#6 China, September 26, 2002

Dear Everybody,

“Kurut, kurut!” It sounded like I was coughing, but I was trying to ask for the hard little cakes of goat cheese that were mentioned in my guide book. So I had to point to the Chinese characters for ‘cheese’ and then ‘goat’ and then all was clear. “Kurut!” The man gestured for me to follow him (it looks like our ‘bye bye’) and we walked about four blocks. And there on a corner was a lady with a cart selling kurut. I bought two cakes which turned out to be quite dry, somewhat salty, but very good.

In Yining, I changed hotels after the first night. I had asked the taxi driver to take me to the Yili Binguan initially, which he did. The gate guard waved him off and said a few words to him, which I assumed meant that I couldn’t stay there, so then I suggested the Tian Ma Binguan, which the driver seemed to approve of and took me there. I got a private room as I needed to rest and regroup a little, but it was the grottiest one I’ve had so far. Oofdah.

The next day I walked to the Yili Binguan and passed the gate guard with no problem. It’s a nice hotel in a beautiful park setting right in the middle of town. I got a room, went back and checked out of the Tian Ma, and took a taxi back to the Yili. Mystery solved—the gate guard wouldn’t let the taxi drive into the grounds—taxis ‘not permitted.’ Strange, but apparently in this out of the way city there rarely are tourists that are not in a group (maybe not even those) and any backpackers that come here probably stay in the dorms at the Tian Ma.

There did seem to be a huge group of men there attending a meeting. I had breakfast at a table with about nine of them. A lazy susan in the middle was set with 17 dishes, most of which I couldn’t recognize. I drank tea but they all drank funny hot milk which I had tried the day before—ugh!

I also solved another mystery at this hotel, I think! All along the way, whenever I had a private room, my telephone would ring about 10 or 11 o’clock at night. It was so annoying that they were so careless with their dialing and I would get all these wrong numbers. When I answered it would be a male voice (all of the desk clerks are female) and I would interrupt with an English, “I think you have the wrong number,” and hang up. Often they’d call back and I would just let it ring. Well, it happened again at the Yili and when I said, “hello,” I really think I heard, “Massage-a-mama?”

The food in Yining was very good. There was a row of Muslim restaurants that were always busy (a clue) and served the best stuff. I usually just looked at what everyone was having and then pointed to what I wanted. The patrons seemed pleased when I chose what they were having! My dinner one night was two steamed dumplings filled with diced pumpkin, a little mutton and other seasonings—good! Their pumpkins are pear shaped, and huge.

I had arranged to go on a tour on Sunday to surrounding points of interest. My main objective was to go to Sayram Lake which was included in the ‘line’ as my guide said. All that remained was for her to call me Saturday and let me know the price, which depended on how many others were going. She didn’t call and she didn’t come on Sunday morning. Shoot! So I found a taxi driver to take me to Sayram Lake, about a hundred miles out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was fun, on the way, to pass robust farming communities and many small markets. Apples, yams, sheep, cabbage, onions and corn seemed to be the main crops. The scenery turned mountainous and finally there was the azure lake—Sayram Lake.

There were lots of horsemen that collected around me, wanting to rent their horse to me. There were clumps of yurts around the lake and one tiny hotel nearby.

While I was having a beer, a young girl came over to speak English with me—one of the few people anywhere in or near Yining that could speak English. She was 16 years old, and very sweet. We had a nice chat as she told me about her college plans. Even now in ‘middle school’ she boards at the school, 100 km from home, and comes home once a month. She invited me to have lunch at their yurt and of course I accepted right away. The driver could come, too.

The yurt was beautiful and immaculate. We each had a glass of tea. She said it would be over an hour before lunch was ready so I suggested that the taxi driver and I would explore the other side of the lake and come back in an hour.

Lunch was served to just the two of us (the driver and me) on low tables in the yurt. They apparently had a cooking yurt next door, although much of it was done outside, too. We had a chicken dish (they chop it up, bones and all, into tiny pieces so it’s not my favorite thing), three vegetable dishes, rice, milk and sliced tomatoes. It was all (except the chicken) very good.

When we were finished I asked the girl how much I should pay for the two meals, and she said 400 Y. I assumed that she had made a mistake and meant 40, but no, she insisted it was 400. On the whole Silk Road I don’t think I’ve paid more than 50 Y for a meal in a nice hotel, and that was usually with a beer! At the Tianchi when I stayed at Rashit’s yurt, the overnight plus three meals was 40 Y.

