Notes from China

This is sort of a catch-up post. The first two bits were written while I was in Xinjiang province, where I had zero internet access. The last part was written here in Xian. Not my best post ever, but whatever.


Greetings from Urumqi, city of Chinese race riots.

Actually, this post can’t possibly be from Urumqi, as the internet here is completely blocked by the government. So are international calls and (potentially) local mobile phone/texting services. This has been the case since July, when a peaceful march by the minority Uighur population, which is Muslim, turned into a large-scale riot in which more than a hundred (and possibly hundreds) of people died – mostly Han Chinese, according to reports.

More recently, in early September, it was the Han Chinese turn to demonstrate. Evidently a few Uighurs attacked some Han with hypodermic needles. A few reports of these attacks turned into hundreds – most of them, even the Chinese government admits, are fake. But still, at least a hundred (if I remember correctly) did happen. And the Han are angry that the government hasn’t done enough to protect them.

So here we sit, in a city decorated with phalanxes of young riot soldiers on every corner. Their hairless faces peek out from under helmets, above tall riot shields they wield like teenage gladiators.

Despite all this, I like the feel of Urumqi. It’s friendly somehow – hard to put my finger on it. Can you imagine? The friendliest Chinese city has riot police on every corner.



This morning Karly left me in Kashgar to try to extend my visa while she and another Aussie take a three-day trip to Tashkargan (a Tajik village in China, near the border) and Karakul Lake. But like everything in China, it’s not that simple. The PSB (the police), which deals with visa issues, “is not working for two weeks,” according to the friendly woman at the office. No explanation for this, erm, holiday. She assured me that it’d be no problem to extend the visa in Hotan, which is along the road I intended to take. But I don’t believe her, and neither does the manager of the Old Town Hostel, where I’m staying.

After much consideration of my options, I’ve decided to just fly to Xi’an, where there’s Internet and sites to see. The other options (saving money by taking a 3-day train journey instead, extending my visa in Urumqi, etc.) were too complicated and expensive; I don’t want to travel the southern silk route *that* much.

Or maybe I do. It’s so confusing, because most sights I’ve seen in China have been neatly packaged and Disney-fied (that’ll be 100 yuan entrance fee, please) and competely sanitized of soul. I’ve come to expect the worst, delighting in the occasional pleasant surprises where the government hasn’t wrung all reality from a place – the Mogao Caves outside Turpan, for instance.

Indeed, I’m so glad I made it here to Kashgar, which feels more like one of the ‘stans (Kazakstan et al) than China. It’s similar to my feeling when I visited the Tuvan Replublic in Russia – it’s like I left the country. Of course, the Chinese government is quickly implementing plans to rip the soul out of the Uighur Muslim population by tearing down the old town (“for safety’s sake”) and moving everyone from their ancenstral homes to bland concrete high-rises. (Google “destruction Kasghar” for more – China won’t let me get to any websites that explain.) So yeah, I’m glad I made it here before that happened.

But what will the rest of the “South Silk Route” be like? Has China destroyed the other towns yet? I’m not sure, and I’m not willing to run the gamut of Chinese visa-renewal bullshit to find out. It’s crazy to have come this far, this deep into China, only to be turned back by bureaucratic nonsense. Normally I would do it – I’d dance the required dance in order to see what I want to see. But in this case, I doubt the payoff will be worth it. My pile of Chinese Disappointments is high enough already.

So I’m leaving Karly to complete our itinerary alone while I make a beeline for the border. I’ll be gone by the time she returns from her trip.

As last year, knowing I’m traveling alone again is a relief. I couldn’t concentrate on anything – writing, traveling, reading, learning – during the month I was traveling with Karly. Was she an unsuitable travel companion for me, or is the problem my own pathological comfort with being alone? I’m not sure. (I imagine DrC might have something to say about my issues with life-sharing!) All I know is that I feel that a burden has been lifted, that my mind is free again.

(To be clear, I did very much enjoy my time traveling with Karly. We had plenty of laughs (especially in the Gobi), saw some interesting and uninteresting stuff, ate good food and bad, complained about China, got ripped off, met lovely people, etc. etc. It’s just that I seem to be better at traveling alone. I don’t understand!)



OK, now I’m actually writing this today. I’ve been in Xian for 5 days, and I’m staying until October 2. I’ll write *about* Kashgar later.

I’m sticking around Xian for a week for a few reasons: First, my visa extension won’t be ready until the 30th. Second, October 1 is the 60th anniversary of communism (such as it is) in China. This means the entire country is shut down that day, so I postponed travel to the 2nd. Third, Xian is a fairly pleasant place, as polluted an crowded Chinese cities go.

And finally, I’m getting pants (erm, that’s “trousers” for all you thinking “undies”) made. It’s terribly exciting, as this is the first time I’ve done this.

