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Let's go East!
Translation by Olga Sinelnikova, Omsk

Specials thanks to our Siberia friend in Scottland who made some corrections in the text.

When preparing for a 'historic' visit to Xinjiang in summer 2004, we tried to find some information about the province and the people on the net. Here are some materials we could find:

Xinjiang and its capital Urumchi

Xinjiang on the northwestern border in the interior of Central Asia was founded as an autonomous region on October 1, 1955. Its area is over 1.6 million square kilometers, one-sixth of the size of China, and its larger than any other province or autonomous region. Its population amounts to 12.83 million people, of whom 22 per cent live in the cities and 78 per cent live in the farming and pastoral areas. Of its total population, 5 million are the Uygurs, the principal nationality there, 5 million are the Hans, and the rest are the Kazaks, Mongolians, Huis, Xibes, Kirgizes, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Manchus, Daurs and Tatars.

Main attractions:

Nanshan (Southern Mountain) Pasture:
Located 75 km. from Urumqi, it is among the high peaks of the Tianshan Range. Here one can see green fir-trees, crystal springs and exotic plants.

Tianchi Lake (Heavenly Lake):
Situated 110 km. from Urumqi, this beautiful lake is one of the famous scenic spots in Xinjiang. At an elevation of 1,980 m., it is about halfway up the ice-clad Bogda Mountain.

This was the basic information about the province that we found on the Internet. We left Omsk for Xinjiang on August 29, 2004. So, it was a great thing indeed to form our Siberian opinion on Xinjiang and its people, and try to compare them with us.

The flight
By a strange conjuction of circumstances we flew from Novosibirsk to Urumchi with the last shuttle flight. Since September 1, 2004 shuttle services of the airline Sibir changed the destination to Peking. Thats a pity. In my opinion, for us, Siberians, Xinjiang is the most attractive province in the Peoples Republic of China. Further well try to explain why.

The airport complex in Urumchi is an exact antithesis of Siberian airports. For the home airlines it resembles the most up-to-date Russian airport Domodedovo, for the flights abroad Omsk airport but without barbed wire and importunate big-faced taxi-drivers.

Fair opening, the Uzbeks (Uighurs)
There are very strict rules as regards photography in strategically important places in China. Therefore well confine ourselves to a photo of an Uzbek folklore group. That is one of the pecularities of Xinjiang very often it isnt clear where you are in China or Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan.

After the confusion and muddle when crossing the border we went out. The airport complex in Urumchi is situated out of town. Mountains in a blue haze can be seen on the horizon, all buildings around the airport are plastered with advertisments with huge characters we are in China! The first impressions are: taxies a la the USSR with meters and cheerful taxi-drivers. There is a note with the price on the sidescreen. Usually its 1, 40 yuan per kilometer (if you pay in roubles you should multiply it by 4, if in dollars - divide it by 8,2, in Euro its 14 cents). The prices are similar to Omsk ones but one doesnt have to grovel when bargaining as in Omsk. Later on after going shopping several times we found out that prices for basic goods are similar to Omsk ones.

The Opening of the fair

The next day, on the 1st of September, 2004, there was a grand opening of the annual Xinjiang trade and economic fair. Speakers said many beautiful words about friendship and co-operation, and the speeches were accompanied by wonderful perfomances by local actors. There were representatives of all major nations and nationalities of Xinjiang but an Uzbek folk ensemble (see the photo above) with a sunburnt old man who blew cheerfully in his small pipe stuck in our memory.

After the opening we went round all the major stands. Most of these were the products of light industry and foodstuffs. We tasted dry wine from Turfan which is produced in collaboration with Frenchmen. It is interesting how our friend Peter Fries from the German wine valley in Schwabenland would appraise it. Xinjiang wine is said not to be highly regarded in the West because of the high content of sugar in grapes (its caused by hot dry climate with sharp changes in weather during the day and night). Well make a tour of Turfan on the day before we leave the fair.

