Train from (dusty) Kuqa to Urumqi

The next morning, we woke up in the sappy hotel room seeing this view! *not amused*.. although, good news is the weather seems to have improved a little and we’re so in hope that our train will NOT be cancelled again today!

After long sleep and intense shower, we checked-out Traffic Hotel at 1pm Beijing time (11am local time), and headed straight away to Ihsan Rstaurant (again!), and it’s only now we realized that the restaurant was actually located just across the road from Traffic Hotel/ Bus station. The waitress lady yesterday was surprised to see us again (as it had been understood to here that we were leaving yesterday) and it was rather difficult to explain with sign language – all the hassle we had yesterday – and I didnt know how we managed it, probably showing her our new train ticket – for Urumqi this evening – would work. It was lunch time at Ihsan restaurant (unlike yesterday) so they started having lamb kebab!

The waitress lady seems to know us well at having trouble ordering food =.= so she instantly showed us some food she was bringing from kitchen – that people in other table had ordered – as if asking “would you like to try something like these too?” , which is, yes, perfect! The noodle with veggie+meat gravy is “Yirlik Alahida Laghman”,  12 yuan, and the fried pasta is “Ding Ding Souman”, 10 yuan. Should I say these are the most marvelous food we have ever had in Xinjiang other than lamb kebab? Probably we didnt get to eat in proper restaurant like this in Kashgar because street food were already more than enough to feed us, but here in Ihsan Restaurant, they’re surprisingly affordable yet delicious!

And that’s the picture of Az with the chef! :) We got to spend hours in the restaurant killing time until our train time, as we didnt plan to walk anywhere anymore today. The waitress lady came to us many times giving the best service (I asked some sugar to put in the chinese tea – which of course was weird to their sugarless-tea culture, and of all words I could think of, finally ‘sakar’ – sugar in Arabic, happens to give her the best hint!).

She was trying to ask if we had a baby, and then telling that she has one of 2-months and showed us a photo of her with husband and baby. And when we showed us our Marriage card (issued in Kelantan) we were amused that she could read Jawi (old Malay script using Arabic alphabet) on the card saying “Majlis Agama Islam Kelantan” fluently. Their marriage cert in China on the other hand, is in a form of booklet like passport, and she showed us hers too.

The waitress lady giving her welcome greetings, all the way in Kuqa!

It was around 2pm local time when we left Ihsan restaurant, but before that, we asked to do jama prayer there, so the waitress lady gave us to use their common room. Not the most convenient because it’s next to kitchen and their prayer place is also like a storage room. But we got prepared in case it would be crowded in Train station today and would be awkward to do prayer in waiting lounge like yesterday.

Anyhow. Our Kuqa stop might have been pointless in a way that we didnt really go to visit anything, not even the market or mosque, but mostly wasting time in railway station, Ihsan Restaurant and Traffic Hotel, but that’s our version of Kuqa story!

Arriving at railway station, it was crowded as expected, because I guess many people were also stranded like us yesterday after train cancelled, PLUS many groups who were supposed to be flying (yes, Kuqa has an airport) couldnt proceed because flights might still not be running thanks to bad weather, and had to change to riding trains last minute.

At the platform we met a group of German travelers with a Chinese tour guide, they have just done desert trip in Korla and heading to Turpan.

Watch the video to see our double-decker train to Urumqi! I have read before that Xinjiang has double decker trains but least we expected that we got to ride one!

This is our third train, and the only soft sleeper (323 yuan, upper berth). Earlier, we had hard sleeper for route Chengdu- Lanzhou and Lanzhou-Urumqi, which was perfect either. The soft-sleeper is a little luxury, it’s in closed cabin it even has this silk-road theme curtain! We had upper berth both, and luckily the lower berth passenger only came in a couple of hours after Kuqa, so until then, we had all the cabin for ourselves! :) Like usual, we like to walk around to other coach and now see the interior of the double-decker car! The train will take 18 hours to reach Urumqi (880km)

Kuqa disaster, and Ihsan Restaurant

The bus dropped us by the road side somewhere in town, which we only realized much later that there was the bus station across the road (hence stopping here). We quickly noticed something obviouly wrong about this place right now – Kuqa was in heavy haze/dust/smoke/whatever you call it. After picking up our luggage, the bus then left to continue the journey to next destination (Kuqa apparently is a stop in the middle).

We were clueless where to start at this place, and we need to look for somewhere to put our luggage before probably going to walk around the town. But the heavy haze doesn’t look promising so we randomly entered a restaurant by the road side, with Uyghur signboard (you can find a few in between a row of Chinese restaurants). It’s Ihsan Restaurant.

