The Sunburn Chronicles: Heavenly Lake

Heavenly Lake, XinjiangNow you have seen from my pictures that the northwest region of China has some shocking beauty. A stark, desert beauty of rainbow mountains with no vegetation, or towering sand dunes in all directions. But what you haven’t seen a lot of is trees and lush forests. That’s because Xinjiang is a dry, mountainous region with a desert on one side (the Gobi) and another smack dab in the middle of the province (the Taklamakan).

So, when I took a bus a few hours outside Urumqi, the capital city, to Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake) I wasn’t expecting much. In fact, I was expecting a slightly crappy place. Lonely Planet is not kind to this place and says you will be greeted with mobs of tourists and plastic trees piping out It’s a Small World from hidden speakers. I almost didn’t go. But Urumqi was just a kinda boring city, and I had time, so I found a bus and went.

Holy S&%^$ am I glad I did.

This place was beautiful! I couldn’t shut up all day. In fact, I randomly ran into a friend (a fellow silk road traveler) at the ticket counter (with a friend) and I bothered them all day by just continually saying “Oh my go. Oh my GOD! This place is amazing!!”

The weather made the day even nicer. Blue skies dotted with fluffy white clouds.

The weather made the day even nicer. Blue skies dotted with fluffy white clouds. Birds of prey flew around in peace.

And I get out in nature all the time. I just went camping at a reservoir the other night. But something about this place was so….I hate to say this but….so “un-chinesy.” You see, in China, nature isn’t exactly natural. There are paths, walkways and stairs. Nature has more of a cultural meaning in China. Important places for Taoists, Buddhist, political leaders, no huge nature area is left untouched.

But something about this place made me feel like I was in the Swiss Alps or the American Pacific Northwest. Sure, the entrance was packed, with hawkers and thousands of people (all with selfie sticks), but just a few minutes along the paths and you could escape everyone.

They had a fast flowing stream that stilled into this small lake before plunging down into a giant waterfall. I had to do everything in my power to NOT jump in!

They had a fast flowing stream that stilled into this small lake before plunging down into a giant waterfall. I had to do everything in my power to NOT jump in!

 

There was very little garbage on the path and in several places you actually walked on dirt. (A rare treat in a Chinese park.) We found ourselves totally alone on several occasions and the air was fresh with the scent of fresh pine and clean dirt. In fact the air is super oxygenated from the specific trees in that area and I swear my body could feel it. Hiking was easier and every breath made me feel awake.

There was a massice waterfall that was clean and crisp and felt good to get sprayed by the fresh water.

There was a massive waterfall that was clean and crisp and felt good to get sprayed by the fresh water.

And the amazing part is this is basically in the desert. You need to take a 30-minute bus from the ticket office to the lake and a guide pointed out, as we lumbered into the mountains, that you could see the desert in the distance.

But you would have no idea otherwise. Crisp, clear water roaring down the mountainside, fresh air, even a bit of a chill. It was one of the most pleasant days I had.

Of course, this being China there was a small temple or pagoda on the top of one of the peaks. My friends and I kept daring each other to climb to it.

Of course, this being China there was a small temple or pagoda on the top of one of the peaks. My friends and I kept daring each other to climb to it.

 

The lake was gorgeous, like the Swiss alps, complete with snow-covered peaks in the distance.

The lake was gorgeous, like the Swiss alps, complete with snow-covered peaks in the distance.

 

Dirt walking paths, not littered with garbage or people! An unusual find in China. (The people weren't too far away, but a few minutes of walking and the crowds faded away.)

Dirt walking paths, not littered with garbage or people! An unusual find in China. (The people weren’t too far away, but a few minutes of walking and the crowds faded away.)

Travels tips: The lake is about an hour and a half by bus from Urumqi. Everyday buses leave around 9am from the north entrance of the People’s Park. (Buy your ticket the day before. It’s 50rmb for a round trip ticket.) I had heard that the buses stop at shopping places, but mine went directly to the lake. They dropped us off at 10:30 and I had to be back by 5 to meet the bus to go back (take a picture of your buses licence plate so you can find the right one. All the buses leave at the same time and they all kinda look alike.) On the way back the bus did stop at some tourist stops, which sucked especially because I was hot and tired at that point. At the last one, which was on the outskirts of the city, I just hopped in a cab and went back to my hostel. Cause, fuck it.

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The Dangers in Xinjiang

My hotel was in the nicer part of the city and a nice business-style hotel. yet, there was a guard (no gun, but with a riot shield and helmet) at the front. And you had to go through a metal detector to get in (though they didn't make you remove keys or scan your luggage so I don't quite get the point.)

The intense security everywhere in Urumqi speaks of the violent times. My hotel was in the nicer part of the city and a nice business-style hotel. yet, there was a guard (no gun, but with a riot shield and helmet) at the front. And you had to go through a metal detector to get in (though they didn’t make you remove keys or scan your luggage so I don’t quite get the point.)

As I was preparing to go to Xinjiang I heard one warning again and again from my Chinese friends. “Be careful, it’s dangerous out there.”

My answer? “I’m not worried. It’s not me they hate.”

You see, Xinjiang people are very different from Chinese people. Perhaps you’ve noticed from my pictures but both ethnically and culturally Xinjaing people are more aligned with turkish/stan countries. They are bigger, have a more western-style body, and have a totally different language and culture than the rest of China.

Officially the people of Xinjiang (called Uighers–pronounced we-gurs) are one of the 55 ethnic minorities the government loves to tout and promote. But things aren’t so peaceful and it is a region known for unrest.

Not that the local people are just being snickity. They have some real grievances. Uighurs are mostly Muslim. Women wear colorful hijab and dresses that cover their arms and legs. Muslim men also traditionally wear white prayer caps, but in Xinjiang they wear colorful hats called “dopa’s” which is a special dress of the Uighur people.

So, how to oppress a religious group of people? Why take away their religion of course. During Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday where people refrain from eating during daylight hours, the government forced people to eat, and ordered restaurants to stay open. Students, teachers, government officials and anyone working for the government was made to orally promise to eat, and in some cases asked to sign a contract saying they would eat. If a Muslim restaurant closed they were told they would be forced to close forever. Students would be kicked out of school and workers would be fired.

A local Uighur wearing the ornately stitched Dopa hat special to Xinjiang.

A Uighur man wearing the ornately stitched Dopa hat special to Xinjiang.

Another favorite trick of China is to invade with the greatest ammo it has: population. When Xinjiang rejoined the China “fold” in 1949 the Han Chinese population was less than 10%. Now it is almost half. Predictably, the higher paying jobs are going to the Han Chinese, leaving more menial labor style jobs for the locals. This has also not gone over well.