They are somewhat different
Xinjiang young people

There are many young people at the exhibition. Chinese young people are different from ours. Firstly they dont suck beer while walking along the street, they dont sit with their feet on benches, and they dont break bottles or use foul language (may be they do, but we haven't seen that). Like in the West there are special places where one can sit and have a rest (or relax) in a civlized manner. But thats in the evening when the working day is over and friends can discuss plans for the next day. Secondly Chinese girls are modest. We didnt see any of them with an exposed midriff or unbecoming gait. In the photo are the idols of Xinjiang young people (unfortunately, I dont remember the name of the group). Young girls, of quite European appearance, are not loose at all (just remember our scandalous Russian duo of the same age!!!).

Almost all young people work indefatigably and try make something of their lives. Of course, they like to sit in fast food restaurants which they call Best food and walk all together along the streets in the evening. But in China young people dont drink a lot of beer or vodka and are not aggressive when in company. Though the Chinese can spit on roadways maybe even better than we do.

Ants and their ant-hill
Chinese diligence

The Chinese are a hard-working, amiable (especially towards foreigners because they dont have to compete with them for a cushy job in a rat race, the population being over 1,5 bln ) and what is most important non-drinking (compared to us) nation. Due to these qualities and under the vigilant supervision of their leaders they built up a fantastic megapolis almost on our borders, so that the capital of Siberia, Novosibirsk, cant be compared with it anymore. And thats only the beginning...

In the photo is an average Chinese ant-rickshaw who makes a modest contribution to the thriving of his great homeland. So many times we were amazed: a skinny rickshaw forced his way through the car jungle (in China traffic regulations are hardly observed - main victims are pedestrians crossing the streets), he hardly cycled but when he saw a foreigner he smiled widely as if to say: Look, Im taking a little to my ant-hill and that makes me feel happy.

There are shoeblacks (the service costs 1 yuan, 1 US dollar 8,27 yuan), seamstresses, etc in crowded places. The Chinese government is clever it understands: people must have the right to earn and live. All these fellows are merry and hard-working. And if they have a foreign client who in addition knows Chinese they go into raptures. First of all they wonder where the foreign fellow is from. Having got to know that he is from Russia, they raise a thumb: Putin - kholosode, Elousi bu cuo
(Russia is a fine country). But these are common people. Others are interested in the English language and Western culture they just dont want to follow our example any more. One simple illustration: during our visits to China at the beginning of the 90-ies all shelves in Chinese shops were piled with cassettes with Russian songs in Chinese ( Katyusha, Moscow Suburb Nights, etc. ). This time we didnt find any record with Russian songs in a gigantic specialized supermarket.

China in construction
Grand Chinese five-year plans

For our first 2 days in the city the most unforgettable impression was that they build everywhere, intensively round the clock, rain or shine, wet or fine. The tempo is so accelerated that every year the Chinese city changes so that its impossible to recognize it in some parts. And thats in Urumchi too. One can hardly imagine whats going on in the South and on the coast.

Of course, they build in the Chinese manner too fast and sometimes setting quality aside. But! Have a look at the panorama of the city in the photo: it looks like an American city sprung up before our eyes.

Streets in Urumchi:

Now a few words about the streets in Urumchi. The main motorways are concrete. Thats a good example of how to consruct roads in the city where the climate is similar to ours. Theres one more asphalted road near the motorway where buses and taxies run in order to avoid jams. Finally taxies squeeze their way to hotels on broad pavements! First it shocked us but then we understood that its very convenient for passengers. It reveals a specific oriental chaos too. Very often instead of taxies pompous jeeps run on the pavements and here they are not a rarity.

As if they were Arabs
Urumchi hotels

We were struck by new hotels in the city. Some of them resemble luxurious Middle Eastern hotels.
Our modest hotel Youhao-Friendship had only 3 stars but its better than the hotel Sibir in Novosibirsk ( the best one there!). A double room for one person cost 50 dollars US, for 2 people - 27,5 dollars for a person. Thats the level of the best Omsk hotel Mayak, the service being incomparably better. There is an appliance with clean cold and hot water in the room. One can always have a cup of tea. The room is tidied up every day. There is an air-conditioner. So the service is really up to the mark.

Though there are shortcomings too the windows hadnt been washed for a long time and with such air pollution as in Urumchi ( the city is situated in A valley between the mountains ) they were covered with soot.

