Monday, June 26, 2006

Where should we go?

Looks like our original plans of going into Mongolia have been swayed because of the Naadam festival from July 11th to the 13th. Although we've managed to find available trains to Ulaan Bataar from Hohhot in Inner Mongolia (all trains before the festival from Beijing are booked), finding available accomodations has been challenging.

Because of this, and the fact that we only have about 3 weeks left on our Chinese visa with no guarantee of a renewal in the east (and also because we're almost ready to move on from China), we have been throwing all our options up in the air. At the moment, we're thinking of flying through the east in a couple weeks and visiting Macau/HK for a bit. Then, we're thinking SEA until the fall when we go to India. All this decided in one night. I think the thought of rojak, durian, nasi lemak, asam laksa, mangosteens, etc ... have helped the decision a little too. :)

Any other suggestions?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sights of Turpan

Turpan is HOT! They weren't kidding when they said this is the hottest city in China! It is HOT! The day we arrived, it was a high of 41C. Yikes. What fun that was walking around with a big backpack trying to find a room. Alas, we found one and are really glad we came here. (We read bad reviews from another traveller and were going to skip it.)

We were surprised to see that Turpan has a lot of Chinese influence on it, although we shouldn't be that surprised as it is the closest city to the mainland. It's a small city of only 56,000 but has been a great place to relax. We've been loading up on skewers galore to get our fix before heading out to the east. Man, I'm going to miss these skewers.:( By far, Kashgar has had the best skewers in the province.

Yesterday, we hired a cab and went out to see some of the sights of Turpan. On our way to our first sight, we noticed that there were beds outside houses everywhere and there were people still sleeping in them! We never noticed this in other regions of Xinjiang but perhaps it was because we had never been out this early (8am Beijing time which is actually 6am Xinjiang time). It was amazing that everyone was sleeping outside, we aren't sure why but we assume it's just a way of life.

We first stopped off at a small grape producing village, Tuyoq, which still retains much of its tradition. Pretty cool.

Next, we stopped off on the road to check out the Flaming mountain. Apparently, in midday, the sun makes it look like the mountain is on fire. Not for us. A couple snaps and we were off!

We then stopped at the Karez. This is a cool irrigation system developed by the Uighurs 2000 years ago as a means of getting water from the mountains down to the villages. They built underground channels to distribute the flow of the water collected from the mountains down to the villages. Pretty cool.

Jiaohe ruins were next and they were totally amazing! I was expecting a couple buildings here and there but this was an entire city in ruins! This city is old too, it was first established a couple hundred years BC! It was ruined in a war in the early Ming Dynasty (early 1300s). We explored the city as much as we could but many areas were off limits as they were crumbling. It was also midday and in a city of ruins, there was barely any shade ... it was HOT! Regardless, it was fascinating to see. I can't believe it was still standing after a couple thousand years!

Last stop was just to take a quick snapshot of the Emin Minaret. Very pretty building but we didn't go in. Heard it wasn't worth it.

Had more skewers after we came back :) and some popcorn (the popcorn here is really good too!) . I'm really going to miss Xinjiang province. It's been absolutely amazing here. Another place I would highly recommend to anyone thinking of visiting this part of the world.

Tonight, we're catching a sleeper train back out to Lanzhou and another sleeper train the day after that out to Datong in Shanxi province. Slowly making our way out to Beijing where we are planning to apply for our Mongolian visas.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

We made it!

Yay! We made it through our 20 hour express sleeper bus ride (the regs were 25 hours!) through the desert in one piece. Surprisingly, it was fairly comfortable but the lack of a washroom on the bus made it a little more challenging. We both had the help of Immodium for the ride which was a blessing as our washroom stops consisted for the most part of walking into the desert, finding a free spot and going. It was lovely.

On the way, we saw a sleeper run off the road. We think it might have been the bus that left before ours.

The views of the Taklamakan desert from the bus were amazing though. All you see is a sea of dunes in all directions.

