Urumqi China 2
Bishkek Kyrgyzstan 1
Bishkek Kyrgyzstan 2
Almaty Kazakhstan 1
Zharkent Kazakhstan 1
Almaty Kazakhstan 2
Zharkent Kazakhstan 2
Urumqi China 3
Zhang Ye China
Wu Wei China
Lanzhou China 2
Hello from dusty Aksuma,
The four-hour train ride from Kuqa to Aksu quickly became tedious as no one in our car spoke a word of English and most didn't even speak Chinese! The "hard seat" arrangement provided three wood slat seats across on the left side and two across on the right. As I caught the train mid-run, all the good seats were taken as well as convenient luggage space for my bag.
Looking around the car I could easily discern several distinct ethnicities. The predominant language being spoken differed markedly from the easily recognized Chinese. I presume it might have been Uyghur. Every time we passed a station, several railroad staff could be seen rigidly standing at attention, red and green flags held tightly at their side, a common sight throughout China.
Aksu is in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert, often hot and windy. Some windy days whip up clouds of dust that settles over the city. The dust problem keeps an army of masked women sweepers at work from sunup to sundown. As all of China uses Beijing time across the entire country, that means (07:00 to 21:30) at this longitude. The women put a lot of vigor into their work adding to the airborne dust. I counted at least one sweeper working in every downtown block.
Aksu is so insignificant it is not even on many maps of China. That's a pity as it is a lovely place to spend some time and CHEAP! Aksuma as the locals call it is in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It is the last major stop along the railway from Urumqi to Kashgar. A thoroughly modern metropolis, it may be officially out of bounds to foreigners. The first two hotels I checked said they were not "licensed" to accommodate me. The second one, possibly the best hotel in town made a call (to the Public Security Bureau, I presume) and then said they had been authorized to let me stay. Later I met the Assistant Manager, Tina who explained the actual reason they are reluctant to accept foreign guests is concern for their comfort and safety without English speaking staff on duty 24 hours a day. As she speaks quite good English an exception could be made. Later, she invited me for tea where we practiced English and I got some of my more general questions answered.
The International Hotel is easily a four star establishment and I'm paying 200 Yuan or about $24 a night including a quite good Chinese buffet breakfast (The rack rate of 386 Yuan means little in a country where it is always inflated to make the final "promotional" rate look like a bargain.) I'm tempted to immigrate. Just joking, of course as almost no one speaks enough English away from the hotels to satisfy my intellectual hungers. The few who do speak English all want to practice simple phrases with me, sometimes coming over to my restaurant table and sitting down uninvited. I usually oblige them between mouthfuls of chicken... that's the only Chinese food character I've learned to recognize so far (kind of looks like the head of a chicken pecking at corn kernels on a plate being held by the farmer). Of course, I never know if I will get chicken soup, chicken salad or claw of chicken, but ordering "chicken" does mean I'll get something I recognize as food and that has never barked. One of my Uyghur informants told me Muslims don't eat dog or pig, "but the Chinese do," he insisted.
My hotel is a block away from the large open city square... every Chinese town seems to have one. Something is always happening there: music, kite flying on mildly windy days, group exercise or dancing, tiny tots and their watchful grandparents, preschoolers in their shiny new battery powered "race cars" followed by an attentive parent, and vigilant uniformed police. All in all, the city square is an exciting happening place for residents.
I see many more boy children than girls. Here in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Uyghur families are exempt from the one child policy imposed on families in the East. Still, I see mostly lone kids on the city streets. I do wonder what I might find out in the country where large families still are common.
The WangBa (Internet Cafe) I'm using right now is one of the best I've found in China and still only 2 Yuan/hr (about a quarter!). The equipment is new with a USB port and runs WindowsXP so I can again process my little digital camera. At the moment I am surrounded by teenage girls having a video phone slumber party, singing songs to one another and making faces with the video feature... a bit distracting... but that's teenagers. The girl on my right just interrupted her Internet chatter to take a cell phone call.
A blue haze hovers over the terminals burning my eyes and irritating my lungs. The foul smell makes me feel nauseous. Smokers are thicker than mosquitoes around here. Yesterday I saw a woman smoking... very rare (over 90 percent of Chinese smokers are men). About forty, she looked like death. A package of cigarettes costs between 2.50 and 32.00 Yuan or about 31 cents to $4 a pack, a significant portion of which is tax. The expensive ones smell like American smokes; the cheaper ones like s__t. The government of China has been making an anemic attempt to educate the public and has prohibited smoking in enclosed areas... to no avail. Smoking related health and property damage costs are high, but the government continues to protect its 10 billion dollar per year tax revenue stream. Nearly every hotel room I've had in China show cigarette burn damage. People smoke with impunity any place they please... much like the situation in California before the "health-nuts" succeeded in getting laws passed to protect the innocent. China needs boat loads of "No Smoking" signs for the elevators and buses where smoking has been banned. China is fertile ground for an international A.S.H. campaign.
Every thing's up to date in Aksu City. Yes, they've gone about as far as they can go... except for the availability of imported foreign luxury goods. Desperate for some Cadburry chocolate, I tried several of the locally produced brands. To my great surprise and delight they are wonderful... and very cheap: 1-2 Yuan or 12-24 cents for a generous bar of milk chocolate.
I'll hang around here another day to get caught up with the writing before heading on by train to Kashgar (Kashi) in the far southwestern corner of the country. There I'll be close to the borders with Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan. My hope is that onward visas will be easier to get there. My current Chinese visa requires that I leave China by 16 May. I will be able to re-enter the country later using the second part of my double entry Chinese visa.
I have been surprised how easy it is to travel in the "new China." Hotels make a record of my passing, of course, but not a single official has asked for my passport inside the country... and no one has searched my bag... something that happened several times on a trip along the east coast about 15 years ago. Except for the language difficulties, travel here is not that different from travel in any other developed country.
I am learning more of the Chinese characters, which all Chinese are supposed to understand, thanks to the foresight of the First Emperor Qin (pronounced Chin as in China). I find conversations with people who have some skill with English a special challenge. I am inclined to find the most precise, colorful words for ideas. In conversations with Chinese "good" means fine, wonderful, extraordinary, delicious, beautiful, fragrant, harmonious, etc. During one of my meals at the hotel I asked Tina how I could express the idea of delicious and she replied: "how..." "How" translates as merely good!
Anyone who has viewed my photo albums knows I have developed a stone lion fixation. Back home I thought I'd find dragons in China, but those creatures are rare. Not so the lions. They are everywhere, and usually original stone sculptures gracing the entrance to some imposing building. Eventually I got curious enough to start asking questions. People here don't know much about them. "They were a part of the Buddhist mythology," says one. "They are symbols of power," says another. Checking the Internet sources I found several histories. Take a look at these: Lion1 or Lion3.
Think I'm coming down with something again... mild headaches, throat irritation and a runny nose. At least it isn't ACUTE so no worry about SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) :-) Every time a new case is discovered, it is BIG news all over the country... even though no cases have been reported this far west.
I'm still thinking of hanging out in this part of the world for another few months, probably returning to California in September or October. Next time you see any of the old gang tell them I said "Nee How."