The closing of the fair
The last day of our work

Our last day at the fair. There are 2 days left and well spend them making tours of Turfan and Tyanchi. These are different things to read everything in the Internet and to see it with your own eyes.

Were going round the stands with the national colour once more. A Kazakh girl is posing for a photo, a graceful lady from the valley of the river Ili that flows into lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan. This terrain is famous all over China for its apple valley, picturesque lakes and mountain landscapes.

We carried out negotiations with a delegation from the city of Altai in the very north of Xinjiang on the border with the Mountainous Altai administrative district. They represented the mountainous lake Kanas. Their terrain is said to be a success (popular) among Americans and rich Chinese from the South. Thats why they object to the building of the highway from the Mountainous Altai in Russia to Xinjiang because, in their opinion, it will disrupt ecological balance in the region: there are so few places untouched by man in China.

We talked about the sources of the Irtysh, our common native river. They presented me with a book about these places. A new Fokker (a small plane of Dutch production) flies from Urumchi to Altai (600 kilometers)! But the price is quite high, especially for the Chinese 500 yuans (61 dollars US) one way.

Kanas lake

Located in Buerjin County of Altai area in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is lake Kanas, which in the Mongolian language means a beautiful, rich and mysterious place.
Kanas Lake is a reservoir formed by the violent movements of ancient glaciers which blocked the outlet of the valley. Covering an area of 45.73 square meters and with an elevation of 1300 meters, the Lake is 24 kilometers long, 1.9 kilometers wide and 90 meters deep on an average.

Kanas Lake is well-known for its color variations: dark green alternating with azure, grey or milky white. The water temperature is also very changeable: at noon in July about 20 degrees centigrade, fit for swimming, but at dusk it takes a drastic drop to icy-cold.

As one of China nature preservation zone, Kanas Lake abounds in fresh-water fish such as tremendous Zheluo salmon, thin-scaled salmon, North-pole hui-fish and cod, which, from time to time, jump out of water stirring (spells of) ripples.

As the only habitat of animals and plants of Palaeozoic Erathem, the biocommunity in Kanas Lake preservation zone still maintains primeval condition and has about 300 species of precious plants and a dozen of rare animals.

Eating in Urumchi/Xinjiang
Hotel charges included breakfast costs, that's why we first tasted the Xinjiang cuisine at the hotel 'Youhao - Friendship'.

At first the inability of some guests to eat with Chinese chop sticks threw the serving personnel into confusion. In Xinjiang they speak only Chinese even at the hotels where foreigners stay. And they don't understand how one could be unable to eat with Chinese sticks -real barbarians, those 'laowai'!

Instead of having breakfast our specialist in Chinese had to tell the Chinese personnel about the peculiarities of our eating habits and likings.

They perceived it with humour and organized quickly everything we asked for.
They neither grumbled nor rolled their eyes - just vanished somewhere quickly to appear in the
same way with necessary objects and gleaming eyes.

For breakfast they drink some rice dish-water which is absolutely tasteless for Europeans.
Having asked what we wanted this time they disappeared for a long time: then brought something resembling our samovar (smiling widely as if saying - we've got it), a minute later they stuck a label on it with Scotch tape, the label said 'tea' in Russian.

Moreover 2 days later (Chinese guests liked the novelty too)a very beautiful hieroglyph 'cha' (tea) appeared on the samovar.
The Chinese are people of amazing enterprise.

We dined in a fast-food restaurant (clean, cheap and tasty) where most often we ate pilau
(it's not so piquant). Dinner cost us about 7 Euro. We don't advise you to buy food in the street: it may turn out badly for you.

Following the Chinese saying 'Eat breakfast yourself, share dinner with your friend
and give supper to your enemy',it's better to have something light in the evening. We bought fruit (in autumn there are a lot of them and they are rather cheap) and drank tea in the room.

Red Hill park
After the walk in National park we were taken to Red hill park. We visited it a year ago when we had flown with a special flight Kazan - Omsk Urumchi. Then I didnt like the park much. It was crowded with people and cars (again pompous jeeps as there was no entry for motor transport to the hill); that morning there was smog over the city and it was very hot. This time it was different. We came towards evening, there were few people and cars. In Urumchi, as in Omsk, the wind always blows in the afternoon, and we saw the city between the Tien-shan ridges in all its beauty. Exactly here you understand why Urumchi is often called a mushroom city the city represents one gigantic building-site. I wonder what it will look like in about 5 years.

