23 August 2019

Turpan: Xinjiang's Desert Vineyards...

The final stop during my Xinjiang summer trip was Turpan, a grape famous city located two hours from Urumqi on China's convenient high-speed rail. I wasn't ready for the ruins or the grapevines because everything was so raw and unspoiled! Saving the best for last, maybe? It was very nice to not have any disruption with hotels! Yes, my first day in Turpan was full bodied! 

Done with the my previous Urumqi hotel fiasco, I made my way back to Urumqi's extra secure railway station for the considerably shorter journey to Turpan, I was thankfully not taking anymore night trains that trip after travelling to Kashgar! The landscape changed as soon as we had left Urumqi's City limits, my high speed train hurtled down the line for Turpan North Railway Station. The passport check at the exit of Turpan's railway station was intense, once again my Chinese language skills came in very handy indeed! I was feeling a little apprehensive as my taxi made its way closer to my then booked hotel, the right to host foreigners in hotels within Xinjiang was proving to be a recurring monopoly! With a stroke of luck I was able to check into my hotel and pay for the room without any issues. That evening I found a restaurant that served me some delicious local food, the pilaf was gorgeous and the lamb kebabs tasted amazing! 

The next morning I was picked up by the driver and greeted my the tour guide, Benny. Leaving the small city centre allowed us to find the Astana Caves, a small plot of land that houses several well maintained caves. Moving onto the first major sight of the day brought to the Ancient City of Gaochang, that was a place that looked interested from the off. Practically having free rein of the deserts ruins, the ancient city impressed me much with its expanse of rugged sand coloured remains that gave me a real sense of how the city could have looked like back during those ancient days. The heat was beating down but it wasn't humid, the dry heat was fine to deal with in Turpan. Initially built during the First Century within the harsh Gobi Desert, I later learned that Gaochang was used as a Garrison town. In the moment I wasn't paying attention to those details because the rugged views were too good to miss! Turpan had me at ease, being Xinjiang the odd security check was expected. 

Driving away from the ancient ruins allowed me to see Turpan's true claim to fame, stopping alongside the road where some local people were boxing some grapes for export told me everything that I needed to know. Looking like the rolling hills within the French countryside, that corner of Turpan had an abundance of vineyards. Known for its irrigation secrets, the otherwise dry and flamingly hot soil doesn't show much life aside from those key cultivated piece of land, crafted into money making grapevines that help Turpan's local people make a living. I had a look on Taobao to find many sellers that shipped grapes from the region across China's mainland. It was amazing to see the lushness of the grapes and the rich green shades that reflected in the sun during that super hot July afternoon. It wasn't Bordeaux but Turpan had an honesty with its grape, raisin and wine trade. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised to see such a sight!

As lunch time approached I was hungry for lamb kebabs, yes lunch was lovely because it was in a local establishment that wasn't flashy at all! The bread was soft and hot, whereas the grapes that had picked from the nearby vines tasted so sweet and fresh and those kebabs were amazing! I adored the area that surrounded that lunch hangout, people had bed frames outside because the dry heat meant no mosquitoes bit the local people so they slept outside during the summer months. Kashgar had tourist qualities but Turpan had hidden gems that impressed me much, in one sense I felt like I was in Turkey once again! It was time for the afternoons programme to begin, hitting the road once again had us stopping for a lengthy security check. Passports checked once again, I stepped into a deserted township that felt bizarre, still yet orchestrated I didn't know how to feel about it. The heat in Turpan had so far been bearable but with the flaming sun beat down, I was melting! So, hot!

As my car made its way closer to  Turpan's Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, we stopped to see the effects of the searing heat. Set in a mound of sand, the clever guy who was in charge had eggs cooking within the sand. Charging people for the pleasure to boil their own egg in the sand I passed that opportunity up. Catching a glimpse at a rather lush valley that didn't look like it belonged within such a harsh and heated setting, the irrigation of Turpan's land sure produced an oasis like view. Arriving at the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves showcased four tourist coaches, that sight didn't impress me much but I had faith in my guide Benny to show me all the caves had without the hordes of domestic tourist making too much of a noisy presence. After climbing what felt like one thousand steps I was front with the view that I exactly wanted to see! Yes, the contrast between the greenery, mountains and caves worked perfectly!

