|Home > Journal > Beijing Language and Culture University, 14th April 2000 - or in Pinyin (Romanised Mandarin Chinese) Si yue shi si hao liang qian nian!!|
Since this news will cover nearly two months and several countries, I'm dividing it into sections so that you can jump STRAIGHT DOWN to the place you want to, if you like -- and this approach also should suit our 'new look' website. But I will also try to be a little bit concise.
No, there is no piped music to wake us all up in the mornings in the student dormitory buildings (I am sharing a small but comfortably furnished clean room complete with shower, phone, fridge and TV for $8 a day), but there could well be. Sometimes the loudspeakers, strategically positioned all around the campus, crackle into life during the mid-morning break as we chomp on steamed pork and garlic dumplings (great for the breath), and produce either happy happy music or some announcements in Chinese that I don't understand -- the other day it sounded like an aerobics instructor had accidentally hit the airwaves!
My 12 week course
To help that lightning along, I've signed up for a couple of afternoons a week of extra classes in reading and writing which start next Tuesday. For recreation (I HOPE!) I am going to do a course in Chinese painting and calligraphy. And ALSO (wait for it...) a month of early morning (6 am) Taiji (Tai Chi) which is starting on Monday!!! Am I the same girl you used to know? Maybe not..... Would you believe me if I said that I am swimming every other day? Right by the campus is a LOVELY 50 metre pool with almost no-one in it and some quite nice-looking lifeguards, not to mention the jacuzzi, sauna, steam room, lovely showers with shampoo, foam wash, the pink fake Nike flip-flops and the soft bright orange towels! Yes, I relish the whole experience after months of grime (I am also obsessively putting clothes into the washing-machine on my landing the moment they get dirty). And having walked lots almost every day since October I really don't like spending even a day sitting down all the time. Which brings me on to my journey from Bukhara, where I last wrote some news, to Beijing.
After staying with the family I made friends with in Bukhara, I took
a taxi to Urgench in the west of Uzbekistan (6 hours), as (I was told)
there weren't any buses running at this time of year. Fine, except that
the driver insisted on stopping to pick up extra fares all the way along,
despite the hefty sum I was paying him (equal to $25 on the black market,
which is a huge amount in Uzbekistan), and that he went via the road that
crosses back into Turkmenistan to drop one of them off, even though I
had said (before he picked up that particular passenger, and he definitely
understood me) that I no longer had a valid visa for Turkmenistan. The
Uzbek border guards started scratching their heads when we re-entered
Uzbekistan (how they love to see a Westerner), and they gleefully noted
that my passport didn't have an entry stamp even though I had supposedly
come from Bukhara. (Coming in to Uzbekistan on the train from Charjou/Turkmenabat
three days earlier the
From Urgench I took a day-trip to the town of
I went on a day trip to Timur's birthplace
Despite the shaky stomach, I took a
I had an amusing time in Fergana itself. I made 'friends' with three
The schoolgirls could not believe that I really had to leave, but Kyrgyzstan was beckoning. I took a bus to Andijan, a town that is supposedly renowned for police that are hostile to tourists, and jumped immediately on a bus to nearby Osh (that actually dropped me at the border). The police saw my rucksack in the bus's luggage compartment, and wanted a 'long discussion' back in their little room; but the bus was going and I was going too. So I pointed out the valid visas in my passport, and said goodbye with a smile and climbed back on the bus, kicking the guy out of my seat that he had hopefully taken. Off we went.
Once in Osh, I audaciously went to find Juje Luba, a 67-year old Korean
Kyrgyz woman that I had met in the car to the Fergana valley. She had
given me her address and told me to visit when I came to Osh, but I think
the rest of the family got something of a shock when I turned up at their
flat like some monster with my heavy bags and dirty clothes, and she had
to explain me to them. The Koreans make up a sizable minority in Kyrgyzstan.
They only speak Russian, having (I understood) been transplanted to Central
Asia by Stalin from Russia's far south east border next to North Korea
during the 1950s. Now they must learn Kyrgyz to assimilate in post-independence
Kyrgyzstan. The first problem was to communicate with me, though. Luba
is the eldest of four, and her nephew Sasha has been taking English night
classes for a month, and was able to speak good English when he came along
later. Until then, his 12 year old sister
I visited Osh's famous and very lively bazaar, and climbed up the metropolitan mountain, Takht-e-Soleiman (Persian for 'Solomon's Throne'), having been unable to get to the mountain of the same name in north-west Iran in February due to the inclement season. But this was just the beginning of mountains for me. It is possible to fly from Osh to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, in 15 minutes for about $15. But getting tickets is apparently difficult, and that trip involves entrusting your life to a 'babyflot' domestic airline -- not necessarily entirely safe -- and you don't get such a good feeling of the amazing mountains between the two cities. So I decided to take the 15 hour car journey instead.
