August 31, 2007

Next Stop is Vietnam

The roads out of Beijing weren't nearly as clogged as they had been coming in the previous night and I actually got to the airport on Friday too early to check in. When I did after about an hour of sitting around, I only got to sit around more in the boring-est airport gate ever (no shops, no food, not even a free plug to recharge my iPod at). On the plane I sat across the aisle from one of China's famed Awful Phlegmatic Old Men, who rearranged the contents of his sinuses every twenty minutes or so through the course of the flight and bossed at the stewardesses. I was also unable to avoid the bad Hong Kong teenage-pregnancy drama (she's the spoiled daughter of a rich lawyer, who's furious! he's the son of a poor laborer! can they make a life when they run off together?) on the in-flight entertainment because they actually broadcast it over the PA system. I got some subtler entertainment in Guangzhou, where we stopped for a connection, as everybody stampeded off, pushing past the two hapless girls checking our onward tickets, in order to reach... closed emigration desks. The officers showed up eventually, but further delays there meant I didn't get a chance to burn my last renminbi at the cafes in Guangzhou airport, which looked to be considerably nicer than Beijing's.

Flying into a strange airport somewhere in Asia late at night definitely ranks up there with my least favorite past-times. When I saw my flight from Beijing wasn't scheduled to get into Vietnam until 9:20, I made arrangements with the hostel I'm staying at here, an Aussie outfit with pretty good referrals online, to pick me up at Hanoi airport. Unfortunately, when I got through customs (the immigration officer gave me a sort of smirk when he looked at my passport... getting old, or maybe just scruffy) and out into the terminal, there was no one there.

In the course of flying out of Beijing I had hooked up with another guy, a fellow ex-English teacher (in his case, Seoul) from New York City named Greg who as coincidence would have it was going to the same hostel in Hanoi. We wandered around the small terminal for a bit in search of a payphone that we could use to call the hostel and have them send someone out; but the only phone kiosks were trying to sell us SIM cards for cell phones we didn't have, and none of the "helpful" tourist information desks would let us use their phones. So we bit the bullet and decided to try a taxi.

Pretty much everything that the guide warned us about ended up happening. After cutting our way through the crowd of touts, we picked out a guy with a shiny new minivan who assured us he could take us straight to where we wanted to go. "How much?" I asked. "Metered!" he replied. Well, no worries then. Except that a minute after pulling out he explained that we would need to pay $2 per person for a ticket to get on the highway. Unless we would prefer to pay him $20 flat without the meter? This is a ride that shouldn't have cost us more than $12 or so, but the other fellow I was traveling with got him down to $18. We cruised through the oh-so-important ticket gates without stopping.

Well, we passed through the dark on the highway into Hanoi. After about 15 minutes we entered the city proper, and shortly afterwards we pulled up in front of a hotel. A young Vietnamese guy came to the door, "Hanoi Backpackers' Hotel?" he asked in English (most people here speak it, it seems, at least if they have something to sell you), flashing a fading business card with the hostel's name and address on it. Except that.. this pretty clearly wasn't the place. Lonely Planet explicitly warned of copycat hotels paying airport taxis to take unsuspecting guests to an overpriced imitation, so we weren't about to get out the cab. Not that we would've been in danger or anything -- just resoundingly ripped off. I attempted to get the cabdriver to tell us what address we were at -- it clearly wasn't the one on business card the guy was waving in my face -- while Greg insisted to them that we weren't staying here. "The main hotel is full, we built a second place!" the guy with the business card said at first. After a minute or two it became, "We moved!" Then, after a few more futile tries, "New name!" Yeah, right. We weren't buying it, and eventually the cab driver, who was not a particularly good actor, made a show of "confusion" and wanting to check the address we had first showed him again. Eventually we extricated ourselves and left the fake hostelers to the rest of their evening, and our cabdriver pulled out a cellphone to call the real place and get directions. He took us there in about five minutes and we grudgingly paid him the $18 (he hadn't exactly earned it), then checked into the hostel, which the missed pick-up aside has been great.

All part of the adventure!


