BLCU, China


Hello Everyone from Beijing at last!

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.


And I'd Thought I Would Never Be a Student Again.....

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 started in earnest on Friday the 7th. Classes start at 8 am and go on till 12 every weekday. I'm finding it VERY tiring! My brain has not ground this hard since my first few months of work after university (even if my body did put the hours in after that time). Yet with 6 days of classes and homework to nourish my grey cells I only can just about say the following basic phrases: hello, how are you, inquire after the health of your mother, father, sisters, brothers etc, my name is Helen, I'm from Australia and also from England, may I ask your name, are you busy, do you know him, what is this, stewed beef, rice, coca cola and tea, and count! And this if I concentrate, yet I will certainly get some of the tones wrong so not be understood necessarily! I could read without help maybe 50% of those phrases, and I haven't yet had time to memorise how to write any of them without having the characters close at hand to copy (a task for this weekend). My group is the 'real' beginners group -- almost all of the white people! The other two beginners groups consist mostly of Koreans and Japanese, who can read and understand the meaning of Chinese characters but can't speak, and overseas Chinese who often can speak but can't read. The worst off in my class are five Colombians who between them can scarcely speak English never mind Chinese, and can not easily distinguish between D and T and B and P. But we are all progressing at lightning speed. Relatively speaking.

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.


From Bukhara to Osh

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 women in my compartment had beaten off the Uzbek border guards before they could stamp my passport, as I had told them how the Turkmen guards on exit had got some money out of me when I had gone into their little section at the end of the carriage....) Since the taxi driver knew the hassle was most definitely all his fault, I stood angrily with my arms folded outside this particular border hut while he talked to the guards inside it, and they talked to someone on the telephone, and a very drunk man lurched in and out, and the other fares in the tiny car hmmphed at the wait. After 15 minutes or so, my passport was returned with a smile and a 'sorry!'. Sometimes not being conciliatory with 'authority' seems to work just fine.

From Urgench I took a day-trip to the town of Khiva, which was once the centre of a Khanate (political region), resulting in a now very picturesque old town, complete with camel for tourists and excellent hats on sale, as well as my first sighting of fine painted wood ceilings, which I have subsequently found all the way to Beijing! After that, I used a bus service that was running, to travel overnight to Samarkand. I sat next to a woman who unfortunately spilled over into my seat, so I was spilling into the aisle and balanced on one hip most of the way; but she did feed me. The tomb of Timur (Tamerlane) can be found in Samarkand, as well as several incredible tiled religious schools (medressehs), resulting from Timur's westward ravage and subsequent local civilization as the region's very own 'Genghis Khan'. All were very impressive, rivalling Esfahan in Iran in terms of the variety and in the patterns on their small painted tiles. But I particularly loved the market in Samarkand, maybe above all the mosques that I visited, and I went back to it three times, buying fruit (got to watch out for the maggots!), nuts, and tasty large green radishes that I'd never seen before.

I went on a day trip to Timur's birthplace Shakrisabz from Samarkand, and then to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's very Russian capital. In Tashkent, I most enjoyed watching a performance of Swan Lake (for under a dollar!), but I also saw an opera, and ate a burger (never a wise thing) which disturbed my insides for the first time since Lebanon in early December!! But I didn't let that stop me going to a delicious Turkish restaurant with an American student that I met in the queue for visas at the Kyrgyz Embassy, though....

Despite the shaky stomach, I took a shared taxi to Kokand and spent a few days in the Fergana Valley (or basin), a part of Uzbekistan that like a prong on a jigsaw piece digs into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. After a day in Kokand, I based myself in Fergana, a town established by the Russians in the nineteenth century. From there I made trips to Margilan, a much older market town close by, and to Shakhimardan, a tiny Uzbek enclave in the mountains to the south that is surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. Shakhimardan has one of the world's several tombs belonging to Ali, Mohammed's son-in-law and the Shi'as' first caliph.

I had an amusing time in Fergana itself. I made 'friends' with three policemen who happened to be hanging round in the lobby when I arrived at the hotel. I subsequently went out to eat with them twice (they introduced me to a delicious dumpling and herb soup called pelmen), and they kept on popping up around the town like comedy characters. Communication was limited, though, due to my lack of Uzbek or Russian and their lack of English. I also got to know some high-school students, thus attended my first physics lesson in 14 years (couldn't follow the equations), and taught their computer teacher how to use Powerpoint. So those hours slaving over conference presentations were not in vain! One of the school-girls, Nigora, invited me to stay with her family, which I did for a night. I was plied with lovely gifts, including a piece of traditional multi-coloured Uzbek silk (normally worn as women's trousers or as men's sashes) and was fed plov and a tasty radish, egg and coriander salad. Plov is mounds of rice mixed with carrots and mutton, and is actually very delicious. It is Central Asia's special dish for guests and celebrations, so I've now had it several times!