I put down 100 Y and said that was more than enough. She protested and by now both her mother and father were arguing in Chinese and gesticulating, too. All Right, I put down another 100 Y and said that was It!

I got into the taxi, and so did the driver. The girl stood in front of the opened door on the driver’s side and the father stood in front of the car so the driver could go neither forward nor backward, a well rehearsed move, I think. Lots more Chinese and English ‘case presentation’—I simply kept saying to the driver, “Let’s go!” Then the girl said that they would have to call the police, and I said that by all means, she should do just that. They were also fussing at the driver, who was attempting to ‘make nice’ and I’m sure was telling them that he really wasn’t involved as I was paying for the meal. At one point the father tried to grab the ignition key from the taxi but the driver didn’t let him. More shouting, more fussing—I said and did nothing but just looked straight ahead. Finally the people moved out of the way and we could leave. Well, that’s the first time I’ve been cheated in China—at least that I know about!

You’ve heard of a slow boat to China? Well, this was a slow bus to Kuche, China. I had been agonizing over the decision whether to fly back to Urumqi and then take the train 10 hours to Kuche, or alternatively, I could take a bus from Yining, direct to Kuche. Unfortunately this bus would take 22 hours! The scenery by bus was supposed to be ‘spectacular’ according to both of my guidebooks because the bus was to go over the Tienshan (Heavenly Mountains) which are beautiful. I had caught a quick look at them from the plane while I flew to Yining—all snowcapped and really rugged.

I opted for the bus, but it didn’t take 22 hours, it took 32 hours! When I bought my ticket I asked the agent (pointing in my phrase book) what time the bus would arrive in Kuche, and she said, “Mingtian,”—tomorrow!

The bus was a ramshackle affair that creaked and groaned. From six to 10 PM we went about five mph in the ditch of a road that was being reconstructed. There really wasn’t any detour road, only a path worn by the vehicles. I was totally resigned to the bus breaking down—I didn’t see how it could hang together over that rocky, rough path, but amazingly, it did!

The bus was full of mostly older men—Uyghurs—that smoked incessantly and hacked, coughed and spit when they weren’t actually smoking. The driver suggested shutting the windows during the ‘construction’ part. Oh that was a big help; now we’re confining all the smoking to inside the bus.

There were two drivers that alternated driving in about three hour shifts. When they weren’t driving they could sleep in a little bed hung near the ceiling in the front of the bus. The road pretty much was gravel all the way so the driving was strenuous for the drivers.

The early part of the trip did not offer beautiful scenery, but rather plain, flat farming country. There were lots of flocks of sheep (that further slowed us down), herds of horses, cattle, and vegetable crops, including huge numbers of gorgeous red peppers.

We stopped for a supper break about five PM. I had bought a round bread to bring with me and had been eating that throughout the day so I wasn’t hungry. These round breads are everywhere. They’re from 10 to 14 inches in diameter. They have a nice moist thick crust around the rim, but the inner part has been perforated in a spiral pattern and flattened (and maybe water has been put on it?) so that it is crisp like a cracker. The flavor is extremely good. Many people on the bus had them.

We also stopped for toilet breaks, often in places with not much shelter. Typically the women would go on one side of the road and the men on the other. One had to trust the men not to look.

By the time we got to the mountains it was DARK! If the scenery was ‘spectacular’ I never knew it. Talk about a disappointment. Well, I did sleep on and off quite a bit during the night so the time passed quite fast.

The next morning we stopped for breakfast about 9:00 and I had a mutton vegetable dish with a steamed bread roll. The tea there was especially good. It had some flower flavor to it. The proprietor was butchering a sheep in front

of the restaurant. They pretty much save Everything from the sheep—lungs, intestines, stomach and of course, the liver and kidneys.

Actually while this particular endeavor was disappointing overall, these experiences are always interesting, though, as you do get a chance to hang with people that you would never come in contact with. Toward the end of the trip one of the passengers bought a melon. He cut and cleaned it, and shared it with others, including me—a nice moment.

An old woman got on loudly crying. She said goodbye to another man and he was crying a little, too. Was she moving into town for the winter? Was she ill and didn’t expect to see this man again? Who knows, but human drama is everywhere.

Finally at 6:45 PM we arrived at the bus depot in Kuche. It really had been 32 hours since the bus had left the station in Yining. And when I got my pack out from the bus storage compartment—well ‘filthy’ is not a strong enough word. When I tried to clap off the dust and dirt before putting it on my back, my hand was completely black with stuff that stuck there and wouldn’t wipe off with a tissue. I suppose it was oily exhaust smoke residue. When I put my pack on my back, my red tee shirt got ugly black streaks and blotches on it. Yuck!

