Toto, I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas Anymore

The Silk Road Adventure, Part IV

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April 30-May 2, 2013

Turpan–I abruptly learned how distinct Cantonese is from Mandarin after a slew of Cantonese-speaking women stampeded through our train to Turpan at 3 a.m. and woke me and my friends from our sleep. If anything, I could say that this rude awakening was a foreshadowing of how different I would find Turpan, and the Xinjiang Province in general.

After a rough night of sleep post-Cantonese squawking, we arrived in Turpan early Tuesday morning and found the little town to be much more dingy than all the quaint cities we had previously visited. At one point, Erdem declared that the area looked as though “God had forgotten about it.” A depressing statement, but not entirely inaccurate. There were also glaringly obvious physical differences about the local people themselves; the majority of them were taller, had darker, olive skin, women wore head scarves, and a lot of the men had mustaches. The people are known as Uyghur, which is a completely different race from Han Chinese people in Beijing and they all spoke Uyghur (this is also the name of the language). It may have been because many are originally from Kazakhstan  but the whole area had a faint middle-eastern vibe.

The bus system wasn’t especially organized, but we lucked out with a bus that happened to be going toward the city center. While we were being jostled around a bus of strangers, Ivy, being the bubbly extrovert that she is, sparked a conversation with a woman wearing a head scarf and bouncing a baby on her lap. After speaking to her in Mandarin (all Uyghur people are required to learn Mandarin in school), we discovered that she can speak English, Mandarin, and Uyghur and she attended a university in Shanghai. Our conversation was interrupted by two police officers who suddenly stalked up the steps of the bus. I soon realized they were demanding identification from all passengers. The gun slung over the officer’s arm was intimidating, especially when he demanded identification from Bow, who was sitting beside me. He didn’t request my I.D. and we concluded that he asked her because he, like most other people, thought she was Chinese. It was a scene that felt as though it were taken straight from a movie, but the Uyghur woman assured us it happens all the time and everyone in Turpan is required to carry identification at all times.

Once we arrived in the city center, we bargained with a cab driver and a tour bus driver. After comparing the two against each other, we realized the men knew each other and quickly agreed to the cab’s fare and promises to take us around before they could devise a plan to hustle us.

We clunked through town in the man’s rickety old VW while, much to Erdem’s delight, our eardrums were blasted with Turkish music. Turpan is best known for producing excellent grapes and we stopped by a vineyard with rows and rows of grape-less vines. Apparently we were four months early for grape season. There wasn’t much to see in the fields, but we wandered into someone’s backyard courtyard and became fascinated with the beautiful patio, fenced in goats, and two little kids

As the mid-afternoon sun blazed to an almost intolerable level, we paid an entrance fee to tour an “ancient city,” which turned out to be a bunch of rocks with no shade to be found. After falling victim to a bird poop attack, I decided I had my fill of tourism in Turpan and we headed back to the city center to wander around the local markets while our hands became sticky from juices of the fruit we bought. Eventually we bid Bow farewell since she was heading north and as Erdem and Ivy and I were waiting for our train to Urumqi, a crazy old man began to converse with Erdem. Since Erdem speaks almost no Chinese, Ivy had to translate and she concluded that he was asking where we were all from and declaring that people are all the same no matter where they’re from. It was a pleasant thought that turned awkward as we realized that the old geezer who was missing a few teeth had also lost his marbles. He began ranting loudly and we received uncomfortable glances from the employees of the restaurants as he grabbed his walking stick and stalked off down the road.

Our train ride to Urumqi lasted only two hours but felt like 20 because of the extremely sketchy characters staring at me like I was a juicy piece of steak and they were lions who hadn’t seen food in days. It didn’t help that Erdem’s seat had been taken purposefully and rather rudely by a local guy which, evidently, angered him. For the rest of the ride, Erdem began making generalizations criticizing the local people which began to mess with my head. Naturally, his paranoia rubbed off onto me. I began to fear that Urumqi would be similarly grim, but when we arrived, it was just as developed as the first few cities we visited.

Instead of the intense touring I had done with Bow, Ivy and Erdem in the previous week, I wandered around the city aimlessly during my last day of travel, which I spent alone. It was a great change of pace and a relaxing way to end my trip along the Silk Road. Overall, it was a crazy trip full of new experiences and lots of staring, but, in the end, I was glad to be going back to Beijing.

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Jolly Jiayuguan

The Silk Road Adventure, Part IV

Erdem competing with the locals at their chess-like game

Erdem competing with the locals at their chess-like game

April 29, 2013

Jiayuguan–Waking up without consuming anything but sand since the night before was slightly unpleasant so, Ivy, Erdem, Bow, and I wandered around the town looking to consume something healthy. We came across a little noodle shop which was very common in the area and ordered some breakfast. The woman who owned the shop could only be described as the jolliest Chinese woman I have ever seen. I had never witnessed a woman so full of character–and all of this animation was displayed while simply discussing noodles! After graciously thanking her for what turned out to be an unparalleled bowl of noodles and snapping a photo with my new favorite cook, we headed toward the Jiayu Pass.

This is a part of the Great Wall that the town is best known for, but its dull exterior and high entrance fee pushed us to detour toward a gorge that is popular with tourists. We had fun goofing off with giant statues and walking across a rickety bridge. After chatting with the cab driver who informed us that Americans (along with French and Germans) are the most “civilized” of all the nationalities he has met, he dropped us off at the town center to lounge around one of the many huge, luscious parks.