Finally I found the best soup noodle (it’s called “Tangman”) in Kuqa! Only 4 yuan per bowl, and we had two. I just went to check what people were eating at other tables and pointed as if saying “I want this food!” to the waitress, who was probably wondering “who are these people with huge backpack who dress and look like Uyghur but couldnt speak a word in Uyghur.. “. And they also have delicious manta, 1yuan per piece.

We told them that we’re going to train station by showing train ticket for Turpan this evening, but before that we want to see the Kuqa mosque and town, so the waitress lady told us the number of bus to take and which direction.

Az with Mr Ihsan, the restaurant owner. This restaurant is very recommended by us! And the waitress lady, which we assume that she’s daughter of Mr Ihsan.

We managed to catch a bus going to town (which I refer to the place probably we can see market and mosque). And it was then when we realized that we HAD LEFT OUR SHOES IN THE SLEEPER BUS FROM KASHGAR!! =.= I know, it was my fault for taking them inside bus to put underneath berth while Az already had tied them to our luggage in bus compartment, but it was such a hurry when we got down bus this morning that we didnt double check our stuff! We’re now left with our crocs only, with still one week of journey to complete.

Town bus fare is 1 yuan as usual, but in Kuqa the bus conductor gives ticket! (in Kashgar you just simply put the money into box in front of driver and that’s it – no ticket). Oh, and yes, they have bus conductor here (person who issues ticket), and it’s a young lady (the one with black skirt and scarf!) When we told her that we’re going to train station afterwards, she instantly helped to write something in Uyghur in our book so we could show it to our next bus going to train station (which we understood that we need to change bus at some point).

Watch the video on the bus ride showing dusty Kuqa! Arriving the so-called town, it was really “sleepy” as described, and dusty air makes us uncomfortable to actually walk around. We couldn’t find any place to put our luggage here, so we decided to go immediately to train station and see.

Bus to train station doesn’t really stop in front of the terminal building, but at a junction of main road so you have to ask around fellow passengers and let them know you’re going to train station. From bus drop place, we had to walk for 300 m towards the building.

Az keeps stressing that the dusty air is too serious and it doesn’t seem right to go around outdoor at this condition. I on the other hand was trying to take it easy as if it might be common for Kuqa (I have read some cities in China have quite bad air pollution index, only I didnt expect to experience it here at this time) and afterall, everyone seems to survive in this dusty air.

I mean, it would be a waste if we stop by a new place but not go  sightseeing it, am I right?

When we arrived at the train station, we still couldn’t find a place we could leave the luggage. Kuqa train station is the least busy train station we have been in China. The waiting lounge was mostly empty, and we could even make our temporary shelter here. Then again, probably it’s not within the hours train is stopping, hence the few people. Az suggested us to stay here until the train comes, but it’s 6 hours to go! :-(

After hours killing the time at the waiting lounge, Az finally got tired seeing me sulking, so he suggested, “okay, let’s go to the town, but if you get sick, dont blame me..”

Anyhow. Az might be right, the dusty air seems very unhealthy at this time, you can’t really ‘sightsee’ much coz everything in distant is almost invisible, covered by dusty air. We made a stop in the middle of the road and instead of exchanging bus to town, we went into a grocery shop instead to get some water, instant noodles and biscuits, then headed back to train station.

Two hours before our scheduled train, there was earlier train passing, and our train should be next, so we waited patiently while preparing our Milo and instant noodle. Suddenly a train officer came to us saying something in Chinese with a serious face expression, and when I said we dont understand Chinese, she still kept on talking. I thought that she had noticed us staying at the waiting lounge rather too long since morning and probably suspected us trying to overnight here, so I showed her our train ticket for Turpan that was coming in 2 hours. And she kept on stressing “Moua! Moua!”, shaking her head.

Panic, I made a call away to Ahmad, a CouchSurfer who will be our host in Turpan, telling him to talk to the train officer then translate to us. And to our shock, we’re told that our train today has been CANCELLED because of sand storm! That explains a lot the dusty air outside, but now we’re stranded here! We can’t even go sightseeing Kuqa yet we have to stay another day in here, isn’t that a total nightmare?? Shortly later, everyone at the waiting lounge was paying attention to TV news showing sand storm happening from the desert near Korla, and now many flights, trains and buses have been delayed and cancelled, while some having terrible accidents.