I got a hotel room in the ‘Traffic Hotel’ (said an English sign) adjacent to the bus station. I got a private room with a bathroom to do a lot of washing—clothes and me. Unfortunately the desk clerk said that the hot water didn’t come on until 9:30 PM so I did have to wait. When I washed my hands and arms with cold water and soap, it was difficult to get that black crud off.

I had a beer and then went to the market and got some food in the food stalls. (They’re not so fussy about streaked, dirty clothing there!) I had good duck and a peanut vegetable dish.

9:30 PM came so I could clean up. I even took my empty pack into the shower with me and used a generous amount of shampoo on it. I hung it in front of the open window and it dried overnight. My pack has a plastic coating on the inside so my stuff inside my pack really didn’t get dirty. I have a ziplock bag of Tide along and that and hot water did get my clothes surprisingly clean.

Chris Stang asked me once, “Why do you travel like this?” I said that I liked the idea of knowing I can travel anyplace in the world on my own. But it’s more than that. My goal is to feel comfortable, not lonely—a kinship with those people who look different, speak a language that I can’t understand, and have a whole different view of the world than mine. When the old lady on the bus to Kuche who was crying (with very few teeth) returned my smile (weakly)—that’s it. When all those men who were coughing, smoking, and spitting were friendly to me, and the one shared his melon with me, that’s it. Last January when the Dong lady gave me those five ‘yams’ to eat—that’s it! And I can’t feel the kinship unless I can ride their buses, breathe their smoky air and eat their food. And I’m happy to say that I have achieved my goal—I haven’t felt lonely or estranged at all here in China.

On Thursday I took the train from Kuche to Kashgar, nine hours. At first I was planning to stay for the Friday market in Kuche and bought a train ticket (taxi five km to the train station) for Friday but later realized that it left too early for me to see the market. So I took a taxi back to the train station and had it changed to Saturday. This was all quite difficult as the ticket lady kept asking me questions that I couldn’t understand. The next day I rethought this and decided I should get to Kashgar earlier than Saturday night as my guidebook says it’s hard to find a bed on Saturday because of the renowned Sunday Market. Also it would be getting to Kashgar perilously close to the National Holiday, Oct. 1-7, when all transport and hotel systems are totally jammed. Apparently China only lets its workers (for the most part) take vacations on National Holidays—a week in October and another in February—so the whole country is traveling. My strategy was to get to Kashgar well ahead of Oct. 1st, get a room/bed and stay put until after Oct. 7th. When I went back to the train station to change my ticket again, I’m sure the ticket lady thought I was nuts, but for a small amount of money each time, she accommodated my waffling.

The train ride was pleasant and uneventful. The scenery was pretty much unrelenting desert all the way. At first I could barely see the mountain range to the north of us, but eventually the train came close to the mountains. I’ve never seen such colorful mountains—red, green, yellow and brown—no doubt due to minerals. My guidebook says that Xinjiang Province is rich in minerals. That must explain the Technicolor mountains.

I must have lucked out and gotten into a non-smoking car as only one man lit up. I arrived in Kashgar in nine hours—2:30 PM Beijing time, but 12:30 local time. My next Bulk Mailing will tell you all about what I find here—being in Kashgar has been a dream of mine for a long time.

Except for the sweet 16 year old girl at Sayram Lake, I find most everyone in China to be very honest. For example at the market in Kuche a man and woman were making and selling a fried bread thing. The woman wrapped the dough around small bits of mutton and quite a bit of greens, including some cilantro. Then it was carefully fried in oil and carefully drained. It was about eight inches in diameter and quite thick so I intended to eat only a part, but it was so good that I ate it all—it became my whole dinner. When I went to pay, I handed the man 2 Y and he pointed to a ‘1’ Y bill I had in my stash. So I gave him the ‘2’ and the ‘1’ and he only took the ‘1’, which is 12 cents. He certainly could have taken the 3 Y, which I clearly was prepared to pay. When I indicated (thumbs up) that I enjoyed it, he seemed very pleased. What a lot of work for 12 cents. This also included tea, soy sauce, hot chilies, and a table on which to eat it.

Hopefully you are all having adventures of your own. I’m eager to see Kashgar and it’s environs—until next time.

Carol

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