There has been tensions for decades and it’s not getting better. The biggest incident in recent years was the rioting of 2009. The Uihers started with protests that soon turned violent against the Han Chinese. Police were called in from other parts of China and two days later, hundreds were dead and thousands were injured (both Han and Uigher). The internet was completely blocked in this region for 6-month.

And the region has never recovered. There are constant attacks from Uighers to Han Chinese. The bulk being in Xinjiang, but some have gone further including a famous incident in Kunming in 2014 where a group of eight people stabbed and killed civilians killing 29 and injuring more than a hundred. No one officially took credit for the attack, but within hours the government-run newspaper said Xinjiang separatists were responsible for the attack. Several of the attackers were killed during the incident and the remaining perpetrators were caught and executed soon after. There are some that said China was too hasty in blaming Xinjiang people. Needless to say, there are bad feelings on both sides.

And things aren’t getting better, especially in the capital city of Urumqi. Even before I entered Xinjiang I noticed a substantial increase in security. As I went further west in Gansu province towards Xinjiang security was tightened. Train stations were suddenly surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire. ID and luggage checks were more frequent and intense. Train station workers were wearing bullet proof vests over their blue uniforms.

I wasn't brave enough to take pictures of all the armed guards, but I did take a quick picture of the entrance of the local city bus. You had to go through a scanner (a guard--without a gun--was standing right by to check everyone.)

I wasn’t brave enough to take pictures of all the armed guards, but I did take a quick picture of the entrance of the local city bus. You had to go through a scanner (a guard–without a gun–was standing right by to check everyone.)

I took a bus to Urumqi and we had to stop on the highway for a security check. We had to get off the bus, have our stuff and ID’s scanned, then the bus had to go through another security screening before we were allowed to board. Buses, the local city ones, had security and were surrounded by a chain fence. Every large store in Urumqi had a guard with riot gear standing by. Armored vehicles were parked in all sorts of places, with fully clad soldiers standing at attention, their fingers on the trigger of semi-automatic guns. On the street there would be random “cages” which housed three-four silent soldiers, standing at attention, scanning the street. To enter the People’s Park, you had to go through airport-style security (watched over by several fully-armed soldiers) and standing at various points were more armed soldiers, standing stock still in a trifecta position, one looking forward, one to the right and one to left ready for an attack from any direction.

Every street was surrounded by fences.

Every street was surrounded by fences.

Airport security was obviously stepped up but not just to get into the airport. When one of my planes landed at the Urumqi airport (from Kashgar, another part of Xinjiang) a group of a dozen, fully clad soldiers with guns, met us at the top of the exit ramp and demanded to see ID before letting you get off the exit ramp. The exit ramp on the a plane!

Needless to say, none of this made me feel very safe. I’ll admit these soldiers did look quite trained and serious, but it wouldn’t take much for a benign situation to escalate quickly. And with all those guns and soldiers with their fingers on the triggers there has to be more than a few accidents.

And it was clearly a racist system. For instance, in almost all the security checks, I was waved through without any hassle. At one point the guard took my passport then asked (in Chinese) “What country are you from?” I wanted to point out he had my passport in his hands so he could find out for himself, but I just mumbled “America” before he handed me my passport and waved me through. He didn’t even open it.

And when I was getting off the plane, and I saw all the guards, I had no idea what was going on. I just took out my ticket and held it up, and the guard just waved me on while I noticed everyone else was getting their ID’s checked.

Even my untrained eye noticed a big difference in how ID’s were checked. Han Chinese were asked for their ID’s which were briefly looked at, or scanned, and they were told to continue. Uigher’s ID’s were looked at in more detail, their faces scrutinized for much longer before they were scanned and allowed to continue. And once, while on a tourist bus full of Han Chinese tourists, we were waved through a highway security check. I looked at the station as we passed and saw the buses that were stopped were full of local people. I know American tend to root for the underdog, but even I was feeling a bit outraged at the blatant difference of the treatment of Han people versus the Uighurs.

Almost all of the guards were Han Chinese. The only place I saw Uighur police was in Kashgar, in the far west of the country (next to the Pakistan border). They had the uniforms and the police golf-carts to drive around on, but they would sit and chat at their posts with locals. They didn’t have any guns. When I did see a police with a gun, it was a Han Chinese. I don’t know if this is indicative of the force as a whole, but I didn’t see a Uighur police with a gun my entire trip.

And this attitude has bled through to the entire population of China, which is why I was so regularly cautioned by well-meaning Chinese friends. While in Xinjiang I lost my kindle. I stupidly left it on a bench one afternoon. When I wrote “I lost my Kindle!” on my WeChat the biggest response was to tell me to be careful because “those people are dangerous and wild.” My Chinese friends had assumed it was stolen.

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression though. The people were incredibly friendly and despite all this police presence I didn’t see any violence or feel threatened. I tried to speak English as much as I could out of respect (I heard they don’t like to speak Chinese) but often I had to just because English isn’t widely known out there. Though I found many of the locals, like taxi drivers, also couldn’t speak Chinese beyond the basics. (Mandarin is the language taught in school though, so the educated students can speak it fluently.)

Usually when foreigners think of China, Tibet gets all the support. The problems of Xinjiang are not well-known in the west. Perhaps it is because they are Muslim (and westerners aren’t exactly sympathetic to Muslims) and there is no kind leader like the Dalai Lama to get behind. But it seems to me the problems in Xinjiang are just as real, and much more dangerous and need to be figured out soon.

P.S. This is just my opinion based on what I have seen and heard in my time in China, not based on politics or history of the region. If you want to argue politics I’ll stop you now by saying you win. I don’t know a ton about this region and the long history it has with China. I’m just expressing my opinion at what I saw and how I felt. If you want more of a knowledgeable source, you can read this primer by the BBC. 

 

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The Food of Xinjing (Don’t Read if You’re Hungry)

I think now would be the time to tackle one of the best parts of my trip: the food.

One of the things I love about food in China is it is fresh. Every dish has lots and lots of veggies and every spare patch of ground houses a small vegetable garden. But the far west is a desert region, and as a result the food has evolved differently here.

Meat, meat, meat, meat (and bread). Being a Muslim region pork isn’t common, but neither is beef. It’s all about the lamb.

Warning: Vegetarians might want to skip the rest of this post.

Meat, meat, meat, meat!

You would think that after a day or two of eating a mutton diet I would get sick of it. But somehow I didn’t. In fact, I started craving it. Mutton is a common meat all over China, but it’s a million times better in Xinjiang. The meat skewers have big pieces just chewy, high-quality meat, not all stringy with fat. But to add flavor, they put a big piece of fat in the middle and cook it up crispy so it drips with fatty goodness.

