richest fossil beds, so everything was of great quality.
When combined with the beautiful building, the Turpan museum may well have been the best museum we visited in China (and to think that Sarah and I might have missed out because we didn’t have our passports to present to obtain the free tickets… thankfully these folks too were happy with our photocopy.)
The outside of the Turpan museum, its relief carvings illustrating the history of the region. I wonder where exactly you go to hire someone when you’ve decided that you want 1500 square metres of relief sculpture on the outside of your bulding?
1500 year old cookies!
My dad with the skeleton of a giant rhinoceros ancestor found near Turpan, the largest species of land mammal ever discovered
A mummified forearm. If you look closely you can make out tattoos on the skin on the back of the hand!
The most eerie of the many eerie mummies in the museum. She had hair still firmly attached to her scalp, and (as you can see from the photo) astonishingly well preserved eyes that you could almost believe were looking back at you.
We spent the rest of the evening looking around the town. Even after museum closing time at 19:00 there was plenty of time. Evenings in Xinjiang were long, partly because it was now only about a month away from the summer solstice, but mostly because all of China runs on Beijing time, while in Xinjiang solar time is actually about two hours LATER than this.
Turpan was a lovely town, with lots of big public spaces. Most of these were well maintained, and included some great ones with shallow ponds and the shade of trees and large buildings around to help beat the stifling heat (it was 20:00 in May and must STILL have been well over 30C.) Even the grubby bazaar was fun to look at as it wound down for the evening. As in Urumqi, it was noticeably different from those in the rest of China. Different faces in the aisles, different meat in the butchers’ (lamb instead of pork) and different headline goods (carpets instead of, say, stone fish ponds.)
We ended up having dinner at one of the Chinese restaurants around the main square. Bitter melon, fried hot peppers, delicious smoked tofu, rice and cold beer. As we were headed further west into Uighur country after this, that wonderful meal turned out to be the last Chinese dinner we ate in China!
The next day we walked out of our hotel and were immediately snared by a tour guide. The fact that we’d made it through the night without being accosted by the PSB and the simple fact that he wasn’t the same guy from the previous day made us much more amenable to his suggestions. We negotiated a bit and took a ride out into the desert with him for 250RMB for the morning and early afternoon.
Our first destination was Aydingkul lake. 40km or so away from the city, this was the very lowest point of the Turpan depression. The small (100m long maybe?) lake wasn’t much to look at, but it was calm, pretty and surprisingly lively. Reeds grew along its edges, birds and toads sang, and we even saw a pair of ducks. AND by visiting this spot, all four of us could now claim to have been at the lowest and second lowest land points on Earth (having visited the Dead Sea separately on other trips. [trivia moment: there are actually at least a couple of ways that you can be lower than the shore of the Dead Sea on Earth WITHOUT being covered by sea water. If anyone manages to figure one or both of them out, post it in the comments and we'll send you a postcard or something as a reward ])
My mom, dad and I at Aydingkul
Me dipping my fingers in the water. With the Dead Sea as an example (and with brilliant white salt crystals having dried out on the surrounding plains) I’d expected Aydingkul to be very salty itself, but it was just ever so slightly brackish
Sarah with the Aydingkul AWS (Automated Weather Station)
We hit the road again, headed for the ruins of ancient Jiaohe city. Before arriving a couple things happened. First, and positively, we made a stop at a village market. Turpan is a major tourist centre, but they mustn’t have got many tourists in the village, as we were major curiosities. The sheep for sale their, with their huge, jiggling fatty bums were equally curious to us… They made it clear which part the hunks of fat in our kebabs had come from!
On a less positive note, our driver casually mentioned to us that he knew Sarah and I didn’t have our passports with us. News travels fast, even in a relatively large town like Turpan, I guess. So we spent the remainder of our trip slightly nervous, and a bit worried that our driver might turn us in for some sort of reward, or try to extort additional fees out of us. (Though it might be good for the drama, I feel obliged to clear the character of our driver here and now… He did no such thing and we made it out of Turpan, if not all the way back to Urumqi without further incident.)
Fat bottomed sheep carcasses at the market
Raisin drying kilns not far away. The countryside around Turpan was filled with these, as well as round piles of mud that had been excavated from the areas many wells. Water pumped from these wells flowed through a series of underground channels to the grape fields in order to reduce evaporation.
Jiaohe was a pretty impressive place. It wasn’t quite Palmyra or Petra, but the sheer density of buildings on top of the small plateau between two river valleys made it a cool place to wander around (though the sun did much the opposite… by the time our visit had done it had risen above 40C!) The mud brick buildings extended over 1km along the plateau, finishing with the temples at the western end, the largest of which was probably over 100m on a side. They weren’t in the best of condition, and there was little inside, but you were free to wander around the interior of many of the buildings, which, in combination with the relative emptiness of the site, gave an entertaining “Indiana Jones” feel to the place. Sarah and I (having made up after I threw another one of my little tantrums because I felt she wasn’t acting concerned enough about our passport dramas) wandered around the mazelike alleys between the smaller buildings before finally meeting up with my parents on the highest point of the plateau with its expansive views out over the light brown landscape, baking still further under the desert sun.)
We left just as the day’s tour group buses started pulling up. I reckon we were lucky to get there when we did, as the real magic of Jiaohe came from exploring it almost alone. So if you’re planning a visit yourself, make sure to arrive nice and early!