They have also planted reefs along the sides of the road to keep the sand from blowing onto the road. There are hoses all the way along the road by the reefs to keep they alive. These hoses are fed by tanks placed every 10-15 kms or so by little huts where one or two workers live and work ... what a job.

Once we arrived in Urumqi at 9 in the morning, we bought another ticket out to Turpan (since we decided to skip the lake trip) and left 20 minutes later on another bus. Thank goodness this trip was only 2.5 hours.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

500km cross desert highway

We were supposed to leave on our 18 hour bus ride across the desert this morning but unfortunately, Ian came down with a bad stomach bug. Not the greatest thing to have on a bus ride with no washrooms in the middle of a desert!

We've postponed our trip to tomorrow. Hopefully all is well and the weather holds out. We've also had a sandstorm blow through Hotan the last couple days. Apparently, a sandstorm can stop a bus on this highway for days. We've decided to skip the lake in northern Xinjiang and will be heading for Turpan from Urumqi. We will blog again then!

Carpets & Jade

At our last stop on the southern silk road in Hotan, we found our way to a local carpet factory to check out how they make this stuff. It was pretty cool. We just walked in and observed the traditional way of making carpets. Nothing appears to have changed from past photos we had seen on the walls.

Walking back from the factory, we passed the Jade Dragon River where locals frequent looking for precious stones, mainly jade. We thought we would test our luck out as well and went on our jade expeditition. Unfortunately, we have no clue what raw jade looks like and thought anything green would be it! :D We ran into some guys who tried to sell us small white stones so I guess those were precious as well.

Any gemstone experts out there who can tell us if any of this is real jade?? Yah, they look like rocks, but I swear there must be a real one in there somewhere.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Off to the southern silk road

We leave Kashgar tomorrow for the southern silk road through Karghilik and Hotan. We will then traverse the 500km cross desert highway through the Taklamakan highway back to Urumqi. We probably won't have a chance to blog until we're back in northern Xinjiang. More updates then!

Sunday & Livestock Markets

One of the biggest attractions I've been looking forward to here in Kashgar has been the Sunday and Livestock markets. It's supposed to be one of the most mind boggling bazaars in Asia according to LP. We got up around sunrise as we heard this was when the streets start filling up. To our surprise, we found the markets don't start until 10am local time (which is noon Beijing time). Swell, we had a few hours to kill. We made our way to the Sunday market anyways. It wasn't very busy yet but there were people setting up and as time went by, it started getting fairly packed and we begin to hear the shoutings of 'Boish-boish!' (coming through!).

Parts of the Sunday market were unfortunately a little more touristy than expected but there were still areas which were full of local traders selling everything from meat to knives to fabric.

We then made our way over to the livestock market which was even more interesting! Here, they had a similar market to the Sunday market, just smaller, and a whole area dedicated to buying livestock. Many sheep's backs would be rubbed, butts pinched and teeth checked before making the deal. The black mother and baby below were bought for 250 yuan (35 cdn).

Say cheese!

While strolling through the old town and the markets, we've had our cameras hanging by our sides in case a kodak moment appears. The sight of the cameras send the kids into a frenzy though as they all want their photos taken!

They were adorable. They would point at our cameras and then pose.We would then get assaulted as they try to see themselves in the viewfinder.

This poor kid had his portrait ruined by some mean person. Even his mom said "Ay!" when I showed it to her. IAN!

Droooolll ...

Along with being on of my favourite cities, Kashgar has so far catered the best food in the country as well.

I've never been a big meat eater as most of you know but here, I can't get enough of these mutton kebabs! They are SOOOO GOOOD! I'm drooling just thinking of them. Kebabs come in BBQ and oven baked varieties. We both like the BBQed ones more ... much jucier.

We've also tried various common dishes as recommended by LP such as nan (breads), girde nan (bagels), samsas (baked mutton dumplings), gang pan (rice with vegetables and meat), laghman (cold spicy noodles), souman (noodles fried with tomatoes, peppers, garlic and meat),

polo (rice pilaf),

tohu gangpan (rice with spicy chicken and vegetables).

