Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Silk Road, Part 1 - Nashville to Kashgar

Well, after a few days of not being able to connect to the Blogger website I'm finally back. I'll be telling about my trip in parts so as not to overwhelm you with a twelve mile long blog entry. This is what I did for a lot of the time just before leaving for China... played Nintendo. It was fun, but I never did beat Zelda. HOWEVER, it turns out that James, one of the guys at my school this year, has a Wii. So I'll get a chance to finish without having to wait a year. I'm not sure if that's good or not. I might end up wasting way too much of my time. Good thing it's in another apartment. Moving on. I told some of this already, but it won't hurt you to read it again with pictures. Angelyn and I had planned to come back to China early this year so that we could explore the western end of China. It's home to the ancient Silk Road that led from China to India, Persia, and even to the Mediterranean. The events that follow are perhaps one of the events in my time in China that truly qualify as a full adventure.

I left Nashville on August 7, met Angelyn in Los Angeles, and we set off to China via Hong Kong and Xi'an. We landed in Xi'an the morning of August 9 and made our way to Nancy's apartment. Nancy is a lady who has been in China for 9 years and she always opens her apartment to visitors when they come to town. It was great to be back after 6 weeks and we were both excited to be on our way to the Xinjiang region of China. Our first day in Xi'an we walked around town a bit to wake ourselves up and try to get over jetlag. Nancy lives just down the street from the Big Goose Pagoda. (Side note: I took my mom here when she came to visit a few years ago and we saw a guy getting beat up with a 2x4. I knew you wanted to know that.)

Nancy had been gracious enough to arrange our train tickets from Xi'an to Urumqi, but due to the crowd there were no beds left on the train, only seats. Seats are better than standing tickets, though. So on August 10, after one night to recover from jetlag (Note: this is not enough) Angelyn and I set off on a 34 hour train to Urumqi. Our hard seat tickets lived up to their name quickly. Since our train left at almost 10pm, 34 hours on the train encompassed two nights. So for the next two nights we slept sitting up. Yay!

The people were quiet enough at night, but it still wasn't comfortable unless you were a tiny Chinese person who could curl up on the floor or in the lap of the person next to you. However, I'm a huge non-Chinese person who can't do either of these.

I did manage to claim the window seat on the second night and use the edge of the table to sleep on. If you ever fly back to China early so you can travel to Xinjiang before school starts, either fly all the way to Xinjiang, get a bed on the train, or allow more time to recover from your flight. Take it from me. The second day on the train we passed the town of Jiayuguan in Gansu province and saw this sight.

This is the westernmost fortification on the Great Wall. Considering that we're a long stinkin' way from where the wall starts on the east coast, that's pretty impressive. So on August 12, at 7:30 in the morning, we finally got off that cursed train and found ourselves in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. I should tell you that more than 90% of China's population is of the Han ethnicity, but Xinjiang is mainly populated by Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and other ethnicities from Central Asia. From this point on, all signs were in Chinese and Arabic because all of these languages use the Arabic alphabet.

We have a friend in Shiyan named Orange. She changed her name to Emily last year since everyone teases her about being named Orange, but we all still call her Orange. This is her. She's from Urumqi. She was in Shiyan working at an internship, but we were going to her hometown so she arranged for us to meet up with her mom. Since we were arriving on a Sunday morning, we caught a taxi and went to the local Chinese Church. Most big cities in China actually have a registered church with a big building and everything. It was kind of weird meeting Orange's mom because she doesn't speak English and, for some reason that I still don't understand, Orange exaggerated my Chinese speaking ability in telling her mom that I speak fluent Chinese. So her mom starts talking to us, we're super tired and jetlagged, not to mention the fact that we just spent two nights on a train without showers or anything. At this point I couldn't remember half of my Chinese so we basically just kind of smiled and nodded a lot. Her mom had gotten us our train tickets to Kashgar. The train was scheduled to leave at noon so we really only had about 4 hours off of the train. We stayed for a while at church and then Orange's mom escorted us to the bus stop so we could go back to the station. We got to the station, bought some snacks for the train, which was scheduled to be 23 hours, ate some noodles for lunch, and made our way to the station entrance. At the entrance there was a mob of people pushing to get in the station, but they were being turned away by two ladies with megaphones. I can generally understand people when they speak clearly and slowly here, but there's no way I could understand something being yelled into a bullhorn. I kept hearing our train number being called so I thought that either there's something wrong with our train or they're only letting people on our train into the station to avoid overcrowding. The lady at the door would only wave me away, she wouldn't stop to answer any questions. I still couldn't understand what she was saying into the megaphone. I walked around the corner and showed my ticket to a guard and he finally told me that this train wasn't leaving today, and then he pointed me towards the ticket office. It was a tad bit crowded. Just a tad. Usually the ticket office in a train station is crowded in China, but this time the entire room was one solid mass of people because the crowd of people trying to buy tickets was enlarged by the crowd of people trying to return tickets. If you squint, you might be able to tell that the big marquee on the wall says that all train heading towards Kashgar are canceled due to weather. Since we were on the edge of the desert, I figured maybe there was a sandstorm. Turns out it was a bad rainstorm. Weird, huh? So now there we were, jetlagged, no train, no place to stay, no desire or energy to act. Obviously Angelyn was enjoying the situation more than I was. At this point my phone's battery died so Angelyn messaged Orange to let her know the situation. She then messaged her mom, who said we should come back to the church and meet her. So we did that, then she went back to the station with us to help return the train tickets. Angelyn sat outside with our bags while Li Xinhua and I stood in line for three long hours. I'm pretty sure I fell asleep standing up a few times. After all was said and done, we returned the tickets and managed to get bus tickets instead. The benefit was that instead of another long train ride with only a seat, we now had a 22 hour bus ride with beds. Yay, beds! Glory, glory, hallelujah! We set off on that bus at 5pm. We were leaving 5 hours later than originally planned, but we now had beds, plus I was in the first bed as you got on the bus so I was able to stick my long legs over the edge. If you're wondering what the side effects are from a 34 hour train ride with no bed, take a look at my swollen ankles. Yeesh!