Snatching just enough time in between the loud domestic tour groups, the caves didn't deserve the speaker noise that the tour guide made. Blocking that momentary nuisance from the exploration of the caves it was fine, get it good and get in line because nobody has time impatience. I'm not being bitter, this is just realness! The story behind the caves rich history impressed me much, the French explorer sure had a bad reputation but what intrepid soul has kept a souvenir from their travels? The religious mix allowed me to see some of the carvings scraped away, the Silk Road drip dropped new influences that didn't go down well with the local inhabitants of the time. As mentioned before the stark contrast between the harsh stone caves with the lush pastures below had me believing I was staring at a mirage. I really liked Turpan's Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, they gave me a sense of the local movements and the backdrop was flaming hot! Sure, Turpan held the key!

Concluding my first day in Turpan was a drive by the regions famous 'Flaming Mountain'. Complete with its own flame like detail, the deep red tones and dry setting allowed for a knock-out photo opportunity! At the beginning of the day I had the chance to see the scorching scenery of Turpan's flaming mountains, thankfully time permitted us with a short stop on the way back to my hotel in the later part of the afternoon. The majority of the domestic tourists had paid an entrance fee to take their photos in front of a tacky sign. The sign looked rather tacky but each to their own I said in that moment to myself. The striking landscape was the icing on the cake, the day had been so hot and with such rich sights I lived for every moment! I was in totally awe-struck, the rugged terrain impressed me much! Leaving the flaming mountain scenery behind us, my car drove me back to my city hotel. Turpan turned the heat right up! Go!

That days dinner had worn off good and proper, not wanting to eat in a restaurant that evening I searched on my app to find something good to eat. Going across the road to a locally themed Uyghur restaurant allowed me to make an order for takeaway, going all out for my final night in Turpan I ordered the legal of lamb that had been baked within a rising flatbread. The restaurant was crazy business, all I wanted to do was to get my food then return to the hotel. Being famous for its grapes, I found a bottle of local Turpan red wine in an off-license downstairs from the restaurant. Returning to my hotel room I devoured the contents of my takeaway and finished the bottle of wine, not going to lie I wanted to drink another one! The day had been long but very enjoyable, the sights and sounds of Turpan for the first day had given me so much! An early night was the ticket because after the itinerary the next day I would be making my way back to Urumqi. So Turpan, over and out!

Terrific Turpan!

Joseph Harrison 

14 August 2019

Kashgar: China's Ancient Secrets...

My Xinjiang experience has had me roll over events from a previous day to the next blog post, with so much to see it leaves me without any choice to do the same right now. My first day in Kashgar had been full packed with a visit to the Id Kah Mosque and a huge walk around one side of the Old City. Yes, the evening saw me visit the night market with all of its lights. 

After seeing the Id Kah Mosque I decided to rest in my hotel for a little while, the overnight journey and days sightseeing in Kashgar had tired me out. Crossing the road from my hotel to the adjoining side of Kashgar's rejuvenated part of its Old City before the sunset allowed me to see the hustle and bustle begin. I already knew what I wanted to eat, lamb kebabs and bread all the way but it was a great time to people watch and to take in the whole environment. Many domestic Chinese tourists transcended upon the night market, for me to find a seat was almost impossible but low and behold I found one. Minding my own business I enjoyed my food and appreciated that cultural moment. The lights, smells and sights gave me life to no end. The feel of the night market left me questioning my mainland China location once again! I was all in it for the views and my taste-buds loved every second of it! Raisins!

My hotel stay in Kashgar included breakfast, finding the right floor just before the buffet opened was my plan. Executing things the right way up until a certain point, things were fine but I wasn't ready for the almighty stampede made by the domestic tourists! Not wanting to entertain their hasty nature towards that breakfast service I vacated that mess without a seconds thought! Things were only just opening due to the local observance of Beijing Standard Time, trusting the businesses within the nearby Old City served me a lovely breakfast that was quite unexpected. I had found some freshly baked bagels from the first bakery that I saw, then moving forwards a street side vendor selling camel milk because no coffee or tea was in sight at that point! To accompany my bagels I found some salted yoghurt that acted as the perfect treat to dip my bagels into. Looking back to the chaos of the hotel, I now feel so blessed to have had such a local breakfast in the Old City! Thank you, K!