The ubiquitous meat skewers. About .50-80 cents per stick.

The ubiquitous meat skewers. About .50-80 cents per stick and grilled to perfection.

And if you’re feeling a bit peckish while out and about, finding these meat sellers is quite easy. Just follow the billowing clouds of smoke coming off the outdoor grills. In the past Beijing had banned outdoor barbecues in an attempt to cut down on pollution. Of course everyone laughed at the stupidity of it, but I finally understood why someone thought of it in the first place. If you walk down a street with a few of these places, you can’t see from the smoke and have to breath cautiously. But the food is all worth it, and if the BBQ’s really contribute to the pollution, it’s a sacrifice I would be willing to make.

Follow the smoke!

Follow the smoke!

And don’t forget the samsas (called kaobaozi in Chinese). Like a Xinjiang meat pie, cooked in big metal cauldrons.

Meat, onions and spices in the middle, baked bread outside. Four of these bad boys and I'd be stuffed all morning.

Meat, onions and spices in the middle, baked bread outside. Four of these bad boys and I’d be stuffed all morning.

My friends enjoying a few samsas as an afternoon snack. I preferred it as a breakfast food.

My friends enjoying a few samsas as an afternoon snack. I preferred it as a breakfast food.

There are other foods available in Xinjiang or course. Though mutton is a staple in most of them.

This pilaf, called zhuan fan in Chinese, is a tradition Uighur food.

This pilaf, called zhuan fan in Chinese, is a tradition Uighur food.

Hand-pulled noodles is a common food when you are tired of eating mutton.

Hand-pulled noodles is a common food when you are tired of eating mutton.

Different food were boiling in a spicy soup. You just took out a skewer of things like tofu, mushrooms and others and paid for what you ate.

Different food were boiling in a spicy soup. You just took out a skewer of things like tofu, mushrooms and others and paid for what you ate.

A special, refreshing drink made from watered-down yogurt, available for less than fifty cents.

A special, refreshing drink made from watered-down yogurt, available for less than fifty cents.

Sheep's head soup. The guy would give you a big bowl of soup with part of a sheep's head in it, and you would dig out the meat pieces. No, I didn't try.

Sheep’s head soup. The guy would give you a big bowl of soup with part of a sheep’s head in it, and you would dig out the meat pieces. No, I didn’t try.

Some more food not for the squeamish. The guys would actually shake the cart to make the sheep move like a macabre bobble-head toy.

Some more food not for the squeamish. The guys would actually shake the cart to make the sheep move like a macabre bobble-head toy.

This looks like zongzi, a traditional chinese food, and is similar but has a different take on it. Inside the wrapper is sticky rice but instead fo a savory filling in the middle, they would add cream and honey and it was a sticky rice desert!

This looks like zongzi, a traditional chinese food, and is similar but has a different take on it. Inside the wrapper is sticky rice but instead of a savory filling in the middle, they would add cream and honey and it was a sticky rice desert!

My friend eating one of the sticky rice treats. he was a vegetarian so finding food in this region was a bit tricky and he ate a lot of bread and fruit.

My friend eating one of the sticky rice treats. he was a vegetarian so finding food in this region was a bit tricky and he ate a lot of bread and fruit. When you ordered this, they would give it on a plate and you would need to stay there to eat it.

Speaking of fruit, Xinjiang's hot, sunny climate is perfect for melosn. Watermelons, cantelopes, honeydew melons are all fresh and incredibly juicy. And costing about one to three dollars per melon. Yep, even the big ones!

Speaking of fruit, Xinjiang’s hot, sunny climate is perfect for melons. Watermelons, cantelopes, honeydew melons are all fresh and incredibly juicy. And costing about one to three dollars per melon, even the big ones!

Morning, noon and night, melon was on the table. Every hostel had giant knives and platters so you could cut them up and eat them while hanging out.

Morning, noon and night, melon was on the table. Every hostel had giant knives and platters so you could cut them up and eat them while hanging out.

If you were on the go, and buying and cutting a melon was too difficult, there were plenty of steeert sellers with melons and knives happy to give you a big slice for thirteen cents. This was a delicious treat many a hot, dusty afternoon.

If you were on the go, and buying and cutting a melon was too difficult, there were plenty of street sellers with melons and knives happy to give you a big slice for thirteen cents. This was a delicious treat many a hot, dusty afternoon.

Bread! In all shapes and sizes. Also a staple and I would consume 1-4 loves everyday. Some were plain, some had sesame seeds, or onion bits. What I wouldn't have given for a little cream cheese as these would be the ultimate bagel substitutes!

Bread! In all shapes and sizes. Also a staple and I would consume one to four of these discs everyday. Some were plain, some had sesame seeds, or onion bits. What I wouldn’t have given for a little cream cheese as these would be the ultimate bagel substitutes!

Fresh out of the "oven" or, as it were, cauldrons. I would always ask for the yummy, hot ones and break into it right away.

Fresh out of the “oven” or, as it were, cauldrons. I would always ask for the hot ones and break into it right away.

Homemade, hand-churned ice cream. for thirty cents a cup, this was a treat I had daily. The flvaor was a butter/milk flavor. Delish and refreshing!

Homemade, hand-churned ice cream. for thirty cents a cup, this was a treat I had daily. The flavor was a butter/milk flavor.

This is about half of the pics of food I took (yes, I’m one of those people) but I think I’ve bored you enough with these. While I missed fresh veggies in Xinjiang, I will forever dream of the amazing mutton, and bread I had while there.

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The Sunburn Chronicles: Turpan, the Second Lowest Point on Earth

Given my very public aversion to heat you think I’d avoid going to the hottest spot in China. A place that is the second lowest point on earth (after the Dead Sea) and below sea level. Just my luck, in the days leading up to my stop, they had a sudden heat wave and temperatures in Turpan were measured at 167 degree Fahrenheit (75 degree Celsius).

A HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SEVEN FRIGGIN DEGREES, PEOPLE!!!!

But in the comfort of my air-conditioned home, weeks ago, I had bought a train ticket to there, and booked my hostel. I had to go.

Luckily the day I arrived the heat wave had broke, and temps were down to their regular 100-116. (40-47 C.) Sitting at the hostel watching the thermometer go up to 115 degrees isn’t fun. You’ll probably expect me to start ranting about how miserable it was, and how I hated every second.

But I didn’t.

Actually Turpan turned out to be one of the best spots of the trip. It was due to two reasons: An awesome hostel, and awesome people.

