#5 China, September 18, 2002

Dear Everybody,

Well, that was a meal that I hadn’t had before—barbequed eggs (over charcoal) and lamb’s kidneys. I ate this one night at the Muslim market across from my hotel in Turpan. They had steamed (?) the eggs ahead of time, then threaded three of them on skewers, and put salt, hot chilies, and ground coriander (which they use a lot) on them as they cooked. The same with the lamb’s kidneys, although they were raw when they put them on the charcoal. They had inserted bits of lamb fat into the kidneys. I had a little bread with it, and tea, and the whole thing was surprisingly good. The kidneys tasted like liver, only less so.

Jim Winsor has been ‘flying’ over my location with his computer, and he said that he saw sand dunes. Indeed he did, and if he had looked a little closer, he would have seen me sleeping on one of them, under the stars. (I suppose he flies in the daytime, so he wouldn’t have seen me!!) I arranged this desert trip through the same man that arranged the tour (d’force) that I had done around Turpan earlier. There were just two of us tourists, a young Japanese man (not the same one as before) named Sota, and the driver, named Tursan. Tursan brought a big rug for us to sleep on and blankets for us all. He also brought grapes and watermelon.

We arrived at the dunes about 8:30, just as the sun had set. Climbing up those big dunes is a workout! We got settled and watched the stars come out. The half-moon was very bright in the western desert sky, but it set about midnight. The stars were also intensly bright, and I spotted the Big Dipper. I was wondering where Orion was, and about 3:00 AM it began to appear on the horizon, along witb the Pleides, and march slowly across the sky. The horizon was high up, though, as we were not at the top of the dunes. At about 10:00 PM and again about 5:30 AM we heard the call of the Muzzeim in the far distance, calling the faithful to prayer.

As you can tell, I didn’t get much sleep, not because I was uncomfortable—the temperature was perfect. I imagine it got down to about 58 degrees but there were so many stars and shooting stars to watch, and then just to listen to the stillness of the desert. It wasn’t quite still, though, as there were small desert rats that were curious about us. Once I heard/saw Tursan jump and haul out his flashlight, and once I saw Sota do the same, but I never encountered them directly, except to see them in Tursan’s flashlight beam. The men both were sleeping with their shoes off (not me!) and I think the rats walked on their bare feet. In the morning, their little tracks were all over the place, right next to our heads.

I don’t believe that in my 67 years, that I have ever spent an entire night out under the stars without a tent, or without a blanket over the clothesline, as in my younger years. I guess in the Midwest it is always impossible because of the mosquitoes. Anyway, it was a wonderful experience from which I rested up the next day.

I went to the local museum where they had quite a display of dinosaur skeletons. They also had about a dozen corpses on display from the ancient tombs in this area. Since it’s so hot and dry here in the Gobi Desert, the bodies are preserved naturally. One had long blond, thick hair in kind of an updo.

Next morning I had breakfast by walking though the market across from my hotel. First I sat down and had a mutton dumpling with a bowl of tea, which they usually serve in bowls or glasses—never cups. Then I walked around and encountered the best looking fried bread (delicious) and then a date for dessert. A little more than I should have eaten, but that’s the trouble with markets –too much good lookin’ food.

Wow! An airconditioned bus from Turpan to Urumqi, and quite new, on a smooth double-lane highway. Only two small wrinkles: new buses play videos, LOUD; and when the bus stopped quickly, I got a shower. It turned out that there was a leak above my head which the condensate from the air conditioner found. It was a short ride—only 2 ½ hours and two showers. I’ll spare you the scenery details—it’s all beautiful.

I got settled in a spiffy hotel, in a six-bed dorm room on the seventh floor. The toilet was down the hall, but the showers were in the basement! Luckily there were elevators.

I decided to splurge on lunch—both money and calories—and had a beer, Peking duck, a green vegetable and watermelon. It’s hard to splurge on money here, that only cost 48 Y or $6 in this spiffy hotel dining room.

After looking in on the local museum (nice) I ambled through Renmin Park with blue sky and perfect temperature. I heard some music so I went to see. There was a woman costumed and made up like for the Peking Opera, singing and dancing while being accompanied by about 12 musicians playing traditional instruments. Just as I had snapped a couple of pictures, the performance ended to enthusiastic applause by about 75 to 100 onlookers. I noticed that the audience was all above 60 years old, a bit like our opera.

After the applause, about a dozen people clustered around me and the opera lady came over also. The people were telling me something and she was smiling and talking to me, as well. I wondered if they were suggesting that I should contribute some money. One man motioned that I should take her picture, and with that, she took a few steps to a nearby bush and struck a dramatic pose with her sword (?) outstretched! I did take the photo, and everyone seemed pleased. She appeared to ask me something so I pointed to myself and said, “Meiguo” (American). I gave her some money which she accepted, but I really don’t think that anybody had suggested a donation.

A few minutes later when most of the crowd had dispersed, I watched, from a distance, as she removed her costume. (No dressing room) There were at least eight parts to it—apron, skirt, pants, jacket, vest, collar, headgear, and more, I think. She got down to a tank top undershirt, then pulled a black dress over that before removing her long pants. I wish I had gotten there earlier to see more of the performance.

I deliberately got a dorm room at my hotel because I decided that I want to learn how to sleep more successfully in them. After all, if I’m going to introduce my grandchildren to backpacking in a few years, I have to be able to ‘do the dorms.’