Meeting my tour guide allowed me to find more about the other part of the Old City that I had been to the previous night. Met by a hoard of tourists at the main entrance gate to that side of Kashgar's Old City didn't impress me because it wasn't what I wanted, crowds! I had been to a Turkic kind of place many time before that morning, the music and ethnic attire wasn't  something that I had never seen before, I didn't share the crowds hysteria. Entering the Old City, I learnt that the outer stalls were famed for its terracotta works, the local merchants crafted their trade because they stuck to what they knew. Buying a beautiful dress and some jewellery for a friends little girl had to be done, the friendship meant a lot to me so I wanted to treat her daughter to some local Kashgar gifts. The mornings heat grew hotter, it was such a glorious dry heat unlike Beijing's heat and humidity! Kash, I was feeling the love for that morning!

I hadn't seen one single Starbucks whilst travelling in Xinjiang, seeing a place in Kashgar's Old City that remotely resembled a coffeeshop impressed me much. My guide recommended the 'Kashgar Coffee' would be a perfect choice as the coffeeshops signature drink. Set with a bedouin mud brick building, it felt as if I was lounging in an Arabian outpost with the soft furnishings that I had bagged. Choosing a walnut tart had to be the one, once the coffee had arrived I was so excited and intrigued to try it for myself! Brewed with a blend of local herbs and spices, my 'Kashgar Coffee' tasted a million times better than any Starbucks Coffee that I had ever tasted before! Opting to have another coffee with a Kashgar twist was the right decision, I lounged about in the soft and rich surroundings of that coffeeshop for some time, I wasn't bothered about the itinerary at that point. Funnily enough, I had been so relaxed I left my purchases on the sofa I was lounging on! It was blessed!  
Leaving the noise and tourists of the central area of the city, it was time to see something more authentic as far as the Chinese didn't consider. Adding an extra Turkic vibe to my final day in Kashgar, it was time to explore a market that wasn't touristy in any way shape or form. Locally known as Yeni Bazaar being the Turkish for New Market, how I felt as if I was at Fethiye's Tuesday market on the Aegean Coast of Turkey. I didn't buy anything at the market but to simply walk around to see the different things on sale was amazing, the lack of anything Chinese as such was quite frankly brilliant because I was loving the Uyghur style much more in that moment. The presentation of the stalls transported me once again back to Turkey, the local chat sounded the same with the surroundings presented in an uncanny way. Kashgar's new market showed me everything and more with spending any money! Kash, I loved it a lot!

With my flight back to Urumqi, we moved back towards the Old City to have one last meal in Kashgar. Dining at a Uyghur style house allowed me to taste some local food in a homely environment. I was suffering from really bad stomach ache, the weeks diet had been mainly lamb and bread and in the east of China its something that isn't the staple diet. I tried my best to enjoy the food but I was feeling the dietary change of the trip. The surroundings were lovely but the pace of the trip had hit me. Making my way to the airport, the car arrived at the airport terminal to find a very strict policy that only passengers could access the terminal building. The airport security was beyond and then some, it was such a relief to be taxing down the runway for Urumqi! The whole experience in Kashgar during the second day was just as good compared with the previous day. Yes, I was ready for a day in Urumqi before heading down to Turpan, Xinjiang was the gift that kept giving! Kashgar, I'm out!

Kashgar Done!

Joseph Harrison

12 August 2019

On The Borderline... Kashgar, China!

Travelling through the Taklamakan Desert from Urumqi to Kashgar on my night train was an experience to say the very least, no other night train provided such rugged views of such a harsh yet gorgeous landscape. The ancient city of Kashgar had been one place in Xinjiang that I was especially excited to discover! How I felt as if I was in a scene from Walt Disney's Aladdin! Go!

Boarding that seriously long Kashgar bound train felt like a different experience compared with other night trains that I had previously taken in China. Albeit the extra line that we had to make before taking the escalators down to the platform, we had to wait in line before the train pulled into Urumqi Railway Station at our designated platform. Settled in and with the first two hours reached, the landscape south of Turpan quickly changed from built up areas to a barren deserts mystery, as dusk turned the sky from day to night it was mesmerising to see the changes across the landscape. As the train approached the heart of the vast Taklamakan Desert the only reminder that I was in China was my phone signal, I felt like I was in the middle of an Arabian wilderness. I admired the changing views from my bottom bunk in the hard sleeper cabin on-board, whilst the people were so very friendly the views were gorgeous!