Like all of Xinjiang, Turpan is dry. Which means dry heat. If you stayed in the shade with a fan, you could survive and be (relatively) cool. In fact, the only thing to do when confronted with such wild, inhumane temperatures is sit and relax.

No one could sit inside (most rooms didn't have air conditioners) so we all sat around outside under the fans. Staying at this hostel took on a sort of "summer camp" feel and all the travelers had a great time just chatting and getting to know each other.

No one could sit inside (most rooms didn’t have air conditioners) so we all sat around outside under the fans. Staying at this hostel took on a sort of “summer camp” feel and all the travelers had a great time just chatting and getting to know each other.

Turpan is also famous for grapes. It’s such a hot dry climate, it’s perfect for grapes. You think nothing would grow in these conditions, but actually Turpan is fed by underground water sources. So while rain is very rare, there is plenty of greenery all around, and grapes thrive.

My hostel, the amazing Dap Hostel, was a traditional muslim courtyard house. The hostel rooms were on one side, and the middle was a courtyard with raised seating platforms covered by grapes. With a few well-placed fans, you could sit comfortably there all day. Which we did.

Westernand Asian travelers at the amazing Dap hostel in Turpan, Xinjiang. Days started off with freshly baked nann bread, homemade yogurt and fresh melons, all made by local Uighers.

Mornings started around 10am (which was more like 8am sunrise time) and we would eat fresh grown melons (which the region is famous for) nan bread and yogurt. These were some of my favorite breakfasts I’ve ever had. 

But there are things to be seen in Turpan, and as a tourist I had to do my duty. One day, four of us rented a car and spent all day driving around looking at the sights.

For literature fans, Turpan has a most historic site: the Flaming Mountain. Made famous by Journey to the West, one of the “four classic books” of China, the Flaming Mountain is an important place in literature. Of course, there aren’t actually flames there, but the place is so sparse, dry and hot that it has heat waves coming off it that can make the ground shimmer like flames.

To me, the place looked more like Tatooine (if you don't know what Tatooine is, ask a nerd).

To me, the place looked more like Tatooine (if you don’t know what Tatooine is, ask a nerd). That’s flaming Mountain on the right. 

We also went to the ruins of an ancient city called Gaochang. This place was originally the stopping point on the Silk Road. Also the local Uighur’s used to be Buddhist, before the Muslim religion came to the region, and these ruins house a large Buddhist temple. (Buddhism originally entered China via the Silk Road.) But life here was not peaceful, with Chinese and Mongolian leaders all battling for control. It was destroyed by the 14th century and has stood deserted, the dry climate protecting the remains.

The gaocheng ruins looked a lot like something out of the west. If John Wayne rode his horse by us, I wouldn't have been surprised.

The Gaochang ruins looked a lot like something out of the west. If John Wayne rode his horse by us, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Despite it being a well-known tourism spot, the place was practically empty due to the heat. My friends and I didn't stay on the path and we tramped around all over, jumping into deep (but dry) riverbeds, and walking through the ancient buildings. (Don't worry, we didn't disturb anything.)

Despite it being a well-known tourism spot, the place was practically empty due to the heat. My friends and I didn’t stay on the path and we tramped around all over, jumping into deep (but dry) riverbeds, and walking through the ancient buildings. (Don’t worry, we didn’t disturb anything.)

Our driver just pulled over on a random road and we played around in a grape farm. We asked the driver if it was okay to take some grapes and he said of course. "There are way too many grapes here for them to harvest." I might have come during the hottest part of the year, but at least it was grape season!

Our driver just pulled over on a random road and we played around in a grape farm. We asked the driver if it was okay to take some grapes and he said of course. “There are way too many grapes here for them to harvest.” I might have come during the hottest part of the year, but at least it was grape season!

Since the local Uighers were originally Buddhist, there is still evidence of the Buddhist past including more caves with Buddhist paintings and art inside them. Unfortunately, unlike the Magao Caves, these were looted and the art was chipped off the wall and sent to collectors around the world. There wasn’t much to see, but we managed to have fun.

There wasn't much artwork left to see, but there was a local playing a local instrument. He encouraged us to come over and play. Then he got a little handsy.

There wasn’t much artwork left to see, but there was a local playing a local instrument. He encouraged us to come over and play. Then he got a little handsy.

 

One of the famous Monkey King movies was filmed here, at Flaming Mountain. The sets have been left for people's enjoyment, but not maintained. They look like old temples or something.

One of the famous Monkey King movies was filmed here, at Flaming Mountain. The sets have been left for people’s enjoyment, but not maintained. They look like old temples or something.

We also went to a Tuyoq Village,a traditional Muslim village where people live just like the old days. Unfortunately, this was where the heat caught up with me, and I thought I was gonna pass out/puke. So I let the others go ahead while I found some shade to sit under. (I drank probably 4-5 bottles of water throughout the day and had eaten two ice creams. It was just too overwhelming in the end despite all my precautions.) I did get some raisins here from the local people and they were the best tasting raisins of my life.

Since the sun didn't set until about 10pm, nights were late. The town was still filled with people around midnight. But we had to be quiet as almost everyone sleeps outside, on the roof. In fact, outside was cooler than many of the rooms without a/c so people sleot outside rather than their beds. Luckily, I had air conditioning and slept comfortably inside.

Since the sun didn’t set until about 10pm, everyone stayed up late. But we had to be quiet after midnight as almost all the local people sleep outside, on the roof, so we had to keep it down because of the neighbors. In fact, outside was cooler than many of the rooms in the hostel without a/c so people slept outside rather than their beds. Luckily, I had air conditioning and slept comfortably inside. The benefits of booking ahead. 

So despite the horrible temperatures and mild heat stroke, I was quite upset at leaving Turpan. It was a beautiful place, delicious food, and I had met amazing people. Luckily, as I continued my journey westward I would run into several of them again. No regrets!

Tang (seen here holding someone else's kid) and her husband opened this hostel recently and it was my favorite stay of the trip. The place was spotless, their dog well behaved and everyone was so cool. I don't usually talk about hostels on my blog, but this one was worth it.

Tang (seen here holding someone else’s kid) and her husband opened this hostel recently and it was my favorite stay of the trip. The place was spotless, their dog well behaved and everyone was so cool. I don’t usually talk about hostels on my blog, but this one was worth it.

Travel Tips: Stay at the Dap Hostel. Don’t be a dummy and miss out on this great place. Think I’m just blowing smoke up your ass? It’s the number one rated place on tripadvisor, has a 94% rating on hostelworld, and a 9.1 rating on booking.com. So it’s not just me.

 

 

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Big Ass Buddahs!

