After returning to Hohhot from Changbaishan to get my new residence permit, I spent about 10 days in Hohhot waiting for the permit, catching up on other business, and planning phase II of my summer travels. My general plan was to head first to Xi'an, capital of China's central Shaanxi province, and spend a few days seeing the many sights there, including the famous Terracotta Warriors. From there I planned to head to Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the northwest of China, where, among other things, I wanted to visit another Tianchi, or "heavenly lake", located about an hour from the city. (You can read about my visit to a Tianchi in the Changbaishan nature preserve in the northeast of China on my Summer Travels I page.) I had several possibilities in mind for after Urumqi but no firm plans since I needed to see how my money, time, and tolerance for long train and bus rides played out.
It no longer surprised me that I was unable to obtain a sleeper ticket for the train from Hohhot to Xi'an, even through unofficial sources. Therefore I ended up flying to Xi'an, arriving the evening of July 30 in the midst of a rainstorm and fog so heavy that the taxi from the airport to the city sometimes had to slow to a near crawl. By late the next morning, however, the rain had stopped and after enjoying the hotel's breakfast buffet, which included real coffee, I spent my first day in Xi'an walking around the city and visiting sites. Just up the street from my hotel was the bell tower, first erected in 1384, moved to its present location in 1582, and repaired/rebuilt in 1740. I examined the large old bell on display, enjoyed the views of the city (this one looking toward the drum tower), and stayed long enough to catch one of the periodic concerts. From there I headed to the drum tower, which dates from 1380. The lower level of the tower was lined with drums of various sizes, and in inside was a furniture exhibit. Again the tower afforded views of the city, this view looking back towards the bell tower. From the drum tower it's a short walk through numerous souvenir shops to Xi'an's Great Mosque, established in AD 742. The mosque was like a peaceful, green retreat in the midst of the city, with four courtyards filled with pleasant gardens (1 2 3) and interesting buildings leading to the main prayer hall, which non-Muslims could not enter. The remainder of the day I spent just wandering around the city and watching people.
The next morning I first walked to the train station to check whether they had any sleeper tickets available on any train to Urumqi in the next few days. Of course, they didn't. I wasn't really expecting them to as my guidebook mentioned that the train ticket market in Xi'an was particularly "competitive", but figured it was worth a try, particularly since from near the train station I could catch a public bus to the Shaanxi History Museum. The museum offered me a chance to preview a few of the Terracotta Warriors up close and had a lot of other interesting artifacts and artwork on display, including these smaller pottery tomb guards and other pottery such as this bowl and this pot without a lid, the workings of which you can read about here. After the museum, I took a bus to the Big Goose Pagoda where, after climbing the pagoda itself, I spent some time strolling and relaxing in the large, pleasant park in which it sits. In the late afternoon I headed back to my hotel and phoned a local youth hostel that my guidebook claimed was a good source for train tickets. They said they could indeed find me sleeper ticket to Urumqi and asked me to stop by with a deposit. After a short rest in the hotel, I set out for the hostel, which turned out to be a much longer walk than I had thought. I left my deposit and was assured that I could call back the next afternoon to arrange to pick up the ticket.
The next morning I headed again to the train station to catch a public bus to the Terracotta Warriors site, about an hour's ride. The terracotta warriors, more than 7000 strong, are slightly larger-than-life clay figures that guarded the tomb of Emperor Qinshi Huangdi, who founded the first unified dynasty in 221 BC. The site today is part museum and part archaeological dig consisting of three separate pits. Pit 1, covered by a huge hangar-like structure, is by far the largest and houses some 6000 soldiers, many lined up in rows. All the soldiers have unique faces, and most held still-sharp weapons which have since been removed. Pit 2 is significantly smaller, with about 1000 soldiers, while Pit 3 is the smallest of the three and has only 68 soldiers. The smaller pits, however, offered closer views of the un-restored warriors and archaeological work-in-progress. Also at the Terracotta Warriors site was the Qin Warrior Museum which housed a pair of bronze chariots unearthed near the Emperor's tomb as well as other brass and metal artwork (1 2 3).