So we set off happily with our pillows and blankets tucked around us. It was still August 12. About 3 hours into the trip the driver pulled over and a few men jumped off the bus to answer the call of nature. Since I'd had entirely too much tea with dinner just before getting on the bus, I jumped off with them. The storm that had cancelled the trains was apparently aproaching because when I got off I was hit with a gust of wind that blew my shoe down the road. I chased it down and came back to the bus to find that everyone else was back on the bus and the driver was honking for me to get on. That tea was going to wait for the next rest stop, so I was a little while longer before getting on the bus. I guess it was too long for the driver. Since the honking didn't get me back on the bus he started driving away slowly. Angelyn had seen me going after my shoe and then couldn't see me anymore so she though I had blown away and that the driver was leaving me. She was relieved when I finally got back on the bus. We stopped again at 10 at a place where we could eat, use the bathroom, and stretch our legs. At this point it's extremely windy, raining slightly, and feels very very cold. I was perplexed. I thought we were going into the desert? We got back on the bus and went back to sleep, taking full advantage of the beds to get over our jetlag. Well, the next morning we woke up and we were still at the same place. What in the world?!? When the clock said 9:50 we got back on the road. We later saw that parts of the road had been covered in water during the night, plus there had been a rockslide blocking one area, so we had just spent 12 hours at the same rest stop. On August 13 we stopped in the middle of no where twice, once for lunch and once to get gas.

Our 22 hour bus ride turned into a 39 hour bus ride. All we could think was "I'm so glad to have a bed." I think the bed made it all okay. The guys beneath us did annoy me by lighting up a new cigarette every 10 minutes. And for breakfast one guy packed some tobacco into the top of an apple, where the stem comes out. Then he rolled up a stiff piece of paper, stuck into the side of the apple, and proceeded to the smoke the apple like a pipe. Never seen that before, and don't know if I should expect to ever see it again. I tried to get a picture but it's extremely blurry because the bus was bouncing. The apple is in the right hand of the man in the red shirt. You can see the long white roll of paper sticking out of it.

We got to Kashgar at 7:3oam on August 14. By this time we had spent four nights in a row on trains and buses and were very ready to shower. Out of the 192 hours since we had left America, we had spent 150 of those on a plane, train, or bus. That's how we got to Kashgar. Considering it's taken me a couple of hours to write all of this and get the pictures to upload, and also considering that I've got to be somewhere across town in 30 minutes, I'm going to end here for now. Two more entries should cover the rest of the trip, I think. I hope you enjoyed the first installment. Tell your friends!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Home, Sweet Home

Well, I'm back in good ol' Shiyan. Our train got in the station around 4:40 this afternoon, we were met by our good friend Zoe, dropped our stuff off at our apartments, and were at Happy Guy's for dinner by 5:30. All in all it was a great trip, but it is so incredibly great to be back. I'm headed to bed right now, but tomorrow I plan on doing laundry, cleaning the layer of dust that accumulated in my absence, spraying for cockroaches, and posting pictures from my trip. Come back later for more.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Change of plans

Well, I've been all the way around the stinkin' Taklamakan Desert. By the way, did you know that this name is a Mongolian name meaning "Enter but never return"? Well I entered and I definitely returned. I still haven't ridden my camel and camped overnight yet, but I did climb a sand dune when our bus made a bathroom stop. More about that later. For now, I will give a brief status update and reveal our plans for the rest of this trip. Angelyn and I are alive. We're back in Urumqi (the furthest city from the ocean in the whole wide world). We were planning on going to Turpan, about two hours from here, and spend a few days taking in the sights and maybe camping in the sand dunes. One reason to do this was to pass the time until next weekend when our friend Orange (yes, that's her name) would be coming home to Urumqi and we could spend two or three days hanging out with her and her family. Two days ago, while lying exhausted in a hotel in Khotan, I received a message from Orange saying that she still isn't sure if she can come home or not. That kind of pushed us over the edge of our exhaustion, so Angelyn and I immediately went out and arranged transport home to Shiyan. Tomorrow we'll fly to Xi'an and the next morning we'll take our final 8 hour leg of the trip by train and arrive in Shiyan. I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to my apartment. A lot! Anyhoo, we cut out the Turpan, desert camping, camel riding part of the trip, which really stinks. I'll find a way to make up for it before I die. At least we got to do the Karakul Lake, mountain climbing, glacier viewing, Kyrgyz yurt sleeping part. Now I'm going to shower and go to bed because I am really really tired after last night's bus. I didn't exactly fit in the crevice they provided on the sleeper bus so I'm sore today. Plus Orange's parents tracked us down this morning and force fed us for about 7 hours straight. It tasted good but I think I exploded so violently about 5 hours into it that I actually landed back together in one piece. Weird, I know. I'm signing off until I'm back in my own place, so I'll catch you guys and dolls in two days!