To summarize all the hassle and panic in two hours afterwards, we had to return our tickets at the counter to get refund and buy new tickets for tomorrow. And we couldnt get our money back because our ticket had been booked by Derek online and the only way is to ask Derek cancel and get refund for us. So we called Derek and got help, also asked him to talk to the ticket counter person when buying new ticket. And the only train safe to be running tomorrow departs at 4.30pm the earliest! Needless to say, only expensive soft-sleeper tickets available. OMG, we’re gonna waste another 24 hour in Kuqa for nothing! ~.~ Having no choice, we had to buy ticket directly to Urumqi (had to say sorry to Ahmad as we wouldnt have many days left anymore to stop by Turpan, which is pity, such tragedy on trip like this!).

We then took a taxi to go to town (bus from train station suddenly stopped operation!), and find ourselves a possible cheap hotel to overnight. Traffic Hotel is one of alternatives mentioned in LP book, and it’s located just next to the Kuqa bus terminal. At 120 yuan, the room is very basic and old, but we were too tired after the long day of disaster and all we need is a good, long sleep before leaving this town tomorrow.

Goodbye Kashgar, and Sleeper Bus to Kuqa

After we’re done packing and checking out hostel, we ran into this barber across the road. The guy has been waving at us from afar every time we passed by, so Az said that he *must* get a trim on our last day here. The moment we entered and gave salam, the barber immediately pointed at the huge world map on his wall as if asking where we’re from. It’s so funny, this so-called introduction. And what’s more intresting, on the map (I’m not too sure if it’s Uyghur or Arabic written), it even has detail points for our little hometowns, Kota Bharu and Malacca! :)

Now please watch the barber in action.. yes, finally a video!

Az managed to pray Zuhur at the Id Kah mosque before we left, and surprisingly, we came across Elvis again, on our last day! (read here how he saved us on our very first day in Kashgar). We said goodbye to him and he wished us best in our journey ahead, and plus, asked to pray for him in finding a wife! (you may contact him if interested. Hint: he’s featured in Lonely Planet book :P) This is the restaurant near Id Kah mosque we haven’t been in, it doesn’t look the prettiest and cleanest restaurant from outside but we can see lots of people inside so I guess it must be quite special. We decided to give it a try.

What attracted us is the lamb meat are marinated with spice, unlike our regular lamb kebabs that are usually best grilled as it is (original flavor). And it turns out our last lamb kebab in Kashgar taste the most splendid! This salty-spiced lamb kebab is 3 yuan per stick, although you may have to wait longer than usual (thanks to queuing customers).

We arrived at the bus terminal 1 hour before departure and surprisingly met William buying ticket for his journey tomorrow (also for Kuqa!). He was the fellow traveler from hostel that asked our advice for Karakul Lake, which he was heading to the day after we had returned to Kashgar, and now he told us his version of Karakul Lake story: He missed to stop at Karakul becuase he was asleep on the bus, and ended up in Tashkurgan! He even clumsily forgot the name of the lake when he wanted to head back to Karakul by hitch-hiking. We then exchanged showing photos we had taken in Karakul, and our rest of plans.He’s heading to Kuqa tomorrow, and proceed to Urumqi then hopping into bordering Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgysztan etc). I so wish that we had that much time and money to travel there as well since we’re already near.. *sigh*

This is our sleeper bus for Kuqa! And notice that drivers’ name and photos displayed at the windscreen! The bus journey from Kashgar to Kuqa (700km) will take around 14 hours (!) and we got upper berth (157 yuan) and lower berth (172 yuan) each. One of the main reasons we want to stop in Kuqa, apart from dividing 24 hour train journey into half and choose to travel at night only, is because we want to ride this sleeper bus for the first and only time! Despite that we’re not expecting much what to see in Kuqa (LP book describes it as a “sleepy town”) and travelers who stops in Kuqa usually want to visit Kizil Thousand Buddha Cave, 70km away from Kuqa town – which we’re not going, so we’re thinking to only waste time walking around town and see the mosque, before continuing train ride to Turpan at night.

We put our big luggage inside the bus compartment underneath, and both our shoes are tied to them (Az suggested us to wear crocs only while traveling in bus to ease the possibly need to take off shoes). I didnt like the idea of leaving our shoes attached to luggage, so I took them to bring inside the bus, and I properly put them underneath my berth. (You have to take off shoes inside the bus). The bus beddings are rather comfortable, but the sheets don’t seem to be washed for a while =.= And get ready to endure the smell of socks throughout the journey!

The bus departed late than scheduled by one hour, which we instantly fell asleep after a while. We were apparently the only foreigners on board.

It was around 4am when the bus made a stop for supper and toilet break somewhere near the highway. I dont know where this place could be, but it was quiet and at this hour cold wind was blowing hard. Some passengers stayed in bus while others were probably sitting here having a cup of hot tea. And yes, that’s our bus driver having a cigarette break!