The vastness of Xinjiang really could be felt, the stations grew further apart from each other and it was reassuring to see the odd sea of lights when my train pulled into Korla before the cabin lights were switched off for us to sleep. I have to be honest their were some strange goings on during the twilight hours on-board the train to Kashgar but I won't go into detail because it could be seen as very sensitive. The dining options were very limited, I had my instant noodle pot and a healthy supply of local beer to get me through the journey. The extra can that I bought helped me get to sleep!  Night turned into morning, Kashgar grew closer and with no chance of a shower till after checking into my hotel, I wanted to arrive! The landscape maintained its rich red colour with a harsh mountainous texture, it was nothing like I had ever seen before that train journey. After more than seventeen hours since leaving Urumqi behind the previous day I was very relieved to finally reach Kashgar! 

Fresh from Kashgar Railway Station the first stop on the days itinerary was a brief stop at the Abakh Khoja Tomb. The outside of the main tomb was beautifully decorated with jade green and pearl white tiles with a splash of other colours for good measure. Learning fast that the tomb was home to the family of Abakh Khoja, a prophet revered so highly by the Uyghur people he's second to Muhammad. Abakh Khoja was believed to have brought Islam to the former region of Kashgaria, bringing the traditional Turkish text that became the grounding of the Uyghur language. I was very interested about the Islamic side of the history, funnily another nugget of information made it to me. During the Qing Dynasty, the Emperor Qianlong requested a beautiful Uyghur princess become one of his concubines, lovingly named 'Xiang Fei' meaning 'Fragrant Concubine'. Oh K, Emperor Qianlong definitely proved his love!

When Iparhan passed away in 1788, the emperor had a horse drawn vehicle bring his 'Fragrant Concubine' back to her hometown of Kashgar. Just to avoid any confusion, 'Iparhan' was Xiang Fei's name in the local Uyghur language. Leaving the mausoleum for the three mosques that were still standing gave me something worthwhile to witness. Juma Mosque stood out after the grandeur of the Abakh Khoja Tomb because the name meant 'Friday Mosque' in the Turkish language. Leaving the ancient stories behind in that protected area allowed me to watch a brief show about Emperor Qianlong's only Uyghur concubine. The sun was crazy hot and the umbrellas really didn't do anything for my viewing pleasure. Moving closer to the hotel I found out from my tour guide that Kashgar still attracts people from near and far for its huge Sunday Market, so much so that some shops only open on the seventh day of the week. I had been off the train for less than one hour, not bad at all K!

Freshened up, I then ventured out from my nearby hotel to one side of Kashgar's Old City. Being mindful that the old buildings had received some serious restorations by China's Central People's Government I wanted to keep an open mind throughout my visit. Grabbing some chicken and rice from an unassuming local looking restaurant started my 'foodie' journey just right. I went further into the older part of Kashgar's Old City to find a tasty lamb treat that I hadn't noticed whilst I was in Urumqi first time round. Using my Turkish language skills to blend in with the Uyghur folk I ordered five freshly cooked Samsa's, their taste transported me back to mother England because it reminded me of a certain high street pasty shop treat! That local Xinjiang snack tantalised my tastebuds, allowing me to further appreciate the beauty of the Uyghur culture and food. After Samsa's I explored more! The people were friendly, truly Xinjiang!

The feel of the Old City gave me a sense that I was exploring uncovered treasures as I walked through the alleys and saw the local Uyghur children play outside their front doors, the feel of the neighbourhood gave me a certain authentic feel. The relaxed nature of the Old City made me feel at ease, to roam around after such a long train journey felt amazing! The more lively streets contained more good food and a healthy serving of Kashi Water Ice Cream, something that I had saved for my time in Kashgar. Their was a strong sense that tea drinking was a thing like it is in Turkey, it was nice to see something familiar taking place within my Chinese location once again. I felt content with my visit to that side of the Old City in Kashgar, so much so I returned the next morning to find some breakfast because the hotel served some crazy goings on! The local establishments served me some freshly baked bread, salted yoghurt and fresh camels milk for my local breakfast. رەھمەت سىزگە!