Looking down at the river valley off the edge of the plateau. Despite the rapidly intensifying sun it was lovely standing there feeling the breeze and listening to the cuckoos calling from the trees down in the valley
Sarah in an archway at Jiaohe
Looking out over the former city of 7000 residents
We’d decided to skip the other “major sights” of Turpan for a few reasons. First of all, we’d read that several of them were really not all that exciting. Second, even some of those that were would be eclipsed by what we’d find further west in Xinjiang. And finally we were keen to get back to Urumqi where at least our hotel had seen our passports and they could be picked up by my mom and dad fairly easily if Sarah and I DID get picked up by the PSB and tossed in jail until they were presented (we’d read of just such a thing happening in much less politically sensitive Guangzhou, so this wasn’t simple paranoia.) Our driver dropped us back at the Turpan bus station around 13:45, where we paid him his well earned fee and wished him luck in finding customers for the afternoon. we purchased tickets and got on our Urumqi bound bus with, as has already been explained, no further excitement.
The excitement came when our bus (and, indeed, pretty much all other vehicles) were stopped at a police checkpoint just outside Urumqi. There are significant separatist sentiments in many parts of Xinjiang. In the past these have manifested themselves as rioting and violence between the local Uighurs and the Han Chinese migrants to their home, and also in bombings of three buses in the late ’90s. The police obviously took this check seriously. Several of them were armed with automatic rifles that were conspicuously kept at the ready and NOT shouldered.
Everyone filed off the bus and queued up in front of a small building. The armed police and the x-ray machine that luggage was being put through didn’t bother me at all. What worried me was the fact that everyone was presenting their national ID cards. My parents went through and showed their passports. We were next. I presented our photocopy, and the receipt we’d been given by the Kyrgyz consulate for our visa fees. The officer gave these a cursory glance and waved us on. WHEW! While standing in the queue my legs had turned rather jellylike and I’d started thinking that, while it might be uncomfortable, at least spending the night in a Chinese jail would make a good story…
We cleared the final hurdle when we got back to our hotel and checked in, the staff satisfied by the fact that they’d already seen and made copies of our passports and visas a couple of days earlier.
In a very relieved mood we headed back out to “our” neighbourhood and “our” restaurant had another great dinner of Uighur food, topped of with celebratory ice creams.
The next day all four of us went out to collect our passports from the Kyrgyz consulate. As you can imagine, our happiness on receiving them was at least as much due to being back “within the law” as it was with seeing the brightly coloured new visas inside.
We had lunch at the food hall of the furnishings sales centre again, then set out to find the Xinjiang provincial museum. This was actually a tricky task. We’d left our map back at the hotel and even after we’d been given directions, things were complicated by the construction of an elevated Bus Rapid Transit right-of-way along a major road, which made navigation and street crossing rather tricky. Eventually we managed.
The museum was okay, but we’d been rather spoiled by the one in Turpan. The Xinjiang museum’s collection was similar, but no photos were allowed. The building was also lovely, but was packed with noisy school groups. Interpretive signs were available in English, but instead of focussing on history and archaeology as in Turpan, they had a strong political bent.
A quote from one display:
“Since ancient times, Xinjiang has been closely linked with the destiny of the motherland … Since ancient times, the various nationalities resisted foreign aggressions together, worked hard for development and unity together, and all of these composed deeply moving patriotic chapters. We expect that exhibition may help to strengthen the recognition toward the great motherland, the Chinese culture, the Chinese nation and the socialist road.”
Given the antipathy for many (most?) of Xinjiang’s native residents towards the Han Chinese colonists and the Communist government in particular, this seems a bit optimistic. It led me to wondering if this (and others displays like it in other Chinese museums) was simply an example of the museum curators presenting things from their point of view (which can’t be avoided) or if there was a conscious effort to mould the thinking of visitors. And if this only seemed so different from the interpretation in western museums because their perspectives are closer to my own…
Chicken man! Sarah’s favorite piece in the Xinjiang museum. For all of my complaints about the politicization of the place, I quite liked the exhibit showing the traditional dress and ways of life of all of Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities
That evening we enjoyed one final meal at “our” restaurant (Sarah and my mom having some tasty noodles and spicy carrot salad instead of kebabs and bread) and did snack shopping for our upcoming train journey.
The next morning we took the bus to the station and got on board for our final train journey in China. Though we were already in the right province, this train trip was to be the mother of them all. 26 hours on the rails, taking us to Kashgar in Xinjiang’s far, far west.
The “many foreigners” that we shared the Turpan Hotel with were a group of fifty or so French cyclists riding from Beijing to London. They had a serious support crew, with seven vehicles driving along with them, and Nicholas Sarkozy as their official patron (hopefully for them the usefulness of his support didn’t diminish following the recent election…)
Rocks for sale. A big mall near our hotel in Urumqi was entirely dedicated to rocks, ranging in size from pebbles to huge boulders. Intriguingly, they were pretty much all smooth, shiny stones, with no gems or semiprecious stones, and none of the baroque shapes that were so popular in central China
Mmm… Tower of ice-creamy goodness!
Tags: China, Kyrgyz Visa, Llew Bardecki, Travel, Turpan, Urumqi, Xinjiang