You live in asia for awhile you see a lot of temples. And in these temples you see a lot of Buddhas. When you live in China, a country that believes bigger is better, you are bound to see not only Buddha’s but some of the biggest Buddha’s in all the world.

The granddaddy of them all is Leshan’s Big Buddha which I went to way back in 2009. It is the largest stone statue of buddha and the tallest “pre-modern world” statue ever. It was carved in the side of a mountain and took 90 years to complete. You can read more about it in my original blog entry.

Leshan Big Buddha, Sichuan, China

But everywhere I go places boast of “the biggest Buddha.” For instance I went to the oldest and largest reclining Buddha in Thailand (located in Bangkok).

Recling Buddha in Bangkok thailand

And in Hong Kong I went to the Tian Tan statue, the largest seated Buddha in that area.

Tian Tan Buddha in Hong Kong

I have a vague memory of seeing the largest jade buddha (which was only a few feet tall, but carved out of jade). Can’t remember where it was and feeling to lazy to google it, but I know I did.

I like the big ass statues. The old ones are impressive in their craftsmanship, and the new ones are impressive in the scale and scope. So if there is a big ass buddah in the area, I’ll make an effort to see them.

So when I was in Zhangye and heard there was a temple called the Big Buddha Temple I couldn’t resist. He was of the lying variety and was very impressive indeed.

It’s China’s biggest indoor sleeping Buddha statue. It’s about 100 years old and is 34.5 meters long (113 feet). It is said that eight people could stand on its ear, but I didn’t try.

What I did do was sneak a picture despite the many “no photo” signs. (Don’t tsk, dozens of others were taking pics and the guard didn’t stop any of them, so basically it was okay.)

The Big Buddha of Zhangye, China

Soon after I entered a more Muslim part of China and temples gave way to mosques. But no trip in China is complete without visiting a big ass Buddha!

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The Sunburn Chronicles: How I Used my Sweet and Innocent Face to Sneak into the Magao Caves

Since my camera decided to stay in the hostel that day, I took zero pictures. The pictures in this post are from Wikipedia and the UNESCO World Heritage site official page.

Since my camera decided to stay in the hostel that day, I took zero pictures. The pictures in this post are from Wikipedia and the UNESCO World Heritage site official page. Inside this building was a giant, seating Buddha the entire height of this building. 

So remember when I said traveling in this region was tough? Well, I had the most difficulty in Dunhuang, China. Going to the desert was easy, my hostel was right next door and I just walked. But the other exciting part of town is the Magao Grotto. It is one of the best preserved Buddhist artwork sites in the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As such, I thought information would be easy and services convenient.

I was wrong.

Turns out, unlike pretty much every place in China, you cannot go to the caves to get a ticket. It is protected and they only allow 6,000 people a day. For China 6,000 is like, the amount of customers at one KFC. That is to say, not a lot. And I was there in summer. On the weekend.

I figured out I needed to pre-buy tickets Saturday night for a Sunday visit. I asked my hostel for help. “Mei banfa,” she said. Loosely translated to “Your on your own sucker, now fuck off so I can keep watching this TV show.” I took out my ipad and started searching the web. Again, my thinking of “it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, there must be a ton of info!” turned out to be quite incorrect.

Even worse, it seemed like quite recently, the process had changed. So the information gleaned from different sites was contradictory. I eventually figured out I had to go into town to the official ticket office to get a ticket which would have a time I would need to arrive at the caves. So Sunday morning I did just that. I figured I would never get a ticket for that day, but she told me I could get an afternoon time. I couldn’t believe my luck!

“Today?” I double checked (speaking Chinese).

“This afternoon,” she said. She took a pen and changed the printed date on the ticket from the 8th to the 7th. It was a little sketchy but she was the official ticket seller so I figured it was fine. I took my ticket and went back to the hostel.

About 30 minutes before my appointed time, I left my hostel to find  taxi. As I’m walking I realized I left my phone in my room and ran back, hot and sweaty, to get it. Then I ran back out into the road and flagged down a taxi. “Magao,” I told him.

“Magao Grotto?” he said back and I nodded. Actually I didn’t know the Chinese word for grotto so he took out a picture on a brochure and pointed.

“Yeah!” I said taking out my ticket to show him. Only the ticket had a picture of the desert on it, not the Buddhist artwork. “Is this right?” I said looking closer at it.

“No, this is for the desert. Not the caves.”

I searched through my bag and came up empty handed. “It must be in my room, can we go to my hostel first and get it?” I asked the driver.

The artwork inside the caves is incredibly preserved with every cave filled with statues, colors and paintings all over.

The artwork inside the caves is incredibly preserved with every cave filled with statues, colors and paintings all over.

So we drove back to the hostel and I tore apart my room looking for the damn ticket. Nothing. I upended my bag all over the bed, and searched through the few items there. Still nothing. I didn’t have much stuff, just an extra pair of pants and a few shirts, but I threw them all over the room looking for this damn ticket. Finally, I kinda shifted my diary and saw a piece of paper underneath. It was the ticket! I grabbed it, stuffed a bunch of junk back in my bag and ran back out to the driver who was getting impatient.

We drove to the caves, we were chatting in the car, and I reach in my bag to check my phone for the time. It wasn’t there. I checked my pockets. Not there. I re-checked my bag. Nothing. I resigned myself to fate. It seemed Buddha was determined for me to not have my phone/camera that day.

My ordeal didn’t end there though. I entered the hall, scanned my ticket and a big red X shows up. Fudge. They looked at my ticket. “It’s for tomorrow,” they said in Chinese. The woman had changed the date, from the 8th to the 7th on the ticket. But I had failed to realize that today was the 6th.

“She said it was for today, the woman that sold it to me,” I replied.

“We’ll call the manager,” said the ticket takers obviously wanting to get rid of me.

The outside of the caves are covered in a kind of protective stucco with a walkway built on the outside. Caves have heavy-duty doors which guides must open and close with each group. It seems a bit extreme but i was quite happy at the level of security to ensure these relics aren't damaged.

The outside of the caves are covered in a kind of protective stucco with a walkway built on the outside. Caves have heavy-duty doors which guides must open and close with each group. It seems a bit extreme but I was quite happy at the level of security to ensure these relics aren’t damaged.

The manager came over, a nice middle-aged lady, and she took my ticket. “It’s for tomorrow, not today,” she said in Chinese speaking painfully slow like I was a dumb kid. “It says the 7th, today is the 6th.”

“I know,” I said.

“It says the 7th, see? Today is the 6th,” she said pointing it out again.

“I know. But the woman said it was for today.”

“Where did you buy it?”