First constructed in 1442, Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque stands as the largest mosque in China! I had seen this mosque on documentaries and Chinese tourism campaigns about Xinjiang, so I was very curious to see what was standing behind the mosques grand entrance. Being conscious that different countries view religion differently, I wanted to ask as many provocative questions during my brief visit to Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque! The quiet walled gardens gave me a sense of chill, a calm feeling transcended within that sacred space. I asked about the prayer schedule, the mosque has a function for the main Friday prayer with a key focus for the service to be special compared with the usual visit to a persons neighbourhood mosque. I was really happy to hear that people that the right to exercise their beliefs, to pray and to listen to the Imam read from the Quran. No, I'm not religious but others should have the choice.

Taking it easy for the rest of the day I returned to my hotel, being on the night train had disturbed my usual quality of sleep so I thought it would be wise to relax before going to the night market later on that evening. From my train passing through the mystery of Xinjiang's portion of the Taklamakan Desert, to learning about the involvement of Emperor Qianlong's Uyghur concubine it had been a fabulous portion of my trip. The fact prayer was still legitimately taking place within the Id Kah Mosque gave me a sense that normality for the religious ones in Kashgar could remain consistent for them. The buzz and charm of the Old City impressed me much, allowing me to use some Turkic language skills to order some seriously tasty Samsa's. I would resurface later on that day, the night market would be serving all kinds of delicious foods and I didn't want to miss on my only chance! Truly standing on the borderline, Kashgar showed me so much and more within its unique location.

A Whole New World!

Joseph Harrison

10 August 2019

Urumqi: China's Far West City!

With my first day in Urumqi so full packed I had to leave one element out of the first post, braving a freak rain and thunderstorm I tried my best to discover more during the first night. After returning from Kashgar, the two days that I spent in the city fared to be mental for a reason that was out of my control. Out of the crazy I saw some unforgettable sights! Go, U!

My first day spent in Urumqi was the gift that just kept giving, with my afternoon completed with the things I had wanted to achieve I needed a rest! Fresh from my short breather I bounced back, with a two hour time difference compared with Beijing I took my time. Making my way down to Urumqi's Erdaoqiao International Food Street had to be done, the following day would see me leave the city for Kashgar! The heavens opened good and proper as the majestic orange skies presented Urumqi with a gargantuan thunderstorm, it was spectacular to witness! Arriving at the food street after the rain had eased gave me views that I wasn't expecting to see. It took a few moments or so for the stalls to resume their business after the downpour, within about ten minutes orders were flying out of the stands as the mix of locals and tourists enjoyed the local Xinjiang foods. U, I already knew that I wanted some tasty lamb kebabs! 

Recovery from the rain was quick, the volunteers scurried around with bin liners to clear the rubbish from the tables. I found somewhere to sit, the rain dared to start once again but it was only a small shower. Feeling thirsty after my long day, I wanted to try some of the local beer and with a draft beer stall it was a done deal! The whole street looked very new but it was just what I was expecting to see, I loved hearing the different Chinese and Uyghur languages as people enjoyed their evening, a contrast in cultures once again. Throughout my first day in Urumqi, it had been manic but I was able to relax with my beer and delicious foods within that Xinjiang style food street! Did I want to try any Kashi Water Ice Cream? No, I would be on the night train the next day to that place, I wanted everything to be as authentic as possible! Content with the days offerings I started the walk back to my hotel, the streets were so quiet and if truth be told I felt so safe. A never-ending day concluded!

Rising bright and early the following day I put my best foot forward, finding myself at Urumqi's own Hongshan Park to find its famous red pagoda. I didn't know anything about that park but I was willing to walk up the steep hill to find the red pagoda. Leaving my hotel early doors, I flagged a taxi bound for Hongshan Park, the constant use of Didi taxis in Beijing had me feeling as if I was back in Wuhan, I just don't flag taxis in the capital! The security check was relaxed and the parks entrance stood still, that impressed me much because I loathe crowds. As I neared the top of the peak, a lovely vista of a growing city fronted me with a series of striking mountains as Urumqi's backdrop! Catching the first glimpses of the pagoda gave me another lovely view of the city and its mountainous backdrop, would I be climbing those steps to the top? No chance, URC! Admiring the view from a space where I felt comfortable was the ticket!

