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Old Aug 22, 12, 2:25 pm   #46
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Great posts, JieJie. I look forward to each installment. Thanks!
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Old Aug 22, 12, 8:11 pm   #47
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Originally Posted by moondog View Post
I'm envious of you for pursing you adventures beyond Kashi. Since I showed up 2 days after my friends, they had already been up and back by the time we connected (I don't they got as far as you, but they told me the lakes were really nice). Next time I go out there, my plan is to make it all the way Karachi, and fly back in comfort. By time I make it, I'll be in serious need of food that I like, but that's all part of the game.

Speaking of food, John's Cafe is a pretty clever business because they sell items that we can tolerate (basic American fare; okay quality), and have set up shops at many of the logical stopping points. Eating local is a must; the thing is "lamb overload" is a serious problem; balance it with a club sandwich, and you'll be content at the very least.
Well, it's an epic trip, one of the most unique I've taken. If heading for Pakistan, just make sure you plan for right time of year, check road passability (vs flood out) all the way to Gilgit on Pakistan side, and make sure border is open--sometimes for security reasons it shuts to all but non-local traders and truckers.

John's Cafe is a bit of a racket, and it's Han run. While I dealt with them in Turpan for transportation for expediency (food was a sidebar), I did not visit them at all in Kashgar nor any other location on this trip. My transportation needs were dealt with by a more preferred Uighur agency. A few years ago, I had friends (Beijing expats) set up a daytrip to Karakul and a daytrip for camel/desert visit through John's in Kashgar, and they were so-so on the experience and arrangements. And for food, there are simply way too many better places to eat in Kashgar--both Chinese and Uighur. For Western, the Caravan Cafe closed awhile back, but the Karakorum Cafe has opened nearby and with comfy a/c, wifi, cold drinks, and food, it serves the purpose.

I hear you on the lamb bit. It's not my favorite meat, although the quality you get in Xinjiang is much better than in Beijing and I'm pretty big on the grilled chuanr (kebabs). I managed quite a bit of beef in Xinjiang, and only a little chicken--which is my normal protein mainstay in the East. As I said way upthread, once you get to mid-Gansu heading west, start giving up on seeing pork!


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Great posts, JieJie. I look forward to each installment. Thanks!
You're welcome. This entire Silk Road trip ended up being a true journey of a lifetime.
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Old Aug 22, 12, 11:14 pm   #48
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Originally Posted by jiejie View Post
I hear you on the lamb bit. It's not my favorite meat, although the quality you get in Xinjiang is much better than in Beijing and I'm pretty big on the grilled chuanr (kebabs).
The 羊肉串 in Xinjiang is so amazing that I can no longer be bothered to eat 串 in Shanghai (though, both Beijing and Xi'an have tolerable establishments). Basically, as you move west, the prices drop, the portions double in size, and the meat can be shockingly fresh (I'll refrain from going into further detail due to respect for our vegetarian readers). And, as previously mentioned, I simply loved the 抓饭 I had in Kashgar (which, also included lamb, of course).

All that having been said, eating lamb for 10 days straight does not make my stomach happy, so those mediocre club sandwiches (at John's and other similar establishments) came in really handy.

Thanks again for creating this wonderful thread. It's brought back fond memories for me, and reaffirmed the idea that Xinjiang is a great destination for people who have already done Beijing/Shanghai, are able to sweat it out in hotels that fall well short of the Hyatt standard, and can endure the lamb diet.
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Old Aug 23, 12, 12:03 am   #49
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Karakul Back to Kashgar

Day Three

I woke up in the rock house pretty early, about 06:00 (BJ time), to just the barest amount of light coming in the window. Got up and headed outside for a comfort break, and fortunately for privacy reasons, there was still nobody out except a lone fisherman down by the lake. It was still very cold outside but at least the wind had tapered off. I went back inside to lay down for bit longer until others woke up. Note: an overnight at Karakul in a yurt or native stone house is not for anybody who can’t deal with primitive camping for a night. It isn’t particularly appetizing or sanitary. Even for the small level of tourism that currently occurs, there needs to be some sort of ecologically-sound sanitary situation put in place soon, such as biodegradable, non-water using composting toilets.

Eventually there was enough light that everybody began to stir, get up, and prepare for the day. Not much to prepare, as we had slept in our clothes with no shower the night before; it’s hard to be glamorous on this sort of a trip. An early breakfast of the leftover salad and bread was put out, along with milk tea....all of which I declined. I could see that the water was being dipped out of a big container (probably from the lake) and that the boiling just wasn’t long enough or hard enough at this altitude to reliably kill the bacteria. I was determined not to get sick, so my refusal to eat/drink was probably thought of as a little odd. However, of all the places on my trip list, I have heard of a significant percentage of travelers getting sick right here at Karakul.