The public bus between Xi'an and the Terracotta Warriors site stops at several other attractions as well, and on the way back I decided to stop at Mt. Lishan, where my guidebook said I could take a cable car up the mountain for a panoramic view of the area. The bus dropped me at the entrance to the nearby Huaquing Hot Springs, and from there I began walking down the street in the direction I could see the cable car heading. A young man who spoke passable English spotted me and ran over asking if I wanted to take the cable car up the mountain. I nodded and he said to follow him and continued in the direction I had been walking. We got to the ticket booth for the cable car, which had a sign showing only two prices, one for one-way and one for round-trip. Given that the round trip price (40 RMB) matched what my guidebook said and that the sign listed no other amounts, I was skeptical when my "translator" insisted that I must also buy another 30 RMB ticket for the "mountain park". Since the hot springs where the bus had dropped me had a 30 RMB admission fee, I wondered if this was what he meant by "mountain park" so decided to walk back to that ticket booth to see what they could tell me. The young man lost interest sometime on the walk back and disappeared. The woman at the ticket booth for the hot springs told me that I did not need a hot springs ticket to take the cable car up the mountain, and I concluded that my "translator" had been trying some sort of scam. On the way back to the cable car ticket booth he reappeared, and I angrily waived my finger at him and accused him of being a liar. He protested a bit then shrugged and walked off. I arrived at the ticket booth, bought a cable car ticket, and boarded the cable car. The ride up offered a good view of the hot springs park below. The cable car ended a bit short of the top of the mountain, and after exiting the car and climbing some stairs, there, lo and behold, was another ticket booth for some sort of mountain park, requiring another 30 RMB to walk what appeared to be the last 100 or so meters to the summit. Apparently this was new, as there was a sign in Chinese and English mentioning how one government or the other had imposed the fee, which is probably why it was not mentioned in my guidebook. Since it was getting close to 6 PM and I wouldn't have much time to explore the "park" that didn't look like much to begin with, I decided not to shell out the extra 30 RMB and just took the cable car back down. I felt bad about having accused my self-appointed translator of being a liar and looked for him when I got back down to apologize, but he was nowhere to be found.
I boarded the bus and headed back to the hotel in Xi'an, where I called the youth hostel and was told they had my train ticket. I decided to take a cab there as it was getting late. I flagged down a cab headed in the right direction, showed him the name of the hostel in Chinese printed in my guidebook, and he nodded and drove off. Shortly he turned right, which I knew both from my map and from having walked there the previous day was away from the hostel, but I figured it might have something to do with one way streets and traffic patterns. When he continued in that direction for several blocks, however, I pulled out my map, pointed to where I wanted to go, then pointed that it was back away from the direction we where headed. He kept saying "no, no" and kept going. Then he made another right, now heading south, away from the hostel with was northwest of the city wall. I again pointed back, he again shook his head "no" vigorously, so at the next stop light I opened the door and jumped out, figuring he was just trying to run up the meter. He was quite furious at my refusal to pay, but let me go. I walked back west to the next large intersection, flagged down another cab headed north, and showed him the same hostel name from the book. He nodded, then to my consternation turned right at the next intersection and right again after that, heading south instead of north just as the previous cabbie had done. This time when I pulled out the map the driver was more receptive to my course corrections and pulled over to study the map and the name of the hostel in the guidebook. Then he seemed to figure it out and turned around and headed in the right direction, taking me as close to the hostel as he could without making an illegal left turn. When I got to the hostel, I showed the desk clerk the name in my guidebook and she said it was correct. I asked why two cabbies would have wanted to go in the other direction, and she explained that there was another, better-known hotel with a similar name and that the drivers probably hadn't read the name carefully. After about an hour's wait, the "travel agent" arrived and I got my hard sleeper ticket to Urumqi, leaving the next evening.
The next morning after breakfast I walked from the hotel to the post office as I had bought a souvenir collapsible fan that I wanted to send to a friend in Armenia before it got lost or broken in my continued travels. I went to the international desk, set the boxed fan down, and explained that I wanted to mail it to Armenia. The woman opened the box, spread out the fan, smelled it, collapsed it again, put it back in the box, handed it back to me, and said I couldn't mail it because it "smelled" (it was made of sandalwood, or at least of some wood scented to smell like sandalwood). I smiled and said I didn't understand, how was the smell dangerous? She then said that because it was made of wood, I couldn't send it, that the other country would reject it. I said that while I understood that raw agricultural products where often not importable because of the potential for diseases, I didn't see how this would apply for processed finished goods such as the fan. She insisted that no other country would accept it, so I asked if I could just send it anyway and if they reject it so be it. She said that no, she was not allowed to accept it for mailing. I smiled and thanked her anyway, recalling my experience at the Chinese consulate in New York when I went to pick up my Z visa to come to China: the first clerk had said that my faxed work permit was not acceptable and that I would have to have the college mail me the original before I could get the visa, but I just left the building briefly, came back and took another number that came up for a different clerk who processed the visa no problem using the very same documents. I decided to come back after I checked out of my hotel at noon to see if a different and more cooperative person was there during the lunch break. Unfortunately, the same woman was still on duty when I came back and she was unimpressed with my lie that I had checked the Armenian customs website and found no prohibition against import of wood products (though I have since checked the site and found no such prohibition). So much for that post office.
