May 1, 1999
A few weeks ago I returned to Los Angeles from a two month China trip. Enclosed are some disjointed notes. My trip covered a large swath of western China. Most of the notes are brief-- especially for the well traveled areas. I tried to add a little more detail about places off the beaten track… I apologize for my dodgy spelling/grammar in advance.
I arrived late in heavy snow. For once the city looked beautiful, but by the next morning the coal fueled grime had returned… I was awakened by the sound of thousands of "recruited" streetworkers breaking the ice and snow with pickaxes. This started at 5:30am and continued for several hours.
While the city was cleared of snow, all the roads to the mountains were impassible so my Tian Shan plans were nixed (this was early March). John's Information Cafe and the infamous Hongshan conference room were both closed (the rest of the Hongshan was open--but why pay 40 quai for an uncomfortable bed and horrific bathrooms).
I stayed at the Electric Power Hotel which I recommend.
Can't say I did much in Urumuchi. It was freezing and dirty. Mainly I hung out in Muslim markets and shopped for propaganda posters.
If you feel like splurging try the breakfast at the Holiday Inn. It is excellent (prepared by a friendly French chef). Several years ago I was one of the restaurant's first customers. Back then all the waitresses would nervously cluster around hanging on your every word. They always wore smiles, but looked terrified nonetheless. One of those waitresses who is now a manager told me she was indeed terrified. When the restaurant opened the kitchen was run by a German who would hit the girls with chopsticks and make them apologize for "mistakes" by writing apologies for each offense 3000 times over. The current French chef, an unusually thin man from Lyon, is considerably more laid back.
The bar at the Holiday Inn often sports a seedy pickup scene between foreign oil men and local working girls. During off hours the girls will challenge you to spirited games of Go (they always win).
ROAD TO KASHGAR
While this road is heavily touristed during the summer months, it is virtually devoid of Western and Japanese tourists in winter and early spring. The "hello factor" was almost 100%.
Korla and Aksu seemed markedly more Chinese than in the past (more bathroom tiled buildings, more blue-mirrored glass, more Mandarin signs).
The road (and the busses) were much improved from my previous trips.
One tip (to be followed anywhere you go in the world): Don't play 3 card monty.
As far as I could tell I was the only Western foreigner in Kashgar in early March… All the backpacker cafes were closed, most of the hotels were absolutely empty, and the PSB was nowhere to be seen---in short, March is a great time to visit. Studying the dusty Seman hotel guest book confirms that off-season visitors are few and far between.
Note the rail line from Urumuchi is expected to be finished by the end of the summer.
I was shocked by the changes since my last trips in 89 and 93. Large areas of the city have been made to look typically Han (with wide straight roads, ugly concrete buildings). The population also seems to have become more Han. A school teacher told me, "We Chinese are 40% of Kashgar. After the train comes, we will be 90%." The teacher went on to extol the virtues of the new Kashgar.
Many Kashgaris see the situation through a different lens. Several people told me, "When the train comes, Kashgar will be finished." Some talked darkly of bombings. Many also complained of new strict regulations which prohibit boys under the age of 18 from entering mosques. Young men deemed "too religious" are routinely hauled away to jail. Another source of resentment is a sort of class system that gives preference to Han businesses.
The center of the city and the outskirts retain the traditional Kashgari architecture, but signs of modernity are creeping in. For example, a number of the mudbrick homes I visited sported VCDs and elaborate stereo systems (The Braveheart VCD is a fav - the Kashgaris see the film as analogous to their situation). Pagers are common, but in general, only Chinese, own mobile phones.
Taxis are omnipresent. For long trips out of town the going rate is 1 quai per kilometer (if you get dropped off, you have to pay for the return mileage).
If you need help and are looking for a Kashgari who speaks English, go to the Seman Hotel II (across the square from the main Seman Hotel) and ask for Abdul Qayyum. Abdul is a completely stand-up guy who will help you with all sorts of problems. If you hang out with him, be sure to give my best to his family (his mother makes a mean noodle soup).
On market day (you will stay for market day won't you?) be sure to check out the medicine men who hang out near the rug pavilion
A last note about Kashgar: as always there are interesting intrigues going on. At the Seman I met an Uzbek girl who was being held as collateral on a business deal (her brother-in-law had borrowed money from a Kashgari). This poor creature's husband had originally been left as the collateral, but when he realized that his brother had vanished with the money, he brought his wife in to take his place (without her consent of course). She was forced pay off the debt by prostituting herself to Pakistani traders. The total sum of the remaining debt: 2200 quai. She had been in Kashgar for 9 months and wasn't expected to survive the year it would take to pay the rest of the money. I helped her get to the border by paying off the moneylender. As she left she promised to "stab her husband in the eyes." Later, the Kashgari moneylender just laughed at me. "There are many sad stories," he said, would you like me to tell you another?"