The Karakoram Highway skirts Karakul Lake and on the far side, a km or two away, there is a permanent village. Just next to the highway at a bend in the road is a small settlement with a restaurant (travelers do report getting sick on the food there). There is also a relatively new tourist compound with yurts set up, in a fenced-in area. It seems that for the small minority of Han groups that make it up here, this is where they are placed for either overnight visits, or for daytrips. I believe there is an entry fee for this area. I’m told it is all Han-owned. Our yurt + rock house compound is on a different shore of the lake, not far from the highway but set back a little bit next to a low hill. These yurts are 100% authentic with families living there much of the year. Most of the Uighur-owned agencies in Kashgar will not deal with the ersatz Han tourist yurts and compounds, but will put their (foreign) clients here in the real deal, and give the money to the Kyrgyz host families directly. I have heard that foreigners are not supposed to stay at the village or with local families (no doubt wanting to steer everybody into the overpriced Han-owned enclosure), but it seems that the Uighur agencies get away with ignoring this "rule." It’s clear from my guide and drivers’ interactions with the locals that they are well-acquainted with each other. However, it would not surprise me if the Han tourist compound/yurts were somewhat more comfortable than the genuine ones we were staying at.

Horse riding around the vicinity of the Lake is a popular activity and our tour included that if we wanted to do it, but neither Q nor I was in the mood. In the distance, we did see Hans on horseback, but it looked more like they were being given pony rides in/near their little compound while a Kyrgyz handler led the horse around. This is what passes for Han “soft adventure.”

Interesting Side Road Detour to a Glacier

Instead of spending time riding horses (uh, the real thing, not the pony thing), Q and I decided we’d rather substitute a look at the Oytagh glacier, which was a bit of a detour off a side road, on the way back to Kashgar. The weather was a little cloudy but looked like it was going to shape up to be a nice day, so we took some more outrageously pretty photos, and then got on the road again about 10:30 (BJ). From Karakul to our side road was about 2 hours of driving, again passing the Sand mountains, the Dam, and a rocky valley where we had to make an impromptu stop 2 days earlier when our car overheated. Then past the Gez checkpoint again (and a comfort break at their “Xinjiang Tourist Toilet”) to get logged out, and we were back in unrestricted area again. not long after that was the turnoff to the glacier, where the road followed a little river valley and featured some pretty spectacular hills and low mountains---just about every color of the rainbow. This place is a geologist’s dream! We had red, orange, yellow, purple, blue mountains and hills—the variety of minerals in the rocks must be staggering. Just off the KKH there is quite a bit of mining activity going on (Chinese companies). Then we hit an interesting and busy little village, with a mix of Kyrgyz and Uighur people. There were patches of bright green grassland along the valley, some scattered earthen villages and yurts. The architect in me noticed that the earthen buildings in this particular area were constructed of larger size blocks than further up the highway—interesting how there were small variations in local building customs as you moved up and down the Highway precincts.

It took us the better part of an hour down this side road to get to a tacky tourist setup near the base of the glacier viewing zone: guesthouse, restaurant, toilet facilities, etc. Geared to Chinese tourists and not very well done. There was a ticket booth but nobody seemed to be stopping and paying, or collecting. A little further and we came to the parking area for the Glacier. It was actually pretty nice and scenic, though I’m told global warming has reduced it alarmingly, so it doesn’t spill down the mountain like it once did. There were motorcycles available to take one up further to the actual glacier edge...or a 2 hour walk up is an option, but M said it wasn’t safe and particularly this time of year. Glaciers and Summer usually don’t mix anywhere, as the partial melting makes the ice hazardous and prone to breakage and crevassing. Besides, we didn’t really have time, it wasn’t in the plan to spend 4 extra hours. A large number of CPO (China Photographers Organization?) vehicles from all over China had converged on the place—they had serious camera gear and looked like they were parking themselves for awhile. We spent about 30 minutes viewing the glacier before heading back.

Note: If you preplan for it, there looked like some good hiking in this area. The local Kashgar agencies can arrange daytrips to it where you have to hike for a few hours. While having private transport is more convenient, I did see Kashgar taxis coming out this far—so one could presumably negotiate privately for an off-meter day rate. Longer hikes and overnight stays in the region are possible, and lodging should be available in local yurts, or permanent guesthouse structures I saw, or camping. I believe this area is also used for (gentle) mountaineering training. Summer weather is very pleasant, not too cold, at least in the valleys and foothills.

The return drive down the secondary road was gorgeous as we now had blue sky. Unfortunately, it was along this route that my camera battery finally give up the ghost, so that was that until I could recharge in Kashgar. Very stupid not to bring a second with me. Q’s camera battery had also died, but she had an iPad with her and could do some photos with that device.

Out of the Cool and Into the Heat...Again!

When we got back to the town of Upal, we had a brief lunch of spicy noodles (not all that good, in not a particularly sanitary shop), and another toilet stop. Then went to see the Mahmoud Kashgari tomb in the town. He was a great scholar and linguist (about 1000+ AD) who put together the Great Turkic Dictionary of the Turkic group of dialects, including samples of poetry and other linguistic works. As well as a map of the Central Asian world at that time. I had not previously heard of him, but resolved to do some more research later. It was about 14:00 (BJ) and getting very hot and stiflingly still air, which was getting to me a bit after the cool of the mountain areas. Unfortunately, the tomb was set up on a hill with a lot of steps. Fortunately, the grounds are also park-like, with enough shady spots to make things surviveable. There is a holy spring on the site, where partaking the waters is supposed to give one the intelligence and wisdom of Mahmoud Kashgari. I saw many locals (or visiting Muslims) bringing empty water containers and filling up at this spring. I declined the offer to take a drink myself, already having a bountiful supply and more than my allotted quota of intelligence and wisdom. We spent about 40 minutes here, then headed back for Kashgar.