Explanation, aka “The Pants Digression”: In Urumqi I received a box of clothes mailed from Boston by my dear, dear sister. What a relief to put on something other than the 2 pants and 4 shirts I had been wearing since April 22! But also, both pants were literally falling apart, despite my best hand-sewing efforts. The washing machines in Russia and Mongolia are not kind. Anyway, threw out one pair of pants, but the other was my absolute favorite. So I went to a local tailor, handed them the pants to use as a pattern, chose fabric, got measured (they marveled at the size of my inseam and hips), and shelled out a mere $25 – probably still overpaying. Fingers crossed for good results.

OK, enough pants. What of Xian? I’ve met some lovely people at the Shuyuan Hostel, where I’m staying thanks to a recommendation from a lovely Belgian guy I had met in Kashgar. Tourism-wise, the highlights have been the Terracotta Warriors – Xian’s main tourist attraction and one that is actually worthy of its billing. The other highlight – one that surpasses the Warriors in my estimation – was the excavated tomb of a Han Emperor called Jingdi. Both sites are tombs, and remarkably well-preserved examples of ancient Chinese burial rituals. Rather than burying the emperor with *live* servants, horses, pigs, and other food, or with *real* weapons, gold, household items, and so on, the Chinese sculpted *thousands* of replicas of these items. The burial areas are *kilometers* square. It’s mind-boggling. Check out my pix on Flickr once I upload them (I have a HUGE backlog).

Entertainment wise, the highlights have besen two delicious meals with large groups from the hostel – one night there were 8 and the next 9 people. We ordered about 10 different dishes and shared. Delish. The first night especially, when we went to “First Noodle Under the Sun” restaurant, there was not enough room on the table for all the food. We each had two beers as well. The bill? 30 yuan each, or about $4.50. Good times.


The good times continued when a smaller group went to the great bar attached to the hostel to carry on drinking. I got my traditional one-blue-drink-per-country (Drea stay tuned for an emailed pic), and then Jemma, one of the women I was with, ordered me a “Red Sex” cocktail. And she had no idea I’m a Red Sox fan (she’s a Brit – from Brighton in fact – and wouldn’t even know they exist). In any event, the cocktail (which in the end is just grenadine and Baily’s, I think) was *presented* rather than served, including being lit on fire. I made a wish and blew it out. No, I won’t tell you my wish.

The festivities ended at 2:30 am – the bar was closing and we needed sleep, despite our spirited discussion about the merits and morality of drugs.


Today, with a little yelp of glee, I bought my AirAsia e-ticket out of this damned country. On October 10 at 11:10 local time I’ll be on a plane to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia! The beach! Sure, it’s monsoon season. But I don’t care! I’m gunna find me a spot, become a divemaster, and be ready in time to work when the monsoons are over. I need some salty surf, seafood and my swmsuit.

In the meantime, this Friday I head south by train, arriving in Guilin a mere 27 hours later. The area is known for mystical scenery – limestone peaks, terraced rice fields, and so on. I’m hoping for the best – some *unspoiled* and un”improved” nature, please China! – though expecting chair lifts and ticket offices decorated with white bathroom tiles. Chinese architecture. [shudder]

$#&*%ing China

The good news is that I’m back in the world of the Internet – I flew out of Xinjiang province and into Xi’an this morning.

The bad news is that I’m back in the world of the Internet – about two weeks ahead of schedule.

The problem is my visa, which expires on September 30. I had intended to extend the visa in Kashgar – no problem! – before embarking on the south Silk Route adventure, which would have taken at least until realy October.

However, for a reason no one can explain, the Kashgar PSB (the police bureau that handles visas and such) is “not working” for two weeks. The receptionist suggested I go back to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang and about 1000 km (24 hours on the train) in the wrong direction. The application process takes a week – meaning I would have had to hang around Urumqi alone, and then take a train *back* west to meet up with Karly.

$#&*%ing China.

Instead, I left Karly to do the SSR alone and shelled out the cash to fly to Xi’an. I still need to extend my visa, for various reasons, but at least here there are sights to see, and the Internet works as well as it can in China.

I have more to say about China, but I’ll post it later. At the moment I’m sleep-deprived, thanks to: a sudden and mysterious increased air ticket price, necessitating an itinerary change, which included a 7-hour overnight layover, which involved a lying shuttle bus operator, getting lost at 2 am, riot police sleeping in the lounge of my hostel, and very VERY noisy Chinese tourists who took 45 long, loud minutes to leave our shared dorm room at 6 am (3.5 hours after I had gone to sleep). Oh yeah – and on arrival here, I spent the afternoon running up and down stairs at the Xi’an PSB, fetching what the official requested, one item at a time: photo, photocopies of various documents, visa-extension payment receipt, etc. etc.

Meh. I’m going to celebrate when I leave this country, and I vow to never, ever come back. I’ve come to despise it that much.