On our way around the city, I noticed a common sense of calm among commuters. It may have been the fact that we were in the city during a national holiday, lending a relaxed vibe to the locals, but everyone seemed less rushed than Beijingers. Even when our bus puttered to a stop and broke down in the middle of the route, people seemed to quietly observe the scenario, shrug their shoulders and then meander toward the bus that arrived a minute later to gather the passengers. I just imagined the mass chaos that would’ve erupted in Beijing if that had happened. It was a wonderful change of pace.

We dined in the middle a huge market with restaurants offering lamb kebabs and nan bread at every single corner and karaoke bars spotted in between. After dinner, we were off to board our train that would head to an entirely different province; Xinjiang. I had repeatedly been told by colleagues of the province’s great contrast from other parts of China, but I had no idea how much of a surprise I was in for the following day.

The jolliest cook in China

The jolliest cook in China

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Zhangye’s Warm Welcomes and Striped Mountains

The Silk Road Adventure, Part II

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My traveling companions and I shared sleeping quarters on our train to Zhangye with an adorable, young Chinese couple and an old woman. The elderly woman repeatedly informed us that she and her husband were 86 years old and insisted on revealing her identification to prove it. Ivy shared conversation about the area with these new roommates who were native to Zhangye. We gained useful insight on the town and once we were off the train, the young couple was offering us space in their little shop to store our heavy backpacks and phone numbers to use if ever we needed a cab. It was heartwarming to see such generosity from people who were strangers to us just hours before.

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Zhangye served as an important location in the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and is now known for a series of mountains laced with layers of reddish sandstone called the China Danxia. I scrolled through jaw-dropping photos online that served as a huge reason I chose to take the whole trip so my expectations were high.

Although the tour within the mountains was set up with transportation, there was plenty of walking involved. It was difficult to mask my astonishment at the two giggly Chinese women who decided it was a good idea to wear their highest heels and shortest skirts to tour wobble through the landscape while clutching their boyfriends for stability.

After unsuccessfully attempting to catch the sunset against the crimson mountains, we scarfed dumplings and street food at what seemed to be a nightly community gathering in the city center. As we wandered past squealing kids and I fell victim to obvious stares, Ivy declared that she would begin charging people for gawking at me. We ourselves did some people watching that resulted in a man approaching me with a loud, “HELLO!” and taking my hand to declare that he loved me. It was definitely the only English phrase he knew, but amused me to see how a city like this was so fascinated by foreigners.

Sadly I had to part from the local man who had fallen for my charm as we headed to the train station to continue along the Silk Road to Dunhuang.

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Claw machine containing an eclectic mix of teddy bears, chewing gum and cigarettes

Claw machine containing an eclectic mix of teddy bears, chewing gum and cigarettes

Hidden Parks and Egg Tarts in Hong Kong

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When I was gearing up to travel to Hong Kong for the week off work for the Spring Festival (also known as the Chinese New Year–these holidays all have several names which can be extremely confusing), I would tell co-workers and friends where I was headed. Every time, they would exclaim, “Ohhhh shopping!” To which I would respond by shrugging and saying, “I guess I might do some shopping…”

As soon as I arrived in Hong Kong, I understood why the majority thought I was set on retail therapy. I could not walk a single, overcrowded block without running into a mall. It was heavenly. And also very dangerous for my wallet. Instead of whittling all of my time away in Zara and H&M, I made a point to wander outside and see things that I can’t find in Beijing.

The humid, salty sea air and the ferry boats that shuttled both tourists and local commuters alike were special treats unique to Hong Kong. I enjoyed every second of the lush, green parks crammed in between skyscrapers and traditional food like dim sum with a new Australian friend.

I met up with a friend and native Hong Kongian (totally made up word) who accompanied me to The Victoria Peak and mouth watering sushi. I also spent time with my roommate, Katie, who was visiting her uncle in Hong Kong on her way back the The U.K. It was a bitter sweet way to end our adventure together as roommates.

While my 9-person dorm was less than ideal for rest, I found my holiday as relaxing as ever and Hong Kong is definitely one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited.

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Enjoying a traditional Hong Kong meal of Dim Sum

A dragon dance in the mall for CNY. Rub his nose for good luck!

Ferry ride

Ferry ride

Tram ride

Tram ride

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Taking the Peak Tram to the Victoria Peak

Taking the Peak Tram to the Victoria Peak

Victoria Peak & astounding views

Victoria Peak & astounding views

Trying egg tart for the first time

Trying egg tart for the first time

Drum decorations

Drum decorations

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Glass floored cable car to see the Big Buddha

The Big Buddha

The Big Buddha

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People burning incense for prayers at the Po Lin Monastery

People burning incense for prayers at the Po Lin Monastery

Discovery Bay on Lantau Island with Katie

Discovery Bay on Lantau Island with Katie

The Great Wall of China

It often troubles me to think that since I will be in China for a while, I may postpone something until the end of my stay, and then have to scramble to accomplish it. Now I can rest easily since I finally made it to the place for tourists visiting China; The Great Wall.

I must admit, there was a lot more climbing involved than I had envisioned. Others in the group I toured with were much more enthusiastic about hiking than I would ever hope to be, but looking back on it, I’m glad to have been with them. Ultimately, they pushed me to see more of the wall than I would have if I had gone at a leisurely pace. I’ve found that most expatriates I surround myself with in China are pretty adventurous. Some might say overly daring, but I find great enjoyment in knowing that if these people had not been so fearless, I would have never climbed those 8,000 stairs on the Great Wall. Even if I had been cursing those steps the whole way up.

The group

Two of my co-hikers

Celebrating my arrival at top of those ridiculous stairs!