Upon arrival in Kashgar about 16:30, we first went back to Seman Hotel, where I paid the balance of my 3-day trip invoice, and also paid for this final night at the Seman Hotel which Abdul had procured for me. Kashgar that particular week had been very busy with a China-sponsored regional agricultural conference, so most of the hotels had been booked solid. I also got a good city map from them. Q got her arrangements for Taklamakan visit the next day confirmed, then we got back in the car, dropped her off at her hostel, picked up my rollaboard from Abdul Wahab’s other office at the Yambu Hotel, then returned me to the Seman to check in. The Seman is....shall we say....”interesting” and a legend among Kashgar hostelries. In former times, one of the buildings was the Russian Consulate. It’s actually not too bad and certainly nothing as dire as Trip Advisor reports seem to apply. My rather garishly decorated room faced the grape arbor side and was reasonably quiet, and I had good a/c and an older but serviceable tub/shower with decent hot water. Cleanliness was acceptable. And it was fabulous having a clean and private Western toilet again. There was no elevator in the building but M magnanimously accompanied me and took my bag up to the third floor. No internet in the rooms so it was 3G time.

Feeling incredibly grubby and no shower since Tashkorgan, I did a quick cool shower then waited out the external heat and rested in the room until 18:00 (BJ time). Then headed out for a walkabout with eventual intent to end up at the Karakoram Cafe. I had finally cracked and was wanting something “western” to eat. Q was there when I got there, and we exchanged a short conversation but had our own things to concentrate on in the lovely a/c of the Cafe. I ordered a pizza, which tasted really bland and texture not right, so scratch that for future reference. Should have had a sandwich. But the cold Coke Zero was divine. Just relaxed for a while then consulted my map and started down a new street towards where I’d stayed before, taking photos. Lots of activity on the streets, and in the restaurants and shops around 20:00 (BJ), and the weather was much more comfortable with the weakening sun. I hit my favorite big supermarket for two more Coke Zeroes and a few provisions for evening snacking, then walked the last leg of my not-too-challenging but rather roundabout route, back to the Seman. Time to settle back, enjoy my Zeroes, and have a really good hot scrub and hair wash...and a decent night’s sleep in aircon. There’s always a surge of Sweet Relief when you return from a rustic road trip into the comforts of modern life in a city, even if the hotel isn’t the Ritz-Carlton.

Last edited by jiejie; Aug 23, 12 at 4:21 am.
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Old Aug 23, 12, 12:15 am   #50
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Kashgar Farewell and Reflection

I faced the reality that today was my last in the Kashgar area and only a partial, as I was flying back to Urumqi in the late afternoon. And I’d be left to my own wiles today, no tour, although Abdul Wahab would be taking me back to the airport from the Seman as part of their services. My first order of business after getting up and having a quick breakfast snack in my room, was to head over by taxi to the Kashgar train station to buy a ticket from Dunhuang to Zhangye. I had checked the official Chinese railway website last night, and with availability still reasonably plentiful on the train I preferred, I wanted to be assured of a berth 5 day's hence and for various reasons, wanted to do the purchasing job myself rather than fob it off on an agent or the hotel. This was a Plan B routing.

Planning Ahead Interlude

My original scheme was to stay two nights in Dunhuang then head by all-day bus trip to Golmud in Qinghai province, then make my way to Xining. However, there were two problems with this plan: 1) Foreigners traveling on the Dunhuang-Golmud road must have a special PSB permit, which isn’t hard to get, but the PSB office in Dunhuang is closed on the weekends, which happened to be the very 2 days I had in Dunhuang. By the time I got a permit on Monday morning, the daily bus would be gone and I’d be sitting around until Tuesday, which I didn’t want to do; 2) Golmud to Xining by train is theoretically doable, but there is only one or two local trains that originate there and don’t start in Lhasa. The Lhasa trains are all full up with no chance of getting a ticket and getting on in Golmud, and sleepers on the trains that do originate there are also tough to get. Bus which can be an option in other areas is not too viable on this route, as the journey would have to be broken up in Delingha County, which is off-limits for foreigners to stay in due to presence of nuclear weapons research facilities. And prison camps. Since Golmud is rarely on anybody’s list of Top Cities of China anyway, I decided to just skip all the hassle and head for a known winner, Zhangye, for a quick second pass. Then take the bus from Zhangye to Xining which would be my final stop on this Silk Road trip.

Kashgar train station is on the outskirts of the city not central, and I arrived at the there about 08:20 (BJ, which is like 06:20 by local biorhythms), to find a packed ticket office with tons of people there. Aargh! I got in line, only to waste 20 minutes when my window’s ticket seller suddenly closed her window and sent everybody jumping to a new queue. Except I was a bit slow on the uptake and ended up losing several places in the new queue. Sometimes I REALLY HATE CHINA! I spent nearly 30 minutes in that !@#$% queue but eventually emerged, successful in my quest to buy a July 2 soft sleeper, lower berth ticket on a day train from Dunhuang to Zhangye. Whew. Then caught another taxi back to the Id Kah Mosque plaza. I’d decided that I wanted to take a couple of hours for another Old City self-exploration and photo safari in the Old City. My taxi driver was a bit of a cheat and wanted RMB 30 for a ride that by meter should be less than half that. Told him that I knew already he was cheating me and I’d only give him 20. Needless to say, he accepted his RMB 20 with nary a whimper.

