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From Turpan I took a tour of the hotel agency, the manager’s name was also Abdul, as in Kashgar. I visited the following sights:

•             Emin Minaret – a beautiful mosque from 1777A.D., made of brown bricks, with a 40m tower. It was built in honor of Turpan’s hero and general, Emin Khoja. Just like yesterday, I decided not to enter today.

•             Tomb of Astana – Astana means capital in Uighur, it was an old cemetery and dull, where there were some mummies, also thought it was not worth entering.

•             Gaochang Old Town – they are ruins of an ancient city in the middle of the desert 30 km from Turpan, left only mounds of sand and clay bricks that were confused with the color of the desert. The city arose around the 1st century BC, being an important warehouse of the Silk Road and it was destroyed in the 14th century. While the tourists took pulled carts pulled by mule to go from the entrance to the palace, I decided to walk through the ruins until there.

•             Caves of Bezeklik – or Mural of Buddhist Art, I entered to see the caves, I repented cause it was so boring. The murals with buddha drawings were removed by the Germans or destroyed by the Chinese Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. On the outside it was much more beautiful due to the landscape of a canyon. There were also dunes to walk, I was in a sandal and almost burned my feet in the torrid sand.

•             Valley of Grapes – it was just a region where grapes were planted.

•             Jiaohe Old Town – another ruin of town 9km from Turpan, it was also the former capital of some ancient kingdom. It was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century A.D. I found it more interesting than Gaochang, it was a little less ruined.

•             Karez Aqueduct – or “qanat”, is a water distribution system, used until this days since ancient times. The water is brought from far away, from the melting of the mountains. Boring site.

•             Flaming Mountains – They are mountain chain along the way that are part of the local landscape, it has this name because they are red, as if they were on fire.

During the tour I talked sometimes to a Japanese or sometimes to an elderly American couple and already retired. The lady as Chinese but she has lived her whole life in the U.S., married to an American gentleman who taught Chinese in the U.S., sometimes we talked in Chinese or in English.

Back in Turpan, I saw a beggar and obese lady bathing naked with PET bottles filled with water and sat on the sidewalk! I was triple shocked: first simply because it was a shocking scene; second because it is a Muslim city; and third for being in China. I discreetly registered a photo.

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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.

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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.

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Flávio, me and Lok, a Sino-Malaysian-American chose a tour of Abdul’s agency at the Seman Hotel to Lake Karakul. We took the famous Karakoram Highway (KKH) that runs from the hotel to Pakistan, the Silk Road that connects China to the Indian sub-continent, passing through an incredible scenery between valleys, rivers, lakes and rugged dry mountains, other reddish mountains that give way to white, snowy peaks and black rocks.

The stretch is really beautiful, sometimes there is an avalanche of rocks on the road, which makes it dangerous, especially with the melting of snow from the top of the mountains. And the mountains are very high, many exceed 7,000 meters and others 7,500 meters. Karakoram, located in the mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, is one of the great Himalayan mountain ranges, with several of the world’s highest peaks, on Pakistan’s and India’s border with China. It is about 500 km long, it is the region with the most glaciers in the world outside the polar regions. Karakoram means “Black Boulder” in Turkish, as several surrounding mountains are covered by these stones. The temperature up here was very cold, after all we were close to the glaciers.

The KKH is the highest paved international road in the world, passing the famous Khunjerab Pass at an altitude of 4,693m and 1,300km of road between Kashgar (China) and Havelian (Pakistan). The KKH is also known as the Road of Friendship in China, it was built by the governments of Pakistan and China, and was completed after twenty years of work in 1986. In the construction about 810 Pakistanis and 82 Chinese lost their lives, mainly due to slips and deadly falls.

