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.

Flight: Urumqi to Kashgar

Flight: China Southern Airlines CZ6886
Depart Urumqi 14:45, Arrive Kashgar 16:30 (1h 45m).
Distance: 1470km, Fares: 550 RMB/person.

Taxi from Kempinski Hotel to Aiport: 40 RMB. If you manage your time earlier, you can catch shuttle bus from here to Airport for 10 RMB. And I also think I have read somewhere that it’s free if you’re flying Southern China Airlines. Bus frequency is however only every 30minutes.

Continuing the run again, but we’re done with two long trains and now we’re so relieved that we’re taking flight finally, and we’re reaching our destination soon! :D Although we feel a little upset for missing shuttle bus in Kempinski Hotel (which otherwise would save us 20 RMB instead of paying 40 RMB for greedy taxi driver). Anyways. The Urumqi airport is actually rather far from the city, I guess 30 minutes. And the airport has 3 separate terminal buildings, and China Southern Airlines serve in Terminal 3.

 

The luggage check-in went smoothly, but when it comes to getting into the boarding gate, the security screening is pretty tight. We are told to take off our shoes, and they scan the whole body until the foot palm! And Az happened to have forgotten putting his Swiss Card in the hand luggage, which the officers need to dig into his backpack several times taking out things after things to re-scan in the screening conveyor (for I guess, 5 times!). Finally after we help them find the Swiss Card of out the backpack, they told Az to check-in the backpack as cargo luggage, which he went alone leaving me wait in the boarding area alone. It was our fault for not checking in the first place, oh well.

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Meeting Nazar in Urumqi

Bus no 10 from Urumqi Railway station to Grand Bazar: 1 RMB. The bus can easily be found in front of the railway station. Tell the driver you’re going to Bazar, because this bus isn’t stopping exactly in front of Bazar. So the driver would alert you when it reaches the place you should get down (it’s underneath a flyover), where you should cross the road and take 5 minutes walk to the Bazar.

Well, rewind to the time we were still in Chengdu – Lanzhou train. I sent sms to Nazar, an Uyghur CouchSurfer we were supposed to meet in Kashgar informing our whereabouts and expected time to reach Kashgar, but surprisingly, he replied telling he was coming to Urumqi! It was an emergency family matters, and although we felt a little disappointed (coz now we’re not going to meet CS buddy in Kashgar) we agreed to meet him during our transit in Urumqi before our flight to Kashgar. In the meantime, I have come to know Hasnat from a Xinjiang Facebook page, he’s a Pakistani Medical student in Urumqi. Since Hasnat might have class this morning and we only have a few hours to spend in Urumqi, we had to meet Nazar first since he’s going to help us about Kashgar and getting a permit to go to Karakul Lake.

Xinjiang International Grand Bazar, or sometimes I came across in internet it’s called Erdaoqiao Bazar. It’s a huge building complex with a little Central-Asian/Turkish essence in the architecture. Especially the minaret part. Deciding whether to enter the bazar first or have lunch, we have to admit that we’re getting hungry. We’ve been eating Maggi noodle and Tesco instant chicken curry all times throughout 3 days on journey and it’s time to get real food again.

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Train journey: Lanzhou to Urumqi

Train T197 Depart Lanzhou 11:00. Arrive Urumqi 07:35 (actual arriving 9:30 – 2 hours late! Total 22.5 hours). Distance: 1892km
Hard sleeper bottom 390 RMB
Hard sleeper upper 365 RMB

The second train. Before we come to China, we had in mind that it’s too much to ride 2 long journey trains in a row for 3 days.. I thought we would suffer bored and got nothing to do. I even wanted to bring 3 books to read in train, plus LOMA notes that I was going to take exam in May. But we have come to rather enjoy the train ride (of course, there’s boring times too) and it does feel like faster than we thought. I am not even reading books (except checking Lonely Planet PDF chapter). We’re almost there! :) I mean, it’s survivable.

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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?

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