P.S. - I lost my phone on the bus last night. :(

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fun with trains and buses

I'm in Xinjiang! If you don't know, that's the far northwestern province in China. It's barely Chinese, it's more Central Asian/Turkish. Most of the people out here speak Turkish languages such as Uighur, Kazak, or Kyrgyz. I don't have a way to post pictures at the moment, but when I'm back in my own apartment then I'll have loads to put up.

This trip started out with loads of travel. I left Nashville on the afternoon of Tuesday the 7th and arrived in Xi'an on the morning of the 9th. I spent one night with a friend there and on the 10th my friend Angelyn and I hopped on a 34 hour train to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. I've been on long trains before, but this one was special because we only had a seat, no bed. Usually you can upgrade once you get on the train but for some reason there wasn't a single bed available the entire 34 hours. Needless to say, we were quite exhausted with jetlag and two nights on the long train. We got off the train for about 4 hours and met up with a friend's mom. She had gotten us more train tickets to Kashgar, our desired destination. At noon on the 12th we went to board our final 23 hour train, only to find that it was cancelled due to bad weather. Since at this point we were on the edge of the second largest desert in the world (I read that somewhere), I assumed this meant a sandstorm. It turned out to be heavy rains. Weird. So I stood in line for 3 hours to return our tickets and we made our way to the bus station and ended up with beds on a 22 hour bus. Because of a rockslide and the same bad weather that stopped the train, our 22 hour ride turned into a 41 hour ride, but that was okay because at least we got to lay in a bed for those 41 hours. On the train we would have been stuck with seats again.

That adventure got us to Kashgar on the 14th, just about as far west as you can go in China. I'm pretty sure if I stick my arms out and twirl around in a circle that my hands will pass through Kyrgystan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakstan, India, and maybe even Russia. That's how close I am to all these countries. Two nights ago we went to a mountain lake and spent the night with a Kyrgyz family in their yurt (huge tent). At that point I was only a few hours from Pakistan and India, and even closer to Kyrgystan and Afghanistan. But I'll save that story for another time and put up some pictures with it.

In a few days we should be taking a bus straight through the middle of the desert back to Urumqi and then going to Turpan for some desert adventures. So far no sand dunes. Now I'm off to retrieve my laundry, hunt up some breakfast, and figure out where we're going today. Salaam!

Monday, August 06, 2007

Oh, how little I've done

Well, I've been back in the US for 6 weeks. During that time I drove through 10 states, pumped gas 11 times, drank 50 root beers, ate 20 Sonic blasts, talked to 13 friends on the phone, got 185 mosquito bites, ate Chinese food 3 times, called China 2 times, checked my email 252 times, wore the same 4 shirts, did laundry 1 time (just kidding), scored a 222 while bowling on the Wii, played with 5 nieces, 1 nephew, 9 dogs, and 1 cat (not all at once), attended 1 Christmas dinner, 1 Thanksgiving dinner, 3 1/2 birthday parties, and 1 wedding (mostly all at once), listened to "I Can Be Your Friend" (from a VeggieTales CD) 904,296 times, chipped 90 golf balls in Matthew's backyard, gained 17 pounds, ran 0 times, slept on the floor 15 times, slept on the couch 23 times, helped change 4 spark plugs, took 22 trips up and down mom's stairs to carry boxes down so she can move, mowed 2 yards, and I did ALL of this while living out of 1 suitcase. I'm tired of my suitcase.

I've had a great time being back, but I'm ready to go back to work now. I've been overloaded on free time, couch time, and ice cream time. I need to go back to where I can walk everywhere and there's no Sonic. Anyhoo, if I missed talking to you I'm really sorry. Most of the time I was here my mind was in a daze so I really don't know who I passed over. Let me know and I'll make up for it! Tomorrow I'm flying to Xi'an, and from there I'll make my way down the Silk Road to Urumqi and Kashgar for about two weeks. I know what you're thinking. "I thought he was tired of his suitcase!" Well, I'll be using a backpack (thanks for the gift card, Guy!) so it's not the same. Plus I'll be surrounded by non-Chinese culture, which will be weird since I'll be in China. I'll talk more about that as I go. I vow to take good pictures, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to post them before my trip is over and I make it back to my apartment. Thanks for the good time everyone, I'll see you next time.