“At the office downtown,” I said.

“Well, it says the 7th, but today is the 6th.” But at this point the manager kinda stopped and looked at the ticket. because officially the ticket had printed the 8th and the lady at the office had changed it with a pen.

“Well, this is weird,” she said thinking. “Come over here a minute.” and we walked over to the coat check area while she took out her walkie-talkie to speak to someone else. Then she said, in English, “wait a moment, someone is coming out.”

I decided at this point, my best strategy was to play dumb. Suddenly my Chinese became halting and to everything she said I replied with “What? What?” until she just spoke English. I tried to look sweet, dumb, innocent. Like a baby animal you had to help.

The other manager looked at my ticket, and was confused by the writing as well. He called the downtown ticket office and asked about it. They spoke rapid Chinese and while pretending I didn’t understand, I listened and could tell the conversation was going my way.

“It says the 7th but today is the 6th,” said the other manager, repeating what I clearly knew already.

“I’m leaving tomorrow. I can’t come back!” I implored. Truth was I had a night train at midnight the next day. I could have come back the next afternoon but I had payed for the taxi dammit! And I was there now. They conferred and I heard the female manager fighting for me. Finally, the man relented and the woman told me that since I was leaving, I could go today. We went to an office where I got a new ticket, and entered.

But that kind lady didn’t stop there. The tour starts with two movies, in Chinese, and she got me special headphones with an English translation. “Enjoy your time,” she said. It was real customer service. In China! I was grateful to her she really didn’t have to be so nice, even in the face of me playing dumb.

Some of the caves had parables painted in them, and I enjoyed hearing the stories.

Some of the caves had parables painted in them, and I enjoyed hearing the stories.

As for the caves themselves, they were quite amazing. You had to go with a group. The doors to each cave was locked and only the guide could open it (also, the caves had no light in them, so you needed to guide’s flashlight.) There were no tours in English that late, which was a shame because in each cave she talked quite a bit about when it was made and the meanings of the paintings. I understood only a few of the stories (my Buddhism vocabulary is not up to snuff, so I could only understand when she was telling the stories behind some of the paintings) but the place was fascinating. Very well preserved and each cave was filled with color and meaning.

It also has some sad history of major looting. Not mob-style grabs, but by foreigners who slowly, methodically won the trust of the head monks and then paid small fees to ship the amazing trove of books and artwork out of there. It happened more than 100 years ago, but the sore feelings are still fresh and it was brought up again and again on the tour.

But honestly, I will remember that day not for the artwork or the remote mountain caves, but rather for the ordeal it turned out to be and the nice manager that saved the day. Sometimes the journey is more memorable than the destination.

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The Sunburn Chronicles: Back in the Gobi Desert

Years ago, I took a trip to Inner Mongolia. We went to the grasslands and also took a long car ride to a spot of the Gobi Desert in the northeast section, where you could sled down a dune and ride camels.

Well, I ended up back in the Gobi, only this time at the opposite end. I went to Dunhuang, Gansu province, a beautiful oasis town that was a must-stop on the ancient Silk Road in both ancient and modern times. The desert is right smack in the middle, but the place is lush and if you go into town, you would have no idea sand dunes are looming close by.

And loom they do. As you approach them you kinda have to rub your eyes to be sure you are seeing clearly at the towering dunes in the distance. This part of the Gobi is called the Echoing Sand Mountain.

Gobi Desert in Dunhuang, China

 

I stayed at a hostel right next to the dunes and the sand covering everything was a small price to stay for the nights of quiet and beauty. I’m a bit ashamed to say I never quite motivated myself to wake up in time to catch the sunrise, but I hung around for a few sunsets and even sweated out an afternoon there.

There is a bit of a amusement park element to the desert in Dunhuang, you can sled down a dune, ride a camel or take a short paragliding flight, but the place is so big and vast, there is space to be free and find some quiet. And if you go in the afternoon under the sweltering desert sun, you basically have the place to yourself! (Though I wouldn’t recommend it if you like your skin not burnt to a crisp.)

At night people walk up the dunes to catch the beautiful sunset.

At night people walk up the dunes to catch the beautiful sunset which, in the summer, is around 10pm. There are some wood pieces embedded in the sand to aid with climbing.

Dunhuang Gobi Desert

Gobi desert in Dunhuang China

Hidden behind some massive dunes is the Crescent lake, a 2,000 year old lake in the middle of the desert, kept intact by the fortune of sands settling to the sides not smothering the lake (and modern efforts at refilling the lake keep it at a regular depth.) A pavilion was built to honor this lake (in the Qing or Ming Dynasty, my bried research didn’t turn up an exact date) and now tourists flock to it just to get out of the damn sun!

I went during the day and it was almost abandoned. I soon realized why, as walking the short distance left me overheated and parched. Luckily the pagoda area has some cold drinks available.

I went during the day and it was almost abandoned. I soon realized why, as walking the short distance left me overheated and parched. Luckily the pavilion area has some cold drinks available.

 

The pagoda are is lush with trees and small tenples. You can forget you are in the middle of the desert until you look out and see the dunes looming in every direction.

The pavilion is lush with trees and small temples. You can forget you are in the middle of the desert until you look out and see the dunes looming in every direction.

Singing Sands, Dunhuang China

Travel tips: Sunrise and sunset are the best times to go for both the temperatures and photo-taking opportunities. The ticket is expensive (120 RMB) but is good for three days with one caveat: the first time you enter the gate, you must tell them you want three days and they scan your fingerprint. Then, to enter the next time you need to show your ticket and scan your fingerprint. If you just show up the second day with your ticket they won’t let you in. This isn’t explained at all in the ticket office so be aware.

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The Breathtaking Danxia Rainbow Rocks of Zhangye

I’m human, and even though I get annoyed at “listicles” I can’t help but click on any list called “25 Truly Amazing Places You Must Visit Before you Die,” or “27 Surreal Places to Visit Before you Die!” On almost all those lists is the Danxia Rainbow Rocks of Zhangye. So when I found myself in Zhangye, I knew I had to go.

Later in the day is the time to go to see these beauties shine. As the light changes the color changes and it is truly breathtaking. The rocks were formed by periods of erosion, freezing, thawing and desert conditions. Even better the park is well maintained and organized (with shuttle buses driving you around the the four scenic spots) and while there was thousands upon thousands of visitors, the place was clean and orderly.

And pictures don’t quite do the place justice (especially with my 3-year-old cell phone). It was even more breathtaking in person.

Danxie Rainbow Rocks of Zhangye China

The rocks have slowly eroded over time and there are unique shapes like pillars and mounds. One area looks like several monks kowtowing to a sleeping Buddha. Not all the rocks are colorful, but even the plain ones have an immense beauty.