Incredibly, we made it to Bishkek in 18 hours. As we left the valley, the lower ranges looked like folds in heavy white velvet, and we drove up the red rock canyon of the Lower Naryn river to the Toktogul reservoir, a mass of water that takes 3 hours to get round. Half way around it, the first tyre burst suddenly and completely -- in total tatters. No problem: we had a toilet break and a gaze at the scenery as the spare wheel was put on. On we went. A few hours later, high up on the Alabel Pass, there was that psssst sound, and the second tyre went down. I did more admiring of the scenery (we were just getting into the 'real' mountains) while the driver eventually removed the inner tube (having got a passing car to drive onto the tyre to deflate it properly), and more time passed as he found someone to sell him a 'spare' inner tube. My penknife got glory digging the offending pointy metal out of the outer tyre (the sun had gone down by now and it was getting dark fast). After putting the wheel back together, and pumping up the new tube for an inane thirty minutes, he checked it and found a faulty valve. And no more cars were passing that were willing to stop in the dark on the mountain to provide another one. My feet were beginning to feel colder than they have ever done! So back he went to the original punctured inner tube, and performed some very creative puncture repair activity involving a small metal disk. We'd been at the roadside at least two hours when eventually it was done. I pulled my sleeping bag out of the boot and spread it round me, removing my boots, and feeling glad to have lugged it round throughout the whole trip till then, and slept -- because by now I could not see the mountains anyway as it was pitch black -- until we stopped a couple of hours later for greasy hot thin soup that in those conditions tasted absolutely superb. The metal disk pincer held till we reached Bishkek, and I was deposited at the flat of Juje Luba's sister in law at 2 am, where I was cooked two fried eggs.
I spent a few lovely days by the eastern part of Lake Issyk Kul (which means hot lake, so called because it is very deep and never freezes over), based in a town called Karakol. It was a bit too soon for the tourist season, so I did not get to see Kyrgyzstan's famous flower-covered slopes (one reason to return in July); but I was the first tourist of the year to go on a trek -- up to a valley called Altyn Arashan which is famed for its hot springs. (In the summer, this walk can be covered by a jeep, but it was too early to do a 'proper' trek).
Because of the risk of avalanches at this time of year (we passed one very fresh one on the way up), I had two guides -- two 17-year-old best friends who are just now completing a special 'mountain guide' school. One Russian Kyrgyz, one Uzbek, so they were rather disparaging of native Kyrgyz mountain skills (unlike, say, in Nepal, where all the guides and porters are local). More likely the local Kyrgyz haven't tapped into the tourist opportunity, methinks, as the travel agencies are run by Russians and the native Kyrgyz are still more concerned with grazing their herds on the mountains than with taking tourists up them.... But the boys were very friendly and took good care of me, and we made it up in just over 4 hours, which was not bad since it was snowy all the way. After a meal at the home of the couple that take weather readings and radio them off to the local meteorological service, the three of us lounged in the small pools built to collect hot spring water as it comes up from the earth. André and Taxir were impressed when I followed their lead in going out of the steamy hut, past the year-round croaking frogs in the warm stream outside, and immersing myself in the icy stony river Arashan before racing back up to plunge into the hot pool.... During the journey down the next day, it snowed most of the way, but my guides sang and sang and we knew it was not far.
Back down by Issyk-Kul I had visited
In Karakol I met a lovely English student called Jalil
There had been more breakdowns in the car on the way to Karakol, so I decided to risk the local bus service for the overnight trip back to Bishkek to collect my Chinese visa. Not sure how wise that was. It left an hour late, having run three services into one in order to fill the bus. This was ok as it meant more time to chat to Jalil and Asel who had come to see me off. What was more worrying was the crash as a window broke on the side opposite me after we had been going for about an hour, and small bits of glass were everywhere! We had been going through a town, and (I think) some stupid youth had decided to throw something at the bus. The bus stopped very fast, the driver and attendant ran out and collared the culprit, and he wailed for his Mama while we drove him to the local police station! The hole was covered with what seemed to be a hypothermia blanket, which was very noisy but seemed to keep out the icy blasts! Only a further two hours or more waiting while a tyre was changed later on in the trip -- we didn't have to get out.... and somehow we managed to arrive in Bishkek by 8 am! They must factor all these breakdowns in to the journey length estimates!