With my imminent departure to Kashgar that afternoon, I kept up the pace after I had caught a glimpse of Urumqi's Red Hill and Zheng Long Ta. Walking back to my hotel was just the thing, the city was waking up because it followed its own local time zone rather than Beijing's standard time. Finding a great place for lunch was a winner, chowing down on some lovely local Uyghur food satisfied those cravings during my Xinjiang holiday. Checked out of my hotel it was time to head for Urumqi's Railway Station for my overnight train to Kashgar, I wasn't ready for that train station! Getting my passport and tickets ready for another check, the train station security staff were baffled by my Chinese visa and British passport, thankfully I had some Chinese language skills to explain my legitimacy in China. I had a lot of time to kill but that gave me the perfect opportunity people watch, soaking in that new culture and language once again it was still amazing to be in China! The train was on-time!

Touching down from Kashgar allowed me to spend two days in Urumqi before my Turpan sector. I had booked a seriously cheap hotel that gave me some serious drama, more about that in a few moments. Leaving for Urumqi's Heavenly Lake brought up no issues, having a little sleep in the car was necessary. Getting past the security check I was narked by the procedures but the whole rigmarole to reach the banks of the Heavenly Lake was worth every piece of madness! The weather held out, only some cloud presented itself but it was cool enough for it not to be cold. I gazed into the distance, finding  my own secret gateway to paradise. The water lay still, the mountains shimmered with a green sheen, I was not bothered by the selfie sticks and the tour groups because the magnificent lake put me in a heavenly state of mind. I appreciated the view, sitting amongst the greenery whilst the hoards of tourists acted the fool! Go on!

Renting a private car and driver to take me from my hotel to the lake had to be done, I wasn't messing with any tourist buses. Being Xinjiang the heightened security checks posed more of a headache for me as an independent foreign traveller in a region of China that hasn't truly opened to foreign tourism, the fee for the car was well spent considering the nature of the place. Thanks to China's easy functioning apps and a good travel expert friend, it was all good! Rules and passports aside the landscape that surrounded the Heavenly Lake transported me to another world, the lush green pastures and mountainous scenery fooled me as if I was in Turkey. When all was said and done, the mornings visit to Urumqi's most beautiful landmark left me feeling very accomplished indeed! I wasn't going to miss those tourists but I would be missing those gorgeous Tianshan Mountains for sure! Acting like a boss I got myself a new hotel room, it was almost a disaster but I was savvy enough to sort it!

Fed up with having no running water and the general dankness of that awful budget hotel I snatched a full refund, consulting my go-to hotel booking app I managed to book another room and get myself into a taxi within no time. Arriving at my new hotel I was faced with some serious discrimination, something wasn't right because people were checking in and rooms were available! Calling my hotel booking company up, I stated they had a duty of care since I had a confirmed room within their booking system. I knew the situation before the hotel manager could spin any more fabricated chat, within five minutes the company had found me a nearby hotel that accepted foreigners, closed mouths don't get fed! The final hotel choice of that day was ten times better than my original abode, running water was found so I could relax! I wasn't going to let my drama impact on the evenings exploration time in URC! Get it together!

Feeling refreshed and blessed, I made it back to the city's Tianshan District for some Samsa and a haircut. I was in desperate need of a refresh, food came first because the day hadn't left me with anytime to eat. Embracing the buzzing Uyghur centre within Urumqi's Heping Road once again gave me life, children were playing out in the street and the infusion of foods could be smelt in the air. I devoured some tasty Samsa, they were like lamb pasties and they tasted gorgeous! Finding a Uyghur barbershop across the road allowed me to get my fresh cut for a bargain price compared with bargain soaring prices for a new do! That day had been bonkers, from the idyllic scenery of the Heavenly Lake to then being rejected from my rebooked hotel, things all ended well! Feeling content with my cut I revisited the food street for a less rainy view, grabbing a drink or two it was time for bed. Urumqi had served two unique days in its entirety during my summer holiday, oh it was complete madness!

Unbelievable Urumqi!

Joseph Harrison