Red hill is famous for its great traditions . Unfortunately, we couldnt get anything out of our guide-interpreters except for this is a hill,its beautiful, etc. Exactly at such moments you comprehend a genuine meaning of the German word Ubersetzer interpreter (literally: conveying to another bank). All these difficulties in communicating with the Chinese are caused mostly by the absence of good interpreters that know the outlooks of both peoples. But it was nice to walk in the park even without explanations. There were a lot of meditating Chinese, some people massaged each others necks (usually men massaged women), others walked backwards (I should try it in Omsk I wonder how our old ladies sitting in parks will regard such behaviour). But most people went to a pagoda (for a special fee) or climbed a hill (free of charge), where a magnificent view of Urumchi and snow-capped mountain summits unfolds. There is also a complex of Buddhist temples (2 yuan) very exciting and cognitive!
Taking photos in temples is strictly prohibited.
Entrance fee 10 yuan.
So, these are the 2 main sights which we are shown during the tour of Urumchi. There is also an interesting museum of regional studies. (mummies, frescoes, etc) but its not popualr among tourists. Sometimes tourists are taken to Uighur market. But that day it was late and we didnt get there.

The Silk Road - Turfan
Now some basic information about Turfan:

Turfan is 180km (112mi) to the the southeast of Urumqi and lies in a basin which is 154m (505ft) below sea level - the second-lowest depression in the world after Israel's Dead Sea. It's also the hottest spot in China: the mercury hovers around an egg-frying 50C (122F) in summer. Uighur culture is still thriving here. The living is cheap, the food is good, the people are friendly, the bazaar is fascinating, and there are interesting sights scattered around. Within easy reach are the Gaochang Ruins, once a major staging post on the Silk Road; the Flaming Mountains, which look like they're on fire in the midday sun; and a Sand Therapy Clinic where rheumatics come to get buried up to their necks in sand.

Windmills on the way to Turfan
Our trip to Turfan

We had prepared for this trip beforehand, in Omsk. There is a lot of information about Turfan ON the Internet. You can imagine our agitation when we boarded a bus today well visit one of the basic points of the ancient Silk ROAD.

After the expected half hour wait on the bus we set off. The bus called Golden dragonwas Chinese-made and resembled our Oka bus . As compared with its Russian counterpart it was a small dragon indeed with air-conditioners, glass-holders and foot-rests on the backs of the seats in front. We were astounded again: the Chinese HAVE learnt to manufacture everything from babys dummies to passenger buses.

It was our first trip into the country-side, thats why we were all eyes and couldnt tear ourselves away from the windows. The first 50 kilometers of the road to Turfan (180 kilometers) was a stony desert beween 2 ridges of the Tien-shan situated a great way off the Urumchi-Peking motorway (these motoways in the desert struck us most of all when did they manage to construct them?!). Mountains on the left, snow-capped and barren, were especially splendid. The first sight was the largest farms of windmills in South-East Asia. And here things were much the same as everywhere else: the first two windmills were German-made and others (99,9%) Chinese-made.

Its no good supporting a foreign producer!

Karez sytem
The Karez was one of the three greatest construction projects in Chinese history. The other two were the Great Wall and the Grand Canal.
Without the Karez, the city of Turpan (and many other cities in Xinjiang) would not exist.
The Karez were built 1500 years and the original builders are unknown. Many of the original underground tunnels and wells are still used today.
Karez is a Uighur word and comes from two smaller words. 'Kar' means well and 'ez' means underground. A series of underground channels brings water from the snow-covered peaks to the cities of Xinjiang. Above each of theses channels (are) A series of wells are dug to remove silt that would build up making the Karez useless. Gravity brings water to the farms of the Uighurs. If the snow was simply allowed to melt and run down the side of the mountains, it would evaporate long before it got to the cities. The mountain peaks are snow-covered year round, but the water level is highest in the spring and lowest in the summer and winter. It is estimated that there are 1600 Karez systems which mainly distribute to Turfan, Hami, Pichan, Kuche, Qitai, Mulei, and Fukang. About one thousand Karez systems have been found in the Turfan area, totaling more than 5,000 kilometers in length. Each Karez varies in size from only 2-3 km to long ones that are up to 20 km. The Karez in Turfan is used for grape production. The grape valley in Turfan is 150 km long.