Hanoi is a very pretty city, thanks to the French colonial legacy; lots of old ochre-yellow buildings, tree-shaded boulevards, and a lake near the Old Quarter where I'm staying. Unlike China, where the car is taking over, here most people still get around on two wheels -- Yamaha and Honda scooters fill the streets, with two or three people clinging to the back as they zip around. (Coming in from the airport, I saw one with a huge load of roses, easily four feet by four feet, bundled on top of the back of one; another, carrying several sacks of miscellaneous junk, had a woman crouching down on the running boards between the driver's legs as they hurtled along the highway.) They're cheaper and many times more numerous than car taxis (not to mention more persistent), so I've already taken a ride on a few of them -- it's mildly terrifying but also a fun way to see the streets.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, which I had been planning to see, was unfortunately closed for Friday; so I'm 0 for 2 on my Embalmed Former Communist Leaders checklist. I did pass by the front of the monument, which is massive and which has huge red-and-yellow-starred flags lining the ground. Ho himself apparently expressed wishes for a simple cremation, but I suppose the party knows best. I went to a few sights here, including the old French prison where John McCain, along with several other downed American pilots, was imprisoned during the war. They still have his flight suit there, in addition to the guillotine used by the French colonial regime on Vietminh insurgents prior to their victory in the north. I also checked out the Temple of Literature, where old Confucian students got their doctorates engraved in stone stelae mounted atop statues of turtles. Lunch was at a nice little cafe near the market district; if nothing else, I can thank the French for introducing cafe culture. They even have Orangina! My last stop this afternoon was the Army Museum, full of captured French and American war materiel and lots of exhibits about the Vietnamese wars; heavily slanted to match the official line as you might expect, but still interesting.

This evening I wandered around the lake area for a bit and bought a pair of cheap flip-flops, then went to watch roi nuoc, or Vietnamese water puppets. The show was about an hour and full of traditional music and vignettes of Vietnamese village life, interspersed with mythical creatures and a few ancient legends. Most of the puppets were not too elaborate in their decoration but they could perform some pretty clever tricks with them; it was a fun outing.


Overall my first day in Vietnam has been pretty good, the only exceptions being the initially unfavorable introduction and the humidity, which as you would imagine is omnipresent. Tomorrow I'm going to go out to Halong Bay, an inlet full of towering limestone pillars and caves; the trip should take the full day, and I think there is a bit of kayaking involved in addition to a boat cruise. I also got a flight on to my next stop, Hue; I'll leave for there on Sunday afternoon and the continue south with stops in Hoi An and Quy Nhon over the course of the next few days.

For now, though, it's time for shower number three of the day.

August 27, 2007


("Hello" in Uyghur.)

After many long hours on the road I have finally found rest in the cool grape trellis-shaded oasis of Turpan. While the rest of Xinjiang has actually not been nearly as hot as I had expected, Turpan sits in a desert basin that is the second-lowest elevated point on earth, and my bus passed over flat, baking rock desert for several hours on the way here.

Turpan is considerably more touristed than other places I've visted in Xinjiang, even more so than Kashgar was. If the "Aisu Kohii" (Ice Coffee) signs in Japanese in the hotel I'm staying at weren't enough of a clue, there are some very persistent local touts, suggesting tours and hotels and this and that as soon as I first stepped off the bus. One of them, a younger Uyghur fellow with great English skills, showed me to / followed me to the hotel where I actually wanted to stay and then further in search of an internet cafe yesterday; I finally managed to extricate myself and this morning opted to set off on my own instead. I'm sure I would've had a fine time with him, but I'm just not ready to surrender my independent traveler status yet. The backpacker cafe attached to the hotel rents aging single-gear bicycles and I took one out for an hour, taking a leisurely (if slightly wobbly) ride down through the back streets of the Uyghur old town to arrive at the Emin Minaret, a lovely piece of Islamic architecture dating to the 1700s with lots of intricate brickwork and geometric patterns appearing in and out of the shaded halls.

After that, I took a cab to the ruins of Jiaohe, an old city perched on top of a leaf-shaped mesa surrounded by narrow canyons. Homes built into rock outcroppings and thick mud-brick walls give the surviving ruins the appearance of Luke Skywalker's Tatooine home after a particularly thorough stormtrooper attack; it was definitely worth the trip, and while Turpan has several other surrounding sites on the standard tour, I was fine with my limited solo foray. Afterwards, I lounged around and finished Guns, Germs, and Steel, my reading material for this trip (and one of the best books I've read) during the hottest part of the day, and then took a walk through the local bazar where I bought some samsas (fatty mutton pockets; mostly fat, in this case). There's a grape harvesting festival going on in Turpan (home of Xinjiang's most famous vines; walking through the Uyghur quarter to the minaret again this evening, I passed several walled courtyard homes with huge racks of grapes hanging, freshly harvested), with some traditional Uyghur dancing going on in the city square last night. Somehow I don't think traditional Uyghur dancing usually involves fireworks and light shows and choreographed fountain displays, though, and in any case the crowds were too thick for me to push my way close enough to see anything. Maybe this evening, or maybe just more relaxing.