Desserts include maroji (vanilla ice cream churned in iced wooden barrels),

kharsen meghriz (fried dough balls filled with sugar, raisins and walnuts), and dogh (shaved ice, syrup, yoghurt, and iced water).

Something neither of us have ventured out to try yet, opke (broth of bobbing goat's heads and coiled, stuffed intestines).

Not sure what this was either but we didn't feel like trying it :P.

In another world ...

By far, Kashgar has been one of my favourite cities in China, although it does feel more like the middle east. The tradition that has been retained in the old city impresses me. The old town here is still an actual old town where daily life continues unlike several other old towns we've been to which have been built up for tourists.

Donkey carts are still passing through the streets, metal is still being formed into buckets and boxes by hand, bread and bagels baked in coal ovens, old men getting a shave on the street, tailors sewing clothes at every corner, and the list goes on. Absolutely amazing. We've been here for 5 days now and I'm still amazed at what I see.

It's still surreal

After travelling for 3 months, I've gotten used to being in new environments often and have taken it all as part of life. Sometimes, it's almost like taking it for granted and being a little annoyed at our surroundings, whether it's the lack of comfort or hygiene of those around us.

One day, we were on a rickety old bus travelling through the monotonous landscape of the desert. I was rather uncomfortable as the seats were old and I was constantly falling off. There were a few old men in the back seat behind us coughing and it was hot. I closed my eyes to try and get some rest and started thinking back to the days before our journey and how excited I was to experience everything. One of the images I had then was sitting on a rickety old bus with a bunch of locals. I opened my eyes just then and realized this was exactly what I was looking forward to and couldn't help but smile. It was perfect.

We tend to forget sometimes how lucky we are to be where we are as we deal with the everyday logistics of travelling. Sometimes, it's still hard to believe we are here and living the dream.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Urumqi and now Kashgar

Turns out our train to Urumqi was air conditioned and quite comfortable! We only stayed in the city for a couple days to rest up before getting on a 23 hour train journey to Kashgar for the visa renewal. Not much in Urumqi but we'll be heading back to do a trip up to a popular lake up north.

We decided we would splurge this time and try out a soft sleeper since this would be one of the longer train rides. Three words "Not worth it". Feels like less room because you are enclosed in a room and this time, you're locked in with complete strangers!

We passed some beautiful scenery on the ride though!

Unlike Urumqi, Kashgar's old town still retains much of its tradition. It's fantastic being here! I feel like I'm trapped in the past. So much is still produced by hand and there's a mosque here dating back to 1442 (will visit this afternoon). Aside from the outright discrimination we experienced in the beginning (read Ian's blog), I love being here. It feels like we're in a whole different country. The people are interesting and the food is amazing! There's gotta be something said about the influence of central asian on chinese food. Some remind me of Malaysian food ... YUMMY!

Oh! BTW, we got our renewal for another month!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

On to Urumqi!

After much fun camping out, we're getting on a 12 hour overnight train ride to Urumqi tonight. We heard this train wasn't air conditioned, hopefully it will be cool in the desert tonight!

We have under 2 weeks to get our visas renewed so we're hoping to make it all the way to Kashgar before then!

Camping in the Gobi

Camping in the Gobi Desert was one awesome experience! I must say it ranks pretty high up there with the Tibetan overland. We never knew this was even an option and I for sure never thought we'd be riding a camel in China. We've heard that the camel rides were pretty touristy and wanted to skip them. To our pleasant surprise we found out they can arrange a camel ride out to the desert with a night of camping!! We've read many raving reviews about this experience from other travelers and were totally sold.

Lucky for us, we were the only ones who had signed up for this on that day and we met up with our guide,“Mr. Li” in the late afternoon with bare essentials. He hailed a cab and brought us to his home in a small village nearby (also where the camels were!). We got to hang out for a little bit in his house while he got the camels ready. After a while, he led us out back where we met our companions for the next 16 hours. Meet Gung Ho’and Grumpy Old Maid’ (will explain later).