Grape valley
Then we walked on the ground. We were not hot as the paths were twined with grape-vines. This tablet with hieroglyphs and Arabic ligature prohibited people from gathering and eating it. Several patterns of life-size press and other equipment for pressing grapes were exhibited on the left .

Lying at the base of the western end of Flaming Mountains is a world (of) unique with vineyards and fruit trees - Grape Valley. This 8-kilometer (5-mile-) -long, half-a-kilometer (0.3 mile-) -wide gorge, inhabited by about 6,000 people of the Uigur, Hui and Han, has more than 400 hectares of cultivated land, 220 hectares of which is grape-growing area. Grapes growing in the valley are of several strains, including the seedless white, rose-pink, 'mare's-nipple', black, Kashihar, bijiagan and suosuo. The fruit vinery nearby produce purewines and canned grapes.
Bicycle is an ideal transport choice for the trip to the Grape Valley if you leave early enough to avoid the intense afternoon sun. Trellised walkways overhung with bunches of grapes, and patios with a poetic flavor to the idyllic beauty BROUGHT refreshment and relaxation. Scattered everywhere are trees: mulberry, peach, apricot, apple, pomegranate, pear, fig, walnut, elm, poplar and willow; as well as watermelons and muskmelons. Reception centers where dense grapevines paths lead to secluded places provide places for visitors to rest.

The Kankel cart
Having visited the museum we came down to a tunnel where they showed us how Karez functioned. You can drink the purest spring water here and it doensnt cost much. Its cool in the tunnels (while its 40 degrees in the street). Turfan is the hottest place in China.

Upon leaving the museum we passed across a very interesting cart and this text in english:
The Kankel people in the ancient Western Regions are the ansectors of the Uighur. They took the Kankel cart to seek happiness, find happiness and enjoy happiness.
Walking into the Karez park, passing the Bridge of Kankel cart symbolizes finding happiness. Wheather you return by plane, train or car you will continue with the spirit of the Bridge of Kankel cart.
The whole staff in the park wish you happiness to your hearts content.

We will come again!

Gaochang ruins
46 kilometers (29 miles) to the the southeast of Turpan near the 'Flaming Mountains' lie impressive ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang. Built in the first century B.C. called Gaochangbi, it used to be a garrison town and later became a key point along the ancient Silk Road. By the seventh century it held sway over 21 other towns. The practice of Buddhism led to the establishment of many monasteries and temples here. In the ninth century, the Uigur established the Kharakhoja Kingdom here and Manicheamism flourished. The city was burnt down around the 14th century, during a period of warfare lasting 40 years.

This was the information we had got before visiting the Gaochang ruines.

Millenium dust
After visiting Karez and having a square dinner at Lonely Uighur we headed for Gaochan the world-famous ruins of an ancient town situated on the Silk Road. On the way to Gaochan we passed by several small settlements. Certainly, its a DIFFERENT China. But lets talk about more cheerful things!
Moreover Sveta continued to amuse us. She offered the following program in Gaochan: on our arrival at the ruins of the city we could go horseriding for 20 yuan. Who wants to ride? Some people in our group were thrown into confusion (they went to see the ruins of the ancient city and instead it is suggested that they should - fancy that- just go horseriding instead!). We were just chuckling as we had imagined that everything would be just the other way round! Our dear Chinese girl - without her charming blunders our trip would have been not so worthwhile!
As a matter of fact there were no horses but humble hard-working donkeys pulling carts with tourists with all their might (in such heat). Walking among the ruins without an excursion is prohibited (at one time local inhabitants and tourists pilfered a lot of material). So we all had to ride.

This excursion struck us most of all. To a certain extent we can compare the remains of ancient Gaochan with the Egyptian pyramids if they represented such ruins. According to the figurative comparison of one of the tourists we wandered in the dust of the MILLENNIA (Gaochan is over 2 thousand years). In the ruins of a Buddhist temple we met pilgrims from Central China. This place is sacred and worshiped by Buddhists all over the whole world.