Lake Karakul (in Kyrgyzstan means “Black Lake”) is situated some 200 km from Kashgar. There is another Karakul Lake in Tajikistan, much bigger than this. It is located inside the Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture of Kizilsu in KKH. It is situated at an altitude of 3,600 m and is the second highest lake in the world. Surrounded by snowy mountains all year round, the lake’s three highest visible peaks are the Muztagh Ata (7,546m), the Kongur Tagh (7,649m) and the Kongur Tiube (7,530m). The saltwater lake reflects in its waters the snowy mountains, just do not know why it is called “black lake”, because the waters vary from dark green to light blue.

After riding and riding the camel, we ate a typical rice with lamb (the “Guruti Ashi”) in a Kyrgyz yurt, at Muz Tag Fast Food, at least that’s what the sign said, but there was nothing “fast”. We saw a strange animal resembling a furry buffalo, called a yak.

Tajik merchants by the roadside – China.

We were in a communist country, we had to show our passports at a military post where it was forbidden to take pictures, I triumphantly managed to sneak one. Lok told us that an English woman had her guide book torn because it showed Taiwan as an independent country.

On the way back the water from the mountain thaw was even stronger, forming a stream in the middle of the road and rolling the stones towards the middle of the road. With some difficulty our taxi driver managed to pass, in one of the stretches we had to get out of the car for the driver to maneuver.

Today we had dinner at a cleaner Uighur restaurant.

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The journey from Ürümqi to Kashgar was shorter, only 23 hours by train and 1500km further to the far west of China. The wagon we took had air conditioning, the train was better, cleaner and more expensive than the first one I picked up here in China. It was supposed to be from another company, because the employee uniforms were different.

The way to Kashgar was more beautiful, because we passed very close between the mountains, some snowy. The train was snaking through the mountains, gaining altitude at every turn. On the way we could see many houses and villages abandoned and destroyed, I couldn’t tell you why. The train also went through several tunnels.

Kashgar railway station was smaller and cleaner than Ürümqi railway station. As the city was small we could do everything on foot.

In this city there were more Uighurs than Hans and many tourists, besides Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz. Also called Kash, it is just west of Xinjiang, near Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, more than 4,000 km from Beijing. Like Ürümqi, Kash is an oasis city, located west of the Taklamakan desert at an altitude of 1,200 m. And it is by far much more attractive than Ürümqi, a visit here is unforgettable and unmissable. The population is 280,000 people.

We went to Kashgar Old Town, a neighborhood of the city that keeps the delay, old and poor houses and some mosques. There was no hint of modernity, there were many stalls selling household items, hats, knives, carpets, musical instruments, clothes and other things. Only children were attending in the tents, perhaps because it was time for prayer and the men were all in the mosque, as far as the women could not say, maybe they were in their homes. I took several pictures of the lovely children who liked the tourists and had fun with them. Some women covered beyond the heads, also their faces with a black cloth, leaving on display only the hands and at most the wrist.

I didn’t risk eating on the street here, because I found everything very unhygienic, but I risked eating at a Uighur restaurant, and I can say that any dirty Chinese restaurant would look like five stars near the ones here. I made an effort to understand the way of life they were used to taking, but since I’m not an anthropologist, I have struggled.

I passed the yellow mosque called Id Kah, in the heart of the city, the largest in China, but it was silly to enter, because tourists had to pay and there was nothing interesting on the inside, only a huge wooded courtyard, the attraction itself was outside. Built in 1442 AD, it houses 10,000 to 20,000 people, but it’s tight. And since it was Friday, the main day of prayer for Muslims, it was crowded with people. The men occupied the square, and they kept leaving the mosque, while I was taking some pictures. I waited for everyone to come out to go in later. In front of there were poor people, old ladies and widows begging for alms.

Here in China is adopted the official time of Beijing for the whole country, but in cities as far away from Beijing as Kashgar this time was not convenient. Xinjiang ends up adopting its own unofficial time zone, the difference was three hours from the capital.

Flávio and I stayed at the Seman Hotel, which, by the way, we didn’t like it.

Uighurs in Kashgar – China.

Muslim faith

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Arriving in Ürümqi was like having traveled to another world, even though you were already in another world, not only because of the distance and different landscapes, but also because it had an atmosphere and people so different from most Chinese. I was thrilled to see non-Asian people in China.