It's been three days ago now, but I was successful in flagging down a bus for the long haul across the Taklamakan desert, through no help from the people at the actual bus station in Niya though. A big orange sleeper bus passing through the traffic circle pulled over at my desperate wave and after confirming that they were stopping in Korla, I hopped on. As I did so a small chorus of "hello!"s came from the Chinese and Uyghur students laid out in the racks of beds, three rows of two bunks all the way to the back of the bus. After paying one of the guys by the door I clambered up onto a narrow bunk just behind the driver. It took some careful positioning; those bunks weren't really made for someone my height. But it definitely made for an interesting way to travel.

Soon after pulling out of Niya we entered the desert. In order to prevent the sand from encroaching on the highway cutting through the miles and miles of dunes, the Chinese engineers who built it constructed well stations along the way, with long stretches of drip irrigation hoses feeding a shielding barrier of shrubs along either side of the road. The sky was still gray and the horizon hazy, though not as thick as it had been in Hotan two days before; the dunes stretched on to the edge of vision. I didn't see any desert bandits, although I kept an eye out the whole trip. The driver's cassette tapes of Uyghur pop music blared in my ears from the speaker next to my head. A young guy with features that looked almost Persian played card games with his girlfriend in the bunk across from me. We passed, in a quick flash, a large blue cargo truck whose front end was completely smashed in, in front of which it looked like someone had set up a picnic lunch. We passed a well worker in a conical straw hat and orange safety vest, out checking irrigation lines in the dusk.

The bus bounced along over undifferentiated stretches of desert as it gradually got dark. We stopped for dinner at a rest area where I got a highly over-priced (almost $1.50!) plate of noodles, meat and vegetables the Uyghurs call laghman (think ra men). Some of the students who had seen me board earlier called me over and we chatted while I ate, they sipped scalding tea, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "True Lies" played in dubbed Chinese in the background. They were young, probably high school age, on their way to the technical school they attended. Where was I from? How did I like Xinjiang? What about the food? What did I think about China's development? How about those Olympics, eh? After a while there we boarded the bus again and I began to doze in the darkness, coming to full wakefulness at the blare of the driver's horn every now and then to see the flares of oil pumping stations out in the distant desert. We arrived on the outskirts of Korla near 3:00 AM Beijing time (1:00 AM Xinjiang; I'm on a weird hybrid where I wake up early, eat lunch and dinner late, and end up ready for bed by what's really only about 8:00 PM local time) where I luckily caught a waiting taxi to a rather down-scale hotel. Despite the late hours, people were still coming and going; the girls at the desk, thoroughly amused by my complete inability to speak any Chinese without the aid of a phrasebook, gave me a room for 80 yuan; pretty near a deal (the cheapest I could find in Niya had been a double for 100, or about 15 dollars), except that it turned out to be a three meter by three meter cube with adjoining shower / toilet corridor.


Saturday I woke up to my alarm and the room attendant pounding on my door; she and a guy with a clipboard came in, inspected something in my bathroom, and left. I showered and headed out to see a bit of Korla. Korla is a modern city, considerably more Chinese now than Uyghur, but it is also much cleaner and nicer than Urumqi and not nearly as big or sprawling as Beijing. I wandered past some storefronts selling appliances and plumbing fixtures before finding an internet cafe, where I made contact with Michael of The Opposite End of China blog, who is a very nice guy and whose sun-dried tomatoes looked very nice if any of you readers happen to be a Chinese restaurant owner looking to stock some. I am not, but he still very graciously arranged to meet for lunch. I met him, as well as Bruce, a Scottish guy teaching English there, and his chihuahua, for spicy pumpkin and pepper dumplings. After some phone calls, arrangements were made to meet at a shaded spot down by the riverside. There were awnings and raised platforms set up at which to relax and eat roasted chicken -- except that, according to the lady who came by and asked us for 30 yuan for the privelege of sitting there, that the guy who usually made the chicken had ran off with all the money and now there was none. Whoops.

