Saturday, December 13, 2008

Journey to the West -- Silk Road October 2008 - Xinjiang province

First, I am thankful that the timing worked out for this trip... I was thinking of not going and then booked my flights the day before departing. What bugged me was that there was no way to arrange flights from Hong Kong to Urumqi (stopping over in Xian) in a day! I had to stay in Xian for one night. Also, this was the first vacation in a long time where I did not take my computer!! :p

Well I have touched Xinjiang province, but I can only say that I have touched it. We began our 'Silk Road' journey from Urumqi, the major transportation hub in this area and then went 'backwards' towards Xian. As a major transportation hub, Urumqi is a major city that is a weird clash between the local Uyghur culture (Muslim mosques and markets) with many (very tacky) storefronts of typical Chinese stores (you know, the solid colour background with another colour large print square font). Xinjiang is an autonomous region in China, but of course is still significantly under PRC state control -- especially with the Olympics this year, there would be no way we could have gone to Kashgar, which is the western-most city of China. But Urumqi does have a title of the "world's most inland city", being 2500km away from the nearest sea.

From Urumqi we went to "Heavenly Lake" (天池), a beautiful lake surrounded by the "Heavenly Mountains". It's kind of like Banff but the mountains are nowhere near as high and therefore not as snowcapped. The lake was very peaceful until loud music started being played all of a sudden from speakers deliberately placed within a "tree stump" designed enclosure, just slightly ruining the mood.

Other than Urumqi, we went to Turpan, which is only about 150km southeast of Urumqi. However, the climate is way different because Urumqi is about 800m above sea level, while Turpan is about 30m above sea level. It lies in a valley and has extreme summers and extreme winters. Urumqi was bordering upon snowfall, and Turpan was SOO extremely hot and sunny that I had a headache all day (I so should have wore sunglasses that day). This hot temperature makes its geography optimal for much fruit, especially grapes -- we visited the "Grape Pagoda" which is a huge vineyard. There we had the BEST GRAPES that I have ever tasted before.. the grape peel/skin was almost nonexistent. The heat of Turpan also promotes the "Flaming Mountain" because the sun's beating rays provides an orange colour to the hills. Lastly we went to the Karez Well which was a spectacular underground canal that brought water from the Heavenly Mountains to Turpan.

Since my last vacation was England, it was amusing to see the Chinese mountains goats in comparison to the English sheep. :p

Video of Tian Chi.. with the peace-destroying music from the tree stump!

Grilled lamb shishkebabs... mm...

Urumqi night market... questionable sanitary conditions... but good food!

The "Big Bazaar" which is a mosque / market.

In our hired car from point to point around Turpan. The sun really bothered me that day. However, thankfully, I have the ability to sleep no matter what position. :p

Entrance to the Flaming Mountains -- also famous because of the "Journey to the West", one of the Hong Kong versions which was filmed here.

Chinese mountain goats!

English sheep!

We departed from Urumqi train station (below) aboard a train to Dunhuang. This was our first train ride of the trip, and departing from a major transportation hub, the scene was a little scary, to say the least. We waited for our train in this huge hall (of a number of halls). The picture doesn't capture the volume of people and the rush towards the trains. There were few tourists; passengers were mainly locals, many with huge bundles strapped to their backs, probably representing their entire owned property and life savings, possibly anxious and nervous to start a new life in a place anew? Meanwhile, we boarded into our sleeper car, the rest of the car was empty except for the cabin beside us.

And on towards Dunhuang. Sleeping on the train was actually quite comfortable, except for the dry air of the heat.

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