Sunday, August 31, 2008

Headed West

A 44 hour train ride delivered me to Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang, a very different province of China. As I rode through the vast countryside West of Beijing, I read the insightful Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler (thanks John Jennison), well in the moments between those in which my fellow passengers were perusing my English book or quizzing me on my studies. I passed a bit of time just reading/reviewing my 2nd Oxford Concise dictionary, and some jamming out to tunes from my new Texan friend Trip, who let me raid his laptop before I left the capital city - where else would I find Austin-local country-singer Pat Green for my listening pleasure? When I reached Urumqi, with little over four days til my visa expired, I convinced myself to cram all my experiences into one afternoon. Hessler had talked a bit about the Uighurs, a Turkish people that inhabit the western most province of Xinjiang, controversially part of China or the Republic of East Turkestan, depending on which side of the line you stand, and I was eager to encounter a few. I barely missed the museum, having closed 15 minutes before I got there, which was said to house three mummies, very caucasian in appearance, that further demonstrated this area as part of something forever Chinese.

Urumqi Museum, originally uploaded by wanders.

My next move was to load up on cheap imitation Olympic paraphenalia and a few DVD's, but my naivety proved endless when I learned that noone dared copy Olympic merchandise, and this area was notoriously low on movies. As I sulked, ate some delicious local grapes, and wandered, I ended up in a nice simple kebab restaurant. I met a man there, a polyglot trader, and was reminded strongly of a character from Hessler's book - sadly though well connected, this fellow was unable to find a place for me to exchange my Mongolian currency - yes, I do still have about thirty dollars worth of tugreeks on my person.

I caught my bus out the next day, sadly saying goodbye already to an interesting city with a good feel to it, and mistakenly bought a can of coffee for my ride. I was nearly in tears when we made out first stop after two hours and ran to the gas station restroom. The sleeper bus was quite comfortable, showing a few awful Hong Kong films, making me regret leaving my poor copy of "Dark Night" back in Beijing. So from Urumqi, I made it to Kashgar, a main stop on the Silk Road, my bus rather than train choice saving me four dollars. I met almost joined a bus full of foreigners headed to the beautiful Karakoul Lake in the next two minutes, but instead slowed down and ate noodles with a few Americans staying in the same place. Turned out they were all outdoorsy English teachers out in Yangshou, which houses the best rock climbing in China. I met my counterpart, Jose, who liked This American Life and TV On the Radio and Harpers and we traded books. I enjoyed following this four person crew around in Kashgar and we spent one or two nights sitting on the steps by the road drinking ice cold local beer. At one point, we all went to a hotel to use the restroom and I found an old battered copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and as my last two books in a row had mentioned this work, I felt it was a sign and bought it on the spot.

One night, following a few beers on the steps, we decided to check out a Uighur dance bar. A traditionally conservative Muslim people, the Uighur's attend a dance bar that translates into a floor, half the time open to the masses, half the time hosting multi-cultural performances (we saw Flamenco and Indian dance performances). When the floor was open, barely anyone touched anyone else and guards stood around watching us look silly, at one point wagging a finger at Colin and a drunk Kyrygz man who were dancing together a little too closely. We followed a crew of Russian speakers to a nice hotel and some secret Karaoke rooms, whereby their leader ordered a slew of beers and everyone began dancing on the tables. We ended the night with kebab from the street.

Uigur Bar, originally uploaded by wanders.

Monday, when the border was once again open, I said goodbye to my friends and caught the bus to... Pakistan. I got my visa back in Beijing after discovering that the cost of a flight was about the same as the travel and visa total, and everyone I talked to said it was a safe place as long as you avoided the Afghan border. I joined two Hungarians and a Frenchman on a two-hour-late bus to Tashkurgan, the border town, to push on til Sost, the Pakistani side the next day. In Tashkurgan, we strolled around, snuck into a fort without paying, got yelled at for not paying but taking pictures anyways, and then ate some noodles while our beers got warm because we were not allowed to drink in a Muslim restaurant. As soon as we got to our hotel, I got a text message, thus using my last chinese SIM card credit, that the Yangshou crew had made it to Tashkurgan! They had planned an elaborate bike trip back to Kashgar - I haggled for their bikes ealier - and it all worked out. Permits and such had become a hassle since the political unrest in Kashgar that started right before the Olympics - rumor had it that there had been 20 more bombs following the one reported that the Chinese media had covered up. I took my friends to the same noodle shop, feeling cold at this high altitude, with my jacket held hostage under straps on the top of our bus, and we somehow found another dance bar, this time with a new Tajik friend, who refused my no's about ordering chicken and covered out table in food after we had just eaten. Strange night ended in repeated goodbyes, and the next morning, our bus cruised over the 4900 meter Khunjerab Pass - my head was pounding during our five minute stop at the the official border where many many Chinese workers lost their lives constructing the tallest highway pass in the world to enable trade across to Pakistan.

IMG_1685, originally uploaded by wanders.

1 comment:

Shawbee said...

Sept 7 and no post. LAME. I need something to live vicariously through. Although I can understand that it is more important to actually do the deeds than to weave the yarn.