The rest of Korla's English-teaching expat community was a small group of about 10 in all; they were all very friendly and welcoming considering I really didn't know any of them. I'm guessing they probably don't get too many visitors. Some people went swimming, I relaxed in the shade; after a few hours there, we went back to the city, where the Tarim Oil English Association, a group of about ten Chinese folks working in the oil company offices with an interest in improving their English, took us all collectively out to Mongolian hotpot dinner at the local "Fat Cow" restaurant. It was delicious stuff, and we were all sweating from the steam and the spices. After that I parted ways with the Korlans and headed back to my hotel, and then caught the bus here to Turpan on Sunday.


Tomorrow I take the bus back to Urumqi, where I will maybe do a bit of shopping for Uyghur music video CDs (I've been watching enough of them on the buses, I ought to bring back something to show for it; but if you want to see some now, check around on The Opposite End of China blog, where Michael's posted several). I fly back to Beijing on the 29th, and then on to the jungles of Nam on the 30th, where I finally get to start putting my Larium to work.


August 22, 2007

The Silk Road Is In Need of Some Road Work

At least the section my bus went bouncing along over for 10 hours today sure was. I'm in the small Uyghur oasis town of Hotan, formerly a jade crafting and carpet weaving center on the silk route, this evening just kind of dusty and low-key. The driver laid on the horn every time we passed trucks carrying big tankers of gasoline, Uyghur families on donkey carts, minibuses and motorcycles. Stretches of desert were interspersed with stands of slender beeches lining the oasis towns we passed through on the way from Kashgar. My seat companion was an older fellow from Suat (mispelled?), Pakistan ("the Switzerland of Pakistan", he tells me) travelling with four Pakistani lawyer friends to Hotan. We chatted a bit and watched pirated Jackie Chan movies and Uyghur music videos over the bus DVD player. I got into Hotan at around 5:00 local time and after two failed attempts managed to find a place that would take me; should've bargained harder for my double, which is of dubious quality, but it was only about 15 bucks for the night really. A friendly Uyghur bus cop helped me figure out the schedule for the bus to Niya, an even smaller oasis town further down the road that I'm checking out on the recommendation of a fellow traveler; if I make it there, I will check out the local Mazar tomb, then take the cross-desert highway bus the following day (Friday) to Korla on the other side of the Taklamakan. Let's hope for no sandstorms.

Karakul Lake was a mixed experience. We left in the morning on Monday and made it to the bus station with plenty of time, partly because the bus sat around and waited another 15 minutes after it was supposed to go to see if it could fill the last two empty seats. We picked up a Kyrgyz fellow in a suit and felt hat at a gas station and then headed southwest for the mountains. The scenery was gorgeous, red rock canyons and huge alluvial sand fields. I was unable to enjoy it fully for two reasons: one, some French guy had taken the seat by the window that opened, so I wasn't able to get my camera out past the glass (the seat was actually mine by the tickets we had, but no one sits in their actual ticketed seats in China anyhow); and two, I had made the mistake of chugging half a liter of water in the morning and reached near-bursting point about an hour into the trip. I was getting close to doing something drastic, like hijacking the bus, when we finally stopped to let some local guy off at a compound out in the cliffs, and I took the opportunity to sprint out and enjoy a solid minute of blissful relief. Anyhow, after that, I was able to enjoy things much more, despite the lingering head cold; the Lord of the Rings soundtrack makes a particularly good companion to the Ghez river canyons, if you happen to be passing that way yourself some day.

We arrived at Karakul Lake at around 11:30 local time and began a walk around the edge. Again, the towering snow-capped mountain faces made for beautiful scenery; but the high elevation also made hell for my already beleagured sinuses, and I was light-headed and headachey from the altitude. Kyrgyz nomads live in this area, renting out yurts to tourists, and we walked through their herds of yaks and camels as we started to circle the lake counter-clockwise. After a bit the two Israelis split off in the direction of one of the mountain base camps, where they were planning on camping for a few days; Miguel (the fluent guy from Michigan) and I had a late lunch of extremely hard bagels and rice with stewed vegetables with a local Kyrgyz family. It was getting on four by this point, and he decided to carry on around the lake; I was still winded, sick, and tired, so I opted to just head back towards the road where the yurts were and call it a day.

It took me about another two hours of stumbling through the marshy grass surrounding the lake to get back to the yurts, where I bargained a bit with the local guy and got myself a meal and a bed for 30 yuan. By this point I was feeling mildly feverish and about ready to crash, so it was all I could do to stay up and exchange a few pleasantries with the German couple (one of them Chinese-German) also staying in my yurt. They seemed pretty suprised that I had come up there already being sick, which I guess was a hint that it wasn't the brightest move on my part.