In the time before my train left, I decided to explore the Xi'an city wall, which you can read about here, albeit with some difficulty because of the unavoidable reflected self-portrait. Just south of my hotel you could pass under the south gate of the wall and then climb to the top. Along the wall were various buildings including enemy towers jutting out from the wall and spaced every 120 meters, which a sign explained is exactly twice the 60 meter effective range of weapons of the time such as arrows and crossbows, allowing soldiers at two adjacent enemy towers to defend the section of the wall between them. Biking around the wall was popular, and with sore feet from so much walking but facing the prospect of two days confined in a train I decided to rent a bike myself and ride the approximately 14 km around the wall. The bicycle seat was not very comfortable and the stones atop the wall bumpy, so one result was a sore butt to match my sore feet. While the wall is not high enough to offer views over the whole city, there were interesting views along the way, such as this view of the bell tower, and the ride was one of the most enjoyable and memorable things I did in Xi'an.
As I was riding around the wall, I recalled that the services directory in my hotel room had mentioned that the hotel had a parcel packing and shipping service. Since I had to stop back there anyway to pick up my bag, I decided to ask them about mailing the fan. After a late lunch/early dinner, I headed to the hotel and asked. The concierge called the local postal carrier and was told that shipping a wooden fan was not a problem. The postman was to come by the hotel in 40 minutes with the appropriate paperwork and I could mail the fan. I went shopping for food for the train ride and returned within the 40 minutes. As it approached an hour and still no postman, I asked the concierge, who called again and said the postman would be here in 15 minutes. About 1/2 hour later it was getting close enough to my train's departure that I decided I had to head to the train station and so informed the concierge, who again phoned the postman who swore he'd be there in two minutes. He arrived within five minutes, and by then I was so concerned about possibly missing the train that I rushed through the documents, noticing only later that I had forgotten to sign the customs declaration. I have learned that the fan arrived safely, however, even without my signature on the form. Fortunately, traffic was relatively light on the taxi ride to the train station so I made my train, almost looking forward to the two days on a hard sleeper bunk because of my sore feet and butt!
After two nights on the train I arrived in Urumqi the morning of August 5 to a light rain. I quickly found out that this was one city where my guidebook's estimate of hotel prices appeared to be significantly on the low side. After trying a few and finding the higher prices consistent and the intensity of the rain increasing, I finally checked into the third one. I took a long shower to wash off the two days of train grit (the train was not air conditioned and I've found that an incredible amount of black filth comes out of my ears after sitting near open train windows for a few hours). The toilet in my room wasn't flushing properly so I reported this to the front desk on my way out to grab a quick meal. Since the rain had stopped by the time I finished eating, I decided to stroll around the city a bit. However, about an hour later the rain came back with a vengeance, soaking me despite my umbrella and overloading the sewers until the streets were filled with foul-smelling water, making it a challenge to negotiate the sidewalks without having to wade through the filth or get sprayed by a passing vehicle. I decided to just grab a cab and head back to the hotel to dry out and relax, but a lot of other people had the same idea and by the time I was able to flag down a cab I was literally dripping wet, much to the driver's amusement. The rain didn't let up, so after another shower and doing some laundry I spent the rest of the day in my room, watching the one English television channel and reviewing nearby highlights in my guidebook. Since I hadn't slept particularly well the two nights on the train, I went to sleep early. Urumqi and I had not gotten off to a good start.
While it had worked OK the night before, the next morning the toilet in my room once again would not flush properly. I again mentioned this to the front desk on my way to breakfast, and after some confusion they called over a girl who was apparently their best English speaker. She apologized and explained that they would have a new room for me after breakfast. I tried to explain that I really didn't need or want a new room, as I had things spread out all over the room and really didn't want to take the time to repack everything and move. I asked if they couldn't just fix the toilet like they had the afternoon before. She was adamant that I needed a new room, even after I said that I had things to do right after breakfast and didn't have time to pack or move. Finally she seemed (her English was not the best and my Chinese is virtually nil) to agree to at least consider the possibility that the worker might be able to repair the toilet without my having to vacate the room and I went to breakfast. As it was still raining lightly, I had decided to postpone my trip to Tianchi lake and instead head to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region museum right in the city. I flagged down a cab and showed him the Chinese characters for the museum in my guidebook, but he seemed to have no idea where it was. I flagged down another cab, same result. When the third cab also didn't recognize it and the rain started to pick up, I decided I'd had my fill of Urumqi and resolved to just head to Turpan, about a two hour bus ride away, and await better weather there. I went back to the room, where I began packing, including my not-yet-dry laundry. As I was finishing, the worker came out of the bathroom and tried to tell me that the toilet was fixed, but I was no longer interested as I just wanted out of Urumqi and if the front desk wanted to insist that I pack and move, I was going to pack and move, but to a different city rather than a different room. When I brought my bags to the front desk they kept trying to give me the key to another room and they had to call the English-speaking girl back over to interpret. I explained that I'd decided that since I had to pack anyway, I'd just head to Turpan for a few days and wait for the weather to improve. Finally they figured out that I was checking out and refunded my prepayment for that night and security deposit. I promptly caught a cab to the long distance bus station and easily bought a bus ticket for Turpan, departing about 45 minutes later.