Central Kashgar Redux

Took pictures around the exterior of Id Kah, then strolled for next 1.5 hours or so through the Old City, recognizing some streets I had seen with M and others that were new. But try as I might, I couldn’t find the right alleys nor every place that he took me through on that first day. It’s actually still quite a maze, even the part that remains after the demolition. Sadly though, I think that if you did not see Kashgar Old City prior to 2007-2008, you missed the best forever. I also found myself not in a shopping mood, so decided to forego purchasing a musical instrument (which I’d likely later regret) and just stick to my photo-taking. There weren’t any other foreign or Han tourists around, and even though it seemed late at 11:00 BJ time, it was only the equivalent of 09:00 local time and many of the shops and vendors were still half-asleep and trying to get their businesses open. But the food sellers and fresh market vendors were doing a booming business. I was still tired of lamb, beef, noodles, kebabs, etc. so went back to the Karakoram Cafe for a morning second “breakfast” of carrot cake (lovely and without all that disgusting cream cheese icing that I so despise) and an icy Coke Zero. The Breakfast of Champions!

On the way back to the Seman Hotel, I purposely walked to see if I could find Kashgar’s Old City Walls which were marked on the map. Parts of the old earthen Wall are still there, but unfortunately what used to be most visible and accessible is now hidden behind construction fencing. Not sure why, perhaps they are making this another formal tourist attraction with an entry gate and fee. However, I was able to get some views from the back side, between modern apartment and business buildings. You just have to be clever about where to look. I ended up at a little Han place for a quick Chinese lunch, then back to the hotel for a rush packing job in order to get checked out by 14:00 (BJ) and down to the lobby to meet up with my driver.

Farewell to Kashgar

Arrival at the airport was quite a bit earlier than the allowed check-in period, but not too burdensome and there was aircon and a place to sit. Kashgar airport security is similar to Urumqi’s with additional luggage screening for explosives, shoes off at the people-checkpoint, etc. Unlike the rest of the PRC. Got an assigned aisle seat, but this plane was full up and the pillow seat gambit was not workable. Tons of Hans on the plane, each taking back multiple boxes of fruit and other goodies, so the overheads were much more stuffed than usual. Had a squalling brat in seat opposite and row behind...mother didn’t seem to have enough sense to bring something for the kid to drink and snack on. Stuffed earplugs in and endured for the 1.5 hour flight. Was very glad to get off in Urumqi. But at least it wasn’t the 26-hour train journey.

Reflections on this Trip Module

Kashgar City and Area in General:
--Get there any way you can. If you go to Xinjiang and miss Kashgar, you have sorely screwed up, similar to missing out on Turpan.
--Once you spend the time, cash, effort to get there, you might as well stick around and see more of the surrounding region. Whether you choose mountains, desert, culture, combination of any per your own interests, it’s all good.
--Try to allot a block of time for the SW region in your overall itinerary of at least 5 days excluding travel. And week would not be overdoing it.

-- More than any other place I’ve been in the PRC territory, this one benefits from good local knowledge and that means a guide. Also within Kashgar City itself, it’s easy enough to see the highlights on your own if you wish.
--Use a Kashgar-based Uighur-owned and operated agency.
--Once you have your dates bracketed as part of your overall trip itinerary, do some homework on your various sights and activity options, then contact an agency (or two) and start a dialogue. The three best and most well-known have their own websites. Most tours are set up as private trips so are infinitely customizable. If you are a solo, let them know if you would be willing to join up with another party to share costs.
-- It's not particularly cheap. Even if traveling on a budget as I was, these 5 days (out of 20 total) accounted for 30% of my entire trip spend. The end of this Trip Report will have more details on cost breakdowns.

--Important: Understand that in Kashgar, like other Xinjiang cities (except for Urumqi), you will not be living in the lap of luxury since it doesn’t exist yet. You will be safe, you will be comfortable, you can stay clean, but you’ll have to put up with deficiencies in facilities and services—most of which are minor annoyances not major tragedies. If you’re the whining and complaining type, stay in East China where you can be catered to properly.

Karakoram Highway Trip:
--One of the highlight experiences of my long time in the PRC, and I’ve traveled to some pretty cool places so have some basis for comparison.
--Independent travel by foreigners as of 2012 is not available anymore past the Gez checkpoint so you must arrange transport through an agent. And at any rate, it’s more practical to do so and get a driver/guide as well.
--If you don’t speak Uighur, Kyrgyz, or possible another Turkic family language, you will have trouble communicating. Mandarin is of very marginal usefulness.

--The longest part of the drive is between Gez and Karakul, so once you’ve gotten that far, going all the way to Tashkorgan is an easy incremental to add, though it will require at least an overnight.
--If you feel you can stand the altitude and traveling May-October, heading all the way up to the Khunjerab Pass is recommended, even if like me, you aren’t trying to cross to Pakistan.
--A daytrip only as far as Karakul and back is very long and IMO a lot of driving for brief reward. Therefore, I would recommend at least 2 days/1 night trip. or better yet, 3 days/2 nights.

