Xian (Shaanxi Province) is a very old and planned city with more than 3,100 years of history and culture. It is also one of the ancient capitals of China.
The center is surrounded by a huge wall, forming a rectangle of 12km of perimeter surrounded by a moat, is the most preserved wall in China, with its proper repairs. In the center is located the “Bell Tower” and the “Drum Tower”. The city wall separating the center of the suburb was originally built in 1370 in the Ming Dynasty, but only took the current form with bricks in 1568. It has 12m high and its base 18m wide, as well as several watchtowers.
The “Bell Tower” is the heart of the city although it is not at the epicenter of the wall, it was built in 1384, rebuilt in 1582 and restored in 1739, obviously has a large bell, made of bronze. The architecture is typical Chinese and its green roof forms the largest and best preserved “Bell Tower” of all China.
The “Drum Tower”, a few meters from the Bell Tower, is a larger building and contains dozens of huge drums. Behind the Drum Tower was the famous Muslim Quarter of Hui minority. They are said to be descendants of 8th-century Arab soldiers. The streets were narrow and the grocery stores, restaurants and stalls sold typical Muslim things, such as sheep’s head to eat the brain.
I walked from the south gate of the wall (it is the main entrance) to the west gate and then to the north gate. The day was cloudy, better than fog, because visibility is better without that opaque sky that was bad for photos.
Xian also have its department stores with the famous brands in the center.
The next day, despite being Tuesday, I went to do a biking, for me it was a “Sunday”. And the day was sunny and clear skies, good for photos! The biking was on the top of the city wall, from the south gate I followed clockwise to the west and then to the north, where the railway is, passing through several watchtowers. I paid an expensive bike renting, considering local standards, $2.50 for a hundred minutes. From the north gate I walked to the “Bell Tower”, I would still pass dozens of times through the center.
Biking on the wall.
Xian soldiers in the city center. Bell Tower in the background.
My trip from Lanzhou to Xian was a string of delays, the bus delayed an hour, stopped to be repaired for another hour, had a detour on the way and a lot of traffic, and the road was stopped because of works, there were many trucks on the single narrow lane between the mountains. In the middle of the road appeared a lady selling food in styrofoam marmites brought in an aluminum tray, I do not know where it came from, but I ended up buying one and it was warm.
The forecast to arrive at 7pm was totally wrong and I arrived at 1:30 am at Flávio’s house, without remembering which condominium or floor it was. I was lucky to find a resident coming in and borrowed his cell phone to call. I was obviously fooled as to the length of the route, Chinese likes to cheat!
In the next two months I would devote myself to the studies of Mandarin and Cantonese in Xian. It was September 1st. 2006, my day of gravy, rest day and lots of rain. At least it was fresh, Xian is usually very hot, but the season was over. It was also the day to do my accounting, edit photos and update my blog.
The next day I met Regiane, a Brazilian from Ceará who was studying Chinese in Xian, she lived in the same condominium as Flávio. We had lunch all together.
The dinner was with American students at a supposed to be a Brazilian steakhouse. I was anxious, but it was a mistake, only the way of preparation was Brazilian, but the meats and other things had nothing to do with it. No picanha, fraldinha, contrafilé or filet mignon. I’d have to wait until the next year to kill the longing.
On Sunday I went to a Sunday service with the foreigners at Anita’s house, an American who grew up in Brazil, she loved Brazil and had a northeastern accent. The whole day was “smog”, glad it does not exist in Brazil, it was a sunny day but the sky was covered by a fog, taking all the liveliness of a clear sky.
I noticed that in China there is no squeegee and it is difficult to find beverage machines as in Japan or Taiwan.
