China: The Journey Begins
(May 23, 2004)
Yes, I know this is the first e-mail, but Internet cafes have been virtually non-existent on our journey across rural China. In fact, I’m actually typing this on my laptop, which is also used to store the photos from my new digital camera. Most of you already know about my photography passion, less euphemistically called an obsession. Indeed, with a professional digital SLR camera and unlimited photo capacity, I’ve found Nirvana in even the dingiest forlorn towns along the Silk Road. Alas, you’ll have to wait for the photos; today I paint pictures with words from a rundown hotel room in Kashgar, tucked away in China’s remote western desert near the border of Afghanistan.

May 12, 2004. Tokyo, Japan.

We had less than 24 hours for a pitstop in Tokyo before moving onto China. Amy and I stood in the Japanese immigration line with the other bleary-eyed passengers from the San Francisco flight. After passing through immigration, we exchanged our dollars for Yen. With the exchange rate running 100 Yen to the dollar, we suddenly felt rich, carrying around bills with many zeros. This euphoria soon escaped us as we realized the cost of living in Tokyo. We had hoped to stay in the Rippongi area, recently popularized in “Lost in Translation,” but the hotel rate quoted was more than $300 a night. Fortunately, our finances could withstand just 24 hours in a less expensive district of one of the highest cost-of-living cities in the world.

On the train from the airport to Tokyo’s Uneo district, a good-natured woman carried on a conversation with us—in Japanese. (On a good day, the extent of my Japanese vocabulary is limited to one word, sushi.) We hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about as she glibly prattled, totally undeterred by our confused silence. As best I could tell, she was either proselytizing the virtues of Zen Buddhism, or giving us an excruciatingly detailed explanation of the intricacies of sumo wrestling.

The hotel desk clerk had informed us that the subways ran “very late” and we set out across town for a night of exploring Rippongi’s offerings. We emerged from the subway amidst dazzling neon lights, restaurants, and night clubs. Sharply dressed touts offered discounted admissions to “Gentleman’s clubs.” (Don’t get any wrong ideas; this isn’t that kind of story.) After a leisurely dinner and drinks, we returned to the subway to discover that it was closed for the night. We caught a taxi back to our hotel and Amy paid the taxi driver the $40 fare. I sleepily awoke and groggily reached into my wallet for the tip, grabbing 4 of the smallest denomination Yen bills. The cabby’s profuse gratitude rather surprised me; never before had I experienced such overwhelming praise for a mere 10% tip. “Well,” I thought proudly to myself, “obviously the Japanese don’t know how to tip like we Americans do!” As the taxi pulled away, I suddenly realized that I had tipped him $40, 100%!

May 13, 2004. Beijing.

For those of you reading this e-mail who were worried about SARs, and you know who you are, I just want to reassure you that we’ve had limited interaction with SARs victims. For the handful of afflicted individuals with whom we’ve had direct contact, we were sure to thoroughly wash our hands afterwards. JUST KIDDING!

On the flight to Beijing, I read unbelievable accounts of Chinese government atrocities in “China Wakes” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. It seems that the omnipotent and paranoid Chinese government strictly monitors and controls all aspects of its citizens’ lives. Civil liberties are virtually unknown under the totalitarian communist regime. Foreign visitors, particularly Westerners, are viewed by the government as potentially subversive threats, but also as a vital source of revenue. In many regions of China, the government restricts the movement of foreigners, as well as its own citizens. If they are allowed into China at all, Western journalists are often followed by undercover government officials. With this knowledge in mind, Amy and I waited our turn for the immigration officer at the airport to inspect our passports and visas. I took heart as he absently stamped Amy’s documents and waved her through. (An aside on my passport: it’s 9 years old, well worn, and has a rather dubious looking photo of me.) The immigration officer suspiciously scrutinized my passport. He then turned to his left and flipped through some type of list, apparently names. He once again inspected my passport. He then turned to a computer monitor and began typing in entries, apparently doing some type of research. After several tense minutes, he finally hesitatingly waved me on. I gathered my belongings and lumbered towards Amy who frantically urged me on; according to her, he seemed to have changed his mind about his decision to let me pass. We scurried onwards without looking back.

