Kashgar, Urumqi, and Turpan in Xingjiang Uygur Autonomous Region;
October 18 – 23, 2008
Here are the places mentioned on this blog:
From Beijing we flew all the way to Kashgar (aka Kashi), Xingjiang, on the western border of China (equivalent in distance to going from NY to LA). Kashgar was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road that linked trade between Europe, Central Asia, and China. Most of the population is made up of the Uighur minority group who has more in common with Central Asians than with the Chinese living to the east, in looks, religion, food, and lifestyle. In fact, many only speak Uighur and not Chinese. Walking around, I felt like we had left China and entered a different country.
Apparently some of the locals feel the same way and want to be independent - there have been protests and violence in the past, though quickly cracked down by the central government. How many Uighurs really feel that way, and whether they are right or not, depends on who you talk to, the age of the person, and whether that person is Uighur or Han Chinese. That said, we didn't feel any of that tension as we walked around.
Kashgar is a very cool and interesting place. It's not as developed as other cities so one can still see the traditional Uighur way of life just by walking around. We went to the Sunday livestock market where people from villages around Kashgar bring their animals (cows, goats/sheep, donkeys, horses, camels) to sell.
There are also vendors selling other things on the outer part of the market. We had a guide (one of our hotel employees offered to be our guide for a fee) who explained things to us and translated for us. Being a city girl, I've never been in such close proximity to so many animals so it was definitely an experience. It's sad if you think about the fate of the animals, but at the same time it was fascinating to watch.
Of course I also had to check out the eateries along the outer ring of the market... the way they hang the freshly cut lamb makes New York Chinatown look like child's play. It's definitely not a place for vegetarians or the weak of heart.
Here's a man making another Uighur specialty dish - Laghman noodles (i.e. pulled noodles):
Kashgar, in general, is a great place for foodies. The specialty here is Muslim food and were they good! The mutton kebobs were some of the best I've ever tasted; the lamb in the Pilaf (a rice dish similar in concept to Indian Pulao or Biriyani or Spanish Paella) was so tender it literally melted in your mouth; and the Samsas (baked mutton dumplings) were on the fatty side but really flavorful. They do like their mutton fat here so it is not a good place for my waistline to stay too long.
I didn't know it but Kashgar (and Xingjiang in general) is known for its fruits as well: super big and sweet pomegranates from Kashgar, sweet and juicy grapes from Turpan, and melons from Hami, to name a few.
We took a day trip from Kashgar to Karakul Lake via the scenic Karakoram Highway, the highest mountain pass road in the world. The highway goes over the Khunjerab Pass, through glacial-peaked mountains and ends at the Pakistan border, but we didn't have enough time to go that far. Just as well since I already experienced some minor altitude sickness at Karakul Lake which is around 3500 meters high. The section we drove through to get to Karakul Lake was scenic enough with red-sandstone canyons, sand dunes, and views of glacial peaks in the distance.
This is Kumtagh (White Sand Lake in Chinese) on the way to Karakul Lake. It's usually really windy but it was perfectly calm when we were there so you can see the reflections of the sand dunes in the lake.
We weren't as lucky at Karakul Lake so this is the best reflection I got of the ice mountains ringing the lake.
After Kashgar, the other cities in XingJiang were rather disappointing. Urumqi, the capital of Xingjiang, is a much bigger city than I expected especially being out here in the middle of nowhere, but it is just another big Chinese city. We made good use of our afternoon there and headed to the Xingjiang Museum where we saw a 8000 year old skull and 3800 year old mummies all preserved by the dry desert sand. That was pretty cool.
Turpan, another important Silk Road City, had many famous sites in addition to the grapes, but all of them were either way over-hyped or too contrived (the traditional Uighur village felt more like a show, complete with entrance fees, a parking lot for tourists, and gift/snack shops in the village). The one good place was the Jiaohe ruins which was established around 2nd century AD. It's one of the world's largest, oldest, and best preserved ancient cities. We practically had the place to ourselves and were able to really appreciate the place.
At least with Turpan, I can now say that I've been to the 2nd lowest place in the world (Dead Sea is the lowest).
Oh, and we had an amazing mutton dish at this restaurant around the corner from our hotel:
Another reason to regret going to Turpan is that we were forced to take a sleeper bus to our next destination, Dunhuang, because the train tickets were sold out. Instead of seats there are bunk beds lined up in rows. Typical of the Chinese, they crammed as many beds in there as possible, not leaving much room in the aisles or any room for a toilet on the bus.
The couple in the picture is this Slovenian couple we met on the bus.
As if that's not enough, they actually oversold the beds so there was one more person in the aisle next to Ashok so I think he got elbowed a couple of times during the night. Despite the smell and the questionable bedding (we brought our own sheets), the 13-hour bus ride wouldn't have been that bad if it wasn't also freezing. We stretched our jackets as much as possible to cover up. Really should have brought sleeping bags for this trip. Needless to say, we didn't sleep much and were so happy when the ride was over.
One last funny picture: it's fairly common, especially in smaller towns and in the countryside, to put babies in these open bottom pants. Just hold the kid over the toilet (or by the roadside)... no need for diapers. Very environmentally friendly!
A note for those thinking about going to Xinjiang: I highly recommend going to Kashgar, especially before it becomes more touristy as they are planning to open an international terminal. Here's the phone number of our driver to Karakul Lake. He's really really nice (and honest) and took good care of us, and even translated for Ashok when he was taking pictures. He only speaks Chinese so either use the hotel as interpreter or do a lot of charades:
Kashi Tiao-Er 13119980657