I passed out almost instantly after finishing the meal but woke up at midnight from a full bladder again and never got back to sleep the entire rest of the night. I was cold despite piles of covers; the "bed" (blankets on the yurt floor, which was the ground) was hard and digging into my back no matter which way I turned; my head was throbbing; I think I may have been hyperventilating a bit. Not the best sleep of my life... I think I got two hours, four hours tops.

On the plus side, let it be said that no matter how freezing and miserable you are, the stars over Karakul Lake at midnight really are gorgeous.

I came back to Kashgar early yesterday morning by catching a ride with a Kyrgyz guy in a pickup; there was supposed to be a bus, but it didn't end up coming before he did, and I just wanted to get the hell out of dodge so I was willing to pay the 60 yuan he was asking. I came back to my hotel and collapsed for a few hours, then gave the ticket queues another lunge for the bus to Hotan today. I know travelling as long as I am, I'm going to have good days and bad; the beautiful scenery notwithstanding, Monday was pretty rough. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and I'm hoping for good things in Niya tomorrow. Till the next oasis.

August 19, 2007


We boarded the plane to Kashgar at dusk to the tunes, in my ears anyhow, of the Black Hawk Down soundtrack. One of the tarmac safety officers rode past my window on a bicycle as we pulled out of the gate. An hour and a half later my flight arrived at around midnight Beijing time, which is officially the same thing as Xinjiang time, even though Xinjiang is actually two hours behind Beijing. The taxi drivers demanded 40 yuan for a ride to the hotel that should've been 10 by the meter. I split the cost with a backpacking girl from Columbia studying Chinese in Shanghai. The hotel, the Chingi Bagh, has cheap dorms in various states of disrepair. My roomates include an Orthodox Jewish couple from Israel and a guy from Michigan who's currently 10 weeks into a trip all over China. Kind of puts my trek to shame, but then he is fluent in Chinese. Last night we were joined by a guy from Switzerland. There's a sitcom pitch in here somewhere.

Kashgar is a much nicer city than Urumqi. Less overdeveloped, less polluted, less sprawl. Uyghurs outnumber Chinese and not the other way around, although a giant statue of Mao still looms over the People's Park square (the People's Park has a entry fee to get inside). Much of the old city is in the process of being torn down but there are still plenty of back alleys, kebab street vendors, men with sun-creased faces and white skullcaps sitting in the shade of trees and noon, and women in headscarves and veils to give the city a Central Asian, rather than a Chinese, feel. The sights -- the Id Khah mosque, the Abakh Khoja tomb, and the Sunday Market -- do have a well-worn tourist trail running through them though; French and Chinese tour groups nearly outnumbered the Uyghur men and their sons herding in their cows, fat-bottomed goats, donkey carts and even one or two camels at the livestock market this morning. It's rather sad to see, though of course I'm a tourist here as well.

I successfully managed to wedge my way to the front of the queue at the bus station so tomorrow I will be heading west up the Karakorum Highway to Lake Karakul, where I will probably be spending the night in a Kyrgyz yurt. I've managed to catch a bad sinus headache / head cold in the past day or so but copious amounts of water, Emergen-C powder, and garlicky Szechuan noodles from the traveler's cafe at the base of our hotel will hopefully be enough to hold it at bay. Gastro-intestinal status is currently rated at 75% of optimum levels, and hopefully holding.

Will check back again either when I get back into Kashgar, or otherwise from Hotan, my next stop along the Southern Silk road.

August 17, 2007

Wild West China

I'm in Urumqi now. Urumqi is kind of reminscent of Ulaan Bator, in that is is big and sprawling and dusty and sort of a pit. But it's my gateway to the rest of Xinjiang, so here I am until this evening, when I catch a flight down to Kashgar on the rim of the Taklamakan. I spent the flight over here from Beijing watching a young Chinese girl and her father read old Garfield comics in Chinese. Most people in Urumqi are Chinese, although there are still young women in head scarves and old men in fur hats and street vendors selling nan bread and fruit to remind you that this isn't the coastal provinces any more.

I hiked a section of the Great Wall on Tuesday. I now have the utmost respect for any Mongolians who tried tackling that thing. The section our group of twenty hiked up to was remote and partially ruined, but free of Chinese tourists and commercial reconstructions. There was one guy selling drinks at a watchtower, but having just scrambled up there with the weight of two liters of water and a camera bag myself, I couldn't argue too much with the five yuan he was asking. This small bit of entrepreneurism notwithstanding it was a good hike and a good way to celebrate #24.