I had booked the Tibet portion of the trip on-line through a government-run Chinese travel agency. According to the confirmation e-mail, a travel agent was to be awaiting our arrival in Beijing to give us our domestic plane tickets. Nobody was there.

Perhaps taxi drivers in China may not be as aggressive as in other Third-World countries such as Nepal or Bolivia, but a taxi ride is no less of an adventure. As a captive passenger, the adrenaline fear doesn’t derive from the speed of the driving as much as does from the lack of any semblance of traffic control. Without any sidewalks, pedestrians are forced to share the chaotic roads with cars, trucks, and bicycles. Drivers use horns instead of turn signals. At intersections, vehicles merge by brute force in a slow motion game of Chicken of the Road. At the few intersections with pedestrian crosswalks, cars didn’t yield to pedestrians, but rather swerved to avoid hitting them. I watched with horror as we cut off a bicyclist, whose handlebars bounced off the side of the cab. Still, I was thankful that we had avoided the large truck that had been on a direct collision course with us.

After navigating through numerous unnamed, back alleyways in the historic section of Central Beijing, the cabbie pulled up to our hotel… at least he had taken us to a hotel. In an oft repeated scenario we discovered to be the rule in China, rather than the exception, the cabbie had been unable to find our desired hotel, so he conveniently chose another in the area. Much to their chagrin, we never settle for this.

Just north of the Forbidden City, our charming 19th century hotel featured traditional ornate Chinese architecture with sweeping rooflines and colorful columns and intricate friezes. Our room overlooked a central courtyard with pagodas and fish ponds. From our hotel, we wandered the labyrinth of old alleys (hutongs) of Central Beijing towards the Forbidden City, finding the drab scenery strangely alluring. The spectrum of colors of the modest brick and concrete buildings ranged from gray to brown. Still, people took pride in keeping their concrete “yards” clean in front of the adjoining single-room houses. In front of each one stood an old black single-speed bicycle on well swept pavement without any visible trash.

Emerging from the hutongs, we came to a lake where a handful of musicians gathered to play two-stringed and three-stringed traditional Chinese instruments. To my untrained western ears, the twangy instruments and nasal singing sounded akin to cats in heat. Yet, this joyous festivity retained the appeal of an ancient tradition. The simple scene had likely remained the same for centuries, excepting the gleaming new Starbucks just yards away.

We jumped into the backseat of a three-wheeled bicycle taxi for a ride to Tiananmen Square at sunset. Against the setting sun, kites filled the red sky. Families and couples strolled the plaza. An honor guard marched in lock step from the plaza square towards Tiananmen Gate (The Gate of Heavenly Peace), adorned by a giant portrait of Mao. (Not only does his portrait dominate one of China’s most famous and visible landmarks, it graces every denomination bill from one Yuan and up.) Afterwards, an art student from Beijing University invited us up to the university art studio, to view students’ rather impressive silk-screen paintings. Of course, at the end of the brief art lecture, we were informed that the works were for sale; it seems that capitalism has sprung to life here.

May 14, 2004. Beijing.

Our hotel staff had intervened with the Chinese travel agency to help us try and get our domestic plane tickets. With our flight scheduled to depart from Beijing to Urumqi in just one hour, our taxi driver impatiently drove in circles around a highway cloverleaf until another car raced up behind us and signaled us to pull over. A travel agent ran over from the other car and handed us a stack of plane tickets for our journey.

“For your safety, please be courteous as we check your body temperature” –sign in Beijing airport.

On the flight to Urumqi, I looked towards the two emergency exits and took comfort in the fact that Amy and I were the only two Caucasians on the airplane. A sign in Mandarin pointed to one emergency exit; a sign in English pointed to the other. Even if it were an unlikely event, I knew that in the wake of an emergency landing, all of the Chinese would politely line up to exit under the sign in Mandarin; meanwhile, Amy and I would flee pell-mell towards our own private escape.

“Great Baggage Claim” –sign in Urumqi airport.

Located in the barren Northwest desert of China in the Xinjiang "Automonous Region," Urumqi seemed totally surreal. Bland but shiny new buildings were interspersed with dilapidated crumbling brick buildings and soot-stained concrete block buildings. Urumqi’s one million citizens include the Han ethnic group that dominates Eastern China and a sizable number of Uyghur Muslims. Most signs here are written both in Mandarin and Uyghur, which resembles Arabic.