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.


Kyrgyzstan: Breakdowns and Mountains

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 Anastasia (whom naturally I warmed to), and her 10 year old first cousin once removed, Stasik, got to practise what they have learnt at school.

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 local beauty spots, including Jeti Oghuz (meaning 'Seven Bulls', a red escarpment divided vertically into round ridges), and a Russian settlement called Pristan. Pristan Przhevalsk (its full name) has a museum, tomb and memorial to an interesting 19th-c. Polish-Russian explorer. Przewalski (Przhevalski) was the first 'outsider' in modern times to visit parts of eastern Siberia, Manchuria (north east China), Tibet and Central Asia, and had died at the lake where he had been recuperating, having contracted typhus shooting tigers while preparing for his 5th expedition! The expedition went on without him.

In Karakol I met a lovely English student called Jalil, and his elder sister, who WERE local Kyrgyz people (at last!). When I visited their dorm building in Karakol's university it felt very strange to be in student surroundings again. I have since refamiliarised myself with the sensation.

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!


Train Travel and Kazakstan

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 Kazakstan's only building of historical architectural note, the blue-domed mausoleum of Qozha Ahmed Yasaui (a local Muslim sage). But not much else; so I arranged to catch the last 20 hours of the 57-hour Moscow to Almaty train that would be passing through Turkistan the following morning.

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 companions on the overnight trips I took. Despite the Russian B**ches, I enjoyed my journey to Almaty. So when I was told at the bus station in Almaty that there was no bus to China running (due to border problems), I happily went back to the station and bought a ticket for the 35-hour passage happening two days later.

Almaty like Tashkent is a very Russian city, but a bit more international business-y (Kazakstan has bigger energy reserves). The most interesting thing I did there was walk in on an Orthodox church service and see how they pray. It started sleeting as I walked around while my coat was being washed, so as I started to catch cold I gave up on the skiing and/or skating idea for the next day, and was cursing Russian toilet paper (recycled grey crepe-paper cardboard) by the time I climbed tender-nosed onto the train. My companions were Kazaks, Uighurs, Dungans (muslims of Han and Arab blood), and Han Chinese, mostly commercial people, some of whom clearly make the trip very often! Nine of this journey's 35 hours are spent in Dostyq ('Friendship'), the Kazak border post, as the train's wheels are changed to fit Chinese gauges and as the Kazak customs officials make their way through the train and everyone's stuff. I had prepared myself by having almost no cash dollars on me, and the only thing I was worried about losing was the big woolly sheepskin hat I'd bought in Khiva. Being foreign and female meant I was fairly safe, however, especially as these guards were all men. I concealed a very large wad of American cash for one companion who didn't have a customs form from entering Kazakstan (long story), and so was nervous about getting searched and 'fined'. He was fined, but he bargained that down to $10; and I was not examined at all closely. I had endeared myself to all around, though, and one companion, Memet, who spoke a lot of English, invited me to stay with him when we reached Urumqi.

I stared out excitedly at undecipherable characters and proper street lighting once we got to Alashankou, on the Chinese side of the border.


My First Week in China!!

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, LOTS of people, that I could stare at and they could stare back and smile (people in Central Asia don't smile that much). Having eaten nothing but nuts and raisins on the train the day before, I was starving when I went into a little restaurant because a man outside was slurping something that smelled good, and I had my first bowl of hot and spicy beef noodle soup (15 pence). I wandered round a park, and came across my first Buddhist temple since going to India, and then got a huge adrenalin rush as I found a department store that actually looked like one from the outside! (Russian department stores are very gloomy). I bought a new t-shirt which I put on straight away, and some sweets and 'plastic' noodles, and fingered all the shiny packets. I hadn't been in a shop anything like this since leaving England! In fact, 'modern' packaged China is more like how I imagine Japan to be. This commercial lure meant I had to race to my train that night (yes, the 5th night in 6 on a train! My hair was pretty greasy!) but its mere fourteen-hour journey felt like nothing.

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 sights and just drinking in China: taking buses to nowhere in particular; getting excited about silly things like the fact that people are out and about and the streets are lit after dark (Jalil and I were chucked out of a cafe/restaurant in Kyrgyz 'tourist resort' Karakol at 7.30 pm because it was closing for the night!); trying the street food (amazing fresh pineapple on sticks!); and enjoying the warm sunshine. I also felt like I was moving out of the Muslim world (a rite of passage!) once I had visited Xi'an's peaceful and blossom-filled Great Mosque.

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 Yungan Caves and the Hanging Monastery -- it reminded me a little of Sumela, in eastern Turkey!



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 Poste Restante address are reaching me, so thank you for those! And if you want to telephone me in China,send me an email and I'll send you the number....... Meanwhile, I'm off to the swimming pool.

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|