And yes, I see the irony of having to pay to extend my stay in a country I’m desperate to leave. I’d laugh about it, but I’m too cranky at the moment

Instead I’ll just say: $#&*%ing China

Ill communication

I’d love to write a thoughtful note about China, Take II. But I’m too distracted – the cats, yes, but also there are other people about, and we’re going into town in a few minutes for lunch. In the afternoon we’re catching a bus to Liuluang (sp?), then tomorrow morning a train to Turpan, near Urumqi in Xinjiang province.

After the demonstrations by Uigurs in Urumqi this July, and recent demonstrations by ethnic Han, and the fact that on October 1 it’s the 60th anniversary of communism in China…well, we’re assuming that there will be no internet access or international telephone connectivity in Xinjiang province. Reports travel message boards are sketchy, so we’ll just have to go and see the situation ourselves.

This means you won’t hear from me for a while. To assuage any anxieties, here is our *very rough* itinerary:

9/14: train to Turpan
stay 3ish days

9/18 ish: Urumqi

maybe go north to the lakes near Altay, or else head to Kashgar

9/24 ish: Kashgar

stay a few days

Then buses along southern edge of Taklamakan Desert (Yarkland, Hotan, Niya, Charklik), and finally across to Golmud in Quinghai province. From there we’ll catch a train to Xi’an – probably by the first week in October.

This means I will probably lack internet for three weeks. I’ll ping (via a post or mass email) as soon as I can.

Not that I don’t love you all, but the thing I’m most distressed about in RE lack of internet is that I won’t know who makes the baseball postseason until the playoffs have started. GO SOX.,

I would have written sooner, but there’s a cat in my lap.

I swear I’ve tried to write this afternoon. But the three kittens at Charley Jhong’s Guest House, in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, won’t let me.

First they jumped onto the table and demanded food, though I have nothing but fruit and crackers. I gave them crackers, which they practically bit my hand off to get. Back at my computer, I barely had time to check the baseball scores when the larger orange one jumped on my lap and started playing with the string from my hoodie. After a brief post-play tongue bath, she kneaded my thighs with her claws and settled down for an afternoon nap. The other two are sleeping on a nearby bed, with one eye half open should I offer more food.

Outside my room – a 5-bed dorm – is an open courtyard surrounded by a covered walkway (I know there’s a technical term for this, but the name escapes me at the moment). There’s no one about (other than the cats); the guest house is in a quiet apricot grove outside town and adjacent to the famous sand dunes near by – I’m near the start of the old Silk Road. It’s a perfect, relaxing environment to write. Except, as I said, for the cats.

Karly and I arrived here from Xiahe a few days ago. I needed to *stop* for a few days, to let my slow-moving consciousness catch up with my ever-migrating body. She was supposed to try to arrange a multi-day camel trek for herself, to keep herself occupied while I wrote. Instead, she has caught my laziness – at the moment she’s in a cafe in town making pretend to study her Mongolian language book.

And I’m making pretend to write, using cats as an excuse for my failure.

Never mind.

Xiahe was like seeing a little piece of Tibet without going through the extreme hassle and expense of actually going to Tibet. (I could go into a long, boring digression on why I’ve chosen to avoid Tibet. But I don’t feel like it.)

There was no breathtaking mountain scenery, but the town does boast one of the top Tibetan Buddhist monateries (Labrang Monastery) and attracts plenty of colorfully dressed Tibetan pilgrims.

Beyond the monastery visit, it was interesting to witness the progressive Han-ification of a non-Han Chinese town. To explain: The Chinese government “unifies” the parts of the country dominated by ethnic groups (the Uigurs in the west, the Tibetans in the south and west, etc.) by enticing (or forcing?) Han Chinese to settle there. It’s an ethnic power play as well as a consolidation of control over land and resources. Just as Siberians and Russian Far Easterners say “Moscow is far away…” so do Chinese southerners and westerners say, “Beijing is far away…”

The process in Xiahe is just beginning. Along the main street, the old wooden houses are gone and giant, modern brick buildings are just going up along the half-paved sidewalks. There’s a military outpost – we saw impossibly young recruits training in full riot gear. But Xiahe is still a sleepy town. Its streets are colored with bald monks in wine-colored robes; Tibetan cowgirls in traditional bright wool chupa and striped aprons, their long ebony braids tied together with ribbons; and Tibetan cowboys dressed in what looked like Mongolian dels, riding Chinese motorbikes down the main drag. Tibetans dominate the western part of town, near the monastery. The eastern part, near the bus station, is where the Han Chinese seem to live, alongside the Muslims. (We think they’re Hui Chinese, but couldn’t find out.)