Amy and I did not waste any time escaping the unappealing city and caught a bus east to Turpan, reputedly the hottest city in the world. On the bus ride, the distant snow-covered Tian Chin Mountains dominated the view to the North, while the view to the south melted into an endless flat expanse of glacial till. Storm clouds brooded over us and eventually released their load, yet the entire scene was devoid of any vegetation.

At a checkpoint, the bus pulled over to the side of the highway. After 10 minutes of discussion between the bus driver and a policeman, a local Uyghur peasant boarded the bus. He carried a torpid elderly woman, whom he placed supine in the aisle. Apparently he was trying to get her to a hospital. After some fanfare, he carried her back off the bus and laid her on the side of the highway. As we pulled away, I looked upon them and realized that she was dead.

The cabbie driver in Urumqi had been speaking English quite well as he drove us to our hotel. Upon our arrival, he tried to double the price he had quoted us of 21 Yuan, claiming the quoted fare was on a per person basis. Suddenly, he claimed that he did not speak English very well. On the verge of tears, he apologized if he had not made himself clear. Of course, Amy and I refused to fall for this ploy and paid him 21 Yuan. He followed us into the hotel; refusing to leave us until we checked into our room. After relaxing in our room for an hour, we returned to the lobby, where the cabbie had been waiting for us with a friend of his. His friend began to plea the cabby’s case. The both followed us up the street as we walked to dinner, until I yelled at them to go away. Afterwards, I thought that perhaps I had been too harsh and that the going fare for the cab ride to the bus station truly was 42 Yuan. The next day, we took a metered cab to the same destination; the fare was 5 Yuan.

After dinner we caught a “traditional” Uyghur dance show. Depending upon the number of drinks consumed, this could have been interpreted as kitsch or a cultural experience. Before I could decide, I had been pulled onto the stage for the “Chicken Dance,” although I think that I danced more like a wounded pigeon.

May 15, 2004. Turpan, Xinjiang.

Amy and I had decided to tour the Turpan area, visiting the requisite tourist sights. Our hotel arranged for a cab driver and an English-speaking tour guide. The driver picked us up and took us to the tour agency, where our tour guide came out to greet us.
Tour guide: “Hello.”
Me: “Hi.”
Tour guide: “You want tour?”
Me: “Yes.”
Tour guide: “I can be tour.”
After a couple of minutes of confused interaction, it became clear that the tour guide spoke little, if any, English. He disappeared into the agency, to return with another employee. She explained to us that the travel agency was graciously offering this tour guide at a special discount rate, basically, just because we were likable folk. Now, we probably should have clued in when our translator needed a translator, but we decided to give the guy a chance.

The taxi driver had made the standard tour circuit countless times; she needed no input from us to get to each of the places described in detail in our guide book. As we headed out on the highway across the desert, we realized that we were paying the tour guide to ride along and go sight-seeing with us.
Me (talking half-speed): “How high are those mountains?”
Guide: “Yes, OK.”
Me: “Are the winters cold here?”
Guide: “Grape.”

On the lifeless sun-baked hard desert, we first visited Gaochang Ruins, which lived up to its name. I suppose that when you visit ruins, you shouldn’t expect too much in the way of architecture; however, I was having difficulty differentiating the “ruins” from mounds of dirt. The guide didn’t exactly elucidate my questions.
Guide: “Ancient city, 2000 years.” (The guide book stated 1300 years.)
Me: “How many people lived here?”
Guide: “Ancient king and queen.”
Me: “How many subjects did the king have?”
Guide: “2000 years”
Me: “Did the king live with many people?”
Guide: “King lived here. Ancient city, 2000 years.”
Me: “Did the king have friends who made homes here?”
Guide: “Yes, OK.”

Despite the fascinating history of the city conveyed by our guide, the mounds of dirt failed to impress me. As far as I could tell, we were visiting the ancient king and queen of dirt, who had accumulated an immense wealth of dirt. I must confess that one circular building, 25-feet across, remained intact. Its walls slightly tapered towards the center but it never had a roof. Apparently, the king and queen would huddle against the walls, only slightly protected from the elements. Such was the illustrious life of the King and Queen of Dirt. All of this importance seemed lost on our tour guide, who focused his attention on trying to keep dirt off of his dress shoes as we walked across the desert.