We wanted to find somewhere we could do jama prayer and so we stepped further to nearby restaurant. Only using body language, we managed to get the permission and the restaurant owner delightfully brought us to a corner near the kitchen inside which is supposed to be their prayer place, complete with prayer rug.

After we’re done, we’d like to thank them by ordering some food in their restaurant. It helped that they have big menu with pictures on the wall so we could simply choose what we’d like. This is lamb soup eaten with rock-hard bread, and when I gave a sign that the bread was too hard to bite, the restaurant owner gave the instruction how to properly eat this thing: you have to break the bread into smaller pieces INTO the soup, so they’ll get soft! They seem to be overwhelmed by our sudden appearance at this odd hour, and despite the language barrier, we felt so welcome by their friendliness and hospitality!

The bus continued the journey for a few more hours and when we woke up, it was already bright. It was around 10am when we arrived in Kuqa, and to our shock, the town was in a heavy haze.

Xinjiang: Places we visited (and not)

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, being China’s largest region and located in the Far West, it borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and obviously the home to many ethnic groups descendants from neighboring countries and ancient Turkic kingdoms. Probably this what has made us pull all effort to visit this colorful land, apart from wanting to get mesmerized by snow capped mountains and taste the world’s softest, juiciest grilled lamb ever. Here’s a summary of places:

1) Urumqi

The capital of Xinjiang and main connector between Xinjiang and other region (and some Central Asian countries) by air, and the city is far bigger than we had expected. Not being fan of big city, we dont find Urumqi very exciting. The Tianchi Lake is pretty, but seems enough to spend a few hours there. It’s been very touristy anyway. I dont find anything amazing about the Grand Bazar either, despite looking like an icon of building from China Silk Road time. We have spent around 3.5 days in Urumqi including transit, which actually could be shorten it to 2 days or not visiting at all.

2) Kashgar

Although Kashgar also turned out to be a rather bigger city than we had imagined (no quite such views people riding donkeys..) but more than half of Kashgar is still purely blended with Uyghur culture, Old Town, exotic food, cattles and easygoing people. We spent around 5 days in Kashgar (includes Karakul Lake) and still couldnt get enough of it :) Az even wanted to change our train ticket last minute and skip Kuqa and Turpan so that we could stay longer in Kashgar, only they didnt allow us as the tickets were booked online by Derek and any changing isn’t possible done in train counter.

3) Karakul

It’s the most distant point we stretched beyond Kashgar (given that we didnt have time to proceed to Tashkurgan finally). Being here is like in a quiet, hidden paradise, watching views you had never imagined to see, all for yourselves without a sight of people. We spent one day and one night in here after 5 hours journey from Kashgar, and we would have wanted to stay for another night if our camera hadnt run out of battery (and if the night wasn’t THAT cold!)

4) Kuqa

We wanted to visit Kuqa as to divide 24-hour journey between Kashgar to Urumqi/Turpan by half, as I believe in traveling during night and spending the day time for sightseeing, whatever place it is. Thefore Kuqa was our chosen transit place to do a day sightseeing before continuing night train to Turpan. But tragedy came unexpectedly, the sleepy town was in heavy dust thanks to sudden sand storm from nearby desert. Because of bad weather, we missed the chance to go sightseeing (only stayed in train station and made a short city bus trip between station and town) and even worse, our train to Turpan was cancelled and we were stranded for another day in this town.

Places not visited

5) Tashkurgan

It’s a town 2 hours beyond Karakul Lake via Karakoram Highway. I read there’s nothing much of intrest about this town except that you can see Tajik ethnic people. The bus between Kashgar and Tashkurgan run only once daily which is the only means for you to have a ride and get down to Karakul Lake in the middle of the road. Were worried if the inbound journey to Kashgar bus can be full, so we thought of hitch hike(?) the bus going to Tashkurgan instead (when possibly some travelers get down at Karakul, and we get to have their seat).  It turned out that 1) We went to Karakul Lake 1 day later than itinerary 2) We could finally get the inbound bus with seat, thankfully. It’s just a matter of going with the flow.

6) Khunjerab Pass

Wanted to go here but not included in initerary because too far. It’s 4 hours beyond Tashkurgan and is actually the Pass entering Pakistan. I read that the mountain views are really majestic when reaching this place. If only we had more days…

7) Turpan

I still can’t belive we had to skip Turpan last-minute because of wasting a day in Kuqa after the train cancellation (afraid not having days left in Urumqi). I dont know what to expect, but Turpan is said to be a must-visit, then again its attractions are mostly ruins of old city, which we dont have much interest in afterall.

