Thursday, January 17, 2008

China-Train Rides and Love Hotels

Having become accustomed to the chaos of transportation systems in Kazakhstan, the experience of taking the train from Urumqi to Kashgar was quite a surprise. We left for the station rather early, as we anticipated that there might be some problems finding the appropriate platform. Fortunately, we knew which bus went to the train station (having made a careful note the previous day so that we could get to the station without our guide). En route, we stopped at a small grocery store to buy food for the trip and also found an open street stall selling fresh Uyghur-style bread (flat bread encrusted with sesame seeds or onions—delicious and addictive). It was definitely better than the hotel breakfast!

Arriving at the station, we were required to show our tickets in order to enter the departure hall. However, tickets were clearly not necessary. The woman in line in front of me blatantly slipped the security guard a few banknotes and had no problem entering. The departure hall was quite large and very well organized. Most of the signs were in Uyghur and Chinese, but the train numbers were clearly marked. Each train had a specific waiting area, and it took just a few minutes to find the correct place for the train to Kashgar. As we waited for the train to begin boarding, we could not help but notice a large number of Chinese soldiers. Some were apparently receiving awards—they were the ones wearing large red flowers pinned to the front of their uniform. As it turned out, they were traveling back to Kashgar on the same train as us. However, they were in what is called “hard seat”, or standard train seats without the option of lying down and sleeping. Not too much fun on a train ride that is over 24 hours long!

We soon boarded the train, and through a combination of smiles and showing train tickets, we found the correct carriage and berths. We all had upper berths, in 2 adjoining coupes. Each coupe has four berths—two upper and two lower. The people with the lower berths also have a table to share, and a little more room. However, there are seats in the hallway that can be used by those in the upper berths. This was to be where we spent much of our waking time on the train. The train was scheduled to leave at 12:09pm (Beijing time, of course). Imagine our surprise when we pulled out of the station at exactly 12:09pm! That would NEVER happen in Kazakhstan.

I should note that the presence of three foreign women (especially when one has curly red hair, and another is 5’10”) is extremely noticeable in Xinjiang. The other people in our carriage were rather amused by us. People would peer around the side of their coupe to look at where we were sitting, and they would smile and laugh. Western tourists are apparently a novelty—and we provided entertainment for quite a few people. Except for the times when we were trying to eat, it was rather charming. I don’t recommend trying to eat a bowl of ramen noodles as people stare at you, though.

The scenery on the train ride was fascinating. The train first headed further east, to the city of Turpan. We were able to see the largest windfarm in China before the train turned south towards Kashgar. For several hours, we traveled through increasingly desolate landscapes. Periodically we would see the remnants of what looked to be either military outposts or detention camps that had clearly been torn down by human agency. It was not unusual to see camels, horses, sheep, and cows grazing near the train tracks. There were few signs of human habitation, though. Occasionally we would see smoke coming from the chimney of what looked (by western standards) to be an abandoned building. The route between Turpan and Kashgar also skirted the edges of the Taklamakan Desert (the 2nd largest shifting sand desert in the world) as well as the lower reaches of the Pamir Mountains (the “Roof of the World”). Unfortunately, we traveled through these areas after nightfall—but hoped to see them during daylight on the return trip.

The train ride was also enlivened by a constant barrage of music. This music was mostly classical and Chinese pop music, with periodic bouts of communist anthems. However, it was turned off promptly at 10:30pm—when the lights were turned off. Clearly, it was bedtime. So…we all climbed into our berths and did as directed. At 8am the next morning, the music was turned on again—a soft classical piece this time. Then, at 8:05, when we had had sufficient time to wake up (?), the lights were turned back on.

We arrived in Kashgar just after 1pm—and then had to navigate to a hotel and check in. All without speaking the language. Using Russian as a backup language would not be an option, either (as it could be in Urumqi). We were fortunate, though. One of the passengers on the train spoke some English, and had given us the names of several hotels with approximations of their rates. Armed with this information, we found a taxi driver to take us to one of these hotels. It was surprisingly easy to arrange for a room—which cost $25 per night for a triple (including breakfast). However, the first room that we entered was already occupied—so we were shown to another room to wait until they had a room ready for us.

Eventually, we got settled into our (correct) room and were ready to leave to find someplace to eat. Just a short walk from the hotel, we came across the Id Kah mosque (more on that in the next post…). The mosque is surrounded by a myriad of narrow streets, all with small shops and artisans crafting their wares. We found a “Uyghur fast food” restaurant (yes, that is what the signs in front of many of these restaurants say!) for lunch. The shashlik grilling out front looked fairly appetizing, and the sheep carcass hanging by the front door looked rather fresh—clearly a good choice! The restaurant did not have a menu (which turned out to be the case with all of the Uyghur restaurants we went to), so we used a combination of hand gestures and smiles to order. At least we could point at the shashlik and hold up three fingers!

When our food arrived, it was the usual langhman (noodles with some sort of meat). But…the waiter brought out something that we hadn’t seen before. It looked like some sort of spicy pepper sauce—so exciting after the lack of seasoning common to Kazakh food. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very spicy after all. The shashlik looked (and smelled) delicious when it arrived. It turned out to be a very special type of shashlik, too. This restaurant was clearly a step above most other Uyghur restaurants, since each skewer of shashlik contained a piece of organ meat.

After several hours of walking around the city (which I will describe in more detail later—there is so much to include that it really deserves its own post. Kashgar really is a magical city), we returned to the hotel. Earlier, we had seen a sign in the lobby for a foot massage, and we were all ready to relax and indulge ourselves for a little while. So…we went back to the hotel room, put on our tapotchki, and headed up to the 7th floor (where the sign said we could find a foot massage). When we got to the 7th floor, we were unable to find any type of spa, though. So we went to the 2nd floor—the sign had a misprint and actually said “foot massage—7nd floor”. Maybe the spa was on the 2nd floor, instead? But there was no access to the 2nd floor. Clearly, it was time to try to ask at the desk.

Fortunately, the hotel had one employee who spoke a modicum of English. Just picture the following conversation.

US: There is a sign for foot massages on the 7th floor, but we couldn’t find the spa.
ATTENDANT: Foot massage?
US: Yes, foot massage. We’ve been walking quite a bit and are tired. We’d really like a foot massage.
ATTENDANT: Oh, foot massage. That is a specialty service.
US: Okay, so do we need to make a reservation? Do they come to our room? What do we need to do?
ATTENDANT: Um…that is a specialty service, ONLY for men.
US: (turning bright red). Oh. (run to the elevator).

Clearly, we were at another love hotel. And after being in Kashgar for less than 6 hours, we once again tried to hire prostitutes. Who knew “foot massage” was code for…something else??? Judging from how our trip started, the next few days would be quite interesting!