ROAD TO HOTAN
The road to Hotan, in my opinion, is much more interesting than the northern Taklimakan road. Although the cities along the way have been thoroughly Chineseified, they retain a strong Uigher character; the desert is beautiful (if you are into nothingness); there isn't much bureaucracy to deal with; and everyone just seems really happy to meet you.
I particularly enjoyed hanging out Kargalik and Karakax. Both places seem to be very far away from anything and a good place to do Uigher type things. I learned to kill a goat with a pocket knife for example. Accommodation is simple but not uncomfortable.
Forget about bathing.
Arriving in Hotan was a real letdown after Karakax. I expected something that looked a bit more "out there". At first glance the city appeared to be yet another bathroom tiled military outpost, but after a few days of poking around, I began to come around - the secret...wandering outside the city limits.
1. The market-- busy and bustling every day of the week, but huge on Sundays.
2. Country roads… Just head out of the city in any direction along the dirt popular lined roads-- you're bound to have an adventure.
3. Schools. Poke your head in… the kids will drag you to class.
4. The airport (even if you're not flying). The military does live fire exercises around the airport. If you're lucky they'll let you fire an AK 47 or launch an anti-tank grenade. At the airport I also met a very lonely air traffic controller (there is only one plane per day). He loves reading/discussing Mark Twain. Look him up.
ROAD TO GOLMUD
The road to Golmud is rough and mainly boring. It's dusty and s l o w. Along the way you'll encounter over-friendly Uighurs, comically hostile Chinese officials, and some of the most stir-crazy with boredom truck drivers you'd ever want to meet. Bus service is scattered or nonexistent.. count on hitching and waiting.
My stops were Keriya-Niya-Qarqan-Qarkilik-Youshashan-Da Qaidam-Golmud. The journey took 8 days and it was remarkable only for its monotony. The thought that kept running through my head was, "How in the world do these poor bastards survive here?" Every day was play-it-by ear. When you are hitching it is often best to do as the truckdriver does. For example, if he sleeps in his truck, you sleep in his truck; if he says eat, eat. They usually know best. And don't complain, remember...if you are there it's by choice.
Once you leave Xinjiang the towns (if you can call them that), become particularly depressing. I began to think of them as open air prisons which is probably not far from the truth. There was lots of talk of a big gold mine and untold riches, but I saw no evidence of wealth anywhere.
The main problem besides finding a ride (the trucks that ply these routes are almost always full of rocks/dirt/metal/or people) is knowing exactly where you are. Most of these places seem to go by different names on different maps. Bring a compass.
Note: About 8 hours out of Youshashan you'll come to a fork in the road. Both roads go to Golmud. Although the more southerly fork appears to be more direct (going through Ganq), go north. The road to Ganq eventually vanishes into nothingness… and the one truck driver I met told me the people there had stolen his golden teeth. He was indeed missing quite a few.
Also once you get into the Altun Shan range it gets really really cold---like "spit and it freezes cold". Go prepared. Arriving in Golmud to a real bed and a clean room was almost a spiritual experience.
Many people knock Golmud, but I love it. In March it is cold and windblown. I had a friendly night of beer drinking with the PSB. When I asked about their Tibet ticket scam the English speaker said, "Well you know we have to make a living." He drove me back to the hotel in his spanking new SUV.
TRAIN TO XINING
The bus might be more interesting, but this a highly pleasant way to get to Xining. I slept most of the way.
Note: both the Golmud and Xining train station are prime examples of Russian-style Chinese architecture.
None of the guidebooks I consulted before my trip were up-to-date regarding Xining hotels. I couldn't even find most of the hotels mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Because I arrived in the middle of the freezing night, this was bad.
I ended up staying at the "The Xinjiang Railway Hotel". If you show up under similar circumstances, don't bother with the guidebooks, instead walk a few blocks to the east of the station and look for the hotel-like building on the north side of the street (no English sign) and beg for a room.
Xining has doubled or tripled in size since my last visit. I found almost nothing familiar so I quickly escaped to Kunbum. There are many buses direct to the monastery contrary to what the guidebooks say. To get them, just go by the sports stadium and get on a bus going to Taer (the Chinese name for Kunbum).
At the monastery you can stay in the simple Kunbum Monastery Motel. It's cheap and relatively clean. The bathrooms were stinky but much better than anything on the Xinjiang-Golmud road so I was happy.
Kunbum is best seen early in the morning or at night (before and after the Chinese tourists take over the place). Only at these times does it seem like a real monastery and not a Chinese Disneyland. Several monks are learning English and will be happy to show you around (they will find you). Despite the guidebook warnings that the monks are anti-photography, many will encourage you to take pictures inside the monasteries when you are hanging out one-on-one. I was told the anti-camera policy was mainly geared towards Chinese and foreign tour groups who don't show the place or the monks the proper respect.