("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.