--If you are extremely fastidious, need privacy, hate primitive camping, and cannot deal with taking nature’s calls in the Great Outdoors, it might be better to suggest to tour agent that while you want to see Karakul Lake, you don’t want to stay in local housing there. Nearly all agents assume most foreigners want to do this as part of the “experience.” But after looking at the situation, I think this trip for some travelers might be better just seeing and maybe spending time at the lake, but staying elsewhere. Tashkorgan has adequate hotel facilities, and the Oytagh Glacier Park guesthouse also looked OK from the outside. The latter could be an option between Karakul and Kashgar. But the agent must know your desires and needs up front, so they can properly pace the tour and the driving with appropriate overnight locations. There are large stretches of the KKH where NOTHING is available.
--Toilet stops. There are also long stretches on the KKH where no toilets are available. In addition to Karakul, we had two other Great Outdoors comfort breaks when no other options were available. Make sure that when the opportunity arises (Toilet buildings at Upal, Gez Checkpoint, Tashkorgan, Oytagh) that you take advantage.

--Take a jacket even in summer, or a few layers that pack light in a suitcase. It is very cool even in summer, and as we experienced, downright cold especially at Karakul Lake and Khunjerab which are the higher elevations. Tashkorgan not quite as chilly.
--Food and water conditions are frankly, unsanitary. Best to bring emergency snacks, eat very sparingly and cautiously when staying there, and bring in and use all bottled water from Kashgar or Upal. Hot cooked food in Tashkorgan restaurants is fine, though they may not have much on their menus available.
--Take your own toilet paper, tissues, and handwipes/hand sanitizer!
--Altitude: many people feel the effects especially if driving in from Kashgar, as there is nowhere you can be long enough to acclimate. I had to pace myself slowly. This is most likely to happen at Karakul and especially at Khunjerab Pass.

Since I didn’t do the Taklamakan Desert/Caravan trip, I can’t speak for conditions, but I expect many of the same caveats (except altitude and freezing weather) apply as per the KKH.

Last edited by jiejie; Aug 23, 12 at 12:22 am.
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Old Aug 25, 12, 8:03 am   #51
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Urumqi Redux

With the exception of some late afternoon rain at Karakul and morning snow at Khunjerab Pass a couple of days earlier, I had had blue-sky weather for this entire journey. But now on Day 14, for the first time, my luck wavered as upon arrival of my flight, it was overcast in Urumqi and looked as much like rain coming as pollution. But it held off, and I taxied from the airport to my hotel and got checked in by about 20:00 (BJ time), and as it was still quite light out and prime dinner hour, headed off to my night food market discovered previously. Just had a basic relaxing evening doing not much of anything productive.

Next morning after breakfast (included in hotel rate), I ambled around the neighborhood a bit in a different direction, then to a bank ATM to stock up on more RMB cash, as the Kashgar trip had depleted me. Returned to room to pack up my things and check out. Although I had a night train, I’d decided to have the hotel hold my stuff in the bell closet until I returned in the early evening. I’d decided that making a trip over to the Rail Station just to put the stuff in Left Luggage was superfluous. I kept my laptop and valuables with me in the daypack, which would get heavy but they couldn’t be left behind..

Xinjiang Provincial Museum

I had noticed that finding empty taxis in Urumqi wasn’t any easier than most other Chinese cities these days, but I did manage to grab one during lunch time, without too much street waiting. And headed to what is probably Urumqi’s biggest tourist draw—the Xinjiang Provincial Museum. Urumqi is well-known for being pretty thin on classic tourist “sights” but this is widely reputed to be worthwhile. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Museum was free. And not surprised to find there were quite a few people there, including Chinese tour groups. But still not crowded inside. It’s a two-story museum, simply and clearly laid out, and has two kinds of exhibits: those which show the history, ethnicities, and cultural artifacts taken from around the province, and those which are more political and nationalistic in focus—the ones with lots of “Motherland” and “hegemony” and “harmony” types of descriptions. While the latter are worth a good chuckle (or grimace) if one knows anything about the Xinjiang situation, they are also of lower priority if you need to speed-visit the Museum and need to cut out some of the galleries. It’s obvious from the floor plan display inside which is which, so focus first on the galleries with the display of the range of minorities, and the historical artifacts. And above all, the fabulous mummies which have come from various Xinjiang sites around the old cities and desert.

Located on the upper floor, the gallery of unusually well-preserved mummies and associated finds are one of the centerpieces of the Museum’s collection and a big draw for the visitor, particularly the “Loulan Beauty” from the Lop Nur area of the Taklamakan desert, dated around 1800 B.C. Although there are also Han mummies exhibited from later periods, due to the way the mummies of different eras are cleverly interspersed rather than grouped sequentially, you have to read the placards and figure out the timeline of history yourself. This means the critical implication of this part of the Museum’s exhibits are hilariously lost on most of the Chinese visitors—that Xinjiang, in its early history over the millenia....never had any Hans! The place was first settled by European or at least Caucasoid types!

In a large lower floor gallery are the Xinjiang’s ethnic minority presentations, which were decently done and interesting. Curiously, I couldn’t find the Kyrgyz though, unless they were displayed under another uncommon and obscure name. Overall, a decent experience and worth a couple of hours of your time.