According to my guidebook, the small city of Turpan (also called Turfan) is nicknamed "The Oven" and is located in the second lowest depression on Earth. When I arrived the afternoon of August 6, however, the temperature was quite pleasant and there was a very light rain that made the marble sidewalks of the the town's pleasant grape-covered pedestrian street really glisten. While a little higher than suggested by my guidebook, the hotel prices were no where near the shock that they had been in Urumqi and I checked into a spartan but passable room with a private bath and working air conditioning for 100 RMB (about $12) per night. I spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around the rather small town and arranged for group transportation to some 8 tourist sites around Turpan leaving early the next morning. By early evening the light rain had stopped completely so I had a meal of fresh made dumpling soup, a lamb kebab, a couple ice cold beers, and fresh watermelon for dessert at this sidewalk restaurant near the train station. The meal was very good and very cheap, though I did get a bit concerned when I saw the dish washing section.
The next morning the tour van picked me up in front of the hotel at 8 AM for a day of sight-seeing. Our first stop was the Emin Minaret, an active mosque build in 1777. Though the staircase of the minaret's tower was closed, the detail in the adobe brickwork of the tower's exterior was interesting, and this was the first mosque where I, as a non-Muslim, could enter the interior.
Next we headed to a tourist trap called the Karez Well. While the story of the Karez irrigation system is somewhat interesting, the stop itself was mostly just souvenir shops, some cheesy displays about the building of the system, and a small underground section where you could view short sections of the irrigation channel. A little away from the shops and crowds there was a fairly pleasant vineyard walkway, but overall I don't think the stop was worth either the admission fee or 40 minutes that we spent there.
From there we headed to the Jiahoe Ruins, a large plateau between two valleys that holds the 2000 year old ruins of the city of Jiahoe that you can read about here. We were given an hour to wander along the many walkways (1 2) through the ruins (1 2 3) which proved not to be enough to see the whole plateau. On the way back to the van I ran into Bridie, an Australian teaching English in Suzhou, China who was friends with my fellow Hohhot foreign teachers Brian and Jane from when they had all three taught in Nanjing and who had visited us a couple times in Hohhot. She was on another van doing the same more-or-less standard Turpan area tour. While I knew she was planning to be in that part of the country at some point, when last I'd seen her she was headed to Mongolia so I was surprised to see her so soon in Turpan. A small world indeed.
Our next stop was to be an apparent tourist trap called Grape Valley, which my guidebook made sound like a vineyard filled with raisin sellers. The Chinese tourists on the van, however, decided that they weren't interested in paying the 20 RMB admission for this since we'd already been driving through countless vineyards, and I can't say I disagreed. Instead we headed back into town for lunch at a local restaurant. After lunch we started heading for our next destination, but ran into a major traffic jam just outside the city. After a lively discussion between our driver and the Chinese tourists, the driver seemed to go on a mission to get around this traffic jam come hell or high water. He began speeding down the wrong side of the road, darting around oncoming trucks to gain a few car lengths at a time in the near standing queue headed in our direction. Eventually he left the road altogether and began bouncing us along the desert. Every now and then he would buckle his seat belt, which is when I'd get a bit nervous, then he'd unbuckle it again once we were through the scary bit. By now we were at the bottom of a steep bank leading back up to the road bed and I was wondering if we'd ever find a way back onto the road. Eventually we did manage to make it safely up to the road, having jumped quite a few places in the line. Gradually the traffic began to move again, first slowly and then at a more normal speed, and we passed through what I expect was the cause of the slowdown: large sections of the road had apparently been flooded by the previous day's rains and equipment was busy removing mud and silt from the roadway.
Finally we arrived at the Flaming Mountains for a brief stop. These mountains, aside from being the site of a huge fire in the novel Journey to the West, are said to resemble flames in the proper lighting because of their red color and shape. The driver indicated that we were too late for the proper lighting because of the traffic delay. There was a museum of some sort (pottery according to my guidebook) near where we parked but nobody chose to pay the fee to enter it.
From there we headed to the Bezeklik Grottos, a hillside into which were dug 88 caves that once displayed 1200 square meters of frescoes. Only a few of the caves are open to tourists and the few frescoes that remain (many were apparently carved out and hauled away by foreign archaeologists) have been heavily vandalized, most in even worse condition than these. I was more impressed with the scenic valley along which the grottos lay and with the surrounding red mountains.
Next came the Gaochang Ruins, the remains of the city that was the center of the Uighur empire in the 9th century. While quite a bit smaller than the Jiahoe ruins, one was not restricted to the paved pathways at Gaochang but could instead wander freely about the ruins (1 2 3) and even go inside. Most tourists chose to pay to speed through the ruins on a donkey cart, but I elected to go by foot so I could explore the ruins more freely. At some point this lizard posed long enough for me to get his closeup. This ruin reminded me of a stone igloo.