In this case it was a real challenge as when I got there the room was empty, but obviously two residents had left it in kind of a mess. I went to bed about 10:30 and one resident, a young man, came in about 11:00. He turned on the light and mucked about for some time, and then went out again. Back to sleep. Then the second resident (another young man) came in about midnight and went to bed. The first one returned about 4:00 AM and went to bed. I got up at 7:30 to catch my bus to Tianchi, the Heavenly Lake. Not too much sleep!

It was raining a little and heavily overcast. In about two hours we came to a ‘Disneyland scene’ with a hundred buses parked and a thousand people milling about. I saw no sign of a lake, heavenly or otherwise, but there were minibuses taking people away. I got on one of these and soon we were disgorged into another ‘holding pen.’ The weather was foggy, rainy and very cold as the elevation was about 6500 feet. Still no lake. Then some oversized golf carts appeared and voila, the lake, the mountains and a zillion people. This did not bode well, but I set off as the guidebook suggested, to walk about four km along the very beautiful lake.

Sure enough, after five minutes I was alone, viewing lovely pine-covered mountains with snow on the very tops. I walked about an hour and a half and just as my guidebook said, I came to a group of about a dozen Kazakh yurts, which apparently were the homes of an extended family. Kazakhs graze their cattle, horses and sheep around here in the summer, and some take ‘borders’ like me for an overnight stay.

I was invited into a yurt where another border, Kate, from Canada, was also staying. The yurts sleep about 10 but Kate and I had this one all to ourselves. It was fitted out with colorful rugs and hangings and had a little coal-burning stove that had the yurt nicely warmed.

Kate was 25 and had been traveling/working since she was 17. She lives and works part of the time as a waitress in Berlin, and in winter, in Austria, skiing all day and waitressing at night. Then she travels for six to eight months, as long as her money holds out.

 

Kate and I chatted and chatted about families, marriage, lifestyle—good girl talk. It was like Girl Scout camp in 1947 only nicer!

 

 

 

 

Rashit is the Kazakh man who heads this extended family. He speaks quite good English which he learned from ‘his visitors.’ He has been having visitors since 1985. The price to stay overnight in the yurt with three meals was 40 Y ($4.80).

By late afternoon the weather cleared up beautifully and the lake and mountains were Switzerland. At night I think the stars were even brighter than they were in the desert. I had several opportunities to look at them as before bedtime, Kate had made some very good tea with leechees, sugar and other good things along with the green tea, and we each drank several bowlsfull. From sleeping on the sand dunes well below sea level and hot, to sleeping in the mountains in a Kazakh yurt only two days apart was a dream.

Breakfast the next morning was a bowl of noodles in a tomato-based broth, with celery and bits of mutton sausage. The scene with the bright blue sky, the turquoise lake, the flooding sunshine, the crisp clean air, and the mountains that had some deciduous trees already turning color, was picture perfect. In fact, I couldn’t stop taking pictures!

There were about five little Kazakh children living here (several families) and their laughter at play was the only sound outside of the horses munching their feed.

While Kate went for a very ambitious climb up the mountain that morning, I took a more leisurely stroll along the water with the bright sunshine reflecting off the lake. After lunch Kate and I walked back to the various staging areas and got a bus back to Urumqi. I gather that the hoards of Chinese people that visit Tianchi just mill about on the near shore of the lake, take motorboat rides, buy souvenirs from the many vendors, eat lunch, climb up on the yak and get their picture taken, and then go back to Urumqi. Virtually all of the tourists were part of Chinese tour groups with their own buses.

Kate and I discovered that we had stayed at the same hotel the night before Tianchi, in fact I had left my backpack there, so that’s where we walked when we arrived back at Urumqi at 6:30 PM. Bad luck—the dorms were full and this was kind of an expensive hotel so the rooms were out of Kate’s (backpacker) price range.

I ran over to the travel agency to buy my airline ticket for the next morning to Yining, and Kate attempted to cash some traveler’s checks as she was out of money and her ATM card wouldn’t work. Interestingly she had used her card all over China and had also cashed traveler’s checks all over China, but Urumqi is not a tourist town and here she could do neither. We talked to some other backpackers and they had had the same experience. We finally ran over to the Holiday Inn and after pleading with the cashier, she did get $20 changed.

As we were rushing around on these errands we were carrying our packs. Then we took a bus to the railroad station as there were two inexpensive hotels there that we hoped we could stay in.

The bus was bedlam—rush hour traffic, but we finally made it, and got beds in a four-bed room. We joined Ryan, a 21 year old who also was from Toronto and Kate and he discovered that they had mutual friends.

My feet were sore and I was kind of frayed at the edges, so I went downstairs to a shop and bought a bottle of white wine, some peanuts and some sultanas. We drank it out of the teacups that are in every Chinese hotel room no matter how modest. It turned out to be apple cider! Quite enjoyable, but I was really wishing for one of your martinis, Jeanne.

After that all three of us made a trip to the Internet. I finally got to bed about midnight, setting my alarm for 6:00 AM as I had an early flight. Since this hotel was attached to the train station we were treated to loud train honks throughout the night.

I got my flight to Yining which is not on the Silk Road (nor is Urumqi.) It’s very near the Kazakhstan border and the population has sizable groups of Kazakhs and Uyghurs. By the way, the Arabic that I was seeing on signs was not Arabic, but Uyghur, according to Kate. Obviously they’re related, though.

In Yining I got a hotel room with private bath rather than a dorm room, as I needed some R and R and also to do some laundry. You can do laundry in dorm rooms but you are kind of hanging it in other people’s way.

So I guess I’ll send this off, and spend the next couple of days just strolling around Yining. You can bet that tomorrow I’m going to have a better lunch at one of the Uyghur restaurants!

Carol

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