The inhabited dwellings of the local Uyghurs were infinitely more interesting than the ruins of Dirt city. The simple one-room homes were made of mud or stacked bricks with roofs made of mud and sticks. The Muslim men wore colorful embroidered skull caps with long white robes while the women typically wore long colorful dresses and head scarves. Open canals originating from mountain snowmelt provide drinking and bathing water, as well as irrigation for olive trees and small plots of grapes. While their lifestyle hadn’t likely changed for hundreds of years, change was inevitable. A man drove his donkey cart past us as he talked on a cell phone.

We continued our tour onto Grape Valley for wine tasting. I don’t think that Napa Valley needs to get too concerned about this foreign competition; on the other hand, U.S. vinegar producers may have a serious contender. After visiting Thousand Buddha Caves, we stopped at Emin Ta, an 18th century mosque. Here, apparently a number of previous tourists must have told the countless souvenir vendors that they were, “just looking.” As we walked past the vendors’ stalls, each enthusiatically called out to us, “Just looking!”

“Protect circumstance. It begins with me” –Sign on trash can at Emin Ta (apparently telling people to protect the environment by throwing away trash)

Even in the small city of Turpan, drivers are still horn happy. As with all drivers, our cabbie spent most of his time driving with the horn depressed. It seems to me that they would make their lives a lot easier if they simply duct-taped the horns to the on position to save the trouble of occasionally letting off of the horn.

On a warm Saturday night, we walked around Turpan’s central plaza, where families strolled amidst vendors of shish kebobs and nuts.

May 16, 2004. Turpan, Xinjiang.

It seems that Chinese society does not embrace the concept of personal boundaries. At the Agricultural Bank of China, Amy tried to cash traveler’s checks. As a befuddled bank teller used his abacus to figure out the conversion, a small crowd of people gathered around Amy to watch. Several people grabbed at the checks to help the teller; others simply wanted to play with the holograms.

After catching the bus from Turpan to Urumqi, we wandered to a downtown park. There we enjoyed cold Sprite in pull-tab cans as a coo-coo bird serenaded us from a nearby tree.

Sign in Urumqi park: “Prohibit the disorderly dash the wine bottle.” “Prohibit to drink to excess to cause trouble.”

Amy and I were having trouble sleeping in our three-star hotel room that overlooked the glitz and squalor of downtown Urumqi. Yet, this wasn’t because the bed resembled a plywood board with a thin cloth for a mattress. Prostitutes randomly soliciting business called every 10 minutes, undeterred even when Amy answered the phone; ultimately, we unplugged it.

May 17, 2004. Urumqi, Xinjiang.

After a 2-hour drive from Urumqi, the bus had spent the last 30 minutes ascending the mountains before dropping us off within walking distance of Heavenly Lake. An English-speaking Kazak man named Rashit introduced himself and his sister. For six dollars, they invited us to stay in his lake-side yurt and eat three home-cooked meals. Along with a French man, the four of us began the two-hour walk to the yurts. Excepting the Buddhist monastery, Heavenly Lake resembled the Sierra Nevadas in spring. Jagged mountains, some snow-capped, surrounded the green-blue lake, with stands of conifers and scattered deciduous trees that were just beginning to bud. We followed the footpath over swinging suspension bridges with missing planks, past other yurts, over snow banks, and across small boulder fields. Several black kites circled overhead as we approached Rashit's modest lakeside brick house, canvas yurt, and two horses grazing on the grass of his small yard at the foot of a canyon.

Amy and I had a yurt to ourselves; the French man would stay with the neighbors in their yurt. We would sleep on the floor of the yurt, plywood covered with outdoor carpeting and several blankets; it was considerably more comfortable than the previous night’s bed. As an added bonus, without a telephone, we could be assured that no prostitutes would be calling.