After almost falling off the camels while trying to get on, we were on our way! We were going to ride the camel for about 2 hours into the desert. The trip in was pretty amazing. We soon left the small village and was greeted with a brown landscape of sand dunes. Gorgeous. Along the path, we passed a large cemetery, very interesting.

Surprisingly, it was quite a comfortable ride in for me (Ian will tell you otherwise). Slow and fairly steady. The only excitement was when we had to crest a small dune and go down again. The camels don't handle that very well. Specially mine, she liked to bob a lot.
After and amazing ride of going past many dunes, we arrived at our campsite. A small valley among the dunes. Mr. Li set up our tents and the fire while we went off to explore the dunes. They had wooden sleds there which we could use to toboggan down the dunes so up we went along the crest. Let me tell you, climbing dunes is hard work!

Anyways, we made it to a point where we thought we could head down on the sled so I hopped on ready to stick my feet out for brakes! I let go and hung on for dear life to find that I pretty much went nowhere! What the heck! I pushed off with my feet and went down a couple feet more and stopped. I tried leaning back, pushing some more, no luck! What a disappointment! I was ready for fast action! Finally gave up and got of the stupid sled and ran down the hill. That was kind of fun. It felt like real fluid motion.

We then crested a smaller dune nearby to watch the sunset. It was amazing being there. It was exceptionally peaceful there; you couldn't hear a thing except for an annoying fly once in a while. It is by far the quietest place I've ever been to in my life, who would have thought that would be in China?!

We headed back after the sun had set at 9:15ish to find Mr. Li waiting for us with a small firepot of boiling water over a small fire. Out comes the instant noodles and we had a grand feast that night. It got dark quickly and we laid back on the sand and gazed at the star ridden sky. We thought we'd see more here than in Algonquin but to our surprise, we didn't. The moon was amazingly bright but it was still so beautiful there and so very peaceful. After a couple hours we decided to call it a night.

After a windy night, we got up the next morning just before 6 to catch the sunrise. We climbed up a nearby crest and just sat there enjoying the coolness of the morning. It was nice to be able to see this sunrise after our Namtso Lake experience. We were a little worried as it was a little cloudy the day before but we lucked out.

After Mr. Li found Gung Ho and Grumpy Old Maid who were wandering off quite a distance, we packed everything up, and tried to get on our camels. Gung Ho was pretty good and kneeled so Ian could get on but was quick to get up the minute he's on.
Grumpy Old Maid lived up to her name again and refused to kneel so I could mount her. After much yelling from Mr. Li and much whining from the old maid, she finally succumbed. However, the minute I tried touch her, she got right up again! Mr. Li had to hold her down while I got on quickly. The camel ride this morning was a little harsher on the behind since it was mostly downhill and was I ever glad to get off the camel at the end.

I still can't believe we were at the base of Everest about 3 weeks ago, and now we've just camped in the Gobi desert. What an awesome experience. So good to get a dose of camping in, hopefully we can do more along the Silk Road!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Mogao caves

After a couple days in bed recovering from a bad tummy bug, we were finally able to head out to see the sights of Dunhuang. There are quite a few tourist outings here but we heeded the advice of many travelers before us and focused our energy on the Mogao caves and a trip out to the dunes。

The Mogao caves come with a steep entrance fee (120Y)but were well worth it. It contains some of the most treasured and amazing relics we've seen in China so far. Many of the caves we saw were built as early as the 4th century and some of the art inside was still amazingly quite well preserved. They have hundreds of caves there but you only see 10 of 20 caves open to tourists.

The ever so reliable LP (affectionately known as Lying Planet) mentioned that all surroundings are restricted from photography so we didn't bother bringing our cameras. To our not so pleasant surprise, we could have taken photos of the exterior which was pretty cool on its own. What can you do. Here are some photos from travel china guide so you can see what it looks like. Very cool and highly recommended!