Flaming mountains and Bezeklik caves
The Flaming Mountains run 100 kilometers (62 miles) along the northern edge of Turpan Depression (Basin) from east to west with its extreme width of 10 kilometers(6.2 miles). Its highest peak is 40 kilometers (248 miles) east of the city of Turpan and 831.7 meters (2728 feet) above sea level.
When the sun's rays beat down in mid-afternoon, the red rocks on the crisscross gullies and ravines reflect and the heat is as intense as if the hillsides were engulfed by tongues of fire, hence the name.

In the famous 16th century Chinese classic novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en describing four monks in Tang dynasty venturing TO the west, Xuan Zang and his companions, Pigsy, Monkey and Sandy, attempted to cross the Flaming Mountains. They could not penetrate the flames and Monkey procured a magical palm-leaf fan from Princess Iron Fan, wife of the Ox Demon King (two fictionAL figures in the novel) and waved it 49 times, causing heavy rains to extinguish the fire. More anecdotes tell that to cross the Flaming Mountains, Monkey burnt his tail, and ever since then all monkeys have had red bottoms.

The setting of Bezeklik Caves, in a ravine deep in the Flaming Mountains, is more spectacular than the contents of the caves. Bezeklik was stripped by several German expeditions - led by Albert Grünwedel and his nominal understudy, Albert von Le Coq -- and relocated to the Museum für Indische Kunst in Berlin. Grünwedel was reluctant to remove Buddhist antiquities, but Le Coq deemed it essential for their preservation, sparing them from Muslim iconoclasts and practical-minded farmers who would scrape off paintings for use as fertilizer. Nearly all the large wall paintings were destroyed during Allied bombing raids on Berlin in 1943 and 1945. What little is left, particularly in Cave 39, hints at a distinctly Indo-Persian style. The new Journey to the West statue outside is rather special.

Tian Chi means 'Heaven Lake', and this unspoilt natural haven 110km east of Urumqi - the starting point of Vikram Seth's book From Heaven Lake - does almost live up to its name, especially for travellers who have spent long in the deserts of northwest China. At the cool, refreshing height of 2000m, the lake is surrounded by grassy meadows, steep, dense pine forests and jagged snow-covered peaks, including the mighty Bogda Feng, which soars to over 5000m, and the nicest feature of the area is that you can wander at will. There are no restrictions on accommodation (most people stay in yurts, with the semi-nomadic Kazakh population), and there is virtually limitless hiking. You need only to watch the weather - bitterly cold in winter, the lake is really only accessible during the summer months, May to October.
The Kazakhs , who lead a semi-nomadic herding existence in these hills, live in communes. They gain their livelihood by selling lambs in spring if the winter spares them. But it's a hard, unpredictable business - the State sometimes has to bail them out if the winter is a disastrous one - and revenues come increasingly from tourism. As in Inner Mongolia, the Kazakhs perform at horse shows, mostly for tourists. The extra income from providing visitors with food and accommodation is also welcome.
There's a small village beside the lake, comprising a bus park, some shops and souvenir stands and even a guesthouse. If you have not booked your accommodation, you can simply find a yurt . This is a deep-rooted tradition, and you'll soon find people eager to feed you. Most tourists prefer to lodge near the lake, but you can climb right up into the remote valleys of the Tian Shan - for this it's advisable to have a guide and a horse (¥50-100 per day), a service which young Kazakhs at the lakeside are happy to provide. Once up at the snowfields, the valleys are yours. Each is dotted with Kazakh yurts, where you can always spend the night - you'll find yourself directed as soon as you ask. There is no set official rate for board and lodging in a yurt, but the average is around ¥40 per day including meals (mostly vegetables and noodles). To make your stay more pleasant, it's a good idea to bring a little present for your Kazakh hosts as well - a bottle of baijiu rarely goes amiss. If you come in May - considered the most beautiful time - you may get to try the alcoholic kumiss, fermented mare's milk, a rare delicacy. The rest of the year the Kazakhs drink a kind of tea, with an infusion of dried snow lily and sheep's milk.