Back out on the street, I realized I had a transport problem. My next stop was back downtown for a relaxing mid-afternoon lunch at the western Texas Cafe...one of those modern Xinjiang oases for foreign travelers that have reached lamb kebab overload. Heavy traffic and not an empty taxi in sight. The bus system was inscrutable since I didn’t really know Urumqi, at at any rate were packed out on this Friday afternoon. Then an interesting thing happened while I was standing by the street figuring out what to do. Two Han guys wearing typical business clothes, pulled up and asked where I was going. I told them a well-known landmark nearby the Texas Cafe--the Hongqiaoli Computer Market--and they said would take me for RMB 20. I decided this was a good bet to get going immediately and not waste more time, and it wasn’t particularly risky since traffic was so heavy and slow-moving that in case these two turned out to be scalawags, I could hop out of the car and escape with impunity. We actually had a fun time chatting and I was back to being able to use Mandarin. Turned out they were electronics reps working for a company in Urumqi. They dropped me off and then I fumbled a bit on foot before finding the Texas Cafe.

The Cafe is a nice slice of US rusticana, has comfy couches, chairs, and a book library. It was a hoot talking to Steve, the latest (American) owner. He’s been in China awhile and in Urumqi a few years, so we traded business stories while I enjoyed my chicken parmesan pasta, breadstick, and two dessert sandwich of two chocolate chip cookies with vanilla ice cream. And a cold Zero! A sure cure for lamb overload. My plan was to hang out here until about 19:00, then head back to hotel to pick up my stuff and then off to the train station. So at the appointed hour, nice and refreshed, Steve and I exchanged business cards, said our goodbyes, and off I went. No taxis, so had to attract the interest of yet another heiche (private car serving as a taxi) who dropped me at my not-too-distant hotel for RMB 10. Picked up luggage. By now it was rush hour (remember, Urumqi time was similar to 18:00-ish), and empty taxis were impossible. Ended up having still another heiche—this one driven by two Uighur guys who said they’d take me to the train station—and on the way also picked up another Uighur lady dressed to the nines who looked like she was heading for a party.

Note: Apparently in Urumqi, the private car-as-taxi system is quite widespread and accepted, and doesn’t seem to have the stigma of scamming illegitimacy that you’d encounter in Beijing or Shanghai. And the prices I was charged were not too much higher than a legitimate metered fare. So in this city, might be a transport strategy to keep in mind.

It was agony getting through traffic to the train station, but I finally got there about 20:45 so Steve was right to move me along and out of the Cafe when he did. Getting into the station was a bit of a scrum, then my waiting room was on the third floor (fortunately, station has escalators). Everything was a blisteringly hot exercise and I was sweaty already and not looking forward to this overnight train. Ended up getting a porter for an outrageous RMB 30 but it was a long way to the platform and train, and he saved my poor back and took my luggage all the way to the compartment. Train #1086 to Dunhuang left right on time at 21:45. I had the compartment to myself for the first two hours, as far as Turpan, where a group of nine tourists from Guiyang, Guizhou got on and three of them were with me. They were pretty congenial, but by then it was close to midnight and everybody settled in for bed.

I left Urumqi not running for my life, but with piqued interest. I would have liked another day to explore, as I thought the city had an interesting vibe, reasonably friendly people, and I’d missed seeing the modern “International Grand Bazaar.” Something for next time. For now, I was excited about finally getting to see Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves.
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Old Aug 26, 12, 6:59 am   #52
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Heading Back East: Dunhuang or Bust!

At this point I had been “on the road” for two weeks, though it seemed like two years ago that I’d left Beijing and Xi’an! Leaving Urumqi by train was for me, the goodbye to Xinjiang, as although I still had hours and hours of travel technically in Xinjiang, most of it would be overnight and spent sleeping through the long desert crossing and back into far western Gansu province, where the next stop would be the old Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang.

Dunhuang became a prominent garrison town and crossroads during the Han dynasty beginning about the 200’s B.C. Although Jiayuguan which is over 300 km to the northeast, is more famous as being “the western end of the Great Wall,” technically speaking, that’s only true for the more famous Ming Great Wall which we all know and love. In fact, there are still a very few remnants left of the much older but little-known Han Great Wall which preceded it by over a millenium. The Han Great Wall was mostly of rammed-earth construction, much of which has weathered away and melted back into the landscape over the centuries. But it is possible to see a few wall and watchtower ruins out in the desert, accessed by private car from modern Dunhuang.

Ancient Dunhuang was also the junction where the Northern Silk Road via Turpan joined up with the Southern Silk Road coming from Hotan and Charchen. So it was a very busy place and had an unusual variety of people and cultures passing through. Dunhuang was one of China’s earliest Buddhist centers, evidenced by the extensive cave sites around the area. The most famous of these, the Mogao Caves (Grottoes), date from the 4th century A.D.