In front of the train station, Flavio and I started taking pictures with these people in the background. The Ürümqi railway is more beautiful and organized than Xian’s, and also younger.

Here almost in Central Asia, the atmosphere looks like in the Middle East. There are many Muslims with their heads covered, the people of ethnic minority are Turks, called Uighurs (or Uyghurs), they have no similarities to Chinese, because the majority of Chinese people are Han ethnically. I came to find out that I am also a Han, just like most of Chinese anywhere in this world, in my ignorance I thought all Chinese were equals. The Uighurs are very beautiful, as they are Turkish some have mixed-race face with blue eyes, green or honey and wear colorful and beautiful clothes. Some men wear long beards and dress badly. Some do not speak Mandarin, speaking a Turkish dialect, and those who speak Mandarin have a dragged accent. Here the writing used besides Chinese is Arabic.

Ürümqi (it is pronounced ‘ulumutí’), is the capital and largest city of Sinkiang province or Xinjiang (new spelling), meaning “New Territories”. Located at the very far west of China and close to Kazakhstan. It is also the farthest city from any ocean according to the “Guinness, the Book of Records”. The population is 2.2 million people.

As Flavio and I did not go to the “English Camp”, we separated from the group and went to the parents of the friend of Flávio’s friend, phew! She, who we didn’t know yet, was supposed to pick us up at the station. She also had a cell phone, and to identify her she was with a black cover book holding to her chest, on the staircase of the main entrance.

In the afternoon after lunch the typical local food, a “laghman” (or “lamen”, freshly made pasta with pepper, vegetables and meat), Flávio and I went for a walk in the center, well developed by the way, with shopping malls and avenues. We climbed to the top of Hong Shan Park (“Red Hill”), from where we could have a panoramic view of the city, the desert and the mountains in the background. Then we met the gringos and went to the top of Yamalik Park, another mountain. Since we were all Christians, we prayed for the city, like Jesus, when he went up the hill.

In Beijing I had bought, from another backpacker, a used guide book of the “Rough Guide” – China, but as Flavio had gifted a used “Lonely Planet” guide book, which it was my preference, I left my guide in Xian. What we didn’t know was that Flávio’s guide book was missing pages, just from the region we needed. I was glad the gringos had the same guide, so we went to get copies.

The dinner was at KFC.

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An autonomous region in China equivalent to a province, whose population is mostly composed of an ethnic minority. The Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang is also known as East Turkistan, Chinese Turkistan or Uyghuristan, but not by the Chinese (for political reasons). The population is 21 million split between Hans, Uighurs, Kazakhstan, Hui, Mongols, Russians and several other ethnic groups, with Islam being the main religion in the region. Mosques are common to find around here.

The Chinese government encouraged colonization in this region by the Hans from 1949, a strategic region rich in oil and ore. A region where 90% of the inhabitants were Uighur ethnic groups, today represents less than 50%, Uighur (45.2%), Han (40.6%), Kazakhs (6.7%), Hui (4.6%) and other ethnic groups. The Hans Chinese always end up having the best jobs and holding good positions in government. One more reason for the enmity between Hans and Uighurs.

The Uighurs, as well as the Tibetans, Mongols and others, are oppressed by the Chinese government. In China, the poor Uighur children and teenagers end up committing minor crimes and they are easy to be identified, as they look like Westerners. There is a lot of them in Xian, I saw some of them getting into a police truck.

Many nuclear tests were conducted in the deserts of Xinjiang, as a consequence, cases of death from cancer, deformities in sheep and newborns began to appear, which motivated the protests in 1986.

In the past decade several separatist movements in the cities of Kashgar and Ürümqi have taken shape, some through acts of terrorism. The Chinese government has severely suppressed any hint of these moves by sending army and air force troops, executions, curfews in Kashgar and torture. With the September 11, 2001 bombing in the U.S., the fight against terrorism gained momentum and served as an excuse for the Chinese government to act with even greater intolerance.