This morning I checked out the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum, which was definitely worth seeing, although maybe not for the reasons intended. I did see the Loulan Beauty, and some presentations of native culture and dress, but the biggest eye-opener was the exhibit captions.

Covering an area of 1.66 million square kilometers, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is a treasure land in the northwestern bordering region in our motherland with vast land and richly endowed recourses. The extended Silk Road linked the eastern and western civiliations. Being situated deep in the hinterland, it conceals the deep secret of the converged ancient civiliations of the world.

Xinjiang has been the multi-national homeland from ancient times. Forty-seven nationalities live here today, among them 13 brother nationalities, such as Uyghur, Han, Kazak, Hui, Khalkas, Mongolian, Xibe, Tajik, Uzbek, Daur, Manchu, Tartar, Russian, etc. have lived in Xinjiang for generations. For a long time, they have been cooperated as one family to build and safeguard the borderland. Under the glory of the nationality policy of the Party, precious traditional cultures of various nationalities have received effective protection, inhertiance, and development. In the historical process of the Development of Western Regions, various nationalities are more united to construct together a harmonious society. We hold this exhibition of Display of Xinjiang Nationality Custom to represent the gorgeous conditions and customs of the 12 ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, and to show the splendor of the beautiful rarity of treasure house of Chinese national culture.

Right. That's a direct quote from the "Preface" to the minorities exhibit. Pretty bold stuff for a museum where the only real Uyghurs evident were the stone masons tiling a room under renovation on the second floor. Most plaques were along similar lines; Xinjiang has always been a part of China; every minority group in Xinjiang works together; everything is going great and that's the way everyone wants it! Nice and subtle stuff. There was also an exhibit on the Communist revolution and Xinjiang's role in that, although I noted they didn't bother including English translations for that section. Ahem.

And then there's this, seen on a woman's t-shirt yesterday:

War is Peace

Man, this place is wierd.

Addendum - The Great Firewall is blocking me from viewing my blog (whoops, should've taken down that link to my paper on Xinjiang, maybe) but obviously not from the Blogger posting infrastructure. I can probably still read comments through this, but there's always e-mail if you want to get in touch directly.

August 14, 2007

The Adventure Begins

Yesterday, in what in retrospect may appear to be a rather drastic move, I left my home of two years in Karatsu, Japan, and launched myself into the beginning of an eight-week trek through Asia and Africa. After saying my last goodbyes and sitting on a China Air flight for two and a half hours, touched down mid-afternoon in China's capital city of Beijing.

The pollution has, thus far, not been as bad as I was initially dreading (I gather it's worst in the winter, when everyone turns on the heaters). 2008 Olympics ads are everywhere and there's plenty of construction and demolition going on all around. My hostel is a bit of a backpacker trap but is located down a relatively authentic-looking hutong so there's a bit of character to the area, if not necessarily the place itself.

My time in Beijing is limited -- just two full days, really -- so I'm getting a much abbreviated look at it and "Chinese" China; today I joined the throng to see Tianenmen and the Forbidden City, and baked myself on the cobblestones while taking pictures of Mao's portrait and old imperial roofing tiles. I don't think I'm going to be able to upload those pictures till I get back (I'm shooting RAW format, which usually requires post-processing before I can upload it to Flickr; there is a photo CD-burning place across the seat so I might check that out tomorrow). The palaces were also not too different from similar edifices I've viewed in Japan, Korea, or Mongolia; of course, this is where all those architectural designs originated from, so I'd say it was worth seeing. I did not manage to see Mao's body on display.

I have yet to eat any actual Chinese food (unless you count a self-heating chicken-and-rice box for lunch today), having dined out for two nights in a row at two different Uyghur restaurants in the area. Both were good (and spicy) so I think I'll do fine in terms of finding things to eat when I head west on Thursday. The language barrier, on the other hand, is still relatively daunting. I've sort of learnt some numbers, but haven't really been forced to muddle through yet, as I've only been to the touristy places. Of course, when I reach Xinjiang, I'll have to pack away the Mandarin phrasebook and break out the Uyghur one anyhow.

Tomorrow I am taking a hike along the Great Wall through a tour company a friend of mine recommended; it should be a small group and we should be going to a pretty remote (unreconstructed and uncrowded) section of the wall. Hopefully should be a good way to celebrate my 24th birthday.

Internet service at the hostel here is free as long as you can stand the impatient murmurings of the people queued up waiting to use it after you. I've probably abused my priveleges for long enough so I'll check back again next time.