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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The Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an

The Silk Road Adventure Part I

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April 25, 2013

A friend I met in Beijing introduced me to his friend, Bow, who is working in Shanghai and was planning an ambitious trip to travel various places along The Silk Road of China. I had never met Bow, but her plan included impressively scenic locations that I would probably never get a chance to see if I weren’t already in China. Last week, I ventured nervously onto this very trip, unsure of the overnight trains and arduous hiking that lay ahead of me with people who would turn out to become three awesome friends. One of them, Ivy, is a friend who I already knew from living in Beijing, while the two others are expats in Shanghai.

Throughout the entire trip the Chinese people local to each area often asked Ivy where we were all from (Ivy was the only member of our group who was fluent in Chinese). This is how almost every conversation went:

Ivy: “Erdem is from Turkey”
Reaction: “Turkey? Turkey, huh? Turkey (repeated several times in Chinese).”

Ivy: “Bow is from Thailand.”
Reaction: “No, no she’s Chinese! She looks Chinese!”
Bow: *Responds in broken Chinese*
Reaction: “Oh, I guess you’re really from Thailand…”

Ivy: “Melanie is from the U.S.”
Reaction: “You’re not from Russia? You look Russian!”

Ivy: “I’m from Guanzhou, China”
Reaction: “Are you their tour guide?”

Xi’an was our first stop after a 12-hour, overnight train from Beijing. The six bunk beds crammed into one tiny sleeping quarter offered minimal privacy from the aisle of the train and left me without much rest the next day. The bathrooms were severely less glamourous than what I had already experienced in China. We arrived early that morning to a city similar in appearance to Beijing and brimming with other backpackers wandering about. Ivy and I met Bow at her hostel and filled our breakfast cravings with fresh mango smoothies on our way to meet Erdem. We all wandered onto the first of what would be many bus rides to venture toward the Terra Cotta Warriors. The steep entrance price simply to see the soldiers was a little surprising, but ultimately worth the opportunity to see the statues.

The Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered just in 1974, by a local farmer and workers were still unearthing statues as we visited. It was interesting to learn each soldier is unique in its appearance and life-sized, but other than that, they were rather lifeless.

After wandering a local street market and bargaining a bit, we broke our attempt to only eat local food and had Dico’s (Chinese fast food) for dinner on our way to board the next overnight train for Zhangye.

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Ivy, Erdem, and Bow