A far more modern (but actually less comfortable) bus took me the following night from Bishkek to Shymkent in Kazakstan, having successfully collected my Chinese visa and spent more hours walking round Bishkek munching on fried butter beans -- but on both days I was there all the museums were closed. In Shymkent I jumped in the first minibus of the day going north to Turkistan (having to pay in dollars (2) since I had no Kazak Tengge), and halfway there realised that the clocks had moved on an hour when we crossed the border.
A couple of men in the minibus decided (to my joy!) to help me find my
hotel -- the only one listed in my 5 year old guidebook. We found it,
but it had shut down. We were directed to another one down the road. Maybe
operational, but no one was answering our bangs on the door. So then my
self-appointed middle-aged guardian paid for a taxi to take us to a hotel
that was running, and left me there with a long message written in Russian
that I have yet to decipher. Not sure I should publish it on the site,
as who knows what it says! Turkistan boasts yet another fine market, and
The Russian women in my compartment were not too pleased to see me invading their established nest, and I spent most of that 20 hours relegated to my top bunk. But the journey was interesting, because it was like a shopping trip -- except that the vendors came to us. A little food and drink, but mostly clothes, toiletries, drugs, moneychangers, votive items, toys and household goods! The women would disdainfully dismiss most vendors until something caught their eye, and then they would bargain very hard and note down their expenditure in small books. Dove soap was clearly valued. One of my companions bought a belt that she was told had been made in Germany -- got to be good! I felt far too naive to go commercial under their glares, so just stared at them from above.
Train travel is not necessarily the fastest way around, but it beats
all others in terms of comfort and safety! I'd got my first taste of it
on the whole trip when I travelled to Mashhad overnight from Tehran, and
then getting through Turkmenistan where I had some excellent
Almaty like Tashkent is a
I stared out excitedly at undecipherable characters and proper street lighting once we got to Alashankou, on the Chinese side of the border.
We arrived in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China's westernmost province, in blizzard conditions the next morning (March 20th). My cold was still embarrassingly heavy, so I spent a lot of the day sleeping at Sofya's home. Sofya's sisters cooked me tasty Uighur noodle soups, and Memet took me out to change money. I got him an e-mail address. Since the weather was so bad, I decided not to visit Xinjiang now but to get back on another 35-hour train the following evening; this time to Lanzhou, in Gansu province -- the beginning of 'inner China'.
Having visited so many amazing places since arriving in Istanbul, at
times over the last five months the original attraction of China has seemed
very faint. But in Lanzhou (not a major tourist stopping point) it all
came back to me. Here were people,
I got a shock too when ANOTHER WESTERN TOURIST got onto MY CARRIAGE --
having not seen another tourist (except a couple of Germans at Timur's
tomb in Samarkand) since Chantal had left me in Tehran! We went together
to a hotel in Xi'an near the station, picking the tout we liked the best
(rather different to my Turkistan experience!), and then out to visit
the famed Terracotta Warriors. I spent three days in Xi'an, seeing the
My first day in Beijing was quite surreal. There was a crazy wind blowing,
and lots of broken glass and flying hats; and the women were cycling against
it with their whole heads covered in finely patterned silk scarves, like
some Magritte painting. Nicki arrived the next day and we had a lovely
week together: seeing the dead Mao and Beijing's other famous attractions;
getting to know the city; meeting a few people; spending a day climbing
round one of the un-touristed Great Wall spots near Beijing; and we took
a short (7 hours by train -- NOTHING!) trip to Datong from which we visited
fantastic Buddhist carvings at the
I am still getting used to sitting still -- realising I probably should start making an effort to be sociable -- who knows how long I'm going to end up in this city? But I'm not entirely motionless (not counting all the swimming!): there will be a break for at least 4 days, and maybe 7 (the newspaper and one teacher says 7), at the start of May, so I want to get back on the overnight trains alone to visit at least Suzhou and Nanjing, and maybe also Shanghai and Hanghuashan and climb a mountain there.
Many thanks are due to Richard for his mammoth effort to give the site a face-lift this school holidays, which has included us getting a new hosting service. This paves the way for future versions of the site. We hope to improve the versatility of access to and navigation around the site's content, especially the photos. Eventually (but not quite yet!), you should be able to see just the photos, restaurant napkins, bus tickets and hand-drawn maps that YOU want to see, and easily!!! No need to mention that Richard is only just 14 and is entirely self-taught. Apologies for areas where we still need to fix bugs and improve things; and please let RICHARD know (preferably with your browser version) when things seem not right, excessively slow, or broken.
Finally, MANY Congratulations for making it to the end of this news edition!
I'll send more news (can you bear it?) once I know a bit more Chinese.
Letters to the
Lots of love to all,
|The tiles on the journal pages are from a tomb in the Shahi Zinda in Samardkand, Uzbekistan. |Click here to view the original photo||