Danxia Rainbow Rocks, Zhangye China

Danxie Rainbow Rocks of Zhangye, China

Danxie Rainbow Rocks of Zhangye, China

Danxie Rainbow Rocks, Zhangye, China

Danxie Rainbow Rocks of Zhangye, China

Hello sunburn, my old friend.

Travel Tips: You need to rent a car to get here from Zhangye (or take a tour) as it is about an hour away from the city. Your admission ticket pays for the shuttle buses between the four viewing areas. At sunset the fourth is the most beautiful but also the most popular with thousands of people jostling to take the best pictures. It’s not worth fighting the crowds as the other locations are incredibly beautiful and less crowded.

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Spelunking in Mati Temple

I’ve seen a lot of amazing temples in my time in China. One of the most amazing was the Hanging Monastery in Datong, China. It’s built on the side of a sheer cliff face, and is holding up thanks to a few beams and walkways.

But the Hanging Monastery has now been ousted from the number one spot, and a new temple took it’s place as my favorite: the Mati Temple in Zhangye.

It’s because the Hanging Monastery hangs. It’s built on the outside of the cliff face, with a few walkways dug slightly into the temple. But not the Mati Temple. It is built almost entirely inside the mountain. And you get to walk, and crawl, and scramble through the narrow passageways to explore it.

Looks impressive from the outside, but squeezing through the rough stairwells, and finding secret rooms in the cliff face makes it way more fun.

Looks impressive from the outside, but squeezing through the rough stairwells, and finding secret rooms in the cliff face makes it way more fun. You can climb all the way up to the tippy-top room you can see in the picture. 

No one knows when exactly it was built though based on the style of art, it was probably 5th or 6th century. The name, translated, means Horse’s Hoof Temple because there is a hoof print of a magical horse embedded in the floor of one of the rooms.

You need to squeeze through small passages carved into the rock face.

You need to squeeze through small passages carved into the rock face.

You enter the cliff by the small door on the bottom right, and proceed to climb a narrow, and incredibly steep set of stairs and passages in the cliff side. At some point they had workers who had to help lift you up because the stairs were so steep.

You enter the cliff by the small door on the bottom right, and proceed to climb a narrow, and incredibly steep set of stairs and passages in the cliff side. At some point they had workers who had to help lift you up because the stairs were so steep.

You weren't allowed to take any pictures inside the temple but I snuck a picture as I was descending from the top-most room.

You weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the temple but I snuck a picture as I was descending from the top-most room.

This area is a well-known Buddhist area and the whole temple had a very Tibeaten buddhist feeling to it, with the colorful flags draped over everything, and a lot of writing in the Tibetan script instead of Chinese.

This area is a well-known Buddhist area and the whole temple had a very Tibeaten buddhist feeling to it, with the colorful flags draped over everything, and a lot of writing in the Tibetan script instead of Chinese.

There are several areas or interest and you need a car to explore them all. This was a temple dedicated to a prince and the temple actually goes right through the center of the small mountain. Also, you can see what a gorgeous area it was.

There are several areas of interest and you need a car to explore them all. This was a temple dedicated to a prince and the temple actually goes right through the center of the small mountain. Also, you can see what a gorgeous area it was. This historic area is nestled in the Linsong Mountains. 

Mati Temple, Zhangye China

Travel Tips: It’s located about 65km away from the city of Zhangye, so you need to hire a car. At my hostel, they arranged a shared car/van for 50rmb per person. Of course the taxi drivers in the city (with official blue uniforms) are used to driving tourists there and will wait for you and shuttle you around, though for a considerably higher price. Taxi drivers meet each arriving train and wave brochures around trying to sell their services.

I went during the peak of the summer travel season and the place was relatively empty. No giant tour buses or big groups which I found refreshing. Though some of the narrow passages and stairwells in the mountain were monitored because they were too small for two people pass each other so they had to control the foot traffic.

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Back from Xinjiang and Gansu!

I’m back! And what a month I’ve had. I know I always say that each holiday is “the BEST ever!!” but this time I mean it. I walked in deserts, I climbed lush mountains that reminded me of the Swiss Alps, I saw snow covered peaks while I was sweltering in 115 degree weather (47 Celsius). And history, so much history! I stayed on the Silk Road, the fabled eastern trade route that many have traveled before me, including the grand pubah: Marco Polo. It was very cool to be walking in the footsteps of these great travelers.

The Distances are Vast

I only traveled in two of China provinces, but I crossed almost half of the country. I flew to Lanzhou, in Gansu province which is considered the geographical center of the country. Then I took trains and buses 2,129 miles (3,426km) which is further than the distance between Chicago and LA. And I was only in TWO provinces.

Lanzhou was a bit of a boring city, but I only spent one night there, long enough to have their signature dish: beef noodles. In every city in all over China, 兰州拉面 or Lanzhou pulled noodles, is a common dish. To be IN Lanzhou eating these famous noodles was very exciting.

Lanzhou was a bit of a boring city, but I only spent one night there, long enough to have their signature dish: beef noodles. In every city in all over China, 兰州拉面 or Lanzhou pulled noodles, is a common dish. To be IN Lanzhou eating these famous noodles was very exciting.

Most train rides were about 7-8 hours, the longest being 20. The worst train ride was between Zhangye and Dunhuang. It was seven hours in a seat on the old trains. If you’ve traveled in China you know the old trains have just one hard bench where 3 people sit. I got the aisle seat, and there were lots of people standing in the aisles so I had nothing to lean on. I ended up just slumping over my lap and managing a few fitful hours of sleep. When I went to the bathroom in the morning the toilet was covered in so much shit, I gagged. (I still used it though.) The twenty hour train ride with a bed and a wall socket was a breeze comparatively.

The long and sleepless train ride. My seatmates managed to get themselves into all sorts of tangled positions to catch a few winks. Even thought it was uncomfortable it was still better than all the people who had to stand in the aisle.

The long and sleepless train ride. My seatmates managed to get themselves into all sorts of tangled positions to catch a few winks. (The girl in red is actually draped over another girl who’s leg you can see.) Even thought it was uncomfortable it was still better than all the people who had to stand in the aisle.

Traveling Resources are Few

Traveling in China is hella convenient. Public transportation is convenient and reliable. Hostels are newer and filled with helpful resources and English speakers. Tourist spots are well-known and easy to get to.

But not out west. I was surprised by the lack of all things. Train stations were often far away, sometimes hours away. And train times, incredibly inconvenient. I skipped one small town just because the train arrival times were 3am, 4am or 5am. Nothing else. (And the train were almost all the older trains, not the high-speed trains China is so famous for.)