Our final stop was the Astana tombs, an ancient burial ground not too far from Gaochang. Only a few of the people in our van elected to pay the admission fee, and it turned out that there really wasn't all that much to see in the tombs. Only a few tombs were open, only one had the mummies still within, and the artifacts had been removed from all. Perhaps more interesting were the animal sculptures representing all twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. While I don't think I was born in the year of the pig, those who have seen my apartment would probably agree that it is appropriate for me to pose with one.
Between all the stops and the long traffic delay, we didn't arrive back in Turpan until after 8:30 PM. The van dropped us near the bus station, and since I was quite hungry and hadn't had any bad reaction to my previous day's dinner despite the questionable dish washing practices, I stopped on my way back to the hotel at the same outdoor restaurant and enjoyed the same meal I had had the evening before.
Since I had seen most of the highlights around Turpan and the weather was looking better, the next morning I decided to bite the bullet and head back to Urumqi, hopefully soon thereafter to leave the city for lake Tianchi. I ran into Bridie again at breakfast, less surprising this time since I now knew we were in the same town. She left to catch a bus to Kashgar, then I finished breakfast and caught a bus back to Urumqi. Trying to save cash for more travel, I took a room without a private bath in the cheapest hotel I had found during my earlier investigation. While the 60 RMB room itself wasn't too bad except for a bit of a smell, the common bathroom was a disaster area with showers that had no head and squat toilets that made those in the trains seem spotless. I then went to investigate the buses to Tianchi, which my guidebook said left each morning from both the south and north ends of People's Park. At the south end of People's Park were several tourist company kiosks that had pictures of the lake, but when I asked about tickets they kept quoting me a price of 120 RMB for a round trip where I'd been told by others who had done it that the price was 50 RMB. I walked to the north end of the park where there was a tourist company desk but the girl quoted the same 120 RMB price. Since I'd also heard that there was a 60 RMB admission fee to the park and another 10 RMB for a cable car or bus ride up to the lake itself from the lower parking lot, I tried to ask if the price she was quoting included these, but had no luck communicating the question. Then another foreign couple arrived asking about the same thing in Chinese. They volunteered to interpret for me and said that the girl was saying that the 120 RMB quote, which she had also quoted them, was for the bus transportation only. They and I agreed that that price was too much and decided just to check back in the morning. On my way back to the hotel I strolled through Urumqi's large night market, where all manner of food was available including many sorts of meat on a stick that I could not identify. Some of the main courses were particularly well-dressed for the occasion.
Early the next morning, August 9, I took a taxi to the north end of the park where a bus sat beside the very same tour company desk I had been inquiring at the evening before, only now the girl quoted me a price of 50 RMB. Go figure. The bus wasn't leaving for another hour or so, so I stored by bag in the tour company office and strolled around the streets awhile. Once the bus left, it made a few stops to try to recruit more passengers before we left the city and then another stop near the mountain to try to get us to watch a presentation and buy some sort of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs. Finally we arrived at Tianchi. Rashit, the Kazakh guide mentioned in all the guidebooks who has been running a yurt camp at the lake for some 15 years, quickly spotted my large backpack, concluded that I was not just there for the day, and asked if I wanted to stay in his yurts for 50 RMB per day including three meals. I quickly agreed as that was my plan from the beginning, and Rashit's sister lead me to the boarding terminal for the final winding drive up to the north shore of the lake and from there on a 50 minute walk to Rashit's camp near the south shore. I stopped along the way to admire the view and to shoot this panorama from near the north shore. We arrived at the camp and I was assigned to the yurt closest to the camera in the previous picture. Here's a shot of the interior of the yurt. A few other campers were already seated at some picnic tables eating, and when I joined them to chat I was quickly brought some of the plain but filling food as well. Later in the afternoon I took a short hike up the hillside behind the camp. It began to get very hazy but I got this shot looking back down on the camp with the lake and the mountains beyond.
The first night a total of six people stayed in the same yurt as me: a young Englishman, a couple from England and the Czech Republic, a couple from El Salvador and the U.S. (the same couple I'd met the day before in Urumqi when we were both trying to get information about the buses to Tianchi), and myself. Two other couples from the U.S. slept in another yurt but spent much of the evening with us drinking beer and talking. I was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only one who had developed a strong dislike for Urumqi: several others mentioned the difficulty in finding decent, affordable places to stay and many expressed a distaste for the city and desire to avoid it. There was a German couple in another yurt further down the hill and several people from Singapore and elsewhere staying in one further up the hill. The haze soon turned into rain, then into heavy rain that lasted through the night. By early morning the rain had stopped, but I could hear what sounded like a new river or creek running close by outside the yurt. Indeed, not far from the yurt was a small stream running from the hillside behind the yurts down to the lake, with a small tributary running right through the camp and underneath the picnic table. We soon learned that Rashit had been monitoring the situation all night and had visited the German couple in the lower yurt several times advising them to be packed and ready in case they had to move to higher ground. We also learned that the rains had been even more severe further down the valley from the lake and that flash floods had killed at least 3 people and hundreds of livestock in a village at the foot of the mountain. The flooding had also destroyed two bridges and major stretches of the road, meaning that no buses would be coming into or out of Tianchi for awhile.