After an afternoon nap, Amy and I awoke to hike up the canyon. We crossed two swiftly-flowing creeks in the rock-strewn flood-plain. After enjoying the serenity of a pine forest, we returned to the flood-plain two hours later to discover a creek and two small rivers blocking our return. Apparently, the afternoon sun had melted a considerable quantity of snow. I cautiously waded through the frigid water of the first two crossings. At the third, thigh-deep rapids challenged my balance as I struggled to keep my footing before scrambling to safety. Amy surveyed the situation and wisely decided not to cross. On opposite sides of the water, we both walked downstream to find a safe place to cross. Unfortunately, our quest took us all the way to the ice-cold lake, which would require swimming to cross it. From his house, Rashit spied our predicament and offered a long rope to throw across to Amy. Together, Rashit and I planned her rescue. With a game plan in place to rescue our damsel in distress, we looked up to discover that she was already half-way across the river; she had decided to cross on her own. I positioned myself downstream from her, should she be swept away by the current; luckily, she wasn’t.

May 18, 2004. Heavenly Lake, Xinjiang.

As we began the hike back from Rashit’s yurt, we watched a butterfly flap its wings and thought of the impending storms in the U.S. Exhausted, we had finally made it around the lake to an open-air Kazak restaurant and a well-deserved lunch. A bottled beer tasted great, despite being warm and opened our waiter’s mouth. After finishing the meal, I pulled out my wallet and offered the “waiter” a Chinese bill. At the same time, his elderly mother latched hold of my wallet, trying to extricate an American 1-dollar bill. I protested, but the entire wait staff came to her defense. I relented and let her examine the greenback. Pleased with her find, she reached for others. I offered three U.S. dollars for the meal; its cost. Of course, the restaurant staff had no idea how much money I had actually given them; they were enthralled with their new souvenirs.

Now, I’m not a particularly tall fellow, but at the 4-start Holiday Inn back in Urumqi, we had to sleep on the bed perpendicularly.

May 19, 2004. Kashgar (Kashi), Xinjiang.

As I stated before, Chinese society seems to know no personal boundaries. Standing in the aisle of the airplane waiting to disembark at Kashgar, a woman pushed into me. I tried moving to give her space, but she only pressed forward, pushing even harder than she had before. If she had violated my personal space any further, I would have needed to wear personal protection.

I walked the dusty streets of old town Kashgar, captivated by the sights of crumbling brick houses, winding dark alleys, donkey carts, and colorfully dressed Uyghur Muslims. Despite the obvious poverty, people were immaculately dressed, as in the rest of China. The women wore clean dresses; the men wore slacks, with button-down dress shirts, belts, and leather dress shoes. In my sneakers, T-shirt, and fatigues, I felt under-dressed for my visit to the ghetto. Still, the residents seemed happy for a foreign visitor. As I walked down the streets, a chorus of “hello” followed me. Children, in particular, were excited to exercise their one-word English vocabulary. When I responded with “hello,” rounds of laughter usually ensued. Overall, people were quite friendly and not camera shy. On the contrary, when I pulled out my camera, people smiled for me and children insisted that I take their picture. Gleeful pandemonium ensued when I showed them the results in the digital display.

Neither Amy nor I speak Mandarin. For the most part, gestures have worked fine for communicating needs: moving the hand to the mouth to indicate eating; cupping and raising the hand to indicate drinking; pressed hands together alongside the head for sleeping. But when our hotel room had no toilet paper, I was glad to be able to convey the need to the front desk with the use of a phrase book.

The capitalizing prostitutes had tracked us down at our rundown hotel room in Kashgar. Just before bedtime, the phone started ringing once again. I simply answered the phone, “NO,” before quickly tiring of the game and unplugging it.

May 20, 2004. Kashgar, Xinjiang.

Our travel plans to Karakul Lake have been delayed as Amy is sick today. However, she seems to be on the mend. Hopefully, we’ll be on back on our way tomorrow.

May 21, 2004. Kashgar, Xinjiang.

An early morning stroll in a market took us past an assortment of produce vendors. One had a particularly impressive collection of neatly arranged fruits and nuts that were bathed in golden light. I took several pictures of the colorful and bountiful harvest. As I began to move on, a jealous neighboring fruit vendor insisted that I take pictures of his comparatively pitiful, forlorn fruit.

Amy and I had spent several days photographing exotic Uyghur people. A Han Chinese man apparently found us to be exotic. He politely asked to take our photo and proceeded to take 6 shots of us strange white people.

