Monday, August 07, 2006

Xinjiang Travels: Part I

Day 7 (July 26th)

I had seen what I wanted to see in Dunhuang and just spent most of the day hanging around, waiting to take my overnight train to the city of Turpan. I was able to rent a bicycle and take one more look at the sand dunes and around the city, and otherwise just relax at a park and take a look at the city museum. A laid-back but unexciting day.

Day 8

Turpan is famous in China for a few reasons, two of which being that it's in the second-lowest depression in the world after the Dead Sea, and that it's the hottest place in China. Knowing this I was kind of disappointed to arrive in the morning to cloudy, very pleasant weather, which lasted all day. The city itself was also not as exotic as the picture I had in mind, but it was my first city in Xinjiang and I came to see it had a very different character than the rest of China. Slightly out-numbering the Han Chinese (the term for "Chinese" people as opposed to the minorities that are also in China) in Turpan are the Uyghurs, the central-Asian Muslim group that have traditionally dominated the area that is now Xinjiang in China. Their culture and looks are a lot more Middle-Eastern than Chinese; they speak a Turkic language, dress differently, eat different things, and even tell time differently. The whole of China uses Beijing time, so there are no time zones despite China's size, but in Xinjiang they keep their own local time that is two hours behind Beijing time. Keeping Beijing time does give you a strange sense of the day here; the "high noon" sun hits around 3pm.

As I was wondering the city, a talkative young Uyghur and his friend started walking with me because they said they wanted to "practice their English". This always sounds suspicious, but in China when someone says that usually mean exactly that. I kept my suspicions high anyway, especially when he tried inviting me to his home, and when it became obvious they were going to follow me all the way to the site I was headed towards, I made an excuse and ducked into my hotel as we passed it. I headed back out on a rented bicycle, and the route to the site, an ancient mosque and minaret, might as well not have been China. The road was lined with traditional Uyghur one-story homes, with outside beds, the occasional donkey cart, and local people selling fruit or playing guitar outside. A few times I got disoriented, and had trouble finding the way because the people I asked for directions didn't even speak Chinese. I don't think they particularly wanted to; one young man waved me away immediately and said "wo ting bu dong!" (I don't understand) while the girl beside him laughed.

The road was interesting enough by itself, but I eventually found the mosque, which was elegantly designed and worth the trip. On the way back I stopped to buy some grapes from the many dozens of Uyghurs lined up beside the road. Turpan is also famous for grapes, so I figured I better try some before leaving, though foolishly I had to bike home one-handed while holding a large bag of grapes. In parts of the city there are roads and paths shaded overhead by grape vines, a brilliant idea.

In the evening I happened to run into the three French-speakers I met in Dunhuang, so we shared some beers, kebabs and grapes while relaxing in the courtyard of our hostel. The place also runs a Uyghur song-and-dance show at night, which they had already seen, so I excused myself to watch it. I always immediately assume these things won't be very authentic but this was a Uyghur area after all, and the performers were very talented. I've been repeatedly told the girls in Xinjiang are beautiful, and the best-looking ones really are stunning, the performers there being no exception. Attractive Chinese girls usually look naive and shy, but the Uyghur girls have more of a middle-eastern exotic confidence. At the end of the show, they decided to drag the audience up to dance with the performers. Being in the back I thought I was safe, but so many people refused that they came for me. I hesitated, but gave in after I realized I didn't know a person there, and anyway China has taken away any fears of public embarrassment already. My dancing is a sight I wouldn't wish on anyone, but unfortunately they kept us up there for a painfully long time, as I awkwardly tried to imitate the moves of the man who was my "partner". After one day I was already intrigued by the people of Xinjiang, and as if Chinese weren't enough to handle, found myself wishing I could speak some Uyghur.

Day 9

The major sites of Turpan, mostly the ruins of ancient cultures of the area, are actually spread over a large area outside of the city itself. It's best for a small group to hire a taxi for the day, and as I hoped I found three other travelers to share the car with. They were three old-school, no-nonsense Australians who could've been Hemingway characters, and half the day's entertainment was just being around them. The father, Ron, had one of the best handle-bar mustaches I have ever seen, and struck me as an old sea captain with a few stories to tell. His two sons weren't much older than me, but were of considerably bigger builds, and therefore enormous by Chinese standards. They were unwilling to pay even 1 yuan more than they should, and the most effective, if least subtle, foreign bargainers I've seen in China. I went first to get a price on the taxi; they gave 120 yuan per person, which was absurd, but I talked them down politely in Chinese until they refused to go below 80 per person. Then the Australians joined me; when told 80 yuan, they shouted in English about not paying more than 50 and began walking off, so within 20 seconds they had gotten the price of 50 yuan per person and everyone was happy.

The first site, called Tuyugou, was a small collection of Buddhist caves with a traditional Uyghur town on the outskirts. Some children pointed us to the left, where there was a sign that said "Thousand Buddha Caves", but for some reason we thought there were no Buddha caves there and were being fooled, so we went to the right. We walked through the village, which was interesting but not so different from parts of Turpan, and clambered over the mountains in the background, and began wondering why there was an admission charge at all. Only then did we see down below what was obviously a collection of buildings and caves we were meant to have gone to in the first place, and quickly made the rounds before heading back to the taxi.

The second site was an ancient ruined city called Gaocheng, with a large area of city remains built into the rocky landscape. Most all of the tourists went by way of donkey taxi, which we quickly shooed away once we realized it cost money, even though the sky was clear and therefore the sun was beginning to get boiling hot. Despite the flood of tourists, it was an interesting place. Third, and last, we saw another ruined city called Jiaohe. It seemed interesting but similar to Gaocheng, and by then the sun was really unbearable. After no more than 15 minutes we decided we'd had enough, and our driver was very suprised to look up from his game of cards and see us prepared to return already.

Some food and cold beers were in order upon returning, and I got a recommendation for a local Muslim restaurant. We walked in, and the full crowd of Uyghurs stopped in unison and stared at us, like one of those scenes in a Western where someone's walked into the wrong bar. Again, it was like stepping out of China completely; a different time zone even, as the clock on the wall was two hours behind. But the food was good and the prices fair, and I left more satisfied than with the French toast at "John's Information Cafe" in the morning.

In the evening, I was relaxing in my hostel room when my roommates, a young British couple, walked in with a friend - Mardan, the same young Uyghur man I had met the day before. It was quite obvious he had been following them for some time and they were sick of it, but were too reserved and British to get rid of him. After a few awkward minutes they did manage to say goodbye, and immediately let out a breath of relief and a stream of complaints about how long they had been stuck with him. They in fact did go to his house, which was an innocent invitation after all, where apparently his siblings were visibly annoyed and his father criticized him for not working on his carpentry. He obviously makes the rounds of foreigners, and told me he has "2000 friends" as he flipped through his books of foreigners' e-mail addresses. The Brits joined me and the Australians for a late dinner to finish the night off, which to my disappointment did not end with a visit to the "Seven Colourful Fish Music" bar next door. In some ways, traveling through China has been the most Western experience I've had in six months.

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