It was distressing to hear of the loss of life, but the road closure didn't worry me at all since I had been planning to stay at the lake for at least a couple of nights anyway. After the hard rains of the night before, the clouds quickly burned off and the skies were clear and blue. Some of us walked down to the river at the south end of the lake, but were unable to ford it. An enterprising boy on horseback offered to carry us across for 20 RMB each, but since we had no idea if he'd still be there to ferry us back later or, if he was, what the price would be for the return trip we declined and headed back to camp for lunch. There we learned that it might be possible to leave Tianchi by walking for several hours to a village down in the valley and taking a bus or hitching a ride from there. Since some people had a plane to catch and were anxious to leave, they decided to give it a try. I walked back with them as far as the north shore to enjoy and photograph the lake without the usual crowd of day tourists and to learn what I could about the situation with the road. Along the way I took a couple more panoramas from the shoreline of the lake (1 2). The north shore, where the buses arrive, was nearly empty, quite a contract to the day before when it had been full of people. The quiet was also noticeable and enjoyable and I didn't miss the loud music from the shoreline restaurants or noise of the speedboats that had been so prevalent the day before. After dinner back at the camp, I made another short hike up another hillside just south of the camp and enjoyed the quiet and calm. That night only three people remained in my yurt: the couple from El Salvador and the U.S. and myself.
The next morning the cow alarm clock woke us up once again to a clear and sunny day. Rashit said that a government official had told him that more strong rains were expected either that night or the next day and had recommended that we all leave that day. Since I was definitely in no hurry to get back to Urumqi and Rashit had also mentioned that a weather forecast he received on his mobile phone predicted the rains for two days hence, I decided to spend another day hiking and take my chances with the rain. After breakfast I again climbed the hill behind the camp, getting another shot looking down on the camp with the lake in the background, this time with puffy clouds reflecting in the lake instead of the haze that had obscured the view two days before. I also made a panorama from a little higher up the hill. From there I continued up and over the hill then around to the north behind it, passing several other yurts where Kazakh families were spending the summer. Eventually I reached a spot where I could sit under the cool mountain pines and eat my picnic lunch while gazing off at the desert stretching out below. When I arrived back at the camp around dinner time I found that I was the only guest left. Towards twilight I walked down to the lake to wash up and found conditions near perfect. The lake was quiet and still and reflected the surrounding mountains and sky beautifully. Since my camera's memory card was already full, I found myself scrambling to delete less worthy earlier shots so I could capture some of the wonderful reflections (1 2) before the light was gone. I sat by the shore until near dark, enjoying the quiet, calm beauty and thinking this was, indeed, "heavenly lake".
It rained a bit during the night and in the morning a thick mist hung over everything. I was not looking forward to leaving Tianchi to return to Urumqi, having concluded that if "Tianchi" meant "heavenly lake" then "Urumqi" must mean "hellish city", but I decided it best not to risk another flood. I packed up and walked with Rashit and his sister back to the north shore and from there down the steep hill to the still empty bus parking lot. On the way we met a group of four astronomers who, after a conference in Urumqi, had gone on a backpacking trip and entered Tianchi the previous afternoon through a pass to the south and spent the night camped by the shore. Together with them I began walking down the road to the village in the valley. Not long after we left the park a car stopped and offered a ride, but there was only room for about two people in the car. The astronomers insisted that I take the car and they would continue on foot, perhaps because they wanted to stick together or perhaps because I was walking too slow for them. The car only took me as far as the start of a village near the bottom of the valley, where the damage to the road first became evident, then headed back up the hill. Since no one around could speak much English, I didn't know what was going on, but through gestures people told me to wait. A bit later, the four astronomers arrived and one of them who was from Urumqi interpreted and filled us in. Apparently an official from the park was discussing it with the head of the road construction workers and telling him that he had to arrange transportation for us through the road work to the highway below. The construction boss then apparently said that he didn't work for the Communist Party and that the park worker couldn't tell him what to do. After a long and animated discussion between the two, the construction boss agreed to get us past the construction to a town below for a fee of 80 RMB per car, noting that we would need two cars for the five of us. While a pretty hefty fee by local standards for the distance involved, it was probably less than he could have demanded since we all had sore and blistered feet, the astronomers from several days of backpacking through the mountains and me from a lot of urban walking followed by several days of hiking followed by carrying my heavy pack down a steep hill with feet that were not used to it in boots that were not made for it. It turned out we had to walk for about another half hour to get to the cars, passing major sections of the road that were either washed away completely or covered by debris left by the flooding. Once in the cars, we drove around more road damage including two separate bridges that had been washed away. The drivers dropped us at the bus station of a small town whose name escapes me and from there we took a public bus to Urumqi.