Hostels weren’t much better. A place I figured would be teeming with travelers would have one, kinda crappy, hostel. Hostels in China are a relatively new thing and are usually clean, with a bright and eager staff. Not out here. They were old, tired and with very few helpful staff member (with a few exceptions of course).

Almost all hostels had open courtyards and one housed a big family of birds. The babies were learning to fly and this little guy actually flew into me and took a little break to recover his strength right next to me.

Almost all hostels had open courtyards and one housed a big family of birds. The babies were learning to fly and this little guy actually flew into me and took a little break to recover his strength right next to me. It was cute but also meant the hostel was covered in bird shit. 

And thank god I speak Chinese because I didn’t speak English once my whole first week. (I just didn’t see a westerner and no Chinese spoke English.)  Even “international hostels” were filled only with Chinese and the staff couldn’t speak English. And even famous tourist destinations were confusing. I wanted to go to the Magao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and had major difficulty. You couldn’t go to the site and enter, but had to pre-purchase tickets at a specific ticket office somewhere in town, and then get an appointment time. Even at the ticket office there wasn’t a lick of English and I managed to totally F the whole thing up and went the wrong time and day. Luckily I was saved by a very nice manager, but that was what happened to me, a Chinese speaker. I don’t know how other foreigners handled it.

That being said….

It was the Most Social of Trips I’ve Ever Had

Despite resources being so few, or perhaps because of, I ended up with a growing group of friends. Like I said, the Silk Road is well-known adventure and I’m not the only one who followed it. After that first English-free week, I met a Aussie named Daniel in one of my hostels as I was on my way to the next city. He was the first guy I had a conversation in English with. Who should I run into a few days later at my next hostel? Daniel. And who did I run into again while waiting in line to buy a ticket in Urumqi? Daniel. And who was the last person I said goodbye to before getting in a taxi to go back home? Daniel.

Several days had gone by without seeing each other and we hadn’t been in contact at all. I took a tourist bus from Urumqi to a famous lake about an hour outside the city. Daniel (on the left) had taken two local buses and a taxi. Yet when I got in line to buy a ticket who should I run into but him. He had met another traveler from Hong Kong and the three of us spent the day together hiking at the lake. There were thousands of tourists there that day, maybe 10,000 even and yet I run into him. What are the odds?! Also, we all wore plaid that day.  Coincidences abound!

And it wasn’t just Daniel, but Jace, and Stephen, and a guy who has been riding his bike around the world for 8 years, and the British guy and Japanese girl. (I didn’t always get, or remember everyone’s names.) And the people I met had always met the other travelers, on buses, or trains, so entering a new hostel became a bit of a reunion. “Hey! I know you!” was the most common greeting.

Westernand Asian travelers at the amazing Dap hostel in Turpan, Xinjiang. Days started off with freshly baked nann bread, homemade yogurt and fresh melons, all made by local Uighers.

Western and Asian travelers at the amazing Dap hostel in Turpan, Xinjiang. Days started off with freshly baked nan bread, homemade yogurt and fresh melons, all made by local Uighers.

Everything Moved at Desert Time

Because China has only one time zone (Beijing time) and because Xinjiang is as far west as California to New York, they operated on their own casual time zone which was two-hours behind. Official businesses, like banks and trains, operated on Beijing time. Everything else was Xinjiang time. For instance restaurants were empty at 7pm and filled at 9pm. Bedtime was usually 1-2am, and you’d sleep in until 9 or 10 the next day.

If you look close (and can read Chinese) the ticket says: Time (Beijing) 12:30. Everyone has to say either "Beijing time" or "Xinjiang time" after every mention of the time. Even a simple "what time is it?" had to be clarified.

If you look close (and can read Chinese) the ticket says: Time (Beijing) 12:30. Everyone has to say either “Beijing time” or “Xinjiang time” after every mention of the time. Even a simple “what time is it?” had to be clarified.

But there was another even more causal pace to things: desert time. Because the places were hot, blistering hot at times, afternoons were quiet. There was plenty of activity in the mornings and early afternoon, and then evening. But the afternoon, when the sun was the brightest and the heat most intense, people stayed away. Travelers got into that rhythm too, and we would spend many afternoon hours in the shaded hostel courtyards just chatting all afternoon until the temps cooled down a bit. Lot’s of grapes and melons were eaten during those hours. Naps were taken. It was a great pace of life I fell into quickly.

In kashgar we spent a few afternoons in a 100-year-old traditional tea house drinking the local brew and listening to Uighur music (more on this later.)

In kashgar we spent a few afternoons in a 100-year-old traditional tea house drinking the local brew and listening to Uighur music (more on this later.)

Food 

There will be many more posts on food next, but just a quick word on how ah-mazzzzing it was. Noodles was the order of the day, as was mutton. I began to miss vegetables and some fresh, light food, yet I also found myself craving the juicy grilled lamb kebabs dripping with fat or the wide, frisbee-like discs of nan bread. There were days where I ate mutton for breakfast and dinner and loved every bite.

The famous Xinjiang bread, called Naan (or nang in Chinese). One load cost fifteen cents and could feed two of us.

The famous Xinjiang bread, called Nan (or nang in Chinese). One cost fifteen cents and could feed two of us.

Weather

Remember how I said that I was going to try to get to cooler climates by heading west and up elevation-wise? Guess what, it didn’t work. Not only was the entire trip hot and dry, I ended up going to the hottest place in all of China. Daytime temps were almost always near 100 degrees F. (40 Celsius.) Because it was a dry climate the nights were cooler, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say cool. I wore my light sweater a grand total of one time. Luckily the places I went were lush and tree-filled so I managed to stay in the shade most of the time. Of course, the sun couldn’t be avoided and I had a wide-brimmed hat and sleeves for my arm to protect them. Didn’t really work and I got sun poisoning one day. Good news is I am now tanner than I have ever been in my life.

My wide brimmed hay protected my face, and I survived with very few face burns. My arms weren't so lucky.

My wide brimmed hay protected my face, and I survived with very few face burns. My arms weren’t so lucky. By the end of this day I was dizzy and nauseous and narrowly avoiding full-blown heat stroke.

So, the next few posts will be filled with specific places and things I saw. I’m going to be light on the writing, and heavy on the pics because not much needs to be said. (Though I do want to write a bit about the Uighur people, who are muslim and ethnically align more with middle-easterners than Chinese, but otherwise mostly picture essays.) I am very glad to explore a totally unique and different part of the country I have called my home for so long.  Stay tuned for more!

 

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