Getting into Dunhuang

I’d decided a few weeks earlier that the easy method of getting to Dunhuang—flight from Urumqi—was prohibitively expensive (about RMB 1000 at the time) so rail was the only realistic option, with soft sleeper lower berth saving me over USD 100 on transport, plus additional savings not needing an extra hotel night. Note: Flights in/out of Dunhuang from/to anywhere are not plentiful and rarely see much discounting, so ticket prices are expensive. And Dunhuang airport (DNH) while conveniently close to the town, is often subject to operational shutdowns and flight cancellations due to weather and sandstorms. This is more common in winter and spring.

For rail travel, Dunhuang has two stations: the newest is on the outskirts of the city itself, and is designed for high-speed rail. Unfortunately, the current schedule only has three HSR trains arriving from the east (from Lanzhou) at this most convenient facility--hopefully this will increase in the future. All trains arriving from the west (from Urumqi) still stop only at the old “Dunhuang” rail station on the main trunk line. This station is actually called Liuyuan and it is a rather godforsaken outpost, with an unattractive small settlement built around it but a huge number of track segments and sidebars. But definitely not the place to get stuck if you can avoid it. Liuyuan is unfortunately nowhere close to Dunhuang city—it takes a full two hours to drive between the two.

My no-number train 1086 from Urumqi to Liuyuan had not been bad as I feared it might, it was fully airconditioned and my soft sleeper berth and carriage was not really any different than on a K train. We arrived at Liuyuan station about 08:30 on June 30, about 30 minutes behind schedule, mostly because it seemed we were endlessly waiting just shy of the junction for track switching or something. A surprising number of fellow passengers, including my compartmentmates from Guizhou, alighted here along with me. Unfortunately, both they and some other passengers I was able to strike up quick conversations with, already had prearranged transport to Dunhuang town and no empty space in their various vehicles. Bummer. However, after fending off a couple of insistent taxi drivers who offered to drive me for RMB 160 (solo) and minibus drivers who offered rides for RMB 30 as long as I waited for more passengers coming in on the next train (yeah, right). Didn’t like either of those options, so within about 10-15 minutes after canvassing some other soloists, I had three other Chinese guys to join forces with and share a taxi, at RMB 40 per person. They were working for a local company in Dunhuang, and all insisted I ride up front with the driver in a seat of my own...which was great for me.

Tip #1: If you train into Liuyuan without prearranged transport and need to set something up in Real Time, look for fellow passengers wanting to share (everyone’s going to Dunhuang town!), and until everything is settled, keep your luggage firmly in hand and resist all attempts of drivers and minibus touts to take it from you and put in their vehicle. Tip #2: If coming from the east (Lanzhou, Zhangye, Jiayuguan) or if heading out that way, then try for tickets on one of the few D trains that go all the way to the new Dunhuang station. At least, try to limit the Liuyuan to Dunhuang road connection to one direction only. On the way to Dunhuang, I was patting myself on the back for having the foresight to deal with the ticket mob scene at Kashgar station and advance purchase a train ticket directly out of Dunhuang for my exit plan, thus being able to forego a repeat of this interstitial car trip.

Dunhuang Town

We got to Dunhuang town in exactly two hours, which squares with what most guidebooks say. The taxi driver dropped me off right in front of my hotel, and I got checked in quickly, into a quiet room on the third floor. Unfortunately, this is another one of those hotels with no elevator. Sigh. I cleaned up a little bit, got the internet going (good wifi here) and then about 13:00 (BJ time), starting walking around the town as is my habit. I was impressed. Dunhuang struck me as very clean and tidy, no rubbish in the streets, nice bilingual signage pointing the way to various places of interest—obviously somebody had us tourists in mind! Nice scale to the city, mostly it is 3-5 stories, with storefronts, sidewalks, and streets that are well-suited to the town’s size and population. Just an all-around nice feeling emanating from the place. A mix of people, it’s definitely a Han-majority town but with a goodly sprinkling of Hui Muslims, a stray few Uighurs, and a few other minorities from time to time.

I took an immediate liking to the central part of town which is where I was staying. I also found the nearby Pedestrian Street, which was pretty dead in the very early afternoon but which I was assured would be very active beginning about 16:00. And also found my predetermined target for lunch: the American-owned Oasis Cafe, which luckily opened at 14:00 right before I showed up. Owner Kevin has been in Dunhuang about 5 years and seems to be filling a niche in these parts. As soon as he mentioned his fairly new real pizza ovens, I knew that’s what I wanted. A delicious and very creditable sausage pizza and two real, fresh iced teas, plus homemade chocolate cake with real whipped cream. Thought I’d died and gone to heaven.....truly a modern oasis. Likely the same feeling the ancient camel caravanners had when they came out of the desert, saw Dunhuang, and knew that good eats that didn't involve lamb, and fresh water, were no mirage. Spent about 1.5 hours there eating and chatting, then back to hotel room to rest. Resolved to come back the next day.

Singing Sand Dunes, Take One

I set out about 17:00 for the sand dunes (remember that this far west, that’s actually more like 15:00 in terms of sun angle). The ride only took about 15 minutes from central Dunhuang, but taxi driver ripped me off for RMB 20 which was my own fault for not checking his (continuous running) meter and having him reset it to zero when I got in. I walked up to the big ceremonial tourist gate and ticket office, but I balked at the RMB 120 entrance fee. This fee gets you into a fenced-off area where you can avail yourself (at additional cost) of camel rides, dune sliding, ATV buggy off-roading, and viewing of the Crescent Lake. But if you aren’t into these made-for-Chinese-tourist attractions, the entrance fee is an insult to see a natural attraction that doesn’t need any upkeep. And for the first time in this trip, the weather/skies really were unfavorable. There was so much haze that you could barely make out the outline of the dunes.