Back in Urumqi finding an affordable hotel room proved even more difficult than before, perhaps because tourists who had come to visit Tianchi were stuck in Urumqi or perhaps for some other reason. After arriving at an unfamiliar bus station, I took taxis to three separate hotels listed in my guidebook, only to find that none of them had any vacancies. I then walked to the same poor quality hotel I had stayed in the night before I left for Tianchi, figuring if nothing else they would at least have a dorm room where I could lay down my heavy pack. They had one room with a private bath left, an overpriced "suite" with a separate sitting room that I didn't need, but since I remembered how poor the shared baths were and desperately wanted a long, hot shower after three nights in the yurts, I took it. When I looked at the room before taking it I checked the hot water using the bathroom sink, but once I checked in I found that although the sink had plenty of hot water, the flow to the shower was for some reason a lot less. Nevertheless I was able to get a much-needed shower, though it was a long slow process under the trickle of warm water available. My next goal was to get out of Urumqi as soon as I could. Since my travel funds were running low, I decided to start working my way back to Hohhot. There are no direct trains from Urumqi to Hohhot, so my plan was to head back to Xi'an, from there perhaps climb Huashan mountain, one of the five sacred Daoist mountains about 2-3 hours from Xi'an, then return to Hohhot. I went to the train station to check on tickets and was not surprised that there were no sleeper tickets to Xi'an available. A website I had seen mentioned a hotel near the train station owned by the Ministry of Railroads as a good source for unofficial tickets, but I didn't see any hotel there with that name and when I checked with the two hotels I did see neither one could help. My guidebook mentioned the travel agency at the hotel I was staying in as a possible source, but when I checked with them they curtly told me that they only arranged air tickets and to check with the train station. By then my feet were really sore so I just headed to my room, did some laundry, reviewed other possible itineraries using my guidebook, and went to bed.
Traveling through the city of Lanzhou, capital of the Gansu province, was another possible route back to Hohhot and my guidebook said there were buses direct from Urumqi to Lanzhou. Since it's often much easier to get bus tickets than train tickets, first thing the next morning I headed to the long distance bus station to check. There were indeed several daily buses to Lanzhou, but none of them were sleeper buses and I couldn't picture myself sitting in a cramped bus seat for the almost 40 hours the trip was scheduled to take. I had pretty much resigned myself to spending my remaining travel funds on an air ticket back to Hohhot, but figured I'd check at each hotel I passed on the walk back to my room to see if they could get train tickets. A young doorman/concierge at the second hotel made some phone calls then assured me he could get a sleeper ticket to Hohhot via Lanzhou leaving that night. He said his "travel agent" friend would bring the ticket within 45 minutes, so I waited. The agent's arrival was delayed several times, and when it approached the 2 PM checkout time for my room I told the concierge I had to go shower, pack, and check out of my hotel and that I would be back a little after 2 PM.
After packing and taking another trickle shower, I checked out of the hotel then stepped over to the bag check counter to store my larger backpack until what I hoped would be my departure for the train station that evening. Ahead of me was a Chinese couple checking two small bags and the woman clerk appeared to be doing all she could to process their bags as slowly as possible. Finally they left and I stepped up to the desk. The woman ignored me for well over a minute, pretending to study a little booklet of carbon luggage receipts then ever so slowly pulling out the small piece of carbon paper, inspecting it at great length, and placing it behind the next available receipt. When she finally looked up I indicated that I'd like to check the backpack I was wearing and she flat out refused to take it, suggesting by gestures that it was small and that I could just keep carrying it on my back. With my feet still blistered and my back and shoulders still sore from having carried that heavy pack out of Tianchi the previous day, I lost what little patience I had left. I tore the pack off my shoulders and thrust it over the counter at her, telling her to hold it awhile if she thought it was so light. She stepped back and refused to take the bag. I asked to see her manager but she either didn't understand or ignored me and just kept snarling, shaking her head, and saying "no". Finally I began shouting, calling her a few choice names she probably recognized from Hollywood movies. I reached over the counter, grabbed her little booklet of receipts, tore it to shreds, threw the pieces in her face, and stormed out of the hotel. Not one of my finer cross-cultural moments and it didn't solve a thing, but the "service" at this hotel (the Xinjiang Hotel at 107 Changjiang Lu, well worth avoiding at any cost) had been dismal at best and this woman's refusal to check my bag after checking two much smaller ones proved more than I could accept calmly at the time. Oh well.