Amy and I sat down for breakfast at an outdoor restaurant. A vegetarian, she tolerated my consumption of meat, as long as I ate nothing that conspicuously resembled an animal. I figured that a few small pieces of mutton in my noodles wouldn’t bother her too much. Shortly after we ordered, a freshly skinned lamb carcass was hung from a meat hook next to us. A man systematically removed the unwanted entrails and temporarily placed them on our table as he continued to dismember the corpse.

We were half-way through the 6-hour bus ride to Karkaul Lake, high in the mountains bordering Tajikstan. We stopped for lunch in a small Uyghur village where donkey carts provided the primary mode of transportation. We watched heads turn in unison as a horse strutted down the street, proudly pulling a covered cart with hanging ornamental fringe balls. In the land of donkey carts, the horse cart is the pimping Cadillac!

The remainder of the climb to Karakul passed through some of the most striking and dramatic scenery that I’ve ever experienced. Whitewater rivers tumbled down expansive valleys that starkly showcased geologic hues of reds, yellows, beiges, browns, blacks, and grays. These whimsical rapids were fed by the snowmelt of some of the tallest mountains in the world, cragged giants towering over 25,000 feet. Our comparatively tiny bus followed the slender ribbon of highway that weaved up the valleys, swerving around fallen boulders the size of small houses. We leveled off at 12,000 feet, where the headwaters of the rivers formed shallow lakes and meandering streams that nourished green grass where long-haired goats and shaggy oxen grazed. Several yurts stood around a particularly large lake about 2 miles across, Karakul. Here on the China border at the confluence of several cultures and countries (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India), Amy and I would spend the night in a yurt.

Our Kyrgyzstani host offered us a two-hour camel ride along the lake. I pictured Amy and I, each on our own camel, galloping along, comfortably seated between the dromedary’s two humps. The reality of the situation provided to be somewhat different. The guide walked in front of us, slowly leading the camels. Even at this sluggish pace we struggled to stay atop their bouncing backs. Now, I’m not exactly crazy about riding horses, but at least they have broad backs that stay relatively level. By comparison, riding a camel more closely resembles straddling the roof of steeply pitched house being tossed about in a tornado. After just 10 minutes into our trip, I assessed the post-riding treatment: ibuprofen, yes; Preparation H, no. We both dismounted and walked the remainder of the way.

Just say no. Although I didn’t inquire, I assumed that the bag of white powder offered for me to try for “free” by the local Kyrgyzstani was most likely Aghani heroin. When altitude sickness overwhelmed me later that evening, I opted for Ibuprofen.

May 22, 2004. Karakul Lake, Xinjiang.

On the bus ride back to Kashgar, I watched in amazement as a couple of people handrolled cigarettes using torn pages from magazines. Upon our return, Amy and I wandered the streets of old town Kashgar and stumbled across a mystical bazaar. The sites, smells, and sounds provided a feast for the senses. We passed Afghan carpets, handmade copper pots, aromatic spices, dyes, and pelts of wolves and endangered snow leopards. While I was not surprised to see muslim women whose heads and faces were covered with brown gauze, I did not expect them to be wearing flashy sequined dresses of hot pink, yellow, and silver.

May 23, 2004. Kashgar, Xinjiang.

The highly touted 1500 year-old, weekly Sunday market turned to be a considerable disappoint me after our previous night’s adventures in the bazaar.

Who needs bulimia when you have The Traveler’s Diet?!
Yes, on the traveler’s diet you can eat as much as you want without gaining any weight! No crazy exercise routine, no hunger-reducing pills, no stomach staples—just eat, eat eat… just make sure to stock up on the toilet paper! Go ahead and indulge in those partially cooked sheep heads! Moldy goat cheese? Not a single retained calorie! Week-old fried fish? No worries! Curdled yogurt desserts? Yum! Stream-washed fruits? Gobble up those Giardia! Yes, with the Traveler’s Diet, you’ll be the envy of all of your overweight hygienic homebody friends!

“Do not talk loud or break wind during prayers”—sign in Id Kah Mosque.

> Tibet (2004-05-29)
< Prologue (2004-05-09)
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