My pre-trip preparations had informed me that there was a way to get back to those dunes for free if all one wanted to do was see and perhaps climb them and take photos, so I tried village roads to the left, then to the right to get around the fenced area, all to no avail. Finally about 18:30, I gave up in disgust and took the Bus #3 back to town for RMB 1. At least something was a good deal. Then thinking food would console me at my failed quest, I headed to night market for a Sichuan place recommended by Kevin at the Oasis earlier in the day. Had a nice meal and local Huang beer—not too strong but reasonably good. Everything went down well and too much to finish. It seemed like most of Dunhuang comes and eats here, at the night food court area which is a wonderful cacophony of all different types of offerings—some of which look reasonably sanitary! And at the open vendor-with-seating areas lining Pedestrian Street. There were lots of kebabs of course, and noodles, and a mix of various Chinese and Muslim cooking. Still not too much pork around. You don’t see as many Muslims here like you do further west in Turpan, but they are around and especially in the food court and adjacent pedestrian street. By now, it was about 20:00 and the pedestrian street was packed with locals and a few tourists (Chinese and foreign) working their way through the eats and the souvenir stands. A really nice and laid-back atmosphere. I can see that when the weather is good, every night’s a party here.

Stopped to get a couple of bottled waters for the next day’s outing to the Mogao Caves, then back to my hotel for a clean up, some internet, and to try and figure out how this Silk Road trip all ends up in a few days!

Last edited by jiejie; Aug 26, 12 at 7:12 am.
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Old Aug 26, 12, 8:58 am   #53
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I walked up to the big ceremonial tourist gate and ticket office, but I balked at the RMB 120 entrance fee. This fee gets you into a fenced-off area where you can avail yourself (at additional cost) of camel rides, dune sliding, ATV buggy off-roading, and viewing of the Crescent Lake. But if you aren’t into these made-for-Chinese-tourist attractions, the entrance fee is an insult to see a natural attraction that doesn’t need any upkeep. And for the first time in this trip, the weather/skies really were unfavorable. There was so much haze that you could barely make out the outline of the dunes.

My pre-trip preparations had informed me that there was a way to get back to those dunes for free if all one wanted to do was see and perhaps climb them and take photos, so I tried village roads to the left, then to the right to get around the fenced area, all to no avail.
Though it's been a while (i.e. security procedures may well have changed since 2006), I didn't require a guide book to figure out that it would be possible to enter that massive park without forking over the entrance fee. However, I vaguely recall being chased by some angry locals at one point. Suffice it to say, the dunes were the unexpected highlight of my Dunhuang visit; you can effectively "ski" down them.

As for transportation between Liuyuan and Dunhuang, I'm pretty sure I rode in one of those horrible mini-buses (along with the farm animals that typically accompany this drill) in both directions. Seeing the airport on my way from town to the caves made me slightly envious of the people that were able to pop straight back to Beijing in 2.5 hours (as you note, you need two hours just to get to Liuyuan, which was the only train station on offer during my visit). But, in the end, I'm happy that my budget forced me to visit Jiayuguan and Lanzhou after Dunhuang.
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Old Aug 27, 12, 6:56 am   #54
 
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Deleted per request of OP.

Last edited by 5khours; Sep 1, 12 at 7:03 am.
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Old Aug 27, 12, 8:20 pm   #55
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5K: I like your pictures and I appreciate the effort. But one reason I've purposely left out photos from the thread is the extra time it takes for them to load, especially here in China. But also anywhere with slow speeds or not on broadband connections. It's frustrating to now access my own thread and wait the extra minutes for these to load up.

I'm putting photos together on my flickr site and intend to link to that when I've finished the narrative, so people have a choice whether they wish to view or not depending on their technical setup/time. I wish you would consider doing the same, remove the photos from this thread and provide a link to them instead. They are nice photos.
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Old Aug 27, 12, 9:20 pm   #56
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Wow, excellent!

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Old Aug 28, 12, 3:28 am   #57
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Wow, excellent!

+1
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Old Sep 1, 12, 7:01 am   #58
 
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5K: I like your pictures and I appreciate the effort. But one reason I've purposely left out photos from the thread is the extra time it takes for them to load, especially here in China. But also anywhere with slow speeds or not on broadband connections. It's frustrating to now access my own thread and wait the extra minutes for these to load up.

I'm putting photos together on my flickr site and intend to link to that when I've finished the narrative, so people have a choice whether they wish to view or not depending on their technical setup/time. I wish you would consider doing the same, remove the photos from this thread and provide a link to them instead. They are nice photos.
Not ignoring. Been off the grid. I'll delete the post.
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Old Sep 1, 12, 10:58 pm   #59
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Jiejie, looking forward to the next installment. Also, REALLY looking forward to see your pictures (and 5K's, too). Every time you've mentioned a photo stop, I've thought, "Hey, I want to see those!"
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Old Sep 2, 12, 1:05 am   #60
 
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I am really enjoying this trip report. Thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to the rest of it.
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