The monastery itself is colorful and old – it was founded in the early 18th century. The air smells of incense and brown coal. Our tour guide was a chubby, cheerful monk who spoke decent English and repeated himself a lot. I didn’t learn much about Buddhism, but no matter. The highlight was our quiet walk though the main prayer room, where about 900 monks were in midday prayers. Some were chanting, some where whispering among themselves, some just stared at us we walked past. At the front, sitting cross-legged on a raised platform, sat the head monk in a buttercup robe that seemed to glow despite the gloom inside.

After the tour Karly and I made the 3-km trek around the monastery, turning every prayer wheel – more than 1100 – along the way. The locals seemed delighted that we went the whole way around, instead of stopping halfway as most tourists do. (It’s hard work spinning badly-greased wheels with just your right arm, 1100 times.)

As we began the last third or so of the trek, we were overtaken by an older woman and her middle-aged son. She beamed at us – at me, really. Her muddy eyes sparkled in a familiar way. Her dentured smile also reminded me of something. What was it?

We caught up to her again a few prayer-wheel sections later. She smiled again, and looked directly into my eyes. As she walked away I realized that her face – her eyes, her smile – were my maternal grandmother’s. It was like my yia popped in from the dead to just say hello. (Yiayia is Greek for grandmother. My nickname for my maternal yiayia was “Yia.”)

Now, you all know that I’m not a religious person or subject to mystical nonsense. This cheerful old woman simply reminded me of my grandmother. But at the time, it felt like more.

Something similar happened to me 4 years ago, about 3 months after Yia died. It was May 2005. Henry and Michele had just gotten married in Ireland. A few days after the wedding I flew to Paris with the Guineys and Jake. One day we visited their mother Louise, who was ill and losing her memory. Her still-gentle confusion reminded me of Yia’s confusion as her dementia took hold. Pat and Lis’s distress and helplessness (gamely but ineffectively masked by cheerfulness and action) reminded me of my mother’s distress and our pain watching our strong, self-assured Yia deteriorate to a scared and scary shell.

Just three months earlier, in late February, my family had all flown to Greece to bury Yia. Her body had finally succumbed, and I think we all thought it was a good thing that she no longer suffered. But in Paris that spring, the pain of losing her was still fresh. Seeing an echo of what had happened to her ripped open the scab.

That night, in my tiny Paris hotel room, I had the most vivid dream of my life. I dreamed that Yia was standing in front of me, her eyes sparkling, her denture-perfect smile wide. I felt her warmth as I hugged her; I felt her smooth but wrinkled skin as I kissed her cheeks, her forehead, her hands. Neither of us said a word. When I woke up, I thought, “Yia said goodbye to me last night.” Nothing like that had happened to me before. Nothing has happened since – until Xiahe.

Of course, the dream was really *me* saying goodbye to *her.* It was part of mourning. And the praying old Buddhist in Xiahe just had a similar smile. But these things *feel* mystical, like there really could be another dimension/heaven/nirvana/what-have-you. If there is, Yia is certainly making the best baklava around.

Hiya, Yia. S’agapo.

Back to China

Well I’m back. On August 31, I crossed the border from Mongolia back into China. And…Mongolia worked like a charm. Its big sky, pure nature and hospitality cured me of the China Blues.

This time around, China isn’t trying to rip me off. It’s not 100 degrees and oppressively humid. The people are helpful and friendly and curious.

Of course, the Internet is still unpredictable. Getting around the Chinese restrictions only seems to work sometimes, and never for Facebook. But I guess there’s no easy cure for the Chinese government. At least not in Mongolia.

Anyway, what of the Gobi? In the end, the so-called sights were a disappointment. The exception was Khongoryn Els, 300-meter-high sand dunes that sprout from out of nowhere. We got caught in a sand storm, made an unscheduled stop in a dusty provincial town to see a concert by Haranga (“Mongolia’s greatest rock band!” according to our tattooed interpreter), ate a ridiculous amount of mutton, and drove a *lot*.

I need to write more, but at the moment I’m, trying to type quietly while the other three people in my dorm try to sleep.

So, where am I, who am I with and where am I going?

At the moment I’m in Hohhot, the provincial capital of Inner Mongolia. I’m here with Karly, the Austrialian I met in Russia and happened to run into again in Ulaan Baatar. We did the Gobi trip together, and in a few hours we catch a train west.

Today we’ll go to Xiahe, a town with a Tibetan monastery. Then we’ll continue west go to Turpan, a leafy grape-growing city. It’s nearly harvest time, so it should be lovely. Then it’s Urumqi, the provincial capital, and finally Kashgar, the farthest west you can get in China, and a famous Silk Road town. Then we head back east, following the so-called “southern Silk Road” along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, skirting Tibet. We’ll end in Xi’an, see the Terracotta Warriors, and then make our way to Vietnam. We imagine all this will take about 6 weeks, depending on the number of bus breakdowns.

I’ll try to write more on the train an post from Xiahe. Happy September, everyone!