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.

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9/18

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.

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9/22
Kashgar

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!)

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9/29

Xi’an

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.

RED SEX, ANYONE?

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.

%$& CHINA, I’M LEAVING

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]

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$#&*%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.,

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!

Gobi or bust

Hello friends!

In a few hours I am at long last leaving for the Gobi. Karly, the Aussie I met in Russia, and I have hired a van and driver to take us to the Flaming Cliffs (where archaeologists keep finding dinosaur bones, eggs, etc) and the great sand dunes. Then he’ll take us to the Chinese border.

I don’t want to leave Mongolia, but Karly’s visa is up on the 31st. and since we’re going to travel to western China together (Urumqi, Kashgar, then loop back to Sichuan province) I gotta go.

This means that, assuming my previous experience with shitty internet in China still holds, I won’t be posting extremely often.

The general plan is to go to western China, try to get to Xian, and then head for Vietnam, probably near the end of September.

I wish I could write more, but there’s no time. Sometime soon, however, I’ll need to find a place to sit for a few weeks and just write and think and write. I am, as they say, all backed up.