Today the weather was good and I have walked a lot! I hiked from the hotel to the top of Lan Shan mountain here in Lanzhou, at an altitude of 500m, the mountain was behind the train station as in Xining. I was going to take the cable car to the top but it was packed and the hike didn’t seem to difficult so I have decided to climb the mountain – it must have taken about 2 hs. I expected it to be more difficul, but it was a lot easier than Grouse Mountain in Canada or Villarrica Volcano in Chile, perhaps because I was already in better physical shape compared to my first few weeks of travel. From below, the mountain looked very high, and from the top it looked even higher! The buildings seemed low and small, the city looked like a mock-up and the tiny cars and trains seemed like toys.
At the top there was an amusement playground and restaurants, all empty. It also had a nine-hole golf course and a drive range to practice the shots, where I played fifty balls.
From Xining to Xiahe, I took a mini bus for 6h15m full of Tibetans and entitled to the burping show by the Tibetan lady who sat next to me. Halfway through the tight bus stopped to pick up passengers who were sitting on stools in the middle of the corridor.
The way to Xiahe was very beautiful, again between dry and green mountains, rivers and lakes. It may seem repetitive the description, but I guarantee that the scenery is not the same as the previous ones, each has a particular beauty.
Xiahe is an inland city in Gansu Province south of Lanzhou, tipycally Tibetan and population of 150,000 people. Here Tibetan is the spoken language and the writing is different as well. There were many westerners tourists around here, as well as other minorities, such as the Huis and Salars, who are Muslims, I could not see the difference between these two ethnic groups, which by the way are different from the Hans, despite being low and with “pulled” eyes. The Tibetans, on the other hand, are the majority, about 70% of the population, and very different from the Huis, Hans, Salars or Uighurs, they were taller, darker and well-protruded nose, in addition to “pulled” eyes.
The town was very small, the smallest I’ve been here in China so far, it was possible to know the city in an hour on foot. There was only one avenue that cut through the city along 4km, whose Daxia River ran parallel. It was surrounded by mountains too, but quite different from Lanzhou or Xining.
It was a tremendous cold, I had no clothes suitable for the weather, because I expected to travel only to Xinjiang, I spent a cold and I got a flu on this day. But since I was disguised as Chinese, without embarrassment, I was scarred anywhere.
I arranged to meet Laetitia and Oriane, the two French women I met in Xining. Laetitia was blonde and taller than me, I think she was 24, and she was going to Lao to do volunteer work. Oriane was also a blonde in her forties, she laughed at everything and would go to do volunteer work in Cambodia.
In the afternoon I went to Labrang Monastery with Laetitia, close to the hotel where I stayed, the Oversea Tibetan Hotel, which by the way I sneaked and used the bathroom of the private rooms, since the doors were open, instead of using the shared bathroom that belonged to the shared room. Remember that here some hotels reserve some rooms for backpackers, and the shared bathroom comes along with the package.
In the evening we went to have dinner, Laetitia, Oriane, Vanessa a french brunette and curly hair and an Englishman, I was bothered by their cigarettes, Europeans smoke as much as the Chinese. I ate “tsamba”, a typical Tibetan food, bad by the way, it was made of ground barley ground in flour, one can eat adding tea and/or sugar and butter, I did not finish this meal and alone I went to another restaurant to eat a good pasta. Tibetan tea is medium salty and oily. Feeling cold I borrowed Laetitia’s blanket.
I took a tour to the largest lake in China, Qinghai Hu, 150km from Xining, of cold and saltwater, with an area of 4600km², 360km of circumference and altitude of 3,200m, twenty-three rivers flowing into this lake, which gave the impression of being a sea. It has a rock islet called bird island, where thousands of birds of various species make their nests.
In the van there were only Chinese people. I was disguised as one, just as long as I didn’t open my mouth. But soon everyone started talking, asking and answering where they were from, so I talked about my Sino-Taiwanese-Brazilian origins.
The first stop was at a place where they sold Chinese medicine stuff, nothing could be more boring. The second stop, on Mount Sun and Moon, where it had a stupa at the top of the hill, quite green and there was a white yak (the hairy cow) to photograph or mount it. The third stop was a useless place to buy dried meat. Chinese tour is always a steal!
