The Long Wait
There are two ways to get from Almaty to Urumqi in China... a 24 hour bus journey via the one of the most corrupt borders in the world, and a longer, more expensive but much more comfortable 40 odd hours by train. One of the reasons why it takes so much longer by train is that Kazakhstan and China have different railway gauges. Rather than get the passengers to change trains you get one, (Chinese) train all the way and when you get to the border they jack each carriage up and change the wheels. This was something that we wanted to experience and so the train it was. The rail link between the two countries has only been opened for a few years and the special trains that run on it are still fairly new, with comfortable beds and good AC. Kazakh scenery reverted to desert with occasional salt lakes. When we were getting close to China the scenery changed for a time to include barren but multi coloured mountain ranges - very spectacular.
Unfortunately we were destined to miss the highlight of being on the train when the wheels were changed on account of us getting arrested by the Kazakh border police...
To be fair we were sort of expecting this to happen as we hadn't been given an immigration card when entering the country, whereas everybody that we met had. We had actually asked for one but were assured that they were no longer required. Rather than try to sort this out in Almaty (with the possibility of extra expenses) we thought that we would deal with it at the border as at worst we would just have to bribe the guard. We were marched off to the police station to be interrogated, but we just kept to our story (not hard as it was the truth) that we had asked for a card but were not given one. The policeman was quite polite, we kept speaking in English (which he didn't speak - always good for a laugh) discussing where we had been, how great we thought Kazakhstan was, and how small England was when compared to this vast country (but not as small and insignificant as Italy - I guess that the last tourists without a card were Italians - and probably not as patient as we were!). At one point I think he thought about asking for a 'fine', but was obviously unsettled by two middle aged foreigners babbling on in a language he couldn't make out. After about 30 mins, and a bit of consultation with his immigration chums it was decided that the Kazakh border officials were at fault (they were), probably mistaking our tourist visa for a transit one, and that we were free to go. Very exciting stuff but a shame as when we emerged the train had been taken to have it's modifications done without us.
It finally took about 5 hours to process everyone through the Kazakh side including a pretty aggressive customs check (sweaty backpacks excluded though!!). 20 mins later we arrived in China to the strains of the Chinese national anthem and policemen standing to attention outside each carriage. The actual border itself was something akin to the old iron curtain in Europe with watchtowers, searchlights, barbed wire etc - we were very definitely entering a completely different culture here. The Chinese actually had English speaking border staff (Lucy - possibly the nicest and definitely the most polite border guard in the world!) who first welcomed us to China and then marched all three of us westerners off for another interrogation as to what we wanted at such an obscure part of the country. Fortunately they chose to speak to Anne who only knew the major destinations we are planning to visit (Xi'an, Chengdu, Shanghai etc) and not me or the other chap who would probably have put our foot in it and mentioned somewhere sensitive. Once all that was done with we were given the opportunity to have a Chinese beer (top value at 3 yuan - about 45p) a bottle and sent on our way. The whole process from arriving at the Kazakh side to leaving the Chinese post took just over 8 hours.
The following morning saw us arrive at Urumqi and a whole new world. To say that it was a sudden culture shock would be an understatement. It seems since we were last here (5 years ago) China has got brighter, brasher, noisier, faster, more polluted - and more expensive. Urumqi is actually a bit of an anomaly, a big city of over 2 million people (after Kazakhstan that in itself was a shock) stuck out on the edge of the Takliamaken Desert beneath the snow capped Tian Shen mountains it looked very out of place. We were told that the name means 'Tranquil pastures' - something it very definitely is not. It was very exciting to be back in China though, with all of the neon signs, the very 'interesting' food, and the general attitude of the Chinese - a taste that we acquired on our last visit. We stayed for just one night in the city, because although we have now reached the last country of our trip, in terms of miles we are still only just over halfway across. One of Urumqi's claims to fame is that it is the furthest inland city in the world.
China has it's own booming tourist industry, and any foreigner visiting the country inevitably gets drawn into visiting the numerous 'Scenic Points' and 'Cultural Experiences'. These are not always to western tastes - for example our next stop at Tien Chi, a very pretty lake (literally Heavenly Lake) set in stunning mountain scenery, was accompanied by thousands of Chinese tourists, hundreds of souvenir shops, and extremely loud music blasting across the lake from the numerous trip boats. It didn't take long to loose them though, and after a short walk along the lake shore we arrived at a small Kazakh village consisting solely of about 15 yurts (sort of tents for nomads - type it into google if you haven't heard of them). We spent the next night in the village in our own personal yurt - well actually we had just borrowed it from one of the locals. The inhabitants have sussed out that they can make a lot more money from renting out accommodation to foreigners keen on getting an authentic nomad experience than they ever could from rearing sheep. Thus we were accompanied by 4 other English, 1 American, 12 Germans and no less than 15 Dutch! These later two groups were on expensive 'Silk Road' tours - I can't help thinking that if I'd laid out 4 or 5 thousand pounds for a month on the silk road I'd expect a bit more than a few carpets on the floor of a tent. Still they seemed happy enough - at least the Dutch did when they managed to occupy the sole table at the expense of the Germans!
We spent our time at Tien Chi trekking around the lake and chasing giant rabbits (really). It got pretty cold at night which curtailed social interaction a bit, but we were at over 2000m. Our next stop was the complete opposite in terms of altitude and temperature at least. Turpan lies at 80m below sea level and is nicknamed 'The Oven' on account of the summer temperatures which they claim sometimes exceeds 50 degrees C. Mind you - in winter it gets down to minus 30 so the natives do get a bit of everything. By clever timing, our visit in late September found the temperature to be just right.
Turpan is a grape growing region, there are vineyards everywhere. One of the main streets through the town has been pedestrianised and covered with vines on trellises which makes for very pleasant walking even in the heat of the day. We really only came to Turpan for a rest and to prepare for the big desert crossings ahead. We visited the ruined city of Jiaohe - a real hidden gem about 20 km west of the town. This looked like something out of 'Star Wars' - all crumbling mud brick set on a barren plateau. We also caught a bus to the edge of town and just set off into the vineyards - a very nice slice of rural China. The local Uigher people were exceptionally friendly - we couldn't walk far without being offered handfuls of dried grapes (raisins? - but still green) by people sitting outside their houses. Possibly the most fun was the night food market. This was the first week of Ramadan, so all of the practicing muslims (I would guess about half of the population - maybe more) would pile into the food market after sunset to break their fast. All manner of foodstuffs were to be had - sheeps heads, spicy noodles, shish kebebs and so on - all washed down with excellent local beer (only for us heathens) or cups of steaming jasmine tea.
We stayed in Turpan for 3 days and then set off across the Gobi Dessert heading for Dunhuang. We made the trip in two stages, stopping for one night in the conveniently located oasis city of Hami. There is now a 'motorway' across the dessert so this is no longer the adventure it once was. The road is pretty bumpy though, and the dessert scenery easily the most beautiful we have seen to date. The second day of the desert trip was my birthday - a very good way to spend it.
Dunhuang is the site of a group of 500 or so Buddhist cave temples (actually at Magao just out of town). I have seen cave temples before in India - but nothing like these. The frescos - some of which are 1500 years old - are mostly in excellent condition and are absolutely stunning. Most of the artifacts that were found there have been looted (there are lots in the British Museum and in the Louvre) but many of the statues remain in situ with colourful decoration. There are hundreds of temples (and thousands of tourists) but this is still one of the best visits of the trip so far.