8) Kanas

I so wish we could include it in our itinerary, but when you’re planning to go southern-most to Kashgar, Tashkurgan whatsoever, it’s almost impossible to make another trip to the Nothern-most point of Xinjiang. Kanas has very beautiful pine tree lakes and villages bordering Kazakhstan and Russia, yet we have to be realistic that it could be too cold to visit there in April, and the pretty pictures you see on internet are taken in Autumn! Let’s hope there will be a next time to Xinjiang.

9) Ili

Didnt really think of visiting despite having pretty grassland, mountains and lakes. You can never visit ALL places in Xinjiang in a time (unless you’re in one month trip or longer). This place is located far northwest of Xinjiang, with high possible of being an untouched beuty.

Riding (73 hours) trains in China

Luckily it was not 73 hours in one go (otherwise I cannot imagine how horrible the long-trains syndrome would affect us). 73 hours in 4 trains, and still, they’re considered long-journey trains (21 + 22 + 16 + 14 hours). It was rather a good decision to switch trains in Lanzhou, although it’s not our place to even stay for a day, otherwise the only available direct Chengdu – Urumqi is 47 hours train.

Unlike Indian trains, we cannot book China train online. At least not by ourselves. Had to seek help from our CouchSurfing friend Derek (who earlier visited us in KL, and also hosted us in Chengdu) to book for us since the online booking is only available in Chinese. Still, we had to collect the actual ticket (in picture hold by Az) in the train station, therefore it’s still so much hassle, especially in the stations full of long queues, there’s no sign in English and if we’re lucky, there will be (only) one person who can speak English among the train officers.

We choose hard-sleeper class for our trains, and when after boarding, an officer would come to collect the tickets, give us cards with our berth number (and random pictures) to keep all the way during the journey. Right before we get off, the officer would turn up again to collect back the cards in exchange of our train tickets. We still dont know why this system is practiced.

Hard-sleeper coach has 3 bunk beds like this so 6 persons share a common area. Most of time we got one top bed and one bottom bed. It’s good as we can still sit together at the bottom bed during the day, and either of us would climb up to top bed for sleeping at night.

People who has middle bed usually sits at the bench in the aisle, or sometimes people in bottom bunk invite them to sit at their place for a while. Within a few hours, everyone seems to be comfortable to each other and talk and eat together. Although they can’t speak English, it’s so cool that they’re still speaking to us in Chinese and most of time we’ll reply with sign languages.

They usually bring several instant noodles (in big paper bowl!) as their breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the journey. As for us, we did pack some Tesco ready-to-eat food and sardines, Maggi mee, 3-in-1 Nescafe and Milo for our only means of food in the train.

There’s a restaurant if you like, but we werent sure if food is Halal and we could only buy plain rice from there to eat with our food. By the 3rd day of train, we managed to finish most of the food and turn our heavy luggage much lighter :)

The views from Chengdu to Lanzhou. Traveling by train spanning thousands kilometers does amaze us of how huge is the land of China!

Sometimes train would stop at a station where there will be 5-10 minutes break, so we had a chance to quickly jump out and get some fresh air while stretching our muscles.

And maybe, buy some breads and biscuits from the platform stalls before continuing the journey for another ten hours. Although, the breads aren’t really good.

Left picture: The full view of 3 bunk beds in hard-sleeper coach. Right: View from top bunk, showing the aisle in the train. There’s a space up there to put your luggage.

Now, this is our only soft-sleeper train! We had to buy the tickets during last minute when our expected Kuqa-Turpan train was cancelled due to sand storm, and the next Kuqa-Urumqi train only had soft-sleeper tickets available. I will put long and complete story later in the travelogue. Although very expensive, we had to admit that it was really neat, clean and comfortable, in a private lockable cabin. Well, it depends with whom you’re sharing the cabin with :) We were lucky  to have the whole cabin for ourselves for a few hours before old couple who sit in the bottom beds boarded in.

And this train (Kuqa-Urumqi) is double decker! :D I guess we wouldnt have taken this train if it was not because of the earlier train canceled (that we got really cranky about!). I cannot say the soft-sleeper and double decker train can pay off the time wasted in dusty Kuqa and missing the chance to visit Turpan, but at least, I guess by this time we’re already cooled-off :)

And this is our last train Xian to Chengdu, in the end of the whole trip before flying home. Note that were left off with our Crocs for the whole second week of trip when I made a biggest mistake for leaving our shoes in sleeper bus in Kuqa =.= And Az started blaming me all the way until we return home. Okaylah I know it’s my mistake, but now I already replaced your shoes, and let’s not talk about the forgotten shoes ever again, okay?