When I arrived back at the hotel where the concierge was working on the train ticket he said the "agent" had come not long after I left and had waited as long as he could but then had to leave. He called again, then said that there were now no more sleeper tickets left for that evening's train. I asked if the next day was possible, he called again and said that tomorrow was not a problem. I left a deposit and arranged to come back that evening to pick up the ticket. Since his hotel was very expensive, I left to search yet again for an affordable hotel room in Urumqi. Since I'd had no luck the previous day at the few hotels mentioned in my guidebook, I just began walking and stopping into every hotel I passed to check. Luckily, the second one I tried had a decent single room at a reasonable rate, so I took it. By now it was late afternoon and my feet were killing me, so I just relaxed in the room before heading out for dinner and to pick up the train ticket. It turned out that the concierge had only been able to get a soft sleeper, which was pretty pricey but still about half of what an air ticket would run. I was concerned because though the ticket destination said Hohhot, the only train number printed on the ticket ended in Lanzhou. The concierge couldn't tell me what the next train number and time would be, but assured me that they would in Lanzhou and that it would be a sleeper. After pressing him repeatedly on that issue and receiving repeated assurances, I accepted the ticket, paid him the additional amount, and headed back to my latest hotel. I took this shot of the moon over Urumqi from the window of my room before going to sleep.
Since my train didn't leave until evening, I had the bulk of the next day, Sunday, August 14, free to explore Urumqi. Some of my fellow campers at the yurts had mentioned that the museum I had tried to visit previously was interesting, so I decided to try again. I flagged down a cab, showed the driver the Chinese characters printed in my guidebook, and yet again the cabbie didn't seem to know where it was. He pointed at the characters in the book, then gestured in a circle, apparently trying to show that whatever was written there was "all around". I looked again at the museum's name in the guidebook, printed in English as "Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum", and wondered if the guidebook had somehow omitted the "museum" part from the Chinese version. I pulled the pocket dictionary out of my day pack, looked up "museum", and showed it to the driver. He then understood immediately and drove me straight to the museum. Another mystery solved. The museum was small but interesting, with several naturally mummified corpses on display, including some from the Astana tombs I had visited near Turpan as well as some of the artifacts that had been removed from those tombs. After the museum I decided to visit the Erdaoqiao district, which my guidebook said had a weekend market about one fourth the size of Kashgar's famous Sunday bazaar. I jumped on a bus that I guessed might pass close to that district based on the sketchy information in my guidebook, then carefully followed the progress of the bus using the map in the book. To my amazement, the bus went almost all the way to the area of the market: perhaps my luck with Urumqi was finally changing. The market seemed to range around an interesting mosque and had portions that looked both newer and older. There was definitely a different feel about that section of the city, which my book said was the heart of Urumqi's Uighur quarter. Besides the market, the streets were interesting and full of various activities, such as this game where men tried to win packs of cigarettes by rolling small tires. After a long stroll I grabbed a quick dinner, bought some supplies for the train, went back to the hotel to pick up my bag (which they had checked without argument ;-), and went to catch my train. Though my last day in Urumqi had been a pleasant one, I nonetheless felt a sense of relief when the train pulled out of that city!
When I arrived in Lanzhou after more than 24 hours on the train, I learned that Urumqi had gotten the last laugh: there were no trains continuing to Hohhot until the next day, and not only would my ticket not get me a sleeper on that train, it wouldn't even get me an assigned hard seat, meaning it was possible that I would have to stand the entire 20-some hour ride to Hohhot. Wishing evil things upon the concierge in Urumqi who'd sold me the ticket and all of his descendants, I took a room in a hotel near the train station then went to a late dinner. After a couple beers I calmed down a bit and decided to first try to "upgrade" my ticket on board the train to a sleeper, which I'd heard is sometimes possible. If that didn't work, my plan was to go as far as I could handle, then get off and spend the night, continuing on the next day and repeating this pattern as often as necessary until I was back in Hohhot. As it turned out, once I'd boarded the train I was easily able to upgrade my ticket to a hard sleeper by paying an extra 88 RMB. The bunk I got had obviously been used (I didn't get new sheets), and since the train had originated in Chengdu I'm guessing that someone had booked that bunk from Chengdu to Lanzhou. My theory is that China Rail's ticketing system does not have the capability to reserve sleepers in advance from anywhere except the train's point of origin and that sleepers are instead reassigned for subsequent legs via this upgrade process. In any case, I arrived back in Hohhot early the morning of August 17 having enjoyed my trip but glad to be back home and off of the train.
Depending on how my remaining cash holds out and the details of the start of the teaching schedule, I may or may not make one more short summer trip before my teaching begins, so check back later. Meanwhile, to anyone who's made it this far, thanks for reading and I hope you found this interesting.
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