The lake, though gigantic, didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t pay for a ticket, I chose to sleep in the van. An aggressive Tibetan monk kept insisting on money, banging on the glass of the van, and wanted money at any cost, of course I didn’t give anything, who told him to follow monastic life?
Then we passed some dunes, and finally a pasture, no big deal. This tour was pretty boring. Back in the city in Xining, I visited the Grand Mosque, built in 1380 A.D., Chinese architecture occupied a large block.
I was alone in the hotel of Y36 (USD 4.60), I had gotten a cold so I decided to sleep more. Today dawned good and warm. I left at lunch time for the Monastery of Kumbum, or “Taer Si” in Chinese, although interesting, I did not need to paid the expensive entrance (USD 10), if I did not enter into the temples of the complex, there was nothing so impressive, I was just interested in taking pictures of the buildings outside. But as it was my first visit to Tibetan temples, in the final balance I liked. Right at the entrance there was a sequence of eight white stupas. Stupa is a type of Buddhist mausoleum in the shape of a tower, having various formats, generally conoidal, as if it were an inverted funnel.
Kumbum in Tibetan means “100,000 buddha images”. It is a complex with nine Tibetan Buddhist temples. There is another Kumbum in the city of Gyantse in Tibet. The one I visited is 25km from Xining, this region belonged to the province of Amdo, which belonged to Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism is also called Lamaism. It was in this region where the current Dalai Lama lived and where Tsongkhapa was born in 1357, the founder of the Sect of Yellow Hats, or “Gelugpa” in Tibetan. Kumbum was founded in 1583 in honor of Tsongkhapa. Before 1958, there were 3,600 monks in Kumbum, currently there are only 400, due to persecutions and restrictions imposed by the Chinese government. Kumbum currently receives many tourists and pilgrims, mainly Tibetans and Mongols.
Back in Xining, I went to the Beishan Si, which means “Temple of the Northern Mountain,” a 1,400-year-old Taoist temple built on the mountainside, I had to climb hundreds of steps of a staircase, the temple was already closed, but I could enjoy the view of the city.
Ho was separated and she had a daughter. In this country it’s still shameful to admit separation, especially when you’re a woman. Divorces and separations are an epidemic that has been reaching any race, it is one of the great evils of modern life. She walked me to the nearby airport. There were only Chinese people at the airport and on the plane, they carried many boxes of the famous fruits of Xinjiang, they were as noisy as Brazilians or Italians. The flight between Ürümqi and Lanzhou was delayed by an hour and a half.
I arrived at night in downtown, it was cold and the Lonely Planet guide book was missing a few pages from Lanzhou. Without a map, I was also completely disoriented. I paid dearly for a map I bought in a hotel, almost useless because it was all in Chinese.
I had seen a college address on a website, glad it was close to where the airport bus stopped, but there foreigners could not stay. I ended up staying in the accommodation of a college employee, there was a guy who was a doorman in one of the buildings and let me stay in his bed, because there was another bed in the lobby, I was surprised he didn’t charge me anything. At first it was kind of difficult to communicate, Yan could not understand my accent, he thought I was speaking another language other than Mandarin, but in the end he got used to it. My accent is Southern, because of my origins. I didn’t expect to find such a nice Chinese, there was another nice guy also in the room who was a janitor and educated.
Here you can not distinguish very well the social class (like in Brazil), everyone has at least high school degree and dress the same (riches and poor), and all have the “pulled” eyes, there are a lot of people and a lot of competition too. Only peasants dressed differently, making it easy to identify them.
Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province with a population of 3.5 million, Tibetan influence and surrounded by mountains. The famous Yellow River (Huang He) despite the color being muddy, crosses the city before traveling another 1,500km to its final destination in Qindao. Located geometrically right in the center of the Central Empire, Gansu is a province northwest of China, bordering Xinjiang. Here it was also part of the Silk Road and part of the Great Wall was here.
The next day Yan gave me some indication of how to go to the tourist sites, wrote some sentences in Chinese in my notebook to show to the Chinese, in case I needed help since I was illiterate here. He gave me his phone number in case of emergency and as a good patriot gave me a pin of Mao Zedong, without knowing the true story of this genocidal.
It was an adventure, with the missing pages of Lonely Planet, everything got harder (* as you realized already, this trip was before the creation of wi-fi, smartphones and google maps). In doubt between going to Xining, Xiahe or touring first in Lanzhou, I decided to go to Xining first. Lanzhou, Xining and Xiahe form a triangle, with Xining west of Lanzhou and Xiahe south of Lanzhou.
I went to the train station, there were thousands of Chinese and an endless queue, so I gave up and took a bus to Xining. I saw a foreigner and I followed him, he was with a Chinese guide, who helped me to buy a ticket to Xining for Y36 (USD 4.60), the bus station was close to the railway. But the driver implied that I was a foreigner and I had to exchange my ticket for another one with mandatory insurance for foreigners for Y53 (USD 6.80).
The road to Xining was beautiful, it was even colder than Lanzhou and drizzled. On the bus, a young Chinese man seeing that I was writing in a language other than his, started a conversation. The young man had never been to Xining and was going out to try to make a living as an apprentice mechanic, he had a contact in the city.
The bus stopped at a bus station and soon bought a local map to guide me, I took a bus to the other bus station next to the railway, on the other side of town, then I have found a hotel. The main buses and trains all left from here, the place was strategic.
Xining was the part I had at my Lonely Planet, here it was where I first saw Tibetans, I made a point of recording some photos, scenes of Buddhist monks in red robes walking along side Hui Chinese (who are Muslims), head covered with white beret. Tibetan women are of larger size than the Hans, with their colorful robes, long skirts and a pair of long braids, reminded me of the “cholitas” of Bolivia, only the hat was different, the resemblance was incredible.
Xining is the capital of Qinghai province, with Tibetan, Mongolian and Uighur influence, and surrounded by mountains, with a population of 2.1 million. It was also part of the old Silk Road. Qinghai Province, pronounced “tinrrai”, meaning “Blue Sea”, has the largest lake in China. It is to the west, bordering Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu and Sichuan. Like Tibet and Xinjiang, Qinghai was not part of ancient China, was incorporated into the Chinese empire 200 years ago and was definitively controlled by the Hans Chinese from 1949, when the Communist army defeated the Muslims. It is a province full of prisons and labor camps, where criminals and opponents of the political regime are sent, about 400,000 people are in these prisons, almost 10% of the population of the province.
In the evening I went to the evening market to dine with a Danish hippie with strange ideas and two French blonde women, Oriane and Laetitia.
In the evening I went to Ürümqi, back to He’s parents’ house and I went to dinner at the night market. The house was at my disposal, but it was agreed to pay an amount equivalent to that of a hostel, a RMB 25 or USD 3 per night.
The next day I didn’t do anything interesting. I bought an airfare to anywhere between Ürümqi and Xian, I decided to go to Lanzhou impromptu, but I would have to wait four days because the flights were sold out and I paid dearly for it, USD 180.
I slept all the afternoon I was feeling weak, I was starting to get a flu, I had a little fever and my bowel decided to misbehave due to last night’s fish that wasn’t fresh.
On Sunday it was the day 40th since I began my adventure through Asia.
I arranged to meet with Cassandre and Sébastien at Ürümqi railway station, they came from Kashgar. They stayed with me tonight, the next morning they went to Heavenly Lake. I recommended Mr. Rashit’s tents to stay, and I asked Cassandre to deliver some photos to Kul Joen. As I knew Ürümqi well, I took them for a city-tour and took the opportunity to know two more places that I had not yet gone. We went to Erdaoqiao, Mount Yamalik and two night markets (Jia He Yuen and Wu Yi), the latter was quite large, occupying several blocks. When it was already dark we went to a park where there was a movie playing on a huge big screen in an open air, there were hundreds of Chinese.
I finally found deodorant in Carrefour, besides expensive there was only the Adidas roll-on or the Nivea spray, even so it was rare to find, the Chinese of any ethnicity do not have the habit of using perfumes. Even seeing black people here was easier! Here at Carrefour you can buy live frog, because it is part of the local cuisine. Well, at least I managed to find dental floss, another rare thing in this country!
Anywhere in the countryside of China, where westerners are rarely present, children shouted “hello.” Just as the Asians are like aliens in some cities in the Brazil’s countryside, white people are like aliens here.
In the next two boring days I rolled up until the date of my flight. I updated a little more of my blog going to cyber-cafes. In China the cyber-cafes look like a smokehouse, it’s horrible, 90% of men smoke, 100% of which are drivers, and do not respect whether they are in a restaurant, bus or any other enclosed environment. The non-smoking signs is more like adornments, similar to pictures.
Hotmail and MSN didn’t work in this country for days. Maybe it has to do with the violation of correspondence and spying mainly from non-Chinese websites. I was searching on sites what was attractions and accommodation in Lanzhou. With my diarrhea, I took the opportunity to rest.
One day I would go to the zoo, but I changed my mind, it was very complicated, getting there at the gate of the zoo it had to take a bus from the zoo, because the entrance was not there, but elsewhere. As I was feeling weak and sleepy I sat somewhere on the sidewalk and dozed a little in the shade. And in the other day I went to Erdaoqiao again to buy some little bags, a Brazilian friend who was in Xian had ordered.
I separated from Flavio because he had commitments in Xian. He took a flight, since there weren’t any available train tickets at the moment.
I went to Toksun by sleeper bus. The trip lasted !8 hours, it was near Turpan my final destination, there was no direct bus, both cities were near Ürümqi. Due to it being the busy season there were no more train tickets back from Ürümqi to Xian, only by plane. I decided to adjust my itinerary and include a few more cities before returning to Xian – later I would regret not having included even more cities.
As it was hot and the bus had not air conditioning, I spent most of the trip with my shirt off.
I thought the bus had a final destination in Toksun but it turned out I was mistaken! I had to get off earlier in Toksun, at one of the stops, but as I did not know this I ended up in Ürümqi. I wondered why it was taking so long to get there! I boarded another bus to Turpan, which required another 2.5 hours and 187 km of travel, I must have lost 6 to 8 more hours… patience.
Around here one of the most fearful things is the gas station restrooms. There is no door and you can see people crouching doing their deeds, since there is a hole in the floor, rather than toilet. Most people here don’t know the western style toilet. In many stops people just go to the bushes to do their business because the smell of the restroom is unbearable.
The scary toilets
In China my concern was less about “what to eat”, although I find strange or unhygienic some things, but rather more in “where to use the bathroom”, so I often adopted the strategy of not eating on long trips just to avoid this need. I was glad to have resistance to hunger. In a way, feeling hungry and cold, made me feel closer to the needy, with the difference that I deprived myself by choice, but the poor people for lack of option.
Turpan, or Turfan, the Chinese pronounce “tulufán”, is the hottest city in China, surrounded by desert, its heat is dry, which makes it more bearable compared to my first day in Tokyo, the worst heat of my life! It is located at a depression 80m below sea level, one of the lowest in China. The population is 600,000 people. Turpan is famous for its grapes and Xinjiang Province for its fruits (melons, watermelons, peaches, apples, etc.). It is also an oasis city, part of the North Silk Road, is located in Xinjiang Province. Here more than 70% of the population are Uighurs, and almost all have business with grape or wine.
I stayed at the hotel whose parking was also the city bus station, for USD 3 per night, it was reasonable. In the afternoon I wandered around the small town, strolling through a small market. It was so hot that I wet my t-shirt to stay cool when leaving my room and, in ten to fifteen minutes it was already dry. I walked to the Emin Minaret 1.2 miles from downtown. That night I had dinner on the street, in a tent, some cold and spicy noodle.
Sunday is day of the market and in Kash there is an animal market dating back 2,000 years! Jesus would have known this if he had come to these bands as a child.
As Flavio was on vacation, did not like to wake up early, me on the contrary wanted to take every minute of the clarity of the day to know everything, I left the hostel without him. Lok and I had found some Italians to go by taxi to such a market together, the dishonest driver didn’t want to turn on the meter, extorted us.
The market seems stopped in time as in the Middle Ages, with the exception of trucks for cattle transport, everything is archaic! You could see people shaving hair and beards in public, food stalls with charcoal or wood stoves, fruits like melons and watermelons piled up on the floor, sheep being shaved, sheep heads on the floor, animal auction, finally a medieval show.
This market that takes place every Sunday is the great attraction of the city! In fact it is the ultimate attraction of Xinjiang province, attracting hundreds of tourists eager to take photos and to see and feel the environment, and also merchants from various regions and ethnicities of Central Asia, many come from far with their cargo donkeys, horses and sheep, producing a transit of wagons. The dirt floor and the men in unmodern clothes gave even more that rural, nomadic and frozen air in time. The movie “The Kite Runner” was partly filmed here.
Kashgar’s Sunday market.
Barbers at Kashgar Market.
Lok and I hitchhiked on the tourist bus of another band of excited and retired Italians, we went to the merchandise market not as interesting as the animal market, where we separated from the Italians.
Next we went to the tomb of Apak Hoja, I found it kind of dull. The tomb, which looked like a huge mosque, was covered with green tiles on the outside wall. It was built in 1640 AD to house the body of Yusup Hoja, an Islamic missionary, however it was his son Apak Hoja who became most famous. In this cemetery there were several tombs within the building and others more in the annexed outer area.
In the evening we went to eat at the same Uighur restaurant as yesterday, this time I invited a beautiful Uighur girl from the tourism agency who looked like a mixed race, to have dinner with us, she ordered the dishes, spoke Chinese, Uighur and English and had clear eyes. We ate pigeon, typical noodles and lamb skewers. A waitress when she was not serving any table sat next to me, the chair was vacant, I looked at her strangely and waiting for her to say something, because she had not even asked permission but she remained indifferent to me, only then I realized that she just wanted to rest her legs.
Lok and I had good conversations, Lok is an assumed homosexual, which surprised me his courage to tell me the first day I met him. He confided to me his crises in adolescence, and that he had finally accepted his condition, he was a Methodist-educated Christian, like everyone in his family. I came to respect him, after all I was not his type, and my preferences were for women. Every time he talked about a girl, he told me he preferred Caucasians.
Flávio and I moved to the Qinibag Hotel, where Lok was, it was better. Here in China some hotels reserve some rooms for backpacker use as if it were hostel.
Today at the railway station I lost my mind when I went to get information of trains an Uighur simply stuck the queue and there was no point yelling or pulling him. That would be just one of the times when I’d be annoyed with these smart asses, it was something so common here that no one cared. I obviously missed the organization, education and hygiene of Japan.
The next day I didn’t do anything but sleep in the afternoon. I made contact with two other Frenchmen to arrange the tour to the desert the next day. We had dinner at the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, Flavio, Sébastien, Cassandre, Chihiro and me. I didn’t know how Chihiro was doing around here, she didn’t speak either Chinese or English and she was traveling alone. Sébastien was tall, blond, half-hunchback and half-shaved, was living and working as an engineer in Hangzhou, and had a twin brother in New York. Cassandre was a short and friendly blonde girl and knew a little Portuguese, she had studied a little Chinese and Islam.
Here in China it is forbidden to have any religion when you are a child, student or member of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), other than Maoism. Freedom of religion and expression is something hypocritical confined only to papers. Many Christians, Muslims, Tibetans and members of the Falun Gong sect are wrongfully imprisoned, tortured, have their organs harvested, women are raped and sometimes killed. The